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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Memorandum to J.J. Abrams
J.J. Abrams is supposed to have the Midas touch. Like many who have had some success in Hollywood, he’s gone on to stick his fingers in a lot of pies. One of those pies was the heavily promoted television series Undercovers. He is the creator of the series and an executive producer. The series was about a husband and wife, both former employees of the CIA, who run a catering business and are then recruited back to the CIA to work as a team on jobs the regular CIA “can’t handle.”
When word got out that he was shopping Undercovers it prompted a minor bidding war.
Only 11 of the original 13 episodes of Undercovers ever aired and the show was canceled on November 4, 2010, when NBC decided not to order any additional episodes.
Who is Abrams? Perhaps most notably he is known for directing the “reboot” of the Star Trek movie franchise. He’s also well known for the television series Lost.
He was a big part of Lost. He was an executive producer and wrote and directed the two-part pilot. He wrote the teleplay for the season three premier episode. He also remained involved until the end of Lost by participating in meetings about the “direction and mythology” of the show.
Mythology? Gimmie a break.
The Midas touch of Abrams is supposedly that he knows how to bring “entertainment.” He fixed the old and busted Star Trek movie franchise when he “sexed it up” by borrowing lessons he learned from Star Wars. Namely a faster pace and more action. This made the movie more relevant to a culture of young people raised on television, social media and cell phones. You know, an entire generation with ADHD. He also liked to jiggle the movie cameras during the filming of Star Trek. (This gives the movie a little bit of that Jason Bourne feel.) According to the production crew Abrams was the only one who could jiggle the movie cameras in exactly the right way, although there was apparently at least one other person he sometimes trusted with the responsibility. Lastly, Abrams friggin’ loves lens flares.
To recap: Abrams skills include speeding things up, jiggling cameras and filming lens flares.
Consider that for a moment. As far as “entertainment” is concerned, might there be anything missing from that list of skills?
Might it have anything to do with the word “plot?”
Memo to Abrams. Subject: Plot
That’s right. Plot. Plot matters. If you are an entertainer in the world of fiction, plot is, at least partially, your bread and butter. The people who watch are your customers and plot is a major component of your product.
Therefore you better not fuck around with the story too much. It needs to make sense. You simply can’t have too many gaping holes.
How well did the series Lost function as storytelling? Were there any plot lines that simply made no sense, even within the context of Lost mythology? Were there any questions that were never answered?
The very best illustration of Abrams abilities as a storyteller in regards to Lost can be found here: Unanswered Lost Questions.
Simply put: I feel Abrams is a little too blasé and indifferent to plot.
In the movie Star Trek the Spock character abandons Kirk on an dangerous icy planet simply because of a verbal disagreement. Illogical! This is too much of a plot contrivance in that it is something Spock would never do in that situation. It makes absolutely no friggin’ sense. Yet it is a convenient and expedient way to move the story forward, especially when one wants to maintain a fast pace. They needed future-Spock and young-Kirk to meet to set up some other situations in the story later on. They came up with an extremely stupid way to do it.
In the world of Abrams anything is possible. There is no limit. Your heroes are in danger? Have one of them pull a magic rock out of their pocket. A magic rock which has never been seen in your story before. Make that magic rock create a force field that causes bullets to bounce off, then transport the heroes to safety, leaving the bad guys behind with wiped memories to avoid unnecessary confusion to the plot later on. The heroes are safe, the rock goes back in the pocket. Now, here’s the good part. Aside from a couple of comments (maybe) from those who were with the hero, the rock is never explained and never seen again. Even in situations where the rock could easily save their bacon again and again and again. Details like this don’t matter, only that the “entertainment” moves on.
A little bit of shit like this can be accepted by the audience if the rest of the story makes enough sense in the context of the world they are being asked to believe. Too much of this and whole thing breaks down. The audience realizes that the “entertainment” has no real meaning, so there is nothing left for them to feel emotionally invested. The audience will simply stop caring about the story being told.
When I’m in the story, I forget about myself and that I’m sitting in a chair in a movie theater and sucking down Skittles and washing them down with soda. That’s when storytelling is at its best. If a cell phone rings by the asshole a few seats away I’m brought crashing back to reality. I’m suddenly aware again that I’m sitting in a theater and I become aware of my chair.
Too many bullshit plot developments cause the exact same phenomenon.
I remember the moment when Spock shot Kirk down to the ice planet. I was back in my chair looking around the room to see how everyone else was absorbing the bullshit. I was not in the story.
There has to be integrity to the story and the craft of storytelling. Otherwise it’s all just good looking people in exotic environments fooling around with lots of bells and whistles. No one will really give a shit. Plot is what gives the entertainment its meaning. It’s like trying to get excited about the Super Bowl when you already know who won.
I watched the first few seasons of Lost with interest. Especially season one. But with each passing episode I found myself giving less and less of a shit. As the weird plot contrivances kept adding up, and things made less and less sense, I found myself feeling like I could care less. A lot less. Eventually I didn’t care at all and I stopped watching the show. Too this day I don’t know the final resolution with the various characters, who went back to the island, who was saved, who was lost, why things worked, the time warps, etc. I simply don’t care.
Hell, I cared way more about the characters on the TV series Friends than I did about anyone from Lost.
The television series Lost, under the direction of the storyteller Abrams, was a turning point for me. It was the first moment in my life when I stopped and really thought about the “entertainments” I had been consuming. Yes, I knew they were actors playing fictional roles. But part of me wanted to be entertained like that. I wanted to get to know these fictional characters and care about what happened to them. But in the end, thanks to Abrams, that feeling was destroyed. To me, that’s the only thing that has been Lost.
Will Sam Malone and Diane Chambers ever get back together? Will Miles Crane and Daphne Moon get it on, and if so, will she be required to clean up the mess? Will Ensign Tom Paris successfully kiss the half-Klingon B’Elanna Torres, and if so, will she bite off his lip?
Real storytellers who make you care about the outcomes of such things have successfully created something known as “tension.” When you magically whip too many rabbits out of a hat and never explain them, the audience believes you when you are effectively telling them, “there is no tension here.”
That’s what Abrams has done to me. And that’s why I no longer have much interest in fictional entertainments. Oh sure, I’ll still watch the next Star Trek movie, but when I find myself feeling less than thrilled, I’ll know exactly the reason why.
No doubt Abrams will continue to enjoy success in the future. Our ADHD culture will lap out what he dishes out while never realizing the difference. I find that a bit sad.