Note: Everything you read in this series from here on may ruin TV for you forever. Once you know how a TV show works, you may start to see the underpinnings, spot the glaring errors, and see when an episode veers off course. You may end up throwing popcorn at the screen instead of sitting back to enjoy the show.
You’ve been warned.
Plot is the name we give to the mechanics of how a story plays out… and it really is far more mechanical than most people realize, especially in mainstream TV. How does it work?
Engaging TV episodes start by showing or stating a problem the main character needs to solve. Whether the main character witnesses the problem rearing its ugly head or not, it’s a given he’ll know about it shortly after the opening credits roll.
And notice I said ‘needs to solve’ and not ‘wants to solve.’ If there isn’t a need right up front, there soon will be. But since this need has emotional overtones, I’ll talk more about that when we discuss story.
Next, the character will encounter a stumbling block, something that keeps him from finding a solution that will stick. In most TV episodes, this stumbling block will look insurmountable until…
The character changes how he views the problem. This will almost always come about because of new information he’s given, information that changes the way he sees the problem.
From there, the character knows the problem can be solved, but he’ll have to work for it. Whether that means shooting it out with bad guys, owning up to shortcomings, or squaring off for a good argument will depend on the show and its genre.
Somewhere along the way, the character’s problem will echo in other parts of his life, thus giving birth to subplot. A personal stake or a parallel problem at home adds depth to the episode and gives the audience a peek into the character’s personal life, a reminder that this character isn’t just a larger-than-life hero, but a human being with problems just like the ones we ourselves face.
At the end of the episode, a short scene shows the audience that:
- all is well and things are back to normal, or
- the character still has work to do, but nothing life- or ego-threatening, so we don’t need to see him deal with it.
And that’s it, a TV episode in a nutshell. It’s almost like math…
- a character, plus
- a problem, leads to
- a need to solve the problem, but
- a stumbling block, leads to
- a difficulty in finding a solution, until
- the character changes his perspective, and
- the problem is solved.
From these few simple rules comes the plot of every TV episode ever written… and yet to be written. Once it’s fleshed out with dialogue, incidental actions, and story is brought into play, it will (hopefully) keep an audience riveted to their screen until the final credits.
Earlier I made a distinction between a character wanting to solve a problem and needing to solve it and this is where story comes in. If the character needs to find a solution, emotional engagement increases for the audience. Imagine one character who wants a Mercedes vs. another who needs transportation so he can get to work or he’ll lose his job and thereby everything he’s worked for his whole life. Which would you care about more?
Story is what gets us emotionally involved with a character and it hinges on one thing: do we, as audience members, give a damn what happens to the character and whether or not he solves his problem? There are some characters we love and others we love to hate and for an episode to work, it doesn’t matter whether we’re rooting for someone or hoping like hell he’ll fail. Both are engaging emotionally.
The series that did this best was M*A*S*H… once it stopped trying to be campy. This came about at the end of the final episode of season three. All through this episode, Abyssinia, Henry, we knew Henry was going home. They drank all night, played jokes on each other, and had fun. It was ‘business’ as usual until Radar stumbles into the OR the next day—without a mask; he’s obviously upset—and announces that the plane carrying Henry home was shot down. Henry was dead and suddenly we all started taking this show seriously. The war was suddenly real. How real? This episode aired 42 years ago and I’m tearing up just writing this paragraph.
But the interesting thing about M*A*S*H was that Hawkeye could be either the hero or the anti-hero and we still got sucked in. There are countless episodes casting him as the hero, so I’ll let you do your own research for that angle, but…
Hawkeye as anti-hero is illustrated in season eleven, episode four (The Joker is Wild) in which Hawkeye and BJ have a contest to see who can pull the most memorable practical joke. Hawkeye becomes the villain when the pranks turn nasty. We watch him squirm as he tries to avoid being BJ’s victim while also taking flak for bad taste. He tries to convince everyone these weren’t his pranks, but no one’s buying it. And in the end we love it when he loses to BJ. Why? Because it turned out that the best pranks of all were the ones never pulled.
So there you have it. Plot is a mechanical set of circumstances wherein a character tries to solve a problem. And story is the emotional involvement growing from whether or not we want the character to succeed or fail as he stumbles through the plot toward a solution.