Plotting Our Story: Movie, TV Series or Novel

Yeah, I’m going to write about plotting again because, although I’ve laid out my interpretation of the three act structure, how we use that in plotting a whole piece depends upon what kind of piece it’s going to be. I’m going to consider three options: the movie, the TV series and the novel.
Now, Heide and I are both writers of prose. I am not about to get ideas above my station and think we can write something, take it to the BBC and get our own six-part series but I am thinking that prose can be structured any way you like and if we want to think of our story in terms of another media then that’s just fine. Dan Brown writes novels using movie conventions. Robert Rankin, if he could be said to structure his novels at all, writes many of them in the style of sitcoms, not just because they’re funny but because they’re episodic in nature. So…
The Movie
I say movie, not film, because I’m going to be talking about the movies made by Hollywood and which the rest of the world has been emulating for the past fifty-plus years. There are still ‘films’ being made but these are rarer, more complex creatures and sometimes beyond me. In that sense, ‘films’ are more like novels than movies. Movies can be dumb but they’re not intrinsically dumb; there’s nothing wrong with creating something to fit a specific form.
Here’s my stereotypical movie
0 – 10 minutes – The Hook – something interesting happens to make us want to keep watching long enough for the actual plot to reel us in.
0 – 30 minutes – Act 1 – We are introduced to the protagonist and/or antagonist. Someone or something (The Blue Fairy, Snow White’s stepmother, a giant metor, etc) acts as an Agent Of Change, upsetting the status quo of the world and forcing either the protagonist or antagonist to do something. Our protagonist is offered the opportunity to either stop or help the Agent Of Change for the greater good.
Around 28 minutes – Act 1 Plot Point – Something happens to force or cajole the protagonist into accepting their quest. Whatever it is, there’s now no turning back.
30 – 60 minutes – Act 2 – The protagonist tries to achieve their goal but is beset by obstacles. Frequently, the protagonist gathers allies or encounters incidental characters along the way.
Around 58 minutes – Act 2 Plot Point – Something happens to thwart the protagonist in such a way that they might as well give up. In action-orientated movies, this frequently involves their girlfriend being kidnapped or the bad guys seemingly winning. But this is only a stepping stone towards…
60 – 90 minutes – Act 3 – The protagonist makes a final effort to achieve their goal, defeating villains, overcoming obstacles, coming to terms with their own personal issues and, in the end, wins.
80 – 90 minutes – The Climax – The protagonist blows stuff up, squares up to the bully, interrupts a wedding to proclaim their love for the bride/groom. Whatever.
88 – 90 minutes – The Celebration – We get to briefly glimpse the protagonist’s life after succeeding in their quest. Lots of hugs and kisses and medals all round. If it’s super-cheesy, this may involve the protagonist’s friend who you thought had died hobbling on with their leg in a cast to give us a cheery wave before the credits.
As a novel…
Dead easy. In the break down above substitute a thousand words for every minute of the film. Our hour and a half movie becomes a 300 page novel.
The TV Series
The TV series is a fascinating plotting challenge because, with few exceptions, each episode of a TV series must be relatively self-contained. This is because, if you happen to watch episode three of a series but missed one and two and you needed to see one and two to understand three, then you’re going to switch channels. There are a growing number of series, particularly US drama series that don’t go for the episodic approach and demand viewers be loyal if they’re going to get anything from it but many still go for the episodic format.
Old action series (The A-Team, Knight Rider, etc) and traditional sitcoms (Simpsons, Dad’s Army, etc) treat each episode as a totally isolated mini-movie. If you missed one week it didn’t matter at all because the events in any one episode would never be referenced again. Characters wouldn’t grow and develop over the series. Cast regulars didn’t die or get married or do anything else complicated. Each episode existed in a bubble. Therefore, the three act structure would apply to each episode but not the series as a whole. There might be a series finale but all that would mean is that the budget was bigger and the characters might threaten to grow or leave or marry or die (but never actually would).
Didn’t see it last week? Don’t worry
But then along came the hybrid TV series in which each episode was separate from its neighbours but a series story arc would permeate those episodes. One of my favourite TV series, Doctor Who, makes effective but very lazy use of this. In episodes one through to eleven of any series, something incongruous would pop up (series 1 – the words “Bad Wolf”, series 2 – the word “Torchwood”, series 3 – the mentioned but never seen Mister Saxon, etc) which characters wouldn’t notice until the end of episode eleven when it would suddenly be spotted and spin the characters into a two episode finale. It made the series appear to be one single story without much effort on the part of the writers.
Doctor Who – Has an arc story. Just.
Other series, be it action series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, etc) or sitcoms (e.g. Friends) actually threaded scenes, information nuggets and character exchanges through an entire series to create a genuine whole-series story arc  whilst still allowing the casual viewer to dip in.
As a novel…
Each chapter becomes an ‘episode’ from the TV series, relatively independent of one another but threaded onto a single story arc. A traditional UK sitcom series with six half hour episodes becomes a novel with six 15,000 word chapters.
The Novel
Most novels these days follow a movie-style structure. No, not necessarily the Booker Prize winners but the ones that most people read use a structure that we would more closely associate with cinema than with literature. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most of my favourite novelists do it so it must be okay.
But, the wonderful, beautiful, crazy, fantastic thing about the novel is that plotting can, if you wish, appear to be thrown out of the window or used in such a convoluted way that the structure of the plot is almost impossible to see. In a novel, you are likely to have a single three act structure across the length of the novel but not always.
A novel can consist of two or more stories, none of which has an arc that spans the entire book, but which in their overlapping manner fill a book but end it with an entirely different story to the one that started it. A novel can tell stories from various perspectives that have no link to each other apart from the links that the reader wishes to create. A novel can play with notions of structure or even be a novel about the structure of story. Try reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Geoff Ryman’s 253 and sketching out how the three act structure fits into it. Then tell me to save me doing it.
No, I couldn’t explain the plot in a single sentence.
Conclusion
I’m not laying these out in order to say that stories told in certain media must submit to that media’s structural rules. There are plenty of examples that contradict that. Michael Crichton’s novels were just movies in paperback. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a novel committed to celluloid. Nor am I trying to say (an impression that I have accidentally given to people in the past) that some media are more worthy or artistic than others.
What I am hoping to express, for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s, is that we can choose to structure the adventures of Mr Clovenhoof (still crying out for a cool title, dear reader) in any number of ways. And given that there are far more great collaborations in the realms of television and film (the Blackadder team and the Cohen Brothers are just two) than there are in prose (trying and failing to think of any cool examples apart from Good Omens), maybe we ought to consider taking our broader structure from those collaboration-friendly media.
Posted in 2011, Writing Tagged with: , , , , ,
One comment on “Plotting Our Story: Movie, TV Series or Novel
  1. Espn says:

    I think it can be even more complicated when you have a novel-length project. Shorter prompts are amazing for developing one particular moment, but in a novel, things stretch and meander a bit, and word limits can be coiisrtctnng.