Sunday, February 22, 2015

Your storylines shouldn't be too much alike.

Last week I wrote about how storylines shouldn't be too different from each other in an episode. If they're thematically and tonally too different, your script will suffer from it and there won't be much harmony in your screenplay.

At the same time, it's also possible to make your storylines too similar. If your storylines are too much alike, your script won't work either. This might happen when you think about 'harmony' a bit too much and go too far with the similarity aspect.

As usual, I'm using the award winning series Modern Family to illustrate how things might go wrong with your script. This particular example comes from the episode 6x13 'Rash Decisions', that aired two weeks ago. In this case the storylines are just too much alike.

The episode in question had four storylines. The problem here is that if you pay any attention to them, there are only two original story ideas. The remaining storylines the writers pretty much got from duplicating the first two. 

In any case, the first 'similar' storyline one was about Stella. In this one Gloria suspected that their son Joe was allergic to the presence of their French bulldog. This lead to Jay having to give up on her for a week to see what happens. Mitch and Cam would take care of Stella.

The second storyline was about Andy being prepared by Phil so that he could become a real estate agent. Phil was testing him and asking questions about different aspects of the profession. Andy was afraid that he wasn't ready.

The third storyline was about Mitchell doing some pro-bono for a week. Instead of working at his law firm, he was helping his father Jay. There were some legal issues that needed to be sorted out. Basically Mitchell wanted to see what went on at Jay's firm.

The last storyline was about Alex preparing herself for a college interview. She was nervous about getting it right and not screwing up. Haley was teasing her and making her feel even more insecure about the upcoming meeting.

As you might hopefully be able to see, there's basically no difference between Andy's and Alex's storylines. They're pretty much identical. The only difference is that we had different characters playing those roles. Thematically there was no difference. This was not good.

As I kept re-watching the episode, I noticed that not only were the first two storylines duplicates, in reality so were the other two. Stella went from Jay's world to Mitchell's, Mitchell went to Jay's world - and there was no real link - causality - between these storylines.

The end result of having an obviously duplicated storyline combined with another so called 'harmonious' pairing made the episode as a whole feel manufactured. There was no way that these storylines would 'naturally co-exist' in real life.

Alex prepping for an interview vs. Andy prepping for a big moment. Mitchell one week at Jay's place to see what happens vs. Stella from Jay's place to Mitchell's for one week in order to see what happens. These storylines were just way, way too much alike.

Not surprisingly it made me have rather negative feelings towards the writers of this episode. Did they think that this was good screenwriting? Perhaps they specifically thought that this is how one writes an elegant episode. Unfortunately, that's not how it goes.

In the end, what we should learn from this all is that you shouldn't try to write storylines that are too much alike. When you can't really tell the difference between the story ideas, the script as a whole is going to suffer as a result.  

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