As has become our tradition, my other half and I do enjoy a good guilt-free TV fest in January. Generally, we are not prisoners to our TV and have nothing but the basic channels, so each year we hunt down a box-set or two and allow ourselves to become immersed in something gripping. This yearly tradition started about four years ago when shamefully late to the party, we bought season one of the Jack Bauer action-packed series, 24. And man, were we well and truly sucked in. Our sofa will forever hold our ass prints and I think, proving my Mam’s warnings true, my eyes are indeed still a little square after six solid weeks of addictive TV watching. Last year, we indulged in Breaking Bad and this year it was ‘House of Cards’ the American version starring Kevin Spacey.
When did TV get so good? The narrative arc of these shows hold all the complexity of a high budget movie leaving the TV I grew up on, comforting but limping behind in drama and suspense. And it has led me to consider, what has changed? Are these programmes put together so very differently to those of the past? Has narrative structure changed so much that the simple episodic shape of old won’t grab our attention? And how should this affect the written novel, if ever it should?
The first thing of note is that all of these high-rating series have many plot points. They almost play on our expectation of the three-act structure. But we are denied such simplicity. We are waiting for the cue to kick start the action and follow the plot point to what we believe will be the climax of the story only to find that what we thought was the climax was simply the first major turning point in the overall plot. I imagine these episodes like a series of rings that spin steadily inwards, like a vortex, with each ring taking us further into the plot but each an almost complete arc. The ‘almost’ in the last sentence being the important word.
Each episode charts a complex series of events where the climax of one is only the inciting event of the next. It leaves us as an audience, constantly searching for that central point. Isn’t that how all series episodes were shaped? Not how I recall it. I would say no. Soap Operas and everyday chewing gum for the brain programmes still hold the traditional shape. Episodic TV of old held a clear end point with all questions neatly tucked up in bed by the end of the episode. Yes there were always the questions that carried through to the end of a series, such as a developing love story, but the inciting event that triggered the main action in a particular episode, would be, solved by the end of that episode.
In today’s TV, hard-hitting series that want to reach global fandom status need tricksy plotting and unnerving characters that keep viewers on the action treadmill. This means a steady hand for the writer, give the reader a climax and resolution to an episode that not only solves the questions thrown up at the beginning of the episode but creates a whole new set of questions that were seemingly there all along but we as viewers didn’t notice them until that point.
What can this mean for novel writing? If indeed it means anything. Can we learn from this? Do our novels now require 7 or 8 significant plot points to keep our readers engaged? Is it possible to generate that much to-ing and fro-ing in the name of action and not exhaust the reader, or feel like the action is contrived? Answers on a postcard please, or, you know just leave a comment.
Olivia Kiernan is author of Irish suspense novel, DAWN SOLSTICE.
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