Alex: Welcome to Paper Team, a podcast about television writing and becoming a TV writer. I’m Alex Freedman, @TVCalling.
Nick: And I’m Nick Watson, @_njwatson.
Alex: And today, we’re gonna be talking about weaving storylines. Most TV shows have an A story, a B story, and a C story. Why do we bother cutting back and forth between plot lines and what are some interesting ways to do that in your own TV script? Let’s find out.
Nick: Let’s get our weave on.
Paper Scraps (FKA Odds-and-ends): Finding TV scripts
Nick: But first, our inaugural hot take segment. Or is…
Alex: Paper Scraps? Was that the suggestion?
Nick: Sure, why not. So here’s an email we received recently. And it goes, “Hi, I was listening to your Paper Team podcast about spec scripts and you mentioned there’s a library in LA where you can find scripts for educational purpose. Is there a website I can get scripts from? Specifically, I’ve been searching for the TV show Super Girl. Thank you, Ryanne Bennett.”
Alex: Well, if you’re in LA, I suggest checking out the Writers Guild Foundation Library on Third & Fairfax, which has an amazing collection of scripts, down to very recent TV episodes that might have actually aired only weeks ago. I remember last year when I went there to check out some How to Get Away With Murder scripts, they had the second season which had only aired a few days prior.
Nick: And Shonda was there writing a new episode and you had to look over her shoulder and get that one.
Alex: That was literally what I was doing, yes. Well, the best part of the library is that it’s actually open to anyone, so even if you’re not a OOJ member, you can still access those scripts. Now, outside of the city, it’s kind of a crapshoot. I’ve heard of people forming relationships with assistants and writers on those shows through social media or in person, and get those scripts through those means. However, given that scripts are tied to the studios or production companies and networks, it’s kind of out of their hands when it comes to sharing those.
Alex: And last but not least, the other solution is to kind of reverse engineer the structure from aired episodes. Now, it’s not as clean as reading a script, but over a season it does give you a good indication of the beats per act and how they kind of alternate the ABC stories, which is what we’re gonna be talking about later in this episode.
Nick: And it’s gonna teach you how to write better, there’s no harm in that. But I will say, opposite of that, you’d be surprised what you can find online. Mr. TVCalling right here has his own library on his website, which I’m sure he’ll provide a link to for you. There’s also a couple of other websites, we’ll put the links here because it’s gonna be confusing to read them out.[chuckle]
Nick: It’s one called Zen and then a bunch of numbers.zen.co.uk, that has some good ones. There’s this one that’s like, sites.google.com/sites/tvwriting. Again, we’ll put all the links in there. The SimplyScripts is daily scripts and if you want movie scripts, there’s IMSDb for features. But more often than not, you’re gonna have trouble getting your hands on anything recent from any of these websites, anything within the last six months to a year, because those scripts are more protected, and that’s where making friends in the right places helps.
Nick: We’ve mentioned before the e-mail list server called the Script Collective, but you do actually need to show up at one of their mixes in LA to get added to that list. After that, you can just kinda put out your ISOs for whatever scripts you need from anywhere you’re out the world. There are also some other Google, Yahoo and Facebook groups that might be helpful, we’ve talked about some of them before. But the best tracking boards are the ones that you form with a small group of trusted friends and the best trusted friends are the ones that work here in LA, at useful places like agencies and on shows. So it is a bit of a Catch 22 if you don’t live in this town.
Alex: For sure. And now, let’s talk about weaving stories.
1 – Why does TV have A/B/C stories?
Alex: Before we dig into ABC stories, the reason why we are having this episode in the first place is because we received an e-mail by Samantha Gonzalez, who writes, “Hi, Alex, I read your latest TV 101 writing post about A, B and C storylines. I just wanted to drop you a note to say that I appreciated it and that I would love a podcast about this subject. It would be great to hear more about weaving various storylines together and listen to you and Nick deconstruct and demystify episodes or pilots of various master weavers.” Oh, how does that sound, Nick? Master weavers.[laughter]
Nick: I’m weaving a basket right now.
Alex: I’ll be mentioning some elements of that TV 101 post in the podcast, but obviously, I’ll also be linking in to the show notes just in case you’re not familiar with it. But first, let’s dig into why do we use ABC stories in the first place? And the reason is pretty simple, you just cannot sustain usually 40-plus minutes of narrative with just a singular story, especially right out of the gate, meaning in the pilot or the first season. And the idea is that you really wanna create tension and some sense of pacing and expectation. The pacing of a TV show is usually dictated by that ABC story cutting back and how quickly you sort of alternate between those plot lines. The shorter the scenes, the faster the cuts, the more fast-paced it will seem. This is actually a trick used in montages. Think of any show with some kind of pop music montage at the end of it, that’s why it feels so fast-paced. Now, on the flipside, you can stay with a singular scene or storyline for a long time and build up the tension there.
