Season 5 (part 4) – Impossible Decision & Point of No Return: Emotionally

Season 5

Dramatic Pace

Has two traits:

  • Impossible Decision
  • Point of No Return; Emotionally

Impossible Decision

Your characters face a decision that just seems straight up impossible.

Usually it looks like this: Your characters are faced with two equally terrible choices, and are forced to pick one.

That’s the most common expression of this “impossible decision” idea.

In some rare cases, you’ll present your characters with two terrible choices, and they’ll engineer a third choice out of thin air. This works, when the third choice is just as terrible as the two being decided upon. It’s not as great, when the third choice is some kind of cop-out where the problem’s solved and everyone lives happily ever after. That undermines the stakes. And creatively, it’s a terrible idea.

The decision you’re presenting to your characters is impossible, because no matter what they choose, they can’t live with that decision.

Usually, you’ll place the impossible decision at the very end of season 5. But you don’t have to.

Examples!

At the very end of season 5 of The Sopranos, we see one hell of an “impossible decision.”

Back in the day, Tony Soprano grew up with his cousin Tony Blundetto aka “Tony B.” They were close. In the eighties though, Tony B went to jail – for 17 years. Now, here in season 5, he’s finally out. He tries to go straight, but falls back into crime, and kills the wrong guys in a New York power struggle. Johnny Sack, from New York, demands that Tony Soprano hand over his cousin. Specifically to be tortured and killed for what he’s done.

Tony’s got an “impossible decision” to make. If he doesn’t hand him over, he’s at war with New York. If he does hand him over, he’s sending his beloved cousin to be tortured to death. It’s a pickle. But Tony’s a smart guy, he comes up with a third option. His solution is to track down Tony B himself, and give him a quick, non-tortured, death. He then tells Johnny Sack where to find the body.

Tony B dies, but at least it wasn’t horrifically painful. And though they’re unhappy, Tony’s avoided going to war with New York.

A solid resolution to an excellent “impossible decision.”

Let’s look at a different example:

Season 5 of LOST.

We’ve learned by season 5, that there was an “incident” on the island that the DHARMA Initiative dealt with by building the hatch and instating the numbers and button-pushing protocol.

Now stuck back in the 1970s, Daniel Faraday theorizes that if they detonate Charles Widmore’s H bomb, in the right place, they can stop “the incident” before it ever happens. They can nullify the electromagnetic pocket completely. Meaning the hatch, the button pushing – it doesn’t have to happen. Desmond doesn’t fail to push it one day, and Oceanic 815 never crashes. Our characters never end up on the island.

The impossible decision becomes: should they do it?

Do they purposely detonate a hydrogen bomb? Doing so could alter the timeline and prevent all the death and tragedy they’ve suffered since the crash. They could completely undo the history of all the events up until this point. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? It could do absolutely nothing to the timeline and just explode in their faces and kill them all.

It’s a tough call. After a lot of debate, and back and forth, Juliet sets off that bomb.

In this case, there were two choices, and one was chosen.

Point of No Return – Emotionally

Close out the era, in an emotionally impactful way.

In season 3, we had a “point of no return” that emphasized circumstance. This time, we want a “point of no return” that emphasizes emotion.

We see this in season 5 of Rescue Me. At the end of season 5, Tommy encourages everybody to fall off the wagon and get back into booze. This results in a fatal car crash for Teddy’s wife. Teddy blames Tommy for her death.

For Tommy, this is a big “point of no return; emotionally.” He’s indirectly caused his Aunt’s death. And his beloved Uncle just put a bullet in him for it.

Moving forward, things are never going to be the same, emotionally.

Grey’s Anatomy season 5:

At the end of season 5, George gets hit by a bus. The doctors desperately try to save him, but his injuries are too great and he dies.

This is a big “point of no return; emotionally.” One of their own, a fellow resident they’ve been working along side this entire time, a dear friend, has died. Things will never be the same for any of them.

So when tackling your season 5, be sure to deal with your dramatic pace by creating a compelling impossible decision, and a point of no return that focuses on emotional effects.



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 4 (part 3) – Shake Up

Season 4

Dramatic Structure:

Has 3 areas of concern:

Time for that…

Deviation

Season 4 deals with its deviation theme via:

“Shake Up”

How can one shake things up?

Two main ways:

  • Changing the Circumstances
  • Upping the Ante

Changing the Circumstances

It’s exactly what it sounds like.

The first era, seasons 1, 2, and 3, had a shared circumstance. In season 4, you need to change that circumstance – shake it up.

This is what we see on The O.C.

Season 4 sees our main characters having graduated from high school, and now living their post-high-school-lives. Summer’s across the country at college. Seth is waiting to hear from RISD for his late admission. And Ryan’s working and living in a bar, knee-deep in a depressive spiral. Season 4 also plays out how everyone is dealing with Marissa’s death, which occurred at the end of season 3. This isn’t just the new “post-high-school” circumstance, it’s the new “post-Marissa” circumstance.

