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Outlining a Television Series with Dramatica

Television is the new. With feature films becoming epic rollercoaster rides of spandex and spectacle, vibrant kiddie fare and immature thematic explorations, the television series grants fans of narrative an opportunity to become lost in meaningful complexity. The long-form story promises fulfillment; the long-form story demands a form to story.

I'm often asked what is the best way to structure a television series. Should I create one storyform for the entire series? Do I create storyforms for each episode? The answer is yes. You do both, and you do more.

The Dramatica storyform is a collection of seventy-five different storypoints that work in tandem to create a holistic image of a story's deep underlying meaning. When a narrative shows signs of "holes" or underdeveloped characters, chances are the storyform is broken--or missing key parts. Working as an analogy to the mind's problem-solving process, the Dramatica storyform codifies the Author's message and gives purpose to their work.

The Best Way to Plan It Out

While many different paths exist on the road to planning out a successful series, the best seems to be to follow The X-Files model. For those unfamiliar with the series, the show's episodes fell into two different categories: Mythology and Monster. The Mythology episodes covered the grand story of alien cover-up and government conspiracy. The Monster episodes took a break from the conspiracy to focus on the creature-of-the-week. Beyond the Sea and Clyde Bruckman's Final Respose work well as stand-alone Monster episodes--complete stories in their own right.

To achieve this balance, you create one master Storyform for the "Mythology" of your series, and then individual Storyforms for the "Monster" episodes. Anytime you want a certain context to feel complete, you should create a storyform. If you want each season finale of your series to have the same kind of impact the finales of Game of Thrones have had, you should even go so far as to create a single storyform for each season.

For the Disney animated television series Tangled: Before Ever After I recently consulted on, we created one master Storyform for the entire Series. We then created individual storyforms for each Season. While writing the detailed outline for the first season, I tried to incorporate and blend story points from the Series Storyform and the Season Storyform within different episodes. In addition, I tried to keep the outline open to allow for an entire Storyform within one episode. This helps to break things up and avoid the monotony of telling the same story over and over again. It also helped create a congruency of purpose in the storytelling.

In short, the thing held together.

Implementing Different Storyforms

One storyform for the entire series. One for each season. And then an occasional storyform here and there for a single episode. Depending on the nature of your series, you may need to create a storyform for every episode--particularly if you want each to feel complete and whole--but you certainly don't have to be that detailed in your process.

It could be that you're writing True Detective and you only want one storyform for one season. And then you move on to a completely different storyform for the next season. Perfectly fine, and apparently quite successful.

Glen C. Strathy over at How to Write a Book Now1 over-complicates this process with his Inception-like approach to storyforms within storyforms:

... let's say you take the time to design a separate story form for Act 1 (or season one), which is about Understanding (or misunderstanding). You would make Truth, Evidence, Suspicion, and Falsehood the four signposts in the overall throughline for this act. If you turn to the Plot Sequence report for this act, it will break down Truth into four stages. Same with the others. Now you have story goals for 16 issues within this Act. Repeat for the other acts and that's enough for 64 issues.

Story goals ... but not really Story Goals in the Dramatica sense. The 64 issues here assume the role of simple subject matter rather than work with others as viable story points within a larger context. The result is confusion on the part of those trying to understand how to use Dramatica to better their storytelling. Best to keep it simple and decide the number of episodes you want to see working as a complete story; then craft a storyform to guide them.

Blending various storyforms is not exact science; you will miss out on some story points here and there. The overall sense of the series will be this notion that there is something grander going on. Audiences will latch on to your series because they'll be able to tell that you're not winging it. Your series will have purpose.

When a Signpost is a Season

For Tangled, we made plans for three seasons. Season One took care of the first Signpost from the Series Storyform. Season Two took Signposts Two and Three and the last Season assumed responsibility for Signpost Four. It would have been nicer and cleaner if the series made arrangements for four seasons, but unfortunately I don't get paid to make those kinds of decisions.2

Coincidentally, the Overall Story Concern for the Season One storyform matched the Overall Story Signpost One for the Series Storyform. Both were Understanding. You certainly don't need to do this, but I think it helped keep everything that was happening within Season One relevant within the greater context of the entire Series. The process of writing the outline for that first Season felt like a natural extension of telling a grander story.

The Overall Story Concern for Season Two matches the 2nd Signpost of the Series Storyform, falling in line with the pattern set up with the first Season. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how that will pan out in the second half of Season Two. The easier fix would be to split that season into two. If the show is successful as it appears it will be, that may indeed be what happens. But again, I'm not in charge.

Maintaining the Integrity of the Storyform

The hardest part of this process is keeping everyone on track with each of the storyforms you worked out. Egos being what they are, eventually the whole process breaks down without someone in charge knowing and completely understanding the purpose of the Dramatica Storyform.

People unaware of Dramatica do not understand how someone can possibly know exactly what is supposed to happen 2/3 of the way into the story. And not just the general Dark Night of the Soul baloney, but specific character interactions and key character development points. They just don't get it, and thus rebel and rewrite and essentially tear down all the hard work. As a consultant you can only influence and encourage creatives to keep in line with the original intent and purpose behind a story. The rest is up to the process.

If you're writing the whole thing yourself, you're golden and the above process should work wonders for you. Another client of mine is doing this very same thing and she is rocking the final result. People familiar with her work are blown away by how well the latest draft of her series is structured and thought out. If you want to see monumental changes in your work, give your story a purpose--give it a storyform.

Or two, or three.

Any excuse to keep them streaming.


  1. Although really it should be called How to Write a Book Now with Dramatica. ↩︎

  2. Someday I'll explain how I had to fight for Signpost Three within that second Season. Some wanted to end Season Two with Signpost Two and jump straight to Signpost Four. Ouch. ↩︎

Concepts covered: Signposts & The Storyform.

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