Nick: Yeah. What is the Team America song? I believe the lyrics are like, “That’s when you need to put yourself to the test and show us the passage of time. We’re gonna need a montage. Oh, it takes a montage.” And then, later on it’s like, “Always fade out in a montage. It seems like more time has passed if you fade out in a montage.”
Alex: And now you’re all ripped. That’s what happened during the montage. You started working out.[laughter]
Nick: Yeah, all you gotta do is just a bunch of quick cuts. Anyway, I think what A, B and C stories do and alternating between that, it also helps us switch between different sets of characters. So more often than not, your A, B and C stories don’t share characters in terms of who is driving those stories or who they’re about. Although the other stories can intersect and make guest appearances in a scene that is about someone else in that story or when things will come to a head at the end, which we’ll discuss later. The A, B and C stories also help us to separate themes or aspects of the theme that that episode is exploring.
Nick: Now, for comedy, switching between storylines can also be a device to service dramatic irony and juxtaposition. It’s like, “Oh, Bob would never do that.” Cut to, Bob doing exactly that. And then you go into his story thread for a scene. And even movies will have multiple stories to cut back and forth to, usually only a couple, and we’ll kinda stay with these stories for a little bit longer. It’s rarely as rapid fire as the switches that we see in television.
Alex: Now, let’s talk about what ABC stories actually look like in TV shows. Nick, what about comedies?
Nick: So for a half-hour comedy, what you’re looking at is usually an A story, a B story and a runner. If you don’t know what a runner is, it’s roughly, I don’t know, like three beats of a recurring joke or a minor character. It’s not a fully fleshed out story that resolves itself, it’s really more or less a joke that’s spaced out across an episode. For example, in Seinfeld, Kramer had a lot of runners, all of his harebrained schemes, like that episode where he has the Japanese businessmen sleeping in his dresser. And then, the steam from the hot tub seals them in, all that kind of thing. It’s not a fully fleshed out story, but it has its own little arc to it.
Alex: Just to be clear. It’s not Kramer literally running every episode for three scenes.[laughter]
Nick: Yes. It can involve running, but “runner” is just the term we use for it. And if you’re having trouble understanding what an ABC story looks like practically in a comedy, if you remember the classic Simpsons episode Marge versus the Monorail, then the A story there…
Alex: “Monorail. Mono-Do’h… ”
Nick: Would be Marge’s objection to and suspicion of the monorail. And then the B story is Homer getting his job as the monorail conductor. A runner might be something like Mr. Burns having been fined by the city, which is how they got the money for the monorail in the first place. And then he has these recurring jokes where he is showing up trying to get the money back like, “Hello, I’m Mr. Snoeb from some place far, far away.”[chuckle]
Nick: Eventually these storylines do come together. Marge’s mistrust of Lyle Lanley leads her to discover the monorail is shoddily constructed and they’ve been duped by a conman, so she rushes off to save Homer, who’s now in danger in his new job as the monorail conductor on its maiden voyage, and those two plot lines intersect.
Nick: Now, more traditional older sitcoms like Frasier and many of the animated ones we see today do only use two acts. So it can be really tricky to accommodate more than two actual stories, an A and a B, within those structural boundaries, as well as just the space you have on the page and the time you have in the episode to balance between them. Lastly, for 11-minute kids animation, it really is often just an A story, just one story and maybe a runner, again, due to the space and time limitations. If you’ve ever tried writing a 15-page episode of TV, you realize just how quickly you run out of reading.
Alex: 15 pages![chuckle]
Nick: It’s like a short film, basically.
Alex: Yeah. Now, on the drama end, it can run anywhere from ABC stories down to the end of the alphabet. Now, procedurals have traditionally their A stories be about the case of the week, with the B story about either a secondary character or the private life of one of the leads. And the C story, that is kind of the runner for the season or long term arcs. Now, serialized series will have stories diverge, usually based on characters, primarily, although sometimes they can diverge based on theme, and we’ll talk about other atypical examples down the line. If you look at even the Game of Thrones pilot, the A story is mostly about Ned Stark, the B story is mostly about Daenerys and Viserys and then the C story is mostly about the Lannisters. So even in a show as serialized as Game of Thrones, you will still have those kind of ABC storylines happening concurrently.
