Watch an average episode of an average TV soap opera. How many plot strands do you see? Do they run alongside each other or are they consecutive? Are they linked together – and if so, how?
I am doing a course in Scriptwriting as part of my Birkbeck BA in creative writing and that is the homework question for this week.
I have already noticed that some TV series consistently present two story lines, often with very little apparent connection between the two. Here are three examples: Neighbours, Malcolm in the Middle and CSI.
Neighbours is an Australian soap opera featuring the characters who live in Ramsay Street. Within each 30 minute episode, there are usually two plot lines with the two strands of story remaining entirely separate. Each plot line involves a subset of Neighbours’ characters and there is no overlap of characters between the two stories during that particular episode – unless, rarely, the cast is brought together for an event such as a party. The scenes in Neighbours are cut so that we alternate from one plot line to the other. I have noticed when one plot is deadly serious, with unpleasant things happening to the characters, the second plot is usually lighthearted and can have a strong comedic element. This technique is, I assume, intended to lighten the darker sections by providing interludes of comic relief. Sometimes the juxtaposition of disaster and triviality can seem jarring. (I was surprised to find this technique – alternating a serious section with a lighter section – is described by Dickens. More on this follows below).
Malcolm in the Middle is an American situation comedy that follows the life of Malcolm, a child genius, and his dysfunctional family. During each 30 minute episode, the main story line usually, but not always, features Malcolm as the central character. The series I have watched recently, currently replaying on British TV, contains a secondary story line featuring Malcolm’s oldest sibling – Francis. Francis is suffering in a military academy, many hundreds of miles away from home. Unlike Neighbours, where there is a common cast of characters from which the two plot lines draw participants, in Malcolm, the two story strands take place in entirely different locations with a completely distinct set of characters. In Malcolm the two plot lines rarely seem to have any connection, except for the occasional despairing phone call from Francis linking him back to his family. I shall watch more closely in future and see if there are any common themes.
CSI is an American crime drama series of hour-long episodes, from which there have been a number of spin-offs set in different cities. I haven’t followed all the CSI series, but most of the episodes I have watched have two distinct plot lines, each involving the investigation of a different forensic case. In common with Neighbours, the two plot lines contain their own sub-set of characters drawn from the same core cast, in this case the main CSI team. In most episodes, the two plot lines are kept entirely separate and form complete stories in their own right – which makes me wonder why you don’t simply have two distinct 30 minute episodes? I haven’t noticed if the two plots are bound by common themes or if one plays a more dominant role. I shall watch more closely in future.
Back to Dickens – and what has he got to do with TV sit-coms and soap operas? Well, I am re-reading Oliver Twist and was surprised to come across a section in the narrative where Dickens, speaking directly as the writer to the reader, says the following:
It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon.(1)
From which we can draw the conclusion that modern TV series, with their alternating plot strands, are simply pinching an old stage technique – the ‘streaky bacon’ effect.
I am trying to get into the habit of properly referencing my writing, so here goes:-
(1) Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Oliver Twist (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. 118.