There’s a bunch of ways to shake things up. Let’s look at a seemingly similar, but very different, way to do it:

The Vampire Diaries is essentially a high school show. But they didn’t want to leave the high school setting behind quite yet, so they changed the circumstance in a different way. In season 4, our main character Elena becomes a vampire. She spent the first three seasons as a human. She also spent the first three seasons romantically involved with Stefan. Come season 4 – she’s no longer human, and her romance with Damon is in full swing. Leaving high school seems like an obvious choice to shake things up, but by digging a little deeper, The Vampire Diaries was able to significantly shake things up, while still keeping their practical setting.

Upping the Ante

By this, we mean to make the stakes of the story that much more dire, that much bigger, that much harder and more intense. From a character point of view, they’ve gotta invest more, they’ve gotta have more to lose.

This means different things for different stories.

In Grey’s Anatomy season 4, our characters went from being surgical interns, to full-blown residents – in charge of their own interns. They moved up a level, and now things are that much harder and challenging.

When a story is based around careers, it’s very straight forward to up the ante in this way. But what about a different kind of story?

Supernatural season 4 ups the ante by introducing angels to the story. For the first era, it was humans fighting demons and monsters. By introducing angels to the story you have greatly expanded the mythos – significantly upping the ante. Especially considering that these angels have tasked the Winchesters with preventing the escape of the devil himself. This is huge for a couple of monster hunters. The stakes just jumped up a couple of levels as they go from two brothers hunting down urban legends, to straight up super heroes trying to save the world.

However you do it, whichever way is best for your story – you have to shake things up. This is usually done by changing the circumstances and upping the ante.



Season 2 (part 4) – New Blood & Dragonslay

Season 2

Dramatic Pace

It has two traits:

  • New Blood
  • Dragonslay

New Blood

“New blood” refers to your roster of characters.

In season 2, you want to introduce new characters.

Add some new blood.

Usually, you’ll see these characters acting as agents of the different season 2 themes. Characters are brought into the story to supply a stress test, or a meaningful death, or any other form of contradiction.

Say there’s a death in the family – maybe an authority figure. Say a main character’s father. Upon his death, Uncle So-and-So comes to town and plans on sticking around. Here you have one character satisfying several different needs for season 2.

Or maybe two of your main characters break up at the end of season 1, and in season 2 they both have new love interests. These new love interests, would typically be your “new blood.”

Let’s look at some examples:

In LOST season 2, we finally get that hatch open and find Desmond inside. He’s some definite new blood, that will be sticking around for the rest of the story. We also meet the “Tailies” – specifically Ana Lucia, Libby, Bernard, and Mr. Eko. Not to mention the mysterious “Henry Gale” aka Ben Linus, who’s pretty much the leader of “The Others.” All new blood – some sticking around longer than others.

LOST has a lot of characters already, but in season 2 they add a half dozen new ones. That’s a lot of new blood.

In season 2 of Grey’s Anatomy we see the addition of Addison – Derek’s wife, Derek’s best friend Mark “McSteamy” Sloan – the guy Addison cheated with, and towards the end of season 2, we see the addition of Callie Torres, a love interest for George. All significant characters that remain on the show for many years to come.

New Blood. Add new characters in season 2. You get the idea.

Dragonslay

What’s a “dragon?”

Anything that wasn’t resolved in season 1, and specifically wasn’t contradicted in season 2.

It just stayed the same, playing itself out throughout seasons 1 and 2. That’s a dragon. And it should be slayed, and resolved, by the end of season 2.

Why call it a “dragon?” It’s the beast that’s remained. The beast that keeps growing and thriving until your kill it.

What does this look like in practice?

A Bad Guy your main characters have been fighting since season 1. Maybe you didn’t take him out in season 1. He’s still here in season 2. He’s a dragon. And you better slay him by the end of season 2, or you’re dragging it out too long.

“Dramatic pace” is all about the pace of your story. If something has persisted through season 1 and season 2 and hasn’t really changed, then it’s time to finish it.

How about a different example of a dragon:

You could have a couple who’re engaged in season 1. In season 2 you didn’t contradict it, they are still engaged. By the end of season 2, you should hit that wedding. Or the end of the engagement. If you don’t, you’re dragging that piece of story out too long.

How about some real examples:

In Supernatural, your dragon is the all-powerful demon “Yellow-Eyes” aka “Azazel.” He’s been the big Bad-Guy the Winchester’s have been chasing since day one. And in the season 2 finale, Dean puts a magic bullet in his chest, killing him for good.

Not too long, not too short – that’s a solid pace.

In Alias season 2, we see SD-6 finally get raided and shut down by the real CIA. SD-6 was the dragon, and in season 2 we see it slayed.

So whatever dragons you have lingering around in season 2 – slay ’em.