Nick: Yeah. And structurally, usually what setting up these stories is doing is allowing it to build towards all of them coming together for some kind of big payoff at the end of the episode. You’re setting up two or three disparate elements that may not seem like they have any connection, and along the course of the episode or maybe for a drama along the course of the season, you’re gonna find out how they all end up crashing together in a comedy, in a humorous way, or in drama in a interesting and cool way. It’s kinda like the setup for a magic trick, like, “Here’s the hat. Here’s a bird. And here’s a playing card.” By the end of the trick, the bird’s gonna be flying out of the hat with the card in its mouth. And it’s just we’re watching the process of how to get there and being surprised and amazed by it. Also think about it’s a feature, but Pulp Fiction is a fantastic example of storylines crossing over, coming together and paying off. Maybe a few more storylines than you expect in TV, though.
Alex: It’s basically the equivalent of setting up a gun in the first act and shooting it in the third act…
Nick: But then, instead of one gun you’ve got multiple guns hidden around the room and we’re cutting to all the different guns, and eventually they all go off.
Alex: Oh, my God.[laughter]
Nick: Chekhov’s A, B and C stories.
2 – Nuts and bolts of using A/B/C stories
Alex: We’ve looked at the point of ABC stories, but now let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of them and putting them to use in practice. So first off, which storyline should you spend the most time on in your TV script?
Nick: Just by virtue of the way that they are named, you go down the alphabet in order of the importance and the weight given to them. The most important story is your A story, then your B, then your C. You can’t have an A story that is only there for one scene or is inconsequential. The way that we name them indicates how important and how weighty they are.
Alex: Yeah. The real focus of your episode should be the A story. That is the meat of the episode, since it is about your main character, and therefore requires many story beats to achieve a compelling character’s journey. Now, once you figure that out, you can work from your other characters and fill in the other narrative needs that you may need. Some B and C stories directly come from the A story sometimes, but maybe the main character is actually the one generating a problem in his or her A story, which snowballs into a secondary character having to deal with it in the B story, that was something related again to that A problem.
Nick: But let’s think about when you should start and end each of these storylines. Now, your A story is usually what we’re gonna open on. And then you might, for example, cut to the B story and then you’re gonna cut back to the A story. And then the next time you cut, you go to your C story. Your A story is that anchor that you’re returning to. It might feel unusual to spend a lot of time you cut from your B to your C, then back to the B then off to a D, and not visit your A story for 10 or 15 minutes. You really wanna be going back to that anchor as much as possible, that’s gonna carry you through. Typically, the story that starts first will also end last. So your B and C story are gonna start later and wrap up sooner, letting the A story serve as that kind of spine of the overall tale that’s being told.
Alex: A bit of A, a little bit of B and C and D, kinda want to hear you rap now.[laughter]
Alex: For dramas, by and large the same idea remains about cutting back from the A story to then return to it. However, I wanna say it’s kind of hard to be prescriptive when it comes to exact scene count for drama scripts, as every genre will tackle that pacing differently. Legal procedural may stay with its A story longer than a science fiction ensemble show that needs to set up the world. Now, with that said, when I work on a new pilot, I kinda tend to look at the ABC structures of similarly paced shows. So for example, I was writing a pilot kind of akin to a primetime soap. So I started looking at pilots of other primetime soaps. One of the pilots I looked at the most was actually Revenge on ABC, which had a clear five act ABC delineation.
Nick: That’s appropriate.[laughter]
Alex: Maybe that’s why there’s the ABC network. But definitely not.[laughter]
Alex: I’m also familiar, obviously, with most of the ShondaLand pilots. We’ve talked about some of them on this very podcast multiple times. However, the pacing of those shows is a bit too extreme for me. Shonda shows tend to run the alphabet, so it didn’t quite fit with what I was going for, and the same can be said about my peer piece, where I looked at some HBO dramas, like Band of Brothers and Rome, to get a sense of how they would intertwine those plot lines. The bottom line is this, when it comes to figuring out the back and forth of a story, I personally tend to look at pacing over just the content when I try to find examples to imitate or get inspired by. But again, these are just jumping off points for my outline, not necessarily the structure that will be carved in stone for the draft.
Nick: And when we’re looking in each act, at maybe how many scenes or beats from each story should be present, for comedy at least, I like to go with the rule of threes. There are three beats in a joke, it’s a set up, a confirmation and a punchline. And then, so flowing on from that you have this kind of fractal thing where there are also three major beats in a scene, there are three major beats in an act, there are three kind of beats when you really break it down in a story, like I said, it’s fractal. Now, obviously, this isn’t set in stone but it’s a good kinda minimalistic guide to get you started and you can just fill it out from there and what works for you.
