Lessons in Storytelling from TV & Film: Plot and Story #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

atb tv plot

Welcome to the third part of my series on storytelling, TV & film, part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop hosted by Raimey Gallant. The hop is a monthly event where authors share resources and lessons they’ve learned about writing. To browse other posts in the hop, click here:

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Last time I wrote about characters, and before that what we can learn from first episodes of TV shows to create awesome first chapters. These are fun posts to write, and not just because I get to binge watch shows on Netflix!

In this post I’ll discuss what TV can teach us about plot and storytelling.

A good, compelling plot, free from plot holes, is important* to keep readers engaged and interested. I struggled to find examples of excellent plots, probably because I usually focus on characters, so I’ve mostly used examples of what not to do!

*I refuse to say essential, because I sometimes overlook weakness in plot if I love the characters. I’m sure I’m not the only one!

My victims (shows & films):

Tv shows for author toolbox plot post

Sherlock, Annie (2014), The Punisher, Luke Cage, The Flash, Once Upon a Time and Merlin.

Warning: Spoiler Alert!

So what makes a great plot?

Sherlock: Good pacing and tension.

Sherlock mixes fast paced action and quieter scenes to move the plot along. John Watson’s life is dull until he meets Sherlock and ends up at a crime scene with him, where Sherlock is a flurry of brilliance. The pacing slows after that when John is left behind and kidnapped by Sherlock’s ‘arch-enemy,’ who wants to convince him to spy on Sherlock. After that there’s an awkward conversation at dinner followed by a mad chase through London.

The point is there are action scenes mixed with slower scenes. This allows the audience time to process the fast paced scenes, and a balanced plot will make your story more entertaining.

Logical scene transitions can help with pacing, and bad transitions can interrupt the story. If you plan to change location, mention the new location in the previous scene. To maintain tension, ask questions the audience want answered. In Sherlock’s case: Will he solve the murder? These questions keep our audience engaged and make our stories compelling.

Annie (2014): Avoid Plot Holes.

One of my favourite films growing up was Annie, so when I saw a remake on Netflix I had to watch it. Whilst it had an excellent cast it suffered from a few plot holes.

When the film begins Annie is reading a letter to the other orphans, but later in the film, at a party with her foster father, she bursts into tears when he asks her to read out a message because she apparently can’t read. This plot hole took some of the enjoyment out of the film.

Maintain consistency and continuity throughout your stories to make them believable and provide an immersive experience for the audience.

Make sure you don’t have any glaring plot holes. Beta readers can help bring issues to your attention that you may be too close to your project to notice yourself.

The Punisher: Raise the stakes with surprises and twists to avoid a predictable plot.

The Punisher episode 7 made me believe Frank was going to kill the final person involved in the murder of his family and achieve his goals. Then, at the end of the episode, he failed. His target was protected by bulletproof glass. Frank had to flee, and he had to start over knowing the enemy would be on alert. It was a blow to the mission that raised the stakes.

The Punisher Bulletproof glass saves Agent Orange.png

Make the reader think your characters have won, then pull the rug out from under them. Let your heroes fail. Keep raising the stakes until you reach the finale.

Just be warned, it’s possible to overdo it. Once Upon a Time teased Killian and Emma’s happy ending for seasons and kept adding new obