Seven Seasons – Variations

Variations

A while back, we defined “seasons” as a particular chunk of story with particular attributes. Much like an “act” in a movie. We then took you through all the different attributes of each season.

The seasons are defined by these attributes, it’s what makes a particular season different from the rest. This is an important distinction to understand when “variations” come into play.

Here at Story Shamans we make a clear distinction between a show’s “season”, based on structural content, and a show’s “year” based on the schedule in which it was released to an audience.

Ideally, your “seasons” and your “years” would line up perfectly.

Like we see with:

  • The Shield
  • The West Wing
  • The Wire
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Sons of Anarchy

But, a “year” of a show and a “season” of a show won’t always be the same thing.

When this happens, it’s called a “variation.”

These variations come in many forms:

  • Continued Season
  • Season Jump
  • Mislabeled Season
  • Mash-up Season

Continued Season

When a season of content keeps on going into the next year.

The content should shift from one year to the next, moving the story forward from one season to the next. But with the “continued season” variation – it doesn’t.

It just keeps the same season content, across two (or more) years.

Dexter did this with its last year. Their season 8 is really just season 7 continued. Their season 7 started in year 7, and continued on through to year 8. It was just a big two parter.

One Tree Hill did the same thing for its fourth year. Year 4 wasn’t season 4, it was season 3 continued. Everybody is still in high school, playing out the events of their senior year, dragging out that first era.

Season Jump

When you jump to the next season, mid year.

Maybe you’re in season 4 and it turns out you’re getting cancelled. You don’t want to end your story on all the weirdness and shake up of season 4. So half-way through the year, you jump to season 5 content, to close out the era and the show.

This is exactly what The O.C. did. Year 4 starts out with our main characters living their post-high school lives. Scattered and grieving the loss of Marissa. That’s “change of circumstances,” “disbandments,” and “beginning of new era.” All season 4 stuff.

Then at the midpoint of the year, they resolve all of this stuff and jump straight into season 5 content:

Ryan’s Dad Frank comes to town to patch things up with his son – “family” and “salvation.” Ryan finds emotional solace in his new relationship with Taylor – more “salvation.” Sandy and Kirsten are going to have another baby – more “family.” Julie is dating both Bullit and Frank and has to choose between them. Will she marry for money or love? – “impossible decision.”

The show clearly transitions from season 4, straight into season 5. All in one year.

Prison Break did the exact same thing in their fourth year. Halfway through, they resolve the season 4 content, and move full-on into season 5 content.

Mislabeled Season

Imagine your favorite show is truckin’ along.

  • Year 1 = season 1
  • Year 2 = season 2
  • Year 3 = season 3
  • Year 4 = season 4
  • Year 5 = season 5

And then suddenly, the coming episodes are being advertised as “season 6 part 1,” and then “season 6 part 2” after that.

This variation is just a quirk of labeling.

It typically has nothing to do with the actual content and “seasons” of the show.

We see this happen with:

  • The Sopranos
  • Entourage
  • Nip/Tuck
  • Rescue Me
  • Mad Men
  • Breaking Bad
  • Teen Wolf
  • The Walking Dead

For The Sopranos, their seasons matched their years, all the way up until the end – when suddenly they had “season 6 part 1” and “season 6 part 2.” That’s what the marketing team called them anyway. But really, content-wise, it was just season 6 and season 7.

With Entourage, their season 3 was supposedly broken up into “season 3 part 1” and “season 3 part 2.” But structurally, it was really just season 3 and season 4.

These distinctions are usually business decisions, not creative ones.

Mash-Up Season

With the “season jump” variation, we saw clear examples of shows blowing through two seasons worth of content, over the span of one year. And they did it sequentially. Year 4 of The O.C. first spent time on season 4 material, then moved on to season 5 material.

The “mash-up” is different. Instead of doing two seasons sequentially…

You’re doing two seasons simultaneously.

We see this in:

  • Veronica Mars
  • Alias
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

Veronica Mars:

At the beginning of their third year, we see elements of both season 3 and season 4. Veronica is working a new case, chasing down a serial rapist. That’s “power,” “sexual violence,” – exactly what you would expect in a season 3. But she’s also starting college. That’s “shake up,” “even trade of characters,” – exactly what you would expect in a season 4. It’s both seasons, at the same time. Structurally, you would expect one more year of high school playing out season 3 elements. But they’re jumping the gun and incorporating season 4 ideas as well. This is a classic “mash-up.”

When looking at different shows, you’re going to see all kinds of variations. And quite often, you’ll see more than one type of variation during a show’s run.

Veronica Mars had a crazy third year.

Year 3 started as a mash-up of seasons 3, and 4. Then it jumped fully into season 4 territory. Then briefly jumped to season 5, right at the end there. That’s 3 seasons, all in one year.

Alias had a couple of variations as well.

Over the course of the show they had…

  • A “jump” variation: Year 2 = season 2, then season 3.
  • A “mash-up” variation: Year 5 was simultaneously seasons 6 and 7.

Take a look at the new Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009).

It’s nuts. Once you think you’ve got a firm grasp on the seven seasons, go ahead and watch Battlestar Galactica‘s 4 year run and see if you can piece together just how many seasons they cover.

I’ll give you a hint: It’s all 7.

There are all kinds of combinations and permutations of the seven seasons and how they work across the years a show is on the air. It works best when each year corresponds to each season of a story. But some times, as a matter of necessity, variations are needed.



Season 5 (part 2) – Salvation

Season 5

Dramatic Structure:

Has 3 areas of concern:

Let’s take a look at that…

Positive

Season 5 expresses this positive theme through:

“Salvation”

This “salvation” usually comes in the form of:

  • Protection
  • Redemption

Protection

“Protection” is when one character is trying to save another. Give them salvation from harm.

We see this in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5. Buffy and her friends spend the season protecting Buffy’s little sister Dawn, from the inter-dimensional god Glory. Glory is stranded in this dimension, banished from her homeworld, and Dawn is the key to going home. However, to use Dawn as her ticket home, it requires a blood sacrifice (sacrifice, Animals!), that will kill Dawn and unleash the Apocalypse. The entire season is spent hiding Dawn, providing her salvation from this fate. “Protecting” her.

The Shield – season 5. Internal Affairs has got enough evidence on Lem to put him away, but they want the entire Strike Team, especially Mackey. They try to flip Lem but he’s not having it – he’s loyal to the end. Lem spends the season protecting the rest of the Strike Team from going to jail. For better or worse. He is actively providing salvation for his friends. Protecting them.

Redemption

This is a different type of “salvation.”

Our characters feel they need to make up for some great transgression, or flaw. They feel the need to redeem themselves. And once they do, they will finally reach some kind of salvation.

This plays a large role in season 5 of Dexter. At the top of season 5, Dexter blames himself for his wife Rita’s death. As he should, he wasn’t innocent in what happened to her at all. He struggles with his guilt. But when he meets Lumen, he feels he’s found a way to use his special set of skills in service of finding some kind of redemption.

We see something similar in season 5 of Supernatural. At the end of season 4, Lucifer was freed from his prison – the direct result of Sam breaking the last seal. Now freed, Lucifer is trying to bring about the Apocalypse and everyone is blaming Sam for making his escape possible. If Sam and Dean can stop the Apocalypse, if they can put Lucifer back in his box, Sam can redeem himself.

So when crafting your season 5, be sure to pay attention to this theme of salvation. You can explore it however you choose. But commonly you’ll see it expressed as protection, and redemption.



Season 4 (part 4) – Even Trade of Characters & Promotion

Season 4

Dramatic Pace

Has two traits:

  • Even Trade, for your roster of characters
  • Promotion

Even Trade

In season 2, our previous separation/negative/deviation season, we had a change in our roster of characters with “new blood.” That meant we were bringing in new people – explicitly adding to the story’s roster of characters.

For an “even trade” in characters, this means…

We’re gonna lose some, and gain some, in equal measure.

