Monday, January 13, 2014

Romance Vs. Television Plotting

For those of you who are not aware, I love television. I spent hours each week catching up on the variety of shows that I watch from scifi/fantasy to comedy to drama to mystery. I watch a large variety of shows and each week I sit down and consider whether I'll continue them next week or whether I like where the story is going.

For example, I have watched Revenge since the beginning but about once a season I stop watching it. I sit back and read the recaps as I watch to see where the story is going before I waste an hour a week watching it. If I like the outcome then I go back and watch the episodes. If I don't, then I skip it. Currently I'm in a skip it phase when Emily got amnesia and everything went to hell. Personally I'm all for Daniel being more villainous but the way the show is bringing it about irritates me. Also what is up with the Nolan/Patrick relationship? I'm really not a fan of the sleep together/fight/make-up/fight/REVENGE plot they have going for them.

Anyway, I got way off topic. The other day I went and read an article by Sarah Wendell on Kirkus Reviews about the reason she shies away from a lot of television. She discussed the plotting and how so many plot points are regularly dropped. You start heading down this path and all the sudden the show goes "Yeah...we're going over here now. Pretend that never happened". She also discusses open-ended series and how shows just keep going and you get lost in usual plotting devices. For example the show continues to build and build and build for 10 seasons until they get randomly cancelled. (Television fans you know the anger).

First, a lesson on television plotting:

Most shows (especially with mythology) are plotted for five years. You can look at just about any fantasy/scifi/superhero/etc. show and see the plotting. Look at Supernatural, Smallville, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc. and it is obvious how they've plotted the show. For the sake of discussion, I'm going to use Buffy as the example for the following explanation.

1. Season One is the intro season. Meet the characters and get the glossy explanation. "In every generation..." blah, blah, blah. Willow, Xander, and Giles are introduced and very little detail is given. You have the nerdy redhead, the goofball guy, the Brit with all the answers, and the pretty slayer.  Sure you get a love interest (Angel) and a villain (The Master) but the 13 episodes is mostly about meeting the characters and establishing the dynamics.

2. Season Two is the learning season. This is the season where we spend some time getting to know the characters in a deeper fashion. Romances get deeper, new characters are introduced to play off of the main cast, and typically some big event happens to create angst. In season 2 of Buffy she faces the biggest villain she could possibly face. Willow and Xander get involved with love interests. Some deaths occur and new slayer mythology is introduced. This season shakes up the current friendships and tests the dynamics already established.

3. Season Three is the change-up season. Typically high school students are graduating or adults are dealing with career changes, relationship changes, and/or sets up the biggest story change in season four. In Buffy, the crew is graduating high school, the dynamics have shifted drastically, and the crew is on the edge of their lives changing. Buffy and the group are not only graduating high school but she is now faced with a new watcher, a returned love, and a drastically different home life. Secrets have been revealed and the entire Scooby Gang has to navigate what that means. On top of that the slayer myth is at an all time high with the introduction of Faith and what it means to have two slayers running around. Plus the dynamics of power in the slayer myth is played with heavily as Faith and Buffy look at their powers in two different ways.

4. Season Four is the rocky season. Usually, at this point, major changes have occurred which have shaken up the dynamics of the show. In this case Buffy and the Gang are off to college. One of the members ends up not going and now Giles has no job and no reason to be a mentor to Buffy.  New love interests come out of the woodwork and the show struggles to find its ground after all the major changes.  The major plotline either gets put on the backburner or continues to simmer but this is when the fans start getting edgy.

5. Season Five is the CRAZY season. Everything you've been building towards is here and the fans are going bananas. In Buffy's case she is facing the roughest big bad ever. She's not just facing a normal demon or a power-hungry vampire but Glorificus and that just means Crazytown. On top of that she has a new(?) and unexpected addition to the family to contend with. The other characters continue to wrestle with their life changes, new relationships, and what the final battle may actually look like. As the tension rises and fans get crazier, the question pops up over whether this is the end.

6. Now the show gets renewed. BUT WAIT! The entire show has just been wrapped up! Characters have died. The big bad has fallen. What happens now? Well that's what creates the Season 6 conundrum. Check out most shows who get renewed after season five and you'll notice a little floundering. One to Three seasons of the show will now deal with trying to justify a new conflict to the fans. Some of the shows hit their mark and get to wrap up that story and others get cancelled quickly.

Got that? Basically the whole five season plan came out of the desire for a syndication deal. Nowadays you can get syndication deals with one or two seasons but the show must be a slamdunk. The thing is the five year plan has its pros and cons. On one hand you have a definitive plan for plotting. As a viewer, I figure season three is going to hit a high before the inevitable flounder of season four which leads to the showdown of season five. Romances, action, tensions, etc. will be resolved. You can rest easy because questions will be answered. A con is definitely the timeframe. You know you are only getting so many episodes and then no more regardless of whether you were ready to say goodbye. Seriously tough stuff.

So Romance?

Romances are plotted specifically to give initial tension, some minor resolution with the inevitable major conflict rearing its head in the last 60 pages. I get edgy when I get to the last ten percent and no conflict has happened. I know we're going to have a crazy shitstorm over five pages with a quick wrap-up. At the same time I have issues with romances that throw a conflict in simply because we're at that page point. It should feel organic (total side issue). The point, in a nutshell, is you know what to expect.

When I watch television I get edgy when things don't happen when I expect them to. When I'm watching "White Collar" or "Elementary" I can look at the clock and go 'Too early. It's not him." because mystery shows follow the same pattern. Someone is going to get wrongfully accused at about the halfway mark and then the real killer will be unmasked at the 45 minute mark of the hour with just enough time for wrap-up. When I get to minute 45 and no one has been accused I get concerned. Are they going to cliffhang it? Are they not going to reveal the killer at all? Is this set-up for an arc? It's concerning to me.

Romance novels follow that distinct pattern. Most romances (even parts of series) are relatively standalone. By the end of the book you will have your happy ending and most loose ends surrounding the hero/heroine will be resolved. Later books will feature other romances with little sprinkles of past romances. Romances are definitive. At the end of three hundred pages you have finished the book and have your happy ending. In television you might wait ten years and be left unsatisfied (hey it happens). What happens when after ten years the heroine ends up with that guy you never liked?

I could go into loads of television shows and their terrible endings and explain my feelings whether positive or negative. The point of the matter is I can see Sarah's point on why television doesn't always work for her. Plotting is a major issue and can really turn people away. Plus there are those really horrible continuity issues where a kid goes up the stairs and never exists again (cough 'Family Matters' cough) or someone was 2 when a sibling died and then later hadn't been born yet (cough 'Heroes' cough).  Either the writers don't think we'll notice or they just don't care. Either way it becomes incredibly frustrating to the viewer.

I'm a lover of both books and television but I wanted to explain the patterns in television and why I can understand the preference for books. I'm a continuity nut and that bothers me so much when the book, show, movie, etc. throws continuity out the window. Stop that! If you can't get an actor to appear then create a new character! No one is fooled.

So what do you think about television vs. romance plotting?

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