Authorguy's Blog

Story scope – Standalones v. Series

Posted on: January 24, 2011

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of TV on DVD, mostly new shows that I’ve discovered after they’ve been cancelled, because all the good shows get cancelled while all the mediocre dross lives on forever. Well, not exactly, Chuck and Burn Notice are both still on the air, although Chuck keeps having to struggle for renewal every season, it seems.

I recently got a hold of Castle, a TV comedy/mystery series about a mystery writer who gets involved in a murder case that uses murders from his books, and uses his connections with people in high places to get attached to the detective in the case as an observer. Of course his insights are brilliant and his position is very helpful to them in resolving all the cases. Of course he’s romantically interested in the lead detective but at least the show has the good sense not to let that proceed too quickly. And he’s got a brilliant daughter and a vivacious mother and the dialog is sparkling.

Can you hear the “But…” here?

I seem to have lost my taste for standalone stories, and each episode of Castle is a standalone. I like them, but there’s no sense of progression, not even in the relationship. A witness in one episode asks if they’re together, and she says Absolutely Not while he says Not Yet, which is pretty much where the show started. It’s also the way Chuck went for years, and lots of people got kind of annoyed that Chuck and Sarah kept getting separated. But Chuck and Sarah obviously wanted to be together, while Beckett hasn’t shown a great deal of interest in Castle except as a writer. Which is understandable, he’s had his own way with everything pretty much his whole life and she doesn’t want to become yet another success story.

Maybe Castle (the show) should add a new, unknown mystery writer, whose analyses are much better or at least as good, and in whom the detective is much more interested. Give Castle (the character) a run for his money, and he seems to have a lot of money. (Which is another problem, him starting at the top and all, but not one that matters to this post.) In other words, a story arc. This is pretty much what happened in the show Wonderfalls, which got concelled while still filming the last several episodes of its first and only season. The writers were able to turn those episodes into a long story arc that resolved a number of plot threads, much like the Serenity movie resolved the hanging plot threads of the series Firefly. And these episodes are in my opinion the best and most enjoyable of the show. I got really annoyed when they interrupted this plot arc with an apparently irrelevant episode set on a reservation, just as I got really annoyed when season 2 of Buffy had a fabulous plot arc going about Angelus and they interrupted the arc with the worst show of the series, about the swim team turning into sea monsters. WTF?

The point being that standalones have very little story flow (remember my post about story flow?), while the longer arcs have a great deal of scope. On the other hand I’m not terribly thrilled by stories that get spread out over the course of many episodes/books, either. They make you watch all those episodes, read a lot of stuff, to get to the big payoff at the end, which is OK if the payoff is big enough. Taking out Sauron and his forces is certainly big. Shonsu restructuring nearly every aspect of his world is pretty big also. Restarting the Universe when the Wellworld got damaged is right up there. But I’m mostly interested in characters, and epics usually aren’t. The Shonsu books are, and there are parts of LOTR and the Wellworld series that make them worth reading to me.

The usual compromise is a series of standalones, plenty of scope for character development and story flow, no need for big payoffs at the end. No possibility of a sudden cancelation preventing us from ever getting that big payoff. But even this has its problems. The seasonal arcs in Buffy worked, but the payoff at the end of the show was a bit lacking.

What’s your favorite scope?


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