Whoa! Two weeks in a row. Haven’t managed that in a while...
One of my favorite television shows is winding up, and while I absolutely love it overall, I’ve been looking back on it with a bit more of a critical eye. Specifically one season where it felt like the show went off the rails.
No, it’s not important which show.
The thing is, it struck me that at one point the basic idea of the show changed, but the show itself didn’t. It kept telling the same kind of stories—stories that didn’t fit this new idea. And that’s where it fumbled. A similar show I was watching had the same problem—its stories didn’t fit its basic premise.
This isn’t an uncommon problem. I’ve seen it in books, too. Heck, as my editor just pointed out, I got my feet a bit wet in it with one of my recent drafts (which kind of sparked this).
So, let’s talk about ideas.
I’ve talked in the past about limited and unlimited concepts. I think about 99.99% of all stories fall into one of these categories. Which one I’m using should have an effect on how I structure my story.
A limited concept is one that comes with a clear, specific goal. Yakko wants to get home. Dot wants to get the girl. Wakko wants to save the farm. Phoebe wants to stop the bad guy. My character has an objective, the story is about them achieving it. A to B.
At its heart, this is probably the simplest kind of story, and one of the most common. A self-contained book is a limited concept. So are most movies. There may be more steps involved than just A to B, but really it boils down to discover goal, accomplish goal.
The flipside of this is an unlimited concept. This is where my characters have less of a goal and more of a general mission, if that makes sense. Wakko is trying to raise his kids as a single dad in the big city. Yakko solves complex medical cases. Dot and her team of specialists protect the country—and sometimes the world—from supernatural and alien threats.
An unlimited concept is a bit more complex because it’s a much broader idea. Most ongoing television shows (the thought-out ones, anyway) are unlimited concepts. So are most book series. The reason for this is because an unlimited concept, by its nature, can go on and on for a long time without feeling stretched out. They don’t have a clear end point.
Now, we’ve all seen what happens when these things get swapped. A writer may have a very solid limited concept that they decide—or are told—to do as an unlimited one. It doesn’t matter if you have a very solid three-season story about people trying to get off this weird island, the network says it needs to run for four seasons. Sorry, we meant five. Okay, make it six.
This is when things start to fall apart. The story starts to feel padded because we all recognize that it’s... well, padded. Forward movement has stopped, because forward movement would mean hitting the end of the story.
Everybody loves to talk about prequels, but every prequel inherently has to be a limited concept. A is where we begin, B is the story we already know. There’s only so much that happens between them. Every prequel automatically starts with a limited amount of time to tell a story in. As a writer, I can’t keep putting off B. Eventually we have to get there, because if we don’t, it’s going to become clear I’m putting off B for no reason except to put off B. This is a big problem a lot of prequels have.
Let me give you an example.
In case you forgot, Smallville was the story of high school student Clark Kent growing up in the titular town, developing the powers and learning the lessons that will eventually make him the greatest hero ever. The producers joked early on that when Clark learned to fly, the series would be over. After all, at that point he’d be Superman. We began with Clark already strong, fast, and invulnerable. Heat vision and X-ray vision showed up before season two was halfway done, then super-hearing (all usually just in time to counter a specific problem). And then...
Well, Smallville did really well in the ratings. So it kept getting renewed. The network and the producers didn’t want the show to end, so they had to keep coming up with reasons for Clark to not become Superman. Because Superman was point B. Once we’re there, the show’s over. So Clark developed every Kryptonian power there was and then spent eight more years not learning to fly and not being Superman. Heck, the last four seasons pretty much took place entirely in Metropolis. And while a good chunk of it was still interesting... a lot of it just felt like stretching things out.
The other issue with a limited concept is when the characters just start to ignore their goal. Like when the whole point of my story is to save the farm, but I’ve just spent six chapters on Wakko going to an art gallery opening and buying something by a hot new—wait a minute! He’s trying to save the farm but he’s dropping money on outsider art? What the hell?
Once I’ve set a goal for my character—and it should be a big one—this needs to be their focus. They can head in another direction for a little bit, but their attention really needs to stay on that end point of B. Veering too far off course and getting distracted will just have my readers rolling their eyes. I can’t say Dot only has until tomorrow to stop Armageddon and then have her take an afternoon at the spa and dinner out with the cute guy from marketing because, hey, life is short, right?
That fantastic show I mentioned up top—the one that’s ending—it had this problem. It started as an unlimited concept, a very procedural-type show. But halfway through season three, the show shifted (very beautifully and organically) into a limited concept. Thing is... it kept doing procedural, one off stories all through season four. There’s a bomb ticking away somewhere, ready to take out half the city, but our heroes keep stopping in their search to hand out speeding tickets and chase down drug dealers. It became teeth-grindingly frustrating as the protagonists continued to get bogged down in minor side stories while that huge B goal loomed over them.
Another problem I see a lot with limited concept stories is when people try to go past B. Because in an A to B story... B is the end. We’re done. Anything after this is just... well, excess. Trying to force the story on past B to C just becomes awkward. Once the crew of the Federation starship Voyager makes it home to the Alpha Quadrant, the show’s over. Sure, we could’ve had another season of everyone being debriefed, getting accustomed to life back on Earth, maybe getting assigned to new ships or new missions... but that’s not what Voyager was about.
A great example of this you may have heard of is the Moonlighting Curse, named after the old show with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd. The idea is, basically, once my two main characters sleep together, my show is doomed. And I think there is some truth to this... in certain cases.
Y’see, Timmy, a lot of television and book series will have a plot built around an unlimited concept (two zany, mismatched partners solve crimes). The story, however, is a limited concept about these two characters—will they fall in love, or at least fall into bed? And when that happens, when they’ve hit point B, their story is over. It doesn’t matter if the plot is unlimited—there’s nowhere else for the characters to go except past B, and that’s fumbly, unexplored, and usually uninteresting territory (when compared to that original A to B).
Whenever I get an idea, I try to take a good look at it. Is it limited or unlimited? What am I thinking of doing with it? Does my idea match up with the story I’m hoping to tell?
Because if it doesn’t... something’s going to need to change.
Next time, I’d like to alter the mood a bit and talk about rejection.
Until then... go write.