Writing Fiction: Dissecting TV Series For Better Short Story Craft
(OK, hang on, this is a bit advanced. If you already know about script-writing, it will be simple. Check out the links below to catch up otherwise. In addition to the links below, you can also see my other articles on plot structures. There’s a the huge appendix now available in the recently released “How to Quit Feeding the Beast.” And also the “Plotto” article series based on both William Wallace Cook and Wycliffe A. Hill works. Lots of books in the Writing & Publishing Bookstore and also the Writing & Publishing References.)
Write Better Short Stories by Dissection
I’ve been collecting and binge-watching TV movie series for the last couple of years. Mostly TV series to get the concept and a stored background of procedurals with over-arcing character plots. (Some movie series as well – Divergent, Hunger Games, Twilight, even Die Hard and Evil Dead…)
Recently, I got interested in laying these out to see how they compare to short stories. One thing you have to note right off is that they do in form, but not by word count. One page of script roughly equals a minute of show, or about 200 words on paper. (Rough approximations, averaging several sources.)
On TV, these are usually 44-minute shows.
So, that’s about 8800 words. For a text story, that’s in the short story range. Of course, they don’t equate like that. Lots of spacing between lines in a script, especially dialogue. But they are equivalent enough that you can study TV shows and work the short story out of them. Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” was said to be based on short stories. Regular text stories have a ton more data in them – and the book is always better than the movie…
For serial fiction work, you’ll want to include a study of cliffhangers. This roughly equates to what they call “Tags” in scriptwriting. Which makes several seasons of shows so valuable to dissect.
Another point to include would be to separate out the “hook” from the first act (called the Teaser) which is often the first thing you see in the show, even before they run the big title with the stars names and whatnot. This is also where they tie it into an earlier show, saying something like: “Recently on (TV Show Name)…” and then run a short clip from an earlier show where there was an unresolved cliffhanger.
As most people are trained into watching this format, it makes a great deal of sense to add these into a study of craft for short stories. It’s a completely different subject, but a lot of our modern stories now have a style which is heavily influenced by our TV watching.
Fixed and Paced Stories
There are really two approaches to TV shows and writing. They have to do with pacing.
Most of the descriptions of how to write say that you have three acts. The second act is twice as long, so it makes really four parts. This is laid out in articles about both the Algis Budrys and Lester Dent plot structure articles on this site.
But when you get into thrillers and action sequences, you can see that they are actually making the segments progressively shorter during that hour (and, interestingly, having longer amounts of commercials in between.)
This heightens suspense and keeps you rivets to you won’t miss anything (and so, more sales pitches while you are anxiously waiting.)
Screencraft.org has a Grey’s Anatomy sample script broken down like this:
Teaser – 3 pages
Act One – 11 pages
Act Two – 11.5 pages
Act Three – 8 pages
Act Four – 9 pages
Act Five – 8 pages
No Tag there, but you see how the page numbers started shrinking to keep the pacing up.
Movieoutline.org has the typical breakdown to be:
Teaser: 2-4 pages
Act One: 14-15 pages
Act Two: 14-15 Pages
Act Three: 14-15 Pages
Act Four: 14-15 Pages
Tag: 1-2 Pages
There you can see that the Teaser is roughly twice as long as the Tag.
In the older classic shows, you can get the DVD sets and the breaks are pretty obvious. More modern shows will blur these more expertly into the mix so that the DVD is seamless through the episode. (There is a study I have to do of old Sherlock Holmes and Twilight Zone/Night Gallery episodes where they were still half-hour dramas, but most dramas today are for an hour – about 44 minutes so they can run their ads.) And now original shows are produced without ads at all through Netflix and others. Take that into account in watching the most modern shows like “Stranger Things.”
