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Structure and Painting On a Broad Canvass

So here we are for our third installment discussing structure, which is kind of ironic after the fact because this original post devolved into a discussion of effective versus ineffective trilogies. And after I realized my original opening had ballooned into an entirely different discussion, I decided to shelve it so we can talk about structure and painting on a broader canvass.

I wish I could say I came up with the painting on a broader canvass metaphor to describe television series, but I cribbed it from one of the producers I worked with as we were discussing the success of the first season of True Detective. We both maintained that, in addition to an unbeatable story and casting, a lot of its success came from the fact all the episodes were directed by Cary Fukunaga, who had already made a name for himself in features. So although television used to be the hospice formerly famous actors/ directors/ writers went to for their careers to die, or as a proving ground before launching a feature career,* as we’ve entered the new “golden age” of television, talent has been drawn to television instead of features.

Because, as my producer maintained, creative people prefer to paint on a broader canvass.

It makes sense in a way, with creators not wanting to be constrained to two hours to tell their story, rather having ten to twelve hours to work with, and that’s per season. In terms of screenwriting, why be constrained to just 110 pages when you can have 600+ to do with as you please? That’s why, in the last few years, you have such feature luminaries as David Lynch,** Steven Soderbergh and Woody Allen creating television series. Because after years of constraints in features, they’re free to paint whatever they want on the broad canvass.

But, oddly enough, these broad canvasses of television seasons still adhere very closely to the feature structure we have already discussed. Because, again, effective stories adhere to a specific format regardless of the scale of the story by initially setting up the dramatic question in the first act, examining it in the second, and then answering it in the third act finale.

So let’s take what we’ve learned about feature structure and apply it to a broader canvass, first via an entire season of a show, then a book series.

A while back I was contacted by a producer who specifically needed structure help because the show’s creator had all the basic beats planned out, but was unable to tie them together into a single serialized story over ten episodes. So that’s where I came in and hauled out the note cards/ post-its we examined last time.

As with a feature, we broke everything down to subplots and examined those. We started with the protagonist’s arc and wrote down each important beat on a post-it. Then we moved to the villain, wrote out hers, then the supporting cast, until we had nearly a hundred. And yes, this was a huge, confusing mess.

Which is why we ordered it into a throughline by using the progression of the three act structure in the same manner used in features, with the major beats of: Setup, Catalyst, Break to Act II, Fun and Games, Midpoint, Bad Guys Close In, Break to Act III, and Finale. By placing these post-its first in the general location they needed to be based on our understanding of the basic three act structure, we could then order them into the ten episodes for the season.

And it was shocking how well this process worked, the first two episodes working well as the first act with the hero exploring his new abilities in the Fun and Games section of the second act. But then things start to go bad for him after the Midpoint, with the antagonist nearly winning during the Bad Guys Close In. And our last two episodes worked perfectly for our Finale as the protagonist used the lessons he learned over the previous eight episodes to overcome the dramatic question we posed way back in episode two.

So yeah, big, broad canvass there with hundreds of pages in ten different scripts that we were able to order and effectively employ in less than two months. But once we had our ten episodes outlined as one whole story, we then took each episode and plugged it back into our three act structure so that not only did the season adhere to the three act structure, but each individual episode as well.

Now, as to if this screenwriting strategy can be employed to a successful book series, my research is still ongoing in that my series has not been finished yet. But I can tell you that I used this system of structure for it as a whole the same way I did with this season of a show: After developing all my characters via a treatment/ bible that we’ll discuss in a few weeks, I broke their beats down by subplots and then ordered them according to the three act structure to create my throughline.

I will note that this series is meant to be four books, but that’s because I believe the midpoint actually divides the second act into two, making what we traditionally call the three act structure actually four acts, but I’m sort of splitting hairs. Still, the first book definitely acts as the first act as we set up the world, characters, their goals, the antagonist, and then finally set the protagonists off on their journey at its end, which is effectively the Break to Act II. The second book is effectively the Fun and Games where we get to play with everything we’ve established in the first book, culminating in a Midpoint reversal. The third book is your classic Bad Guys Close In section, while the last is, obviously, the Finale.

So, with the series beat out via the structure on my very, very broad canvass, I took each book and plugged it back through the three act system as we discussed last post, just as I did with the individual episodes to the season of the show. This way the structure is solid, both on a macro and micro level.

I know there are those out there that will argue that this adherence to structure is actually a detriment to storytelling as a whole, making everything feel churned out and formulaic. And I’m not going to bother to argue with that point because I’m only concerned in constructing an effective system that I’ve learned over the course of my screenwriting career. And this system is certainly effective for me, as in I was able to map out the entire series in about a week, and then another week for each book. This also helps me keep a handle on subplots and character arcs, but we’ll discuss that in the near future.

Because I’m sure we’re all quite sick of structure by now, all four readers of this blog (of which I am personally 25%).


* Just off the top of my head: George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Seth Rogen, Steve Carell, Jessica Alba, Jennifer Garner, Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, etc.

** Yes, I’m well aware he had his own television show 30 years ago, but I’m including him here because it’s basically been an entire generation since he was last in TV. And I was just reading how he believes television is the new arthouse movie.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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