Singles versus Series

by Ann Marie Gamble

Howdy everyone! I'm excited to be writing my first post for the Divas (and doubly so to be taking a break from NaNoWriMo, argh). Preparing for this intense month of novel writing, I've been hugely helped by a couple of books about writing for TV and movies: Alex Epstein's Crafty Screenwriting and Crafty TV Writing. He's got a lot of helpful things to say about structure and the business, but where the books have particularly helped me is in thinking about characters.

"We've so completely resolved our subplots,
only the undead could undo them"

First, some shorthand: I'm thinking that movies are generally stand-alone, single stories while TV shows--the ones we know well--are ongoing series. And here I'm interested in the differences between those single versus series stories rather than, say production methods or ratings.

One big attraction for fans of a series is a known world, which typically includes its characters. Fans come back to a show to see these people wrangling with a new set of problems--next week we expect the people to be largely unchanged by the experience but new problems to have arisen. In a single-title story, however, we see characters evolve over the course of trying to solve problems. We expect that the characters will change, will have different responses at the end of the picture than they did at the beginning.

"I want to decide"

This expectation, while it's an attraction of a series, also leads to some of the biggest temptations for single titles and strongest criticisms of long-running TV shows. A stand-alone film might be so popular that people want to make another, viewers want to see more. But if the first story was well-resolved, the second might have to start in such a new place that it turns off fans. Writers have to figure out what the parts of the story world are that are definitive, and what can be carried over to another story.

"I've been invited to another house party!"

Conversely, they might backtrack: issues that we thought were resolved in the first film come back to haunt the next. In a TV series, this lack of resolution can get unbelievable--the conspiracy that is always one more obstacle away from being solved, the conversation that never gets had, the character who never wises up. Notoriously, how long would modern single people let sexual tension burble without making any moves? (I'm lookin' at you, Richard Castle.) Seeing more of our favorite character do their thing is why we tune in tomorrow, but there has to be a plausible reason why they continue along the same course.

You can see, then, why police and medical shows are popular: there's always another crime or illness in the Naked City, an external problem for the character regulars to wrestle and resolve (and not have to get so personally invested in that they will change). When the shows are ensemble casts, they can even absorb departures of individual cast members.

The spy show Chuck has managed the change/stay-the-same dilemma by introducing a new novice spy; Chuck can have the expertise you'd expect a smart guy to develop after three seasons, but we can still watch a naive civilian try to fit in. I'm intrigued by Doctor Who, which even changes the lead actor from time to time--fans complain explicitly, "Actor X will always be the doctor for me!" or "I don't think Actor Y can pull it off!" But there are other attractions to that story universe besides the look or even the personality of the main character that keep us coming back.

Do you have a favorite show that's in danger of hitting a rut? A movie that begs for a sequel? Is there a story than managed the change/stay-the-same dilemma in a creative way?

(Photos from a reviews and commentary of Pride and Prejudice, The X-Files, and Murder, She Wrote)


  1. Welcome. I enjoyed your post.

    I love the CSI shows. Same charactrs, but different stories. On the other hand, I get bored with book series. TV series are good, books not so much. For me at least. I was sorry to see Flash Forward go. I was really into that show. I loved Lost, even though I didn't understand it most of the time. I'm into The Event now.

  2. Hi Ann and welcome to the DIVAS! Great post! First of all Congrats on doing NANOWRIMO! woohoo! What an undertaking!

    As for the shows - yes - I agree so many TV shows end up in that rut or jump the shark altogether - I think most shows pretty much run their course after about 6 seasons - after that they're just re-doing the same old plot lines - and it can get tiresome. With sitcoms they can push it another season. We get so attached to our fave shows but on the other hand - if the characters have done pretty much all that they're going to do then - that is that! Say goodbye! And go out with a bang! ;)

  3. I for one would prefer that my favorite books be turned into movies rather than TV series. There is one book in particular titled, "Carnal Weapon" by Peter Hoffmann that I wish so badly for it to be turned into a movie. It is a great spy/romance novel that is set in the 1950's-60's, where women are hired by the French Government to seduce/spy on American engineers and scientists in order to obtain their trade secrets. I found it to be a funny, energetic tale about the war between primness and hedonism.

  4. Boy, Ann, this really taps into something.

    The need to have a series compel with a 'dark secret' or conspiracy or sexual tension is so difficult to pull off. Like Cara, I was sorry to see Flash Forward go away, I loved the mystery.

    But other ones grow old. With Chuck, we're getting burnt by the constant whining about the relationship. I like Alias better. They pushed forward the plots and left the attractions in the background.

    I'm also getting pretty bored with the 'dark secret' cliche. On Blue Bloods, they're doing a good job, keeping the ongoing mystery about what happened to one of the brothers a small part of the show, and letting the present dominate.

    I miss "Life" which had an ongoing mystery along with Real Time action. But so often they focus too much on the past. The Mentalist is in danger of Red John overload. Yes, we get the guy is a 'wounded hero' but after awhile you just want to shout MOVE ON ALREADY!!! *heh*

    Great post!



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