Taking the Lester Dent Model and then converting to include pacing would give us a different model than his four acts of 1500 words each. I’ve put this on a table to make the number-crunching easier in conversion:
|Acts/Parts||Screen Pages||Percentage||Screen Words||Book Pages||Word Count||Action|
Now we are getting somewhere. Of course, that’s massaged a bit to keep it simple.
And obviously, you can break your chapters/parts into pieces with blank lines to denote breaks within those chapters.
None of this is supposed to keep you stuck into a set wordage amount. This is just a guide. Absorb it and forget it. Let your muse bring you what it will. But your editor mind will need to work in sync with your writer mind as you go. Of course, practice makes your habit permanent.
Not that all shows should have tags and teasers, just as not all stories should have hooks and cliffhangers. The traditional hour-long show would have 20-minute parts in that case. Half hour shows can also be done this way, most comedies have teaser (also called a cold open), two parts, and a tag. Split it at the half-way mark and you’ll see what they are doing as far as plot.
You can also take a grid like that and scale it up to longer novellas and novelettes. Your tag section then becomes an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released novel. Again, just a guide. (For example, I don’t know that you need to use 2,500 words in a novella just to hook the audience.)
Use is For Dissecting TV Shows
The point of this is to improve your own understanding of plot structure, pacing, dialog, etc. by dissecting other works you love to read (or view.)
Given the two models above, you can then start to work out what an episode is all about. They’ll either write the show straight, or accelerate the pace. Moving your player to the halfway mark of a 44-minute episode should show you which it is. The paced show will roughly be halfway through at about 3/5ths – or about 26 minutes instead of 22. The idea here is to be able to find your way around.
Then you can find your different parts, the plot twists, and so on. Take your notes of the stories that really get you going. When they peak that emotional response in you and keep you thinking about it for days – those are the ones you should study and dissect.
Write Short Stories as Serials
The general idea, again, is that you are writing short stories as serials and publishing into series. So if you can keep your audience entranced from week to week, then you’ll keep them along for the ride.
Your hook will bring them up to date, and the cliffhanger will keep them wanting more. Once you pile them all into a single collection, then you can edit the hooks on each (or delete them completely.) See the Masters of this craft such as Louis L’Amour and look up other books that were released as serialized versions – Dickens had many of these, as did Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Again, write only as long as the story needs to be. During the course of this research, I found that “mini-series” were launched to tell a story that couldn’t be condensed into a single 44-minute show. So a series of these would be created to tell a story line and take it to its completion. Lonesome Dove was a famous mini series. Roots was another. Few mini-series these ever graduate into a multi-season show.
What about Movies?
In general, the same general concept could be applied. Most movies are either 90 minutes or 120 minutes these days. You can use the rough scales above to dissect them and study their pacing. Few movies have Teasers from the prior movie in that series, but might have flashbacks as a device. Many have tags, even if obscure.
But they are essentially still short stories. 120 minutes is 120 pages of script, or 24000 words, which is nearly a 100-page short story (on Amazon is a “short read”.) Doesn’t even make a decently thick paperback on it’s own. A lot of data has to be added to make a movie “read” like a book.
Dissecting TV Shows Takeaways
- You have either a traditional show or a paced show. They will split in different parts, as the parts of a paced show get shorter during the hour.
- The hour-long drama is the one to study to see how short stories can be written as serials and into series. (Older shows used the half-hour format successfully.)
- The reasons for watching shows with multi-year season is to understand longer story arcs. These are kept moving through the characters. Not covered above is how some shows will punch up a character arc change in the closing act or as a tag.
- Hooks (Teasers) and Cliffhangers (Tags) are key points of interest, while there are also other basics. (We didn’t cover here about how to dissect each shot as a paragraph. )
- Split the show in two and you’ll see if there is a fairly obvious break there. Then you’ll know if it’s paced or traditional in format. (Although modern DVD versions can be edited to make this much smoother now.)
If you liked this article, or got something out of it…
PS. Sharing is caring – go ahead and send this on to someone you know.
Also published on Medium.