Alex: And in dramas you need four beats to make someone cry.[chuckle]
Alex: No, not quite the same way. To be fair, unless there’s some sort of narrative reason for why you’re not going back to a certain story, like if there’s a big reveal at the end of act three or something, the ABC stories should be touched on in every act of your drama pilot at least, and the reason is simple, you will lose your reader or your audience if you suddenly go back to a C story you haven’t seen in, what, 20 pages? That doesn’t make sense. So structurally, it again depends on the pacing and format you’re going for, but this is something you’ll figure out in your own outline stage and should be clear, either through notes or even just your imagination, like, “Nick, sit back, close your eyes and then play the pilot that you just wrote in your head. Does that pacing make sense?”
Nick: No. It’s terrible. Oh, boy.[chuckle]
Alex: Well, that’s a bummer.[laughter]
Nick: It’ll get better. But what about… Is there ever a time when you just do one single A story?
Alex: There are very few dramas perhaps only single episode in all of these, let’s say, that just have an A story for that full hour, and that is because to maintain dramatic tension, you will want to cut away to something else. The fewer the stories, the more important it is to have a compelling narrative and characters that propel you through that script. You don’t have the luxury to cut away to something else, which can be a double-edged sword. Now, the first half of Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias episode makes the best case in my mind for an A only episode, but it has the benefit of being the payoff to a five-year-long journey. In other words, it’s not something you’ll wanna do in every other episode or even your pilot.
Nick: And I’ve commented on this before. In the comedy, Master of None, there’s a great article where Alan Yang talks about his decision with Aziz Ansari to structurally stick with only an A story centered on Aziz, at least in season one; I haven’t actually seen season two yet, so I can’t comment. But dramatically what that does is it changes the pacing, it slows everything down and gives it more of like a feature film or dramatic feel because you’re not cutting away to something zany happening in a B story, and you’re not building quite as much tension between multiple storylines. You’re just kinda stuck with this guy and his experience, and you’re seeing everything he sees and you’re feeling everything he feels minute by minute. It’s a more intimate storytelling technique, especially for something that’s effectively a character study, and it might be part of why Master of None handles that heart aspect of its story so well.
Alex: Yeah. I definitely agree with the whole heart and intimate storytelling approach. Sometimes I do believe it is worth sticking with essential A story all the way through if you’re going for a specific emotional payoff. Six Feet Under is a show that isn’t actually afraid to do that in a couple of places. In one of the most intense episodes of the show, David, one of the leads, is taken hostage by a psychopath and although the episode starts like any other with an ABCD kind of story mix, mid-way through, the focus of the episode shifts entirely towards David’s nightmarish situation.
Alex: Now, not only is over half the episode devoted to that single storyline but, more importantly, once the situation heightens, meaning when you understand mid-way through the episode that the other guy is a psycho, the episode grabs you and doesn’t let you go until its final seconds. Clearly, the writer wanted the viewer to be put into David’s shoes, staying with the emotions, in this case overwhelmingly negative ones, is one way to heighten both the tension and importance of the episode, meaning anything can happen. And especially today, viewers are so used to a fairly quick back and forth between scenes, that when you disrupt that dynamic and devote several pages back-to-back to a single storyline, you’re gonna be making that point clear. Let me ask you this, Nick. How far down the alphabet rabbit hole should we go?
Nick: I’ll use every storyline I see from Shonda A to Shonda Z.[laughter]
Alex: Can you sing this or is that copyrighted?
Nick: It might be. I don’t know. Let’s not risk it. We’re already making enough enemies.
3 – Interesting and non-traditional uses of weaving A/B/C stories in TV
Nick: So now that we understand the nuts and bolts of using A, B and C stories, what are some more kind of interesting or non-traditional uses of those storylines in TV?
Alex: Well, the first one I wanna bring up is character-based or theme-based ABC plot lines, and this is pretty much the most traditional way of doing ABC stories. Essentially, you have a thematic thorough-line in your episode and then you inter-cut between the ABC stories based on each character. Now, Third Rock From The Sun on NBC was actually great at doing that through the prism of exploring a human concept, because the idea of the show was you had this family of aliens that landed on earth and were kind of exploring what it means to really be human. And you actually had one episode that was about this idea of cons and crimes, and the A story was about Dick doing jury duty, the B story was about Sally falling for a conman and the C story was Harry and Tommy volunteering for a class project where they cannot communicate for a week. So I thought that was kind of a cool way of exploring one theme but through three different storylines.
