Serial Storytelling on TV

Posted by on Nov 2, 2013 in Storytelling
Serial Storytelling on TV

Unlike serial formats, many novels, films/movies or even a lot of video games consist of a clear beginning, a middle and an end. To a certain extent, they can be considered to be ONE-OFFS.

Fundamental characteristics of serials (in contrast to one-offs):

  • extended conversation ( depth of story and character)
  • emotional connection
  • more detailed stories


Weekly formats in serial TV


unit2_serial(Storymooc 2013 University of Applied Sciences Potsdam)

  • Ongoing Story
  • continious developping characters and dramatic plot in order to keep the audiences’ attention

e.g. Grace Anatomy / Desperate Houswives / Gilmore Girls / Game of Thrones / The Tudors



packed with characters and events of Dickensian dimension and color, their time and place observed with satiric exactitude, each has the kind of cohesive dramatic arc that defines a work complete unto itself. ( Vincent Canby)

e.g. Mad Men / Boardwalk Empire /  Game of Thrones / Lost / Breaking Bad



unit2_procedural(Storymooc 2013 University of Applied Sciences Potsdam)

  • series of stand-alone episodes based on case-of-the-week theme
  • each episode contains several plot or rather story arcs

e.g. Monk / CSI / Castle / The Mentalist / House / Bones


How do writers achieve such a case or mystery?

Often a mystery in a narrative occurs when the plot withholds important events from our knowledge. […] delaying the information about [event X] until [person Z] learns of it. (David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson)

RETARDATION TECHNIQUE (standard of nearly every mystery story, e.g. film, novel, movie or a game)

Only by delaying the revelation of some information can the [plot] arouse anticipation, curiosity, suspense and surprise. (David Bordwell)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Bomb Example


Difference in writing a procedural and a serial

e.g. CSI – a procedural:

  • Define the ARENA – the setting of the mystery (Where does the murder happen?)
  • Include a CLUE PATH  in order to plot the episode
  • red herring = wrong clues

> So the case-of-the-week and the Arena impact each episode, the plot and the overall story.
> Episodic storytelling

e.g. Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones – serial dramas:

  • a murder happens due to the development of the stories (not in the beginning)
  • place and time is not incentive for the story arcs but part of it and its characters behaviours

> The entire story, the plot and each episode are part of the Arena/the setting.
> Arc-driven storytelling

  • unit2_cluepath
  • unit2_proceduralsvsserial


Weeklies vs. Dailies

Weekly Formats:

  • Procedural/Serial
  • Half-Hour Comedy / Sitcom (e.g. How I Met Your Mother, Two and A Half Man, Friends, …)

Characters in Weeklies:

  • more freedom and time (months/years) to develop a character
  • show different traits 

Daily Formats:

  • Daily Soaps ( Good Time, Bad Time)


Characters in Dailies:

  • not overly complex / deep
  • simplifying but not boring 



  • usually have a definite ending, whereas daily soaps just keep on going
  • Ending is the climax of the whole series



Production Process ( according to Des Doyle )

e.g. U.S Series have their own SHOWRUNNER: 

  • responsible for the creation of a series in regards to the creative and logistic process
  • duties are often a combination of those traditionally assigned to the writer, executive producer and script editor


Whereas daily dramas are developed within the whole Team/Writers’ room :

  • 1. FUTURING – decide story arc for the next month
  • 2. STORYLINING – storyline for a group of episodes (~5) and plot out the happening
  • 3. DIALOGUES – full script



Biggest challanges in creating TV Series

  • Emotional connection – make audience care about what’s happening
  • Audience might want to lean into the screen – make the plot so interesting that the audience forget about everything else
  • Getting peoples’ attention – a good hook: importance of characters and audiences’ interest and care for them