Season 1 (part 4) – Establish Core Conflict & Full Circle

Season 1

Now that we’ve covered season 1’s “dramatic structure,” let’s take a look at its…

Dramatic Pace

There are two traits to consider for season 1’s “Dramatic Pace:”

  • Establish the Core Conflict
  • Full Circle

Core Conflict

A “core conflict” is one of the most important aspects of a long form story.

What is a core conflict?

A central conflict at the heart of your long form story.

A kind of enduring dramatic concern that sits at the very center of the story you’re telling.

This conflict will remain, in different forms, throughout the length of your story. So make sure it’s broad enough to accommodate the changing and evolving it needs to do throughout the different seasons. But also take care to make it clear and visceral – so your audience has something to really connect with.

When formulating your core conflict, you can make it easier on yourself by expressing it as a single sentence with a “will” or a “can” in front of it.

For a show like The Shield the core conflict is:
“Will Vic Mackey ever go down for the corrupt things he’s done?”

Remember though, this is just a tool to clarify the core conflict for yourself. Your core conflict doesn’t have to actually fit into this sentence structure. It’s just easier and cleaner to crystalize your core conflict into a simple statement, that clarifies what your story is fundamentally about. It’ll help keep you on track.

So, right at the top of season 1, you want to establish the core conflict. Ideally as soon as possible. Do it right from the jump, right there in the first episode.

In Sons of Anarchy, the show’s core conflict is:
“Can Jax have the club without the violence?”

This central question is right there in episode 1. It’s the main thematic concern Jax wrestles with throughout the first episode and the rest of the series. Good work.

Full Circle

The end of your story, should thematically tie together with the beginning.

You should bring it all full circle. The end of your season, loops back towards the beginning of your season.

How can you do this?

Bring back character attitudes, jokes, locations, anything you can think of, that you set up at the beginning of the season. Have any of these early elements reappear at the season’s end, to give the entire season a sense of connectedness. Of closure. A sense of the whole season being one large unit.

Some shows do this really well, with great effect.

In the first episode of The O.C. Sandy drives Ryan from Chino, to his home in Orange County. They drive by the coast, the nice homes, and a little later on Ryan meets Marissa as she’s standing in the driveway next door.

At the end of season 1, Ryan leaves Orange County heading back to Chino. Marissa stands in the driveway as he leaves, he passes the nice homes, the coast.

The season’s end, is replaying the beginning of the season, just in reverse order. This gives the season a sense of unity and closure. It’s a full circle.

We see something similar in Nip/Tuck.
The first episode has plastic surgeons Sean and Christian running into trouble with Escobar the drug lord. It seems they just helped an enemy of Escobar’s disappear by changing his face. Escobar tracks this guy down and has him killed. Leaving Sean and Christian with the body.

Near the end of the season, Escobar returns!
And forces our doctors to remove heroin implants out of the women he’s using as drug mules. In the end, they make a deal. Escobar is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Sean and Christian give him a new face, in exchange for being left alone. But what Escobar quickly finds out – is they gave him the face of another man on the most wanted list. Sean and Christian started the season being terrorized by Escobar, and they ended it by putting him in jail.

This “full circle” idea doesn’t have to be saved for just the end of season 1. You can use it many times throughout season 1. You could also repeatedly have the episodes of your season refer back to previous episodes. These would be small, “mini-circles.”

The O.C. did this a lot in its first season.
As season 1 progressed, episodes would continually loop back to elements from 2 or 3 episodes previous. The entire first season was doing these little loops, all season, as it progressed forward. Another utilization of this “full circle” idea.

The “full circle” is really important to season 1, because season 1 is the bedrock of your long form story. It’s the foundation. And by utilizing this full circle idea, you’re solidifying the first season as one cohesive unit. A solid base, for the rest of the story to be built on top of.

So make sure, in season 1, to establish your core conflict, and bring it all full circle in the end.

Season 1 (part 3) – Old World

Season 1

Dramatic Structure:

There are 3 areas of concern:

Let’s turn our attention to:


When we say “origins” we’re talking about any events that occurred before the present day of your story. Anything from the past that you might call “history.”

This “origin” idea is something that seasons 1, 3, 5, and 7 all deal with in their own way.

Season’s 1’s origin theme is expressed as:

“Old World”

This means that season 1 will spend time establishing and exploring the old circumstances, the old locations, the old relationships of your characters, etc. Season 1 will incorporate elements from the events that occurred before the “new world” was entered into.

There are two common ways that long from stories tend to express this “old world” theme in the context of origins:

  • Old Circumstances and/or Old Location
  • World Change

Old Circumstances and/or Old Location

Here you show the audience what the old circumstances and old location were like.

At the very beginning of Battlestar Galactica – (2004-2009) our characters had to flee their home planet due to a Cylon attack. Through the course of season 1, we get an idea of what our character’s lives were like before that tragedy. We get enough information to understand what their old world was like. This is important, as it helps define who they are now, and what their new life is like, in contrast to how the world used to be.

We see something similar on Veronica Mars. Throughout season 1, we get an idea of what Veronica’s life was like back when she was part of the popular “09’er” crowd. Back before she was a P.I., before her friend Lilly was killed, and before she herself was sexually assaulted.

World Change

The “world change” is that moment when your “old world” fully kicks over into the “new world.”

It’s a defining moment in your story. It’s the moment the rest of your story will grow out of. The catalyst that sets everything in motion.

In The Walking Dead, this world change happened off screen while Rick was in a coma. The story didn’t dramatize the walkers overrunning the world. But it most definitely happened – kicking off the rest of the story.

In Alias, the world change was when Sydney’s fiancé was killed and she discovered the truth about SD-6 and her father. Her old world of believing she’s working for the real CIA is over, and she’s in the new world of working as a double agent to bring down SD-6.