Nick: Absolutely. And that is such a great show. One of my favorites. Now, there’s also this thing that people call an AAA story, not the towing company.[chuckle]
Nick: But what they’re essentially saying is that they’re giving equal weight completely to three different characters or story threads. Now, this might happen in a true ensemble kind of show, but it is rare for most shows that one story doesn’t take the focus. For example, you might see this kind of AAA story in something like Modern Family, where you have a couple of different families in comedic units whose stories are usually equally important. They’re not just all supporting characters under Kevin James or something. And it doesn’t mean that those A stories can’t intersect, it just means they’re being given equal time and attention.
Alex: Yeah. I would say the AAA format is pretty uncommon for dramas. Some ensemble shows may be close to it, something like Game of Thrones, the only connection being some loose thematic element. But again, I feel like if you really look at the breakdown of each act, most of the time you will have sort of an A story over a B story, over a C story. Now, you can sort of go to the other extreme of that format with separate character storylines that interact on a macro level. There was this show called Boomtown on NBC that lasted only a couple of seasons by Graham Yost, who you may know as the creator of Justified. And it had a kind of a very interesting and unique concept. Each week you would see a criminal investigation from different perspectives, kind of in the similar format as the movie Rashomon. So you would go from the point of view of a police officer to the paramedic, or to the reporter, or to the criminal. And I actually really recommend checking out at least the pilot to kind of see that very unique structure of the show.
Nick: That’s interesting. Was it the one crime throughout the season or was it a different crime each episode?
Alex: Each episode was a different crime. It wasn’t at all serialized. It was very much like a procedural. And especially for NBC it was way ahead of its time. It premiered in 2002.
Nick: Oh, wow.
Alex: So this was…
Nick: It was groundbreaking, then.
Alex: Yeah. Another type of ABC structure is this idea of intersecting plot lines. That is when you have multiple plot lines that start in parallel to each other and will intersect later in the episode or vice versa, where they branch off from one another initially. 24 is a cool example of a show that actually starts off with separate plot lines between Jack Bauer and David Palmer before they converge later in the season. The show either used that as a platform or the B and C stories were emanating from something caused in the A story, as mentioned before. So for example, Kim Bauer getting lost in the woods and meeting up with a cougar. That was an actual story. [chuckle]
Nick: A literal cougar? Or…
Alex: A literal cougar.[chuckle]
Alex: Have you not seen 24? You should really watch it.
Nick: Yeah. I haven’t seen every season.
Alex: Second season, this is one of the most infamous storylines.[chuckle]
Nick: Oh, gosh.
Alex: She literally meets a cougar in the woods of LA.
Nick: Does Kiefer Sutherland have to beat up a cougar? Does he wrestle it?
Alex: If only. That would have made it actually good but…
Nick: You should have been in that writers’ room. Yeah. So as Alex is saying, this kind of intersecting plot lines thing, it’s super common for comedies, especially ensemble comedies, but it’s usually done on more of an episodic basis rather than a serialized one over the season. As I mentioned earlier, just the sheer fact of these two or three disparate storylines intersecting in and of themselves is often highly comedic, especially when they start off in strange places, it often comes as a surprise or a reveal. For example, there’s an episode of Scrubs where Dr. Cox is having problems with his ex-wife and then in a separate storyline JD hooks up with this new patient of his and of course those two stories intersect when we find out that this patient JD just slept with was Dr. Cox’s ex-wife.
Alex: That was kind of the pilot of Modern Family, wasn’t it? You had like three different plot lines and then the twist at the end of the pilot of Modern Family was “Oh, wait, they’re all one family. I get the concept of the show, I’m clever.”
Alex: Now, in terms of more unique approaches to the intersecting plot line idea, there was this other cancelled NBC show called Awake by Kyle Killen, with Jason Isaacs, actually, from a few years ago. And essentially the story was about this guy who was living two separate realities after a car accident. In one reality, his wife survived the accident and in the other his son did. Now, the lead does not know which reality is real and sees actually two therapists in each world. And the cuts between the A and B stories were often about how one reality would react to the other. And since it was a cop show, whenever he would start a case in one reality, then another case, somewhat linked to that first one, would pop up in the other, and the result would be two parallel plot lines that would intersect.
Nick: Sounds complicated. Was it good?
Alex: It was good. And the reason why it was cancelled is the reason you just outlined. It was very complicated for people.
Nick: For a popular audience, yeah.
