Series = Ensemble

Feb 26, 2017 by

Series = Ensemble

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.

     
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.

9 Comments

  1. mark martel

    What’s the dividing line?A short miniseries with a handful of episodes can be more in the movie camp. The BBC’s Wallender and Worricker are procedurals with 270 minutes across 3 or 4 episodes per series/season. Sherlock in the same running time used its cast more, but a small ensemble of 3 or 4. The Cumberbatch series Parade’s End at 300 minutes/5 episodes goes more ensemble.

    • The lines are definitely blurring between series, limited series, miniseries, and “four hour movie shown in two parts.” I think the ideas in this post pretty much apply to all of them — to anything more than a single movie. For any multi-episode series, you’re probably not going to have a single main character who gets all the stories (and a small ensemble), unless it’s a hard-edged procedural focused on a “case of the week,” like SHERLOCK.

  2. Rob

    Great breakdown, Erik — lots to think about.

  3. John Timm

    Interesting topic. Immediately my mind went to sitcoms like Big Bang, Hot in Cleveland, Frasier, and going back many years, Golden Girls. Always a major issue for one of the characters, with side issues for the others.

  4. Frank Davis

    Eric. you’re right. I can’t think of even one successful television series that isn’t an ensemble story set. Perhaps, you could consider X-Files a non-ensemble TV series, but it is still a team effort. A few older private eye procedurals might be close to one character shows , but most modern procedurals use the ensemble multi-story formula. And you’re right about movies. Most tend to be single story or two parallel stories, but there are a few noteworthy ensemble movies including: Nashville, The Big Chill, and many war, sci-fi, sports team and gangster stories.

  5. Rich

    Would you consider Master of None an exception? Aziz Ansari’s character is in almost every scene, and it seems his supporting cast’s biggest job is to give him advice and offer their own perspective on his current life situation. I think that means it’s more about commentary and reflection than it is deeply exploring his ensemble.

    • I think you’re right that it’s an exception. They just seem to do a single story each episode, with Dev as the main character, at least in the two that I’ve seen. I think CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM does the same, though I think the latter show seems to have much bigger and more compelling complications, which helps it to move with a lot of energy. I would also say that both of these shows were developed by big name comedians as starring vehicles for themselves (not unlike LOUIE), which is a different situation from writers trying to break in with a pilot written on spec.

  6. Jaquie

    Another great post! Thank you Erik – very timely! Almost as if it were written for me!

  7. Steven

    Detective shows (Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple) are in theory about the detective. But in the television versions, they almost always focus on the interaction of the detective with a sidekick or a cadre of fellow police officers.

    An extreme example would be the Irish policier Single-Handed, in which (as the title suggests) the idealism of the main officer is opposed by everyone he encounters, including his parents and his deputy. But as the 4 episodes of the show evolve, the protagonist discovers that his “make no compromises” approach will not hold. He has to trust someone in order to protect the innocent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *