Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #195:

This Blessed Plot: TV Episodics

by Shannon Appelcline

Over the years I've occasionally written about plot in this column. Plot defines what happens in a story, and thus is one of the cores of storytelling. And, as MMORPGS, MUDS, and other online entertainments rise from their hack-and-slash roots it's an element of storytelling that needs to be given greater consideration.

There are lots of models for how to tell plots, but when considering ongoing online computer games, I think one of the closest analogies is the modern TV show, which features what I call "episodic plot". The better TV shows are made up of individual units, which are each self-contained and fulfilling, but at the same time they tell a larger story.

That's not unlike what you want to do with an online game. You have to break your story into individual episodes, which could be quests or short-term storylines, but you also need to thread those together into a cohesive whole that tells the overall story of your game.

Five years ago I wrote an article on TV plots for RPGnet. I paid some attention to episodic plots, including those in: Babylon 5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and The X-Files. However the TV landscape continues to expand and grow, and in the last 5 years we've seen a number of good, new shows, each with their own take on episodic storytelling.

This week I want to concentrate on two of them: Veronica Mars, which does a superb job of telling episodic stories, and The Dead Zone, which does a poor job of the same. In the process I hope to illuminate some do's and don't's for episodic storytelling in any medium, including online games.

Veronica Mars: A Deeply Threaded Episodic

Veronica Mars is the best, most critically acclaimed series on TV that you're not watching. It's about girl detective, Veronica Mars, and her friends and family, but more importantly it's about mysteries and secrets.

Prior to Veronica Mars we'd seen TV shows with extended character arcs. This started with Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. Characters would be faced with a personal issue (infertility, drinking, an affair) that they'd deal with over multiple episodes, thus tying together otherwise totally singular stories into a more cohesive whole.

We also saw shows with extended plot arcs. Bablyon 5 did this best, using its 5 years to chart massive changes in the galaxy, while most other shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead offered up villain arcs, where their season-long plot arcs involved a villain coming to town, setting up shop, and eventually get his butt kicked.

Veronica Mars introduced a new type of arc, the mystery arc. Season one opens with the protagonist's best friend being killed, while season two opens with a horrific bus crash. The plot of each season centers around finding out who did it and why. Further, subsidiary mysteries were sprinkled into each season to keep things interesting.

Overall, Veronica Mars dramatically succeeded in its episodic storytelling for a few reasons, of note to anyone wanting to introduce episodic plots into their own storytelling:

  1. First and foremost, the writers clearly knew what they were doing from beginning to end of each season-long mystery.
  2. The writers knew how to leak out information at a slow, but constant rate. Other shows like Lost and The X-Files have drawn criticism for never getting anywhere. Instead with every episode of Veronica Mars you felt like you knew more than you had the episode before. Some of the information was red herrings, and a lot of it was very minor, but because the writers understood the shape of their entire mystery, and they knew exactly how long it would last, they were able to release information at a fair, consistent rate.
  3. The inclusion of minor mysteries was a compelling addition. These minor mysteries were sometimes related to the main mystery, and sometimes only of importance to the characters' individual arcs. However, they helped to keep the show moving along through mid-season when the big mystery couldn't be revealed, but these more minor issues could.
  4. Finally, the integration of the individual episodes and the overall arc was superb. Many of the individual episodes offered entirely "singular plots", just detailing a small issue that one of Mars' classmates was having, and that required a detective. However, they inevitably linked into the bigger episodic plots. Sometimes the episode revealed a fact that would later become important, sometimes it prevented Veronica from working on the main mystery, and sometimes it enabled it. Sometimes the two just contested with each other for Veronica's attention. But, whichever the case, the big and small-scale storylines came together as an organic whole which pretty much defined the success of the episodic storytelling.

Like Babylon 5 before it, the episodes of each season of Veronica Mars are very intricately connected. I watched season one on DVD over the course of a couple of weeks, and I was awed and appreciative of the connections. I watched season two as it broadcast, and I found the going a little tougher there as I lost track of some of the connections important for the mystery.

This highlights another of the dangers of this method of episodic storytelling, as you need to keep your overall story relatively constrained in time, or else constantly remind your readers/viewers/players about the connections. However, if you can pull it off, the result can be very delightful, and everything you can hope for from episodic plotting of this sort.

The Dead Zone: A Fractured Episodic

The Dead Zone TV show opened with the same premise of the Stephen King novel. Johnny Smith sees that aspiring politician Greg Stillson is going to cause the apocalypse.

Unfortunately, the writers of the Dead Zone had dreamed up a series-long story arc without figuring out what the intermediary beats were. The result has been a slow, stumbling series of plots that doesn't really move the story anywhere at all.

At one point we're introduced to a future version of Johnny living after the apocalypse who can communicate back in time. Not only does the plotline poorly fit with the show's genre, but ultimately the writers don't seem to know what to do with. It's eventually dropped and (now) entirely forgotten. Another plot deals with Stillson's fiance who Johnny falls in love with. It ends up serving as a morality play for how evil Stillson really is, but (again) doesn't actually move the plot along.

And that's one of the main problems of The Dead Zone's episodic plotting. None of it matters. There are a few important episodes every year--"arc episodes" or "mythos episodes" as you prefer--but they never serve to change the status quo and a result they're meaningless.

The Dead Zone's other major misstep in its episodic storytelling is its definitive decision to segregate arc and non-arc episodes--and never the twain shall meet. The X-Files did this too, to some limited success, but it also did it better. In the case of The X-Files it made sense that they weren't tracking aliens every week, but for The Dead Zone, Stillson should be a constant part of Johnny's life, if only due to his obsessive stalking of the candidate, and even moreso the Illuminatus-like organization that started guiding Stillson in seasons past should be controlling things from the sidelines.

The X-Files was also more frequent in checking in with its arc plots regularly, while The Dead Zone seems to be developing a pattern where it touches upon it at the start of the season, at the end of the season, and (maybe) in the middle of the season, and other than those 3-6 episodes, the arc practically doesn't exist. I found this most frustrating back in a previous season, where the arc concerned the murder of a campaign worker. It was a big deal in the first two episodes, then it seemed to be resolved, then in the last two episodes it was a big deal again and apparently always had been. The episodic storytelling was so bad that it broke my suspicion of disbelief (and almost made me leave the show behind, but in truth I tend to watch these things to the bitter end).


TV's episodic storytelling is a great model for plotting online computer games, and it offers us many lessons. Some of the most important are: know what you're doing beforehand; bit-by-bit release the information; make sure that when you touch upon the episodic arc it has meaning and moves things along; and integrate it to your smaller plots as best you can.

Veronica Mars will shortly be opening for its new season, on the brand-new CW. Take a look; you'll enjoy it and you can call it research too.

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