Saturday, February 05, 2005

[TV] The A-Plot

What’s an A-Plot?
It's what you say when someone asks you what 'last night's episode' was about.
It's the main story.

How do you write an A-plot?
First, have an overall idea.
Are you reporting to a producer?
Then pitch that idea, make sure they’re on-board with it.

Second, break down the Acts.
Specifically, know how the A-Plot has advanced by the time you go to each commercial break. Call them cliff-hangers, plot-points, reversals, big developments, whatever …

… These Act Breaks are your signposts for writing a clear and understandable story.

Someday I’ll write about how I got fired for not doing this.

Third, make sure the Act Breaks are of high-quality.
They’re true to your characters.
Original - within the genre you’re working in and within the show you’re writing.
They develop character, plot and/or the series arc. They shouldn’t repeat what has gone before. Note that well: don’t have 2 Act Breaks that are basically the same thing.
Always develop. Always raise the stakes.
There’s probably more, but that’ll do for an initial brain dump.

Fourth, clearly introduce the situation.
At the start of each episode, we want answers to these questions ...
* What's the status of the relationships that will apply to this A-plot?
* What do these characters want out of life?
* What do they think will happen if they fail?
* Why do they need to act?
Call these the emotional stakes.
Make sure we know and care about them.

Fifth, fill in the space between the Act Breaks.
You’ve probably generated a lot of ideas for scenes while breaking down the Acts.
Now’s the time to provisionally put them where you think they should go.

NB: Prepare to drop scenes, combine them or realise they’re repetitive at any time.
NB: Acknowledge if a scene doesn’t fit, leads the A-plot astray or says something untrue about your characters.

So, filling the space between the Act Breaks.
Reprise the situation soon after coming back from commercials.
Have at least one scene about the A-plot to link this reprise to the next Act Break.
If your show has no sub-plots, every scene between commercials will be about the A-plot.

And if your show does have sub-plots?
It depends on whether your characters regularly interact (like an ensemble) or have very seperate lives.
It's the difference between Buffy and 24.
In 24, you'll have B, C and even D-plots that have no interaction with the A. Simple.
Just write the damn thing, follow the rules above.
(But even then, you'll want something connecting the plots, whether it's theme or situation.)

When your characters are an ensemble and have a lot to do with each other's lives ...
You'll probably have separate A, B, and C-plot scenes.
You'll also need
scenes that interweave the A-plot with other sub-plots. This isn’t so hard ...
... just keep track of the motivations and emotions of character involved in the A-plot as they meet other people and deal with 'unrelated' problems.

Sixth, wrap up the A-plot.
Did people succeed or fail?
How do they feel?
Are the emotions you’ve created from the A-plot consistent with how you want people to feel after watching an episode of your show?

There’s a lot more.
When I talk about interweaving sub-plots, I'm hinting at the use of Subtext.
I’m coming to believe Subtext is vital to writing a good script.
(a good script = a script I’m happy with)
But that’s a whole ‘nother article (and possibly a book).
This’ll do for starters.

* The big thing – and this is where the art and design of episodes comes in – is to try and make the sub-plots feedback into and affect the A-plot.

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