Sunday, January 5, 2014

Notes on Structure

A big part of retaining the promise for television viewers is maintaining characters’ equilibrium.  People would be shocked – and stop tuning in – if Olivia Pope were to lose it emotionally and become incapable of directing her team in her smart, fast-talking style, or if she showed up anything less than impeccably groomed even after being up all night.  She may have moments of weakness – thank you, she’s human – but she always rises to the occasion.  Likewise, all the other characters stay true to their core.  Cyrus isn’t going to adopt a baby and become a stay-at-home husband.  The President isn’t going to resign his power to the Christian Right Wing.  For one thing, Mellie wouldn’t allow it!  This creates a unity of opposites in which compromise is impossible.  As Egri says, “the characters have to be made of such stuff that they will go the limit.  The unity between opposites must be so strong that the deadlock can be broken only if one of the adversaries or both are exhausted, beaten or annihilated completely at the end.”  If any of our characters fail to go to the limit that will be the end of our show.

It also means that characters don’t have the classic arcs at the heart of a film’s story, the hero’s journey in which the protagonist is catapulted forward into a world, facing external hurdles while overcoming internal flaws, resulting in a change of character.  Instead, characters in television essentially remain the same and are revealed through their relationships with other characters. Our relationship with them grows and deepens with time, from episode to episode and season to season.

Since we can’t have our characters change, it follows that we can’t follow film’s structure.  In a previous post, I identified that the structure set forth by Ellen Sandler [The TV Writer’s Workbook, 2007, p.7] seems to hold true for Scandal and, indeed, in subsequent posts, identified the Oh!, Little Uh Oh! etc., beats within each episode.  For clarification:

Oh! is the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.  What makes today different?  With each new client, Pope Associates has an incident that sets the story in motion.  The clients’ situations can also be seen as metaphors for what is going on within the true story (that of the relationship between Olivia and Fitz) from Olivia’s perspective, while the Amanda Tanner storyline provides an ironic perspective from the political world in which Fitz operates.

The Little Uh Oh! is a turning point; something unexpected that turns the story in a new direction.   As an example, in our last episode, the Little Uh Oh! occurred when Cyrus announced they weren’t going to win New Hampshire because a story was coming out about Mellie having an affair.

Ouch! presents the greatest jeopardy for the central character.  It is a painful moment.  While Olivia is our protagonist, Fitz is also a central character and shares in these painful moments.

The Big Uh Ohhh! is what pushes our central character to go on and face her fear.  This is invariably around the 30-minute mark when Olivia confronts either a General, the DA, Cyrus or even the President.   Interestingly, the Big Uh Ohhh! comes mid-act and does not precede a commercial break.

Oh No! reveals what the whole story is about.  It is usually the clue to solving the client’s case, even if the client is the now dead Amanda Tanner.

The Twist-a-Roo adds a note of irony that makes the story funny or poignant.   In the political twists and turns of Scandal, the stories tend toward poignant.

The Ah! is where your characters arrive back to so-called normal as they were at the beginning of the episode.  It’s where the audience exhales a sigh of relief.  As noted, we gain this in the final two minutes of each episode before the next problem arises.

And therein lies our “Button,” the thing that makes us tune in next week, or, if watching on Netflix, click right on to the next episode and the next into the week hours of the morning.

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