Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Supernatural And The 'A Story' Arc

Let's look more deeply at story arcs, particularly the A Story.
If you're going to write an episodic series, it's a good idea to put in some time before you start writing to plan out your episodes. You my want to keep your 'seasons' short to begin with, especially if this is your first experience of writig a series. Six episodes is a good number to aim's short enough to be an achievable goal but it will have enough substance to give readers plenty of story to read.
If you have analysed a season or two of a TV series (you HAVE been doing your homework, right?), you will have noticed that each season is an A Story arc.
Let's take Supernatural as an example.
Supernatural, created by Eric Kripke, is a series about two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who hunt demons, ghosts and other supernatural dangers. The series uses a Monster Of The Week format, so each episode has a C Story regarding a certain monster that Sam and Dean are hunting for that episode. The B Stories involve Sam and Dean's relationship with each other (their personalities are very different...surprise, surprise), their relationship with their father, and (later) their relationships with other hunters (particularly Bobby Singer) and other main characters in the series (Castiel, Meg, Alesteir, Crowley and others).
Here's how Season One sets up the first arc...
The first episode shows us that Sam and Dean's mother was killed in a supernatural occurence which resulted in the boys living on the road with their father John. As the series starts, we learn that John has gone missing. Dean persuades Sam (who wants to live a quiet life with his girlfriend) to help him search for John. Sam's girlfriend is killed in exactly the same manner as the boys' mother and the two go in search of their father.
So the series is set up. The two main characters will be forced to work together and the task ahead of them isn't a simple will sustain many episodes.
A question is also raised in the viewer's mind regarding the A Story. Why did Sam's girlfriend die in the same manner as his mother?
Now the episodes go into a MOTW format and every now and then we are reminded of the A Story. The season ends when the A Story is resolved and the boys find their father and the demon ("Yellow Eyes") that killed their mother.

Season Two has a new A Story; Sam and Dean are hunting Yellow Eyes. By the end of the season, this arc is resolved as they find Yellow Eyes and kill him. But  in the process (the episodes of the season), Dean had to trade his soul to bring Sam back from death. Dean has one year before a demon collects his soul and takes it to hell.
The Season Three story arc revolves around the boys trying to find a way to prevent Dean from going to hell. (See how the events in Season Two have created the A Story arc in Season Three. This gives a good sense of continuity.) It ends when they fail to kill the demon (Lilith) who holds the contract for Dean's soul. Dean is taken to hell.
In Season Four, the A Story arc concerns Sam and Dean working to prevent Lilith from breaking a number of seals to release Lucifer from his cage. Dean has been brought back from hell by an angel named Castiel so that he can help Sam. In the end of the season, the seals are broken and Lucifer is released.
Season Five has an A Story arc of Sam and Dean trying to prevent the Apocalypse. Lucifer wants to possess Sam and the archangel Michael wants to possess Dean so they can fight it out on Earth and cause mayhem of Biblical proportions. The season ends with Sam throwing himself (possessed by Lucifer) and his half-brother Adam (possessed by Michael) into hell to save the world.
I won't go into Seasons six and seven because they are pretty recent and I don't want to spoil them for anyone who hasn't seen them yet.

So...let's break all that seasonal information down to basics...
Season One: Find missing father
Season Two: Find demon who killed father
Season Three: Find and kill Lilith
Season Four: Stop Lilith from releasing Lucifer
Season Five: Stop Lucifer from starting Armageddon
See how the events of each season lead on from the previous season? Think about this when you plan your own series. Can you see how each of those A Story arcs can support six stories of 15-28k words?
Here are some things to consider for your series:

First, get six pieces of paper. Each piece represents a story (episode) in your series.
Now think of the A Story arc. This will be set up on the first piece of paper and be resolved on the sixth piece of paper. It might be a good idea to start at the end...the resolution of the A Story, since this will be the ultimate goal of your 'season' of six stories. Work out how the A Story is resolved.
Despite the fact that it is resolved, will it spark a second season? How will thechange brought about by resolving the A Story throw the characters into season two?
You will need to think up six Monsters Of The Week. If you are writing, say, a detective series, this will be six Cases Of The Week. These are the C Stories.
Each will last only for the duration of a single story. Put your weekly C Stories in order and write them on the pieces of paper. Note that your last story may be all about the resolution of the A Story arc, in which case you will only need five C Stories because the last episode won't have one.
Now think about how your B Stories are going to develop and where. The more you can tie them in with the A and C stories, the better. Even though you, the writer, are looking at this process with A, B, and C story arcs, you want the result to seem like an organic whole to the reader. Don't let them see the seams or you will bring them out of enjoying your story.
You may want to pin your episode sheets to a corkboard so you can see the overall picture. Write on each sheet how that story contributes to the A Story and which B Stories are explored in that episode.

You should find plenty to keep you busy! Good luck with your planning!


  1. I followed your success and ultimate thrashing over on KB. I admit I was thinking of serialized fiction before that, but it was nice to see someone having success with it. You've got a good hold on the idea and I look forward to reading your take on the subject. Maybe I can avoid some mistakes as I develop my own serial. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I know people are listening.

  2. You're welcome. I hope you enjoy the blog as it goes on.

  3. Appreciate you taking the time to compile this. Great info.

  4. Really appreciate you graciously taking time to explain and impart knowledge, TTW. Thank you for your generosity. :)

    I've struggled before when writing series, and I think my biggest fault lies in not organizing the story lines enough -- basically, I need to plot more -- and this post has been extremely helpful to me.

    Thank you.

  5. Excellent breakdown, TW! Got several ideas brewing just from reading this post alone.

    You're very highly regarded in the little writing community I belong to *says hi to guys above* ;-)

  6. Hey, Mallika....glad you found it helpful :)

  7. Hi, Steve...glad you're enjoying it!