The Episodic Table of Plot Elements
If you have ever watched commercial programming on television you may already be aware of this, but sometimes the shows repeat plot points. Surprising but true. It generally works something like the instructions on a shampoo bottle:
- Hire a core troupe of actors and put them in a setting, like a meat packing plant or a sewer treatment facility
- Go through the episodic table of plot elements
- After a certain period of time, usually 3-7 years, replace the actors and the setting, like the actuarial tables dept. at an insurance company
- Rinse and repeat
When watching a show with my wife, within the first 30 seconds I’ll shout out the plot variation as soon as it is recognized. Trust me, she really loves this. “Oh, god, no!! It’s plot #42. Wacky birthing episode ending with a touching isn’t-that-thing-cute moment. I’ll be on the computer. Let me know when it’s over.”
Here’s a few excerpts from the episodic table:
- A previously unknown family member of a main character comes to visit for a short time (father, mother, brother, sister, child, etc.)
- A main character is extremely distressed because an extended family member gets engaged, married, divorced, is involved in adultery or illicit love affair and/or dies
- Two main characters are involved in a marriage proposal, wedding, break-up, divorce, adoption, pregnancy and/or birthing
Even with those three limited examples from the table the possibilities are almost endless. I bet they could be used to generate over 500 specific plots. Mother and cousin come to visit. Father and sister die. Brother and niece get engaged. Mother pregnant, father having an affair. Father pregnant, mother having an affair. Yep, the permutations are practically unlimited.
When watching Northern Exposure the other day I noticed one of the rarer elements. “Looks like #138 coming our way,” I shouted. A mute traveling performer had been courting one of the main characters for several episodes. Sagely, I predicted, “I’ll bet the mute guy is moved to speak in a moment that will be especially poignant.” It was so touching, that I nailed it, I mean. My wife couldn’t have been more pleased.
The episodic table easily applies to movies, too. George Lucas, for example, often calls crap like this “notes” that are repeated across films, again and again and again and again and again. Did I mention again? To make this point I’ll now transport you from one galaxy far away to a make-believe land of medieval sex, violence and political intrigue. It won’t require that much suspension of disbelief.
Or, as I like to call it, “A Note Ripped From Star Wars By Game Of Thrones.” Introducing element #78: The Fake Greeting.
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