When coming up with an idea for a television series, and writing a pilot script, writers often make the mistake of approaching it like a feature. Meaning, they focus on a single main character, with a single problem and goal.
That’s not how television works.
I can understand why this happens, because feature films very rarely feature true “ensemble” storytelling (where there’s more than one “main character” and more than one “story” going on in a movie).
And virtually all of the books about screenwriting are about writing features.
Also, certain shows seem, on the surface, like they are very much centered on one person with one problem. Take Breaking Bad. It’s about a high school chemistry teacher who start cooking meth, and deals with the consequences. Or my current favorite, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s about a young woman who follows a former teenage boyfriend to his home town to try to get back with him, while pretending it’s a coincidence that she’s there.
Many shows seem like they’re focused on one main star/character at the center, and sometimes even put their name in the title. For example: House, M.D. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Roseanne. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The list goes on and on.
But if you really analyze all of these shows, they are each about an ensemble, where other characters besides the supposed “main” one also “get stories.” What I mean is that in a typical episode, more than one character has a clear problem and goal for that episode, which builds to a climactic resolution of some sort, by the end of it. And as I’ve written about before, this is even true of the most serialized shows — they are never just about one problem that goes on endlessly; they’re always about smaller problems that can feel like a complete story within an episode, which connect to larger overall problems that can never quite resolve.
If you break down virtually any episode of television, there are multiple stories within it, each of which has a different “main character.” Professional TV writers call them the “A Story,” “B Story,” “C Story,” etc. These stories are interwoven throughout the hour or half hour. All of them start with a catalyst event of some sort (sometimes one that happened in a previous episode), and chronicle their main character’s active attempts to resolve the situation, which tends to complicate, and defy resolution, all the way up to the final act, when it finally does get resolved. These situations tend to connect to some specific ongoing unmet need that their main character has.
Take NBC’s great new drama This is Us. It’s a more obvious example of an ensemble approach. You’ve got three adult triplets (one adopted), each of whom has something in their life that creates endless potential problems for them to deal with. In most episodes, each of the three gets a “story” about their attempts to deal with the latest crisis related to this central life issue. Simply put, Kate has struggled with weight (and self-esteem issues) her whole life. Kevin is an unfulfilled sitcom actor leading a shallow existence, and unsure if he can be a real actor, or have a real life. And Randall, who is African-American, has never fully recovered from being the different one, whose father abandoned him at a fire station when he was a newborn. Finally, their parents get stories set in the past, when the kids were young — mostly related to the challenges of parenting triplets and keeping their marriage working.
Virtually all the stories on this show stem from these specific ongoing issues, which create a variety of different shorter-term challenges for their characters, from episode to episode.
I think it’s obvious when watching this show that there isn’t a “main character.” It’s about an ensemble of people. Each of whom operate within a web of conflict with the other characters. It’s not about a person with a problem. It’s about a group of people with ongoing problems.
And that’s what all series are. They aren’t primarily one long story. They are a vessel for an unlimited number of smaller stories, for a variety of different characters, all of whom are connected, and in a situation that will generate new problems and conflicts for them endlessly. In a typical episode, they will tend to resolve one smaller level problem that has emerged that week, taking them back to their normal status quo, but next week they will have a new one. And these smaller problems (or opportunities) tend to connect to that one thing in their lives that can never fully be resolved, which is the heart of the series.
It’s easy to see that on a show like This is Us. But this is true of virtually every drama or comedy series. The only partial exception would be hard-edged procedural shows like The X-Files or Law & Order, which only have a single “case story” that carries the whole episode. Such shows don’t give their characters personal stories at all. They can get by with only having one or two characters who we follow, as they try to solve the case of the week. But these are very rare. Even procedurals more typically have a large “team” solving the cases, and B and C personal stories to augment the cases.
My main point is that when you’re coming up with an idea for a series, don’t think “main character.” Think “ensemble.” You’re looking for a group of interconnected people in an overall problematic situation that will never really resolve. You need at least 4-5 such people in a half-hour comedy, and typically more than 6 in a one-hour series (and sometimes as many as 20, if you consider a show like Downton Abbey). Probably most episodes (including your pilot) will have two or more stories in them (sometimes many more), each with a different main character.
You need a lot of characters and a lot of potential stories, for a series idea to feel like it has enough going on in it to last. The people need to have a reason to constantly be interacting with each other, and they need inherent unsolvable conflicts with each other, and/or the world at large, which will make them compelling characters for the long term.
At least that’s what I’ve come to believe. Let me know if you can think of a really successful show that seems to not follow these guidelines. I’ll respond with my take on it.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.