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 3 (part 5) – Synthesis/Thesis & End of 1st Era

Season 3

Time to talk about season 3’s…

Dramatic Evolution

Here we’re not just finishing up season 3 – we’re finishing up the entire first era of your show.

The “Dramatic Evolution” of season 3 has two elements:

  • Synthesis/Thesis
  • End of First Era

Synthesis/Thesis

First, this refers to the fact that season 3 synthesizes the dramatic evolution themes of seasons 1 and 2.

In our “Spider-Man” show we had…

The “thesis” statement for season 1:

“With great power, comes great responsibility.”

We flipped this idea in season 2:

“With great power, comes great freedom.”

And now in season 3, we need to smash these two ideas together and transcend them, to create a third idea.

This is where dramatic evolution truly gets its name. This third idea needs to both combine, and evolve, the two ideas.

For season 3, let’s say:

“With great power, comes great honor.”

To understand how honor is the synthesis of responsibility and freedom, we first have to define honor. Having honor – is dedication (like responsibility), but done willingly and by choice (like freedom), for a greater purpose.

This idea, that the responsibility and freedom combine into a more refined idea of freely-chosen-dedication, is how this “synthesis” theme not only combines the previous ideas, but adds to and evolves from them.

There’s a natural progression at play here, an evolution from one idea to the next, to the next.

Another way to say it would be:

  • “It’s a burden to be Spider-Man.”
  • “It’s a blessing to be Spider-Man.”
  • “It’s an honor to be Spider-Man.”

Then, this new idea:

“With great power, comes great honor” serves not only as the dramatic evolution “synthesis” for the first era. It is also, simultaneously, the “thesis” for the next era.

So when we get to the dramatic evolution “antithesis” of season 4, it will be a reaction to this season 3 “thesis.” As we’ll see when we look at season 4.

End of First Era

In discussing season 3’s dramatic pace, we discussed the “point of no return.” This “point of no return” is the way in which you tell your audience that the era is ending.

But this idea that season 3 is the “end of your first era” isn’t just about how you narratively end the season. It’s about how you treat the entire run of the season.

This is the last season with these particular circumstances.

So tell all the stories you want to tell that belong in this “first era,” because their days are almost over.

Let’s look at Prison Break:

The first era was all about prison. Fox River in season 1, fugitives on the run from prison in season 2, then back in the chaotic Sona prison for season 3. At the end of season 3, the prison circumstances have run their course. It’s time to move on.

In the second era, the show shifts from the prison theme, to the conspiracy theme we see for the rest of the story.

So when looking at your dramatic evolution for season 3, be sure to synthesize seasons 1 and 2 into something that combines and transcends them both – but also make sure to close out the circumstances of the era, because after this season – it’s all new!



Season 2 (part 5) – Antithesis & 1st Era Continued

Season 2

Season 2’s “Dramatic Evolution” has two main elements:

  • Antithesis
  • First Era Continued

Antithesis

Season 2 is an “antithesis” of season 1’s thesis. This antithesis is felt primarily through the expression of the core concept, and the different contradictions employed throughout the season.

In season 2’s dramatic structure, we already saw that you should be contradicting what you established in season 1. If you’re doing this, then your season 2 will already feel a lot like an “antithesis” of season 1. But let’s take it a step further.

It’s important to also have a statement. A theme in season 2, that is the “antithesis” of your statement for season 1.

Let’s go back to our Spider-Man example:

Our core concept was “power,” and we’d crafted a thesis statement for season 1:

Season 1 thesis statement:

“With great power, comes great responsibility.”

In season 2, the antithesis could be:

“With great power, comes great freedom.”

As we explore this theme in season 2, we demonstrate how freedom comes from having no responsibility. In a way, that’s what freedom is – the antithesis of responsibility.

  • Season 1: With great power, comes great responsibility.
  • Season 2: With great power, comes no responsibility.

That’s a solid antithesis.

So, in season 2 you want your storytelling to lean into that “antithesis” statement. But make it dynamic. The season 2 statement isn’t actually “with great power comes no responsibility.” It’s “with great power comes great freedom.” This is a statement grounded in the fact that it’s an antithesis of season 1’s statement, but it is not wholly defined by it. Explore what this theme has to offer. Dig deep.