Nick: Another kind of use for these A, B and C storylines is more non-linear storytelling. Now, the classic example is flashbacks. And what that often allows for is an interesting use of a storyline that takes place in the past but has an impact on the future or what’s happening in the present. So for example, in a comedy, someone might be recollecting a drunken night they had and pieces of their memories from the last night are coming back to them, and that’s helping or hindering them in their efforts to clean up their mess and make up for the mistakes they made last night or cover it up in front of their loved ones. So we have a story that’s actually unfolding to the audience and even the character, if they don’t remember it, even though it already happened, but it has consequences for the storyline the character is dealing with in the present.
Alex: And an iconic example of using flashbacks in storytelling is the show Lost.[flashback woosh sound] [laughter]
Nick: I didn’t know what was real and what was…[chuckle]
Alex: This was a flashback. We just flashed back in time. Anyway, Lost, as I just mentioned, is a show that mastered non-linear storytelling. Lost actually pushed the envelope in more ways than one when it came to non-linear storytelling and weaving storylines. A few years back I actually wrote an in-depth article about how that show revolutionized storytelling, which I will link to in the show notes. But the gist is this, “The tour de force of Lost, in my mind, was that it was able to intertwine those two narratives and create an emotional journey that would resonate both in the past, off island, as well as in the present, on the island.”
Alex: One of my personal favorite flashback moments from the show is the final flashback of the episode Walkabout, where it is revealed that Locke, spoiler alert from a 12-year old show, was in a wheelchair before the crash. And it kind of turned audience expectations on its head from the get-go. And the same goes for another favorite episode of mine, The Constant, with Desmond. The episode mixed flashbacks that are non-linear on a chronological standpoint with a linear character arc living through those flashbacks. Now, I know that almost did not make sense, but just watch the episode to get what I mean.
Alex: Now, beyond all this timeline nonsense, there’s another reason why flashbacks were so important in Lost, and it goes back to the original reason why you as a writer need to cut between ABC stories. We brought it up, it’s called pacing. And this is what Damon Lindelof had to say on the subject.
Nick: Hi, I’m Damon Lindelof.[laughter]
Nick: No, what he said was, “We knew early on that the flashbacks were going to have to be a prominent aspect of the series, even if we didn’t use flashbacks in the pilot other than to tell the story of the crash. We knew as we were shooting the pilot that the only way to do the series would be to use the art of the stall. In any given season of 24, there’s not that much happening but they give the illusion of constant suspense. On Lost, if every episode were about discovering the mysteries of the island, then we would be sunk because there was an inevitability to that. And eventually the characters decided, ‘We’re gonna explore this island to figure out what this place is.’ Whereas if it’s, ‘We’re going to figure out how to live with each other and figure out what this island is,’ and we’re also gonna learn about the characters before the crash, it’s emotionally compelling. And that was the only way we saw to do the show.”
Alex: Also of note is that part of that back and forth in Lost was based on the storytelling methods used in Watchman and Slaughterhouse-Five, which anyone listening to this episode should read right now. Right now.
Nick: Press pause. Come back in like a couple days.[chuckle]
Nick: Another example of these kind of multiple narratives being told across different times in history is the pilot of This Is Us. And this is a big spoiler alert, but one storyline is actually happening in the ’70s and the other one is happening in the present, but the audience just assumes they’re all happening at the same time. And then, they do intersect right at the end when we realize the storyline from the ’70s was actually the story of these three kids we’re now seeing in the present when they were born or adopted.
Alex: Wow, mind-blowing.
Nick: And the characters were the father and mother of these three people.
Nick: So kind of like Modern Family but in a different way.[chuckle]
Alex: In a dramatic way.
Nick: And obviously, comedies are widely known for using another device called cutaways. I think Family Guy is the king of this now. They used to use it a little bit in the Simpsons season four, but the showrunners decided against it. And stuff like Malcolm in the Middle as well. The classic like, “Oh, man, this is worse than the time when… ” and we cut away to something funny happening. Or, “Marge, I’ve never stolen anything in my life,” and we cut away to see Homer stealing something. They’re often used in the service of a joke and it’s usually some combination of what we said before with the flashback or dramatic irony. But the important thing is that cutaways are standalone units of information and story, that they never really have a story thread that needs to be followed through. And they often don’t impact the story in a meaningful way outside of maybe a laugh for the audience.
Nick: Dream sequences are another interesting technique that live somewhere, again, between the flashback and the cutaway. And what they’re often used for is to show something of a character’s inner desires or fears, but their impact is really just on character or exploration of a theme. These characters will wake up from the dream and the events that they just experienced obviously haven’t impacted the plot because it was a dream, often we’re misled into thinking what’s happening is real and they wake up and it was all a dream. Unless, of course, the character then goes out and acts on what he or she just saw or experienced if they think it’s a premonition that’s gonna come true or something.