Both solid world changes.

Season 1 (part 2) – New World

Season 1

Dramatic Structure:

There are 3 areas of concern:

Time to look at the:


What does this mean?

It means season 1 (in addition to seasons 3, 5, and 7) has a pervasive positive theme. And this positive theme is specifically expressed in season 1 as:

“New World”

In season 1, you’ll be weaving in elements of entering a “new world.” And you want to take care to come at this concept from a positive perspective. If your story is pretty dark and dour, that positivity will be subtle, but you still want to come at it from a generally positive tone.

There are two common ways, in which long form stories tend to express this “new world” idea in the context of positivity:

  • New Circumstances and/or a New Location
  • Fresh Start

New Circumstances and/or New Location

This means you literally have your characters entering a new city, a new industry, a new stage of their life, etc. Typically, you want to do this right at the beginning of season 1. It’s a great way to start your story – a major change to kick off your tale.

In the show LOST our main characters crash land on a mysterious island – a very different setting from their lives back home. The island is a literal “new world.”

We see something similar on The O.C. Ryan moves to Orange County, a place very different from his rough and tumble roots back in Chino.

Fresh Start

You create a “fresh start” by having your main character(s) leave their baggage behind and start over.

Notice this is distinctly different from the “new circumstances/location.” With a new circumstance or location, you’re just seeking to enter a new place, or a new setup.

With a fresh start, you’re entering a new place/setup/phase specifically unencumbered by your past. Or at least taking steps to leave it behind. It’s about releasing what’s come before and establishing the beginning of something else, something new.

In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, our main character starts season 1 having just moved from Los Angeles, to Sunnydale. She got expelled from her old school and starting at Sunnydale High is her fresh start to get her life back on track. She’s looking to start over, start fresh. Leave her life in L.A. behind.

In The Sopranos, our main character Tony Soprano starts therapy. It’s a fresh start to address his psychological issues and find a way to balance his life. He’s actively trying to take control of his life and move in a positive direction.

The new circumstances/location and the fresh start usually go hand in hand because they complement each other so easily. But they don’t have to. If need be, the two ideas could be executed separately.

Like a main character who’s a professor at a university. He moves departments (new location/circumstance) but his fresh start is all about his love life.

The new circumstances/new location is about changing the environment your character finds themselves in. The fresh start is about a character leaving their past behind.

These two elements come together to create a positive start to your story.

Season 1 (part 1) – Identity

Season 1

Let’s take a look at its…

Dramatic Structure:

There are 3 areas of concern:

Here, we’ll be focusing on:


In season 1, there is a pervasive general theme of connection.

Seasons 3, 5, and 7 have it as well. Each with their own unique expression of this connection idea. But here in season 1, this connection theme is expressed through:


There are two common ways, in which long form stories tend to express this “identity” theme in the context of connection:

  • Establishing Your Character’s Old Identities vs. Their New Identities
  • Establishing Character Roles

Old Identities vs. New Identities

When we first begin a story we need to explore the differences and similarities between who a character was before the story began, and who they are now after the story has started.

By contrasting their new identity against their old, you’re establishing a stronger connection, for the audience, to this new person that they’ve become.

You have all of season 1 to demonstrate to your audience who a character is, and who they were. Take your time, let it all unravel until you have a dynamic, multi-layered, individual.

In Breaking Bad, we’re shown a kindly high school chemistry teacher. In the very first episode, he discovers he has cancer. He turns to cooking meth to afford his cancer treatment – to stay alive and provide for his family.

His actions with cooking and selling meth contrast highly with his everyday facade as a law-abiding husband and teacher. Who he was. This contrast connects us, as an audience, to the person Walt has become now that he’s dying of cancer. We connect to and follow this new identity – this man willing to cook meth to make ends meet.

Let’s put our peepers on Mad Men. They did something similar, but in a different way.

In Mad Men, we spend season 1 getting to know Don Draper. Establishing his identity as the stoic and talented advertising man.

At the same time, we are also exposed to flashbacks of Don’s history. His given name isn’t even Don Draper. It’s Dick Whitman. He grew up poor and has a half-brother named Adam. A brother Don now wants nothing to do with. All of this is a demonstration in contrasting the new identity that we primarily spend time with in season 1, with the old identity from before the show began. Don Draper vs. Dick Whitman.

These dueling identities will persist throughout the run of the show, so it has to be established right here at the beginning – in season 1.

Character Roles

Stories have a whole roster of characters.

When you’re first starting out and introducing all of these characters, it’s a great idea to establish for them a specific role they serve in the story. A role they play in the group dynamic. This role connects them in a unique way to the other characters.

Once you’ve established a character’s role, their “identity,” you can then play with that identity later on down the line in other seasons.

We see this clearly in Sons of Anarchy.

Each character has a specific role to play in the club. This role defines them in a lot of ways. These roles establish the dynamic within the organization.

In season 1:

  • Clay is the President.
  • Jax is the V.P.
  • Tig is the Sergeant-at-Arms.
  • Bobby is the treasurer.
  • Aspiring members are labeled “prospects.”
  • The real girlfriends and wives are called “old ladies,” while club groupies are called “crow eaters.”

In a story like this, we see very clear roles defined for the different characters. They’re slotted into those roles. Those identities.

In a less clear-cut way you see the same ideas at work in a show like Entourage.

In season 1:

  • Vincent Chase is the famous movie star.
  • E is his business manager.
  • Johnny Drama is his older brother/less successful fellow actor.
  • Turtle is his driver/hanger-on friend.

Within the group, everybody knows where they stand. And for the audience, it gives them a base-line understanding of these characters’ identities.

In season 1, you want to dive in and deal with your character’s identities.