First Era Continued

Season 2 is the middle of your “first era.” Therefore, it’s got to continue along that season 1, 2, 3 era. That chunk.

This is usually done by maintaining the first era’s circumstances.

Let’s continue our examination of Prison Break:

  • In season 1, they were in prison.
  • In season 2, they’re out of prison.

And actively, trying very hard to stay out.

As we said previously, the season 1, 2, 3 era is all about prison.

And even though they spend most of season 2 out of prison, the season still revolves around the idea. The circumstance. They are fugitives on the run from the law, the threat of incarceration constantly hanging over their heads. This preserves the first era’s general circumstantial concern: prison.

So, in season 2, you want to do what you can to lean into its “antithesis” statement, while still making the season feel like a cohesive part of the season 1, 2, 3 – first era.



Season 2 (part 3) – Contradiction

Season 2

Dramatic Structure:

Time to talk about:

Deviation

Season 2 expresses this deviation theme via:

“Contradiction”

Season 2 contradicts what you did in season 1.

Everything you did in season 1, if it can be contradicted, do it. Friends are enemies. Lovers are broken up. Mainstay locations are rarely visited, if at all, etc.

The two most common ways you see this “contradiction” idea employed are:

  • Role Reversals
  • Authority Figures

Role Reversals

In season 1, we established roles for our roster of characters.
In season 2, we want to take those roles, and flip ’em.

  • The best friend becomes a rival.
  • The rival becomes a friend.
  • The teacher becomes a student, etc.

If your roster of characters wasn’t that strongly defined, then you could take a more subtle approach:

In season 2:

  • The smart guy is pretty dumb.
  • The meek guy shows a lot of courage.
  • The tough guy shows his sensitive side, etc.

Let’s look at some concrete examples:

As we discussed with “stress tests” – early in season 2 of Nip/Tuck, Sean discovers his son Matt is not his biological son. This gave us a great stress test. But it also gives us a role reversal.

As Sean goes into a grief spiral, he starts acting more like Christian usually does: irresponsible, self-destructive, he’s drinking more, and having sex with Kimber – Christian’s ex-girlfriend. The responsible, conservative, Sean, has become the self-destructive loose-cannon. This also causes Christian, to behave more like Sean typically would. With Sean going into a tailspin, Christian’s holding things together at the office, being the responsible one, the stable one. A complete contraction to the Christian of season 1.

These two guys, these polar opposites, switch places. They reverse roles.

We see something similar on The O.C.

In season 1 of The O.C. we see Ryan constantly getting into trouble. Wrapped up in drama with Marissa, struggling in school, punching people when he thinks he needs to. Seth, on the other hand spends season 1 being the nice kid. Doing well in school, not drinking, always in before curfew.

But when season 2 hits, both of these guys pull a switch.

Ryan is specifically focusing on school and staying out of trouble. He’s staying away from Marissa and her drama, and he’s dating a nice girl Lindsay. While Seth is staying out late, dating the bad-girl Alex, coming home drunk, and constantly getting grounded.

Their roles in season 2, are a contradiction of their roles in season 1. But they didn’t just reverse roles with their former selves, they also reversed roles with each other.

Nip/Tuck and The O.C. would seem to have very little in common, but in this regard – they’re exactly the same.

Authority Figures

In season 2, you commonly see this contradiction theme expressed in the context of authority figures.

A character who didn’t have authority before, becomes an authority figure now. Or an established authority figure loses that authority in season 2.

In season 1 of Roswell, Sheriff Valenti is seen as an enemy, trying to expose and catch our main character aliens.

In season 2, he’s embraced as a trusted friend and ally. He even goes so far as to lose his badge protecting them and their secret.

In season 1, he was the Bad-Guy sheriff authority figure out to get them. In season 2, he’s the the Good-Guy sheriff who loses his authority in his quest to help them.

In Prison Break season 1, Warden Pope is a constant presence, ruling over the prison. In season 2, the inmates escape, leaving the warden and his authority behind them.

While other supporting characters continued to appear on the show, the Warden and his authority appear only once in the very beginning of season 2 and then he’s gone from the narrative all together. His authority was all over season 1, and then very very absent in season 2.

When applying this contradiction concept to your story, you can reverse established roles, reverse your authority figures, or find any other way to contradict what’s come before.

Just make sure you do some contradictin’!