Alex: I definitely recommend people check out the shows Oz and Carnival when it comes to stories merging flashbacks with dream sequences and premonition, I thought those two shows dealt with that topic really well. But just going back to sort of non-linear storytelling, Arrested Development in my mind is a very interesting example of a show that switched structure between its first three seasons and its fourth on Netflix. And what I mean by that is, essentially it started off as an ensemble comedy with the traditional ABC structure and the occasional non-linear flashback or flash forward. Then, season four happened and many people seemed to dislike that season. And in my mind, one of the reasons why that is, is because the audience was turned off by this new structure of the episode. Their formula was different from the network version. Instead of ABC stories based on the ensemble, the show became solely dedicated to a single character for each episode and the ABC stories were based on them at different times instead of different characters.
Nick: It was definitely a big change. Another technique, and we’re starting to get into the realm of things that aren’t used very often but just for kind of special occasions, are things like alternate realities and split screens. So there’s a great Malcolm in the Middle episode called Bowling, which actually won Emmys for the writer and director, it’s kinda like a parody of Sliding Doors. So what happens in this episode is Malcolm and Reese are getting ready to go to a friend’s bowling party but they need to be driven there by either Lois or Hal. Dewey is currently being punished because he killed the neighbor’s parakeet and so one of the parents has to stay home with him. Lois and Hal are asked who’s gonna take them. And then, we kind of split off into split screens with Hal offering to take him on one side and Lois offering on the other. Now, from this point forward the episode actually alternates between those two realities as to which parent takes him to the party and which parent stays home. So they obviously get into all sorts of crazy shenanigans in either reality and in the end the two realities are shown side by side once again, with Hal and Lois simultaneously coming home and saying to their spouse, “Next time, you take them.”
Nick: That was a fairly groundbreaking episode at the time and it later inspired a very popular episode of Community, called Remedial Chaos Theory, again with multiple timelines that change with the throw of a dice as to which character should go and get the pizza and then is absent from that storyline. I’s the whole, the darkest timeline thing.[chuckle]
Alex: I’m a big fan of alternate timelines, so I love that episode. Coupling is actually also another comedy show that wasn’t afraid of transforming their formula on a regular basis. There’s an episode called Split at the beginning of the third season. Now, at the end of the second season two of the leads split up. And not unintentionally, the third season premiere of Coupling is a split screen episode where we see what on one side the girls are doing and on the other side what the guys are doing. And as the name implies, the entire episode is one continuous split screen and it was still filmed in front of a live audience because it’s a half hour…
Nick: Oh, wow.
Alex: Which means they had to shoot the two sides at the same time on two different sets.
Nick: That’s pretty incredible.
Alex: Pretty incredible.
Nick: And actually now that I’m thinking of it, there was a great Rick and Morty episode which splits into two realities like that, and then it splits again into four, and then into eight. And then there are like 16 or 32 storylines happening at once on the screen, which obviously it gets a little ridiculous at that point, but they definitely took that trope and they just pushed it to the extreme.
Alex: Do you need like a 70-inch TV to see what’s happening on screen?[laughter]
Nick: I think so, I’m curious how much detail they put into each one of those.
Alex: Classic ABC stories.[chuckle]
Nick: Guys, get your 32 stories. That’s more than there are letters in the alphabet. You’re gonna have to to A1, A2, A3.
Alex: “Let’s do the omega, alpha, beta story right now.”[laughter]
Nick: Yeah. Go into the Greek alphabet, it’ll be great.
Takeaways and Resources
Alex: Nick, what are some takeaways for this episode?
Nick: So, number one, A, B and C storyline structure is used for pacing and tension, as well as maintaining the audience’s interest by breaking up and alternating between stories and characters and themes in more manageable chunks.
Alex: Number two, your most important story and the one you’ll be spending the most time with is obviously the A story, and the other letters follow in order of their weight and importance in the episode.
Nick: And number three, there are many interesting and non-traditional techniques that you can use with multiple storylines, including non-linear storytelling, intersecting plot lines or exploring different facets of the same theme across different storylines, not to mention more ambitious devices like cutaways, flashbacks, dream sequences, split screens, etcetera.
Alex: What are some resources for our listeners?
Nick: I may have mentioned this one before, but it’s worth bringing it up again, there’s a great book called Elephant Bucks by Sheldon Bull, who wrote for shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Mash, I think, and things like that, so a classic experienced writer. And essentially what I love about this book is it’s a great resource for that two-act sitcom structure I talked about and how all those storylines work together within that. And also there’s an interesting article, I’m not gonna say it’s prescriptive by any means or it should be relied upon, but it’s called, Cracking the Sitcom code. It’s an Atlantic article and it’s essentially, someone has sat there and analyzed a bunch of sitcoms and they’re like, “Well, by minutes one to three this thing usually happens, by minutes five to eight this is where the story takes this kind of turn.” So it’s an interesting way of looking at sitcoms. And again, it shouldn’t be prescriptive but is an interesting tool to use.