What does this look like? Let’s take a peek:

In season 4 of Friday Night Lights they traded show regulars:

  • Street
  • Lyla
  • Smash
  • Tyra

for

  • Vince
  • Luke
  • Becky
  • Jess

That’s 4 for 4. That’s a straight even trade.

Glee did the same thing. After season 3, most of the glee club graduated. And while we kept up with some of them, like Rachel, Kurt, and Santana – others fell by the wayside, only making the occasional appearance, like:

  • Mercedes
  • Quinn
  • Mike

With a lot of the group having graduated, the club needs new members. So in come:

  • Jake
  • Marley
  • Ryder
  • Kitty

Generally speaking, that’s an even trade. Out with the old and in with the new, as life goes on.

An even trade of this size works best on large ensemble shows. The smaller the cast, the smaller the trade.

Promotion

What this means, is a little difficult to pin down. But basically:

The quality of your show has to go up. The show has to get better.

You’re giving your story a “promotion” in the eyes of the audience. The show was good before, but now it’s really killin’ it.

Why? Why do we need to specifically make the show so much better than before? Well, it’s been 3 full seasons now. Most shows don’t last even that long.

If your show is going to go for a second era, then you’ve got to show your audience that there’s more story to tell. You’ve got to open up the story to bigger and better things. You’ve gotta show them that the best is yet to come.

Let’s take a look at a story that really nailed the promotion:

LOST.

For the first three seasons, LOST was doing fantastic things with the stranded-on-an-island idea. But to “promote” the story, they moved past the mysterious island angle and opened up the story to bigger and better things. We’re shown that in the future, some of the survivors get off the island. Things get weirder, more complex, as mystery upon mystery teases itself into the future. More intricate mythology, and deeper, wider reaching questions, about not just the island, but: Why these people? Why go back to the island?

This is what we mean when we say “promotion.”

They even took it one step further in promoting not just the story content of the show, but the format as well. Season 4 ditches the flashback format from the previous era, and instead utilizes the flashforward format in the new era. That’s a definite promotion. Good work, LOST.

A more subtle example would be something like Dexter.

Season 4 pushed the quality of the show to new heights. The first three seasons were quite good, but season four really hit its stride and arguably achieved the series’ high point: Rita’s death.

Now, we understand this “promotion” idea can be fairly subjective. Especially when one of its main components is:

“Hey, make it ‘better.'”

But keep in mind, the general idea of the promotion is to open the show up to greater possibilities. Breathe new life into the overall story by leaving behind what’s already been explored – search out new vistas. Specifically new, cooler, more interesting vistas. Season 4 should feel like the meaningful culmination of everything that’s come before.

It’s like reinventing the show in a way. By season 4, you need to communicate to your audience that not only is there more story to tell, but better story to tell.

But what if you don’t promote. What’s the harm? Well, then you’ve got what we call a:

Slump

If the quality of your show was solid all through seasons 1, 2, and 3. And then you stick to the same general level of quality in season 4, then you’ve “slumped.” The show can’t stay the same level of quality. Because even if they don’t consciously realize it, the audience unconsciously needs things to get significantly better after the first era’s over.

Promoting isn’t an option, it’s a necessity for the longevity of your story.

If season 4 doesn’t take the story to new heights, then it’s no longer building with forward momentum, it’s sliding backward into inferiority. The best days of the story will be behind you and your audience will feel it. They will lose interest and stop watching. They’ll be thinking:

“The show peaked, what’s the point?”

It makes sense right? The first chunk is over, and they want the next chunk to be that much cooler. They want it to be an improvement upon the foundation set by the first era. If it’s just more of the same, they’re going to lose interest.

A lot of shows have suffered a slump in their season 4, and then never really recovered from the lost momentum:

  • Nip/Tuck
  • Grey’s Anatomy
  • Rescue Me

They all had more seasons, sure. But the quality of the show never really recovered. Nobody really loved the show as much as they did previously.

They all coasted too much in season 4. These season 4’s weren’t necessarily worse than seasons 1, 2, or 3. But not explicitly better either. As a result, you’ve got no “promotion,” but a “slump” instead.

You can recover from a slump, but it’s an uphill battle.

Arguably The Sopranos did it. Season 4 was not great. It was too much of the same from the past 3 seasons. The circumstances weren’t very different, no real shake-up, nothing bigger, badder, more interesting, higher stakes. It was just continuing on from season 3, still playing out things that probably should have been wrapped up last season. As a consequence: it’s a slump.

Not a huge one. But a noticeable one.

Season 4 was arguably their weakest season, when it needed to be one of their strongest. But, season 5 got things moving again. It’s arguably one of their strongest. It picked the quality back up, and things worked out in the end.

What if your season 4 isn’t the same level of quality, but noticeably worse?

Oh boy…

What if you’ve “run out of ideas” and season 4 is worse than any part of the season 1, 2, 3 era? That’s a true slump that’s very difficult to recover from. A noticeably bad season 4 is a show breaker.

So when putting together your season 4, make sure to swap out an even number of characters for new ones. And go out of your way to up the quality of your show. Open it up to new ideas, grand new story threads, and a general sense of everything getting more meaningful and even better than ever before.



Season 2 (part 2) – Meaningful Death

Season 2

Dramatic Structure:

Time to address the:

Negative

Season 2 expresses this negative theme via:

“Meaningful Death”

Someone’s going to die. And it has to matter, in big and important ways.

Ideally, it will be a close friend or a family member of a major character. But you have a few other choices if you want to get more subtle. You could kill off a major enemy, or even kill off an important dream of one of your main characters. Get creative.

Friend

In Roswell season 2, we see the death of Alex. A close friend to our main players, and a regular cast member on the show. Killing Alex was a huge deal, for both the characters on the show and the audience. It was undoubtedly meaningful.

Family

In Rescue Me season 2, we see the death of Tommy’s young son Connor. In a world where firefighters are constantly in danger, where it is accepted as “just part of the job,” this death hit the hardest. So unexpected and tragic. It was the most meaningful death in Tommy Gavin’s life.

Enemy

In Dexter season 2, we see the death of Doakes. The man who always saw through Dexter’s facade and spent season 2 trying to catch him. He was a regular on the show, he’d been a major part of the story since day one, and he dies. Even in a show where people die in nearly every episode, you’ve got your meaningful death.

Stranger

The character who dies doesn’t always have to be someone we know well. It could be a stranger.

Maybe one of your main characters hits a stranger with their car and peels off. It’s a hit and run! Season 2 could then play out the ramifications of this event. We see this very thing happen in season 2 of the new 90210 – (2008-2013).

Or you could do something like what Friday Night Lights did.

Towards the end of season 1, Tyra got attacked by a guy in a parking lot. A few months later, in season 2, the attacker returns. But this time her buddy Landry comes to her aid and hits the stalker with a pipe, killing him. Instead of going to the cops, they freak out and dump the body off a bridge. Season 2 then sees them struggling to keep what they did a secret and hold themselves together, as they deal with the gravity of what they’ve done.

These are examples of a different way to exploit the meaningful death. The meaningful part is played out in the repercussions of the killing or the death.

Let’s keep digging.

What else could we do for a meaningful death?

Maybe you wanna go big and do what Prison Break did. In their season 2 we see a unique and extreme application of this meaningful death idea.

Throughout season 2, we see FBI Agent Mahone tracking down and killing many of the show’s supporting cast of characters. There isn’t just one meaningful death, there are a bunch, in the escalating chase to catch the escaped convicts Scofield and Burrows. The death is meaningful partly because characters we know are dying, but mostly because of how many are dying. The meaning is being underscored by the quantity of the death.

In choosing your meaningful death, you’ve got a lot of options to play with. But someone is going down. Ideally it’ll be someone very close to your main characters – to pack the most dramatic punch.

So when writing your season 2 you’ve gotta decide:

Who’s gonna die?