Alex: And on my end, I’ll be recommending the book Television Writing from the Inside Out by Larry Brody, that also tackles kind of the more structural aspect of ABC stories. But I will also recommend a few pages on this website called TV Tropes, which is about TV tropes, as the name implies.
Nick: No way.[chuckle]
Alex: And on there you do have a few pages dedicated to different kinds of storyline weaving. One is about traditional plot threads, one is named “plot parallel,” and one is called “two lines, no waiting,” and on it you will find a wide array of examples from all sorts of media, not just TV, to give you even more ideas on what ABC stories can look like.
Nick: Yeah. It’s a great website and surprisingly can be a resource for writers, even though it’s pointing out tropes that you should avoid.
Alex: It’s the ultimate procrastination tool.
Nick: As always, thank you so much for taking the time to listen. You can get the show notes of the episode at paperteam.co/53.
Alex: You can leave us reviews at paperteam.co/iTunes. Even though iTunes now is called Apple podcast or something, we’re still doing /iTunes.
Nick: Any reviews you’re gonna leave us will make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, attract new listeners and we’ll stick it to Apple for changing the name.
Alex: Speaking of sticking it to Apple or iTunes or whatever, we had a bunch of reviews that popped up recently that we wanted to read and give a shout-out to.
Nick: So the first one is by someone called harback from Canada and the title is, “Infinitely informative and entertaining.” And it reads, “No matter if you’re writing for television or another medium, if you’re dabbling or knee-deep in your career, you’ll be enlightened by this podcast and your toolset will grow as a writer. These two gents are excellent hosts, exploring their topics forensically and manage to be entertaining without the trappings of ego usually found in the business.”
Alex: Well, excuse you. I have a huge ego, alright?[laughter]
Nick: Yeah. Just Alex.
Alex: Are we CSI? Are we exploring topics forensically? I love that. I love that.
Nick: Zoom in, enhance on storylines.[laughter]
Alex: Let’s enhance weaving storylines. Another review we got was written by SaraRae2 and she, I’m assuming, wrote, “Best podcast for up-and-coming writers. I love this podcast. Alex and Nick are so informative and cover such a wide range of topics for writers. They approach writing from every angle and are so concise and well-spoken about writing. I love hearing about their own experiences but also enjoy that they bring so many industry guests that shine a light on so many different areas of the industry and writing. Highly recommend.”
Nick: Oh, thanks, Sarray, SaraRae. I said “Sarray” for some reason, to me that’s your name now. And our last one is entitled Paper Team = Rad by liz_maestri, and simply says, “I love this show, thorough, intelligent, informative and fun. My biggest complaint is that I’m too far away to get beers with Nick and Alex. Thanks and keep up the good work.” You can mail them to us.[laughter]
Nick: We’ll figure it out.
Alex: We’ll drink them in a podcast.[laughter]
Nick: We’ll Skype the beers with you.
Alex: Yes. That is a thing we could do.
Nick: Thanks so much for those reviews, we appreciate reading them and any feedback that you have, please leave it and we’ll check it out.
Nick: And thanks again to our sponsor, the Tracking Board’s 2017 Launch Pad Feature Competition. Paper Team listeners can use the code PAPERTEAM, all caps, all one word, at the checkout to save $15 off their entry. It’s a lot of money. You can learn more about all the Launch Pad’s current competitions and exclusive partners by visiting tblaunchpad.com.
Alex: And as always, I’m on Twitter @TVCalling.
Nick: And I’m @_njwatson. If you have any feedback, thoughts, opinions, complaints about iTunes or beers to mail us…
Alex: Or storyline weavings.
Nick: If you wanna weave us some storylines, you can send them on through to [email protected]. And what are we doing next week?
Alex: Well, next week, hopefully, we’ll be able to release our Lily Cabello episode that we mentioned, I guess, two weeks ago now? We came back recently from Comic-Con and on the road back we recorded this awesome episode with Lily discussing Nielsen ratings and audience research, and it is very informative for writers.
Nick: We will hopefully get that one back soon and have it in your hands or ears. We’ll have it in your ears. Get ready for it in your ears.
Alex: This doesn’t sound invasive at all.[laughter]
Alex: See you next week.
Nick: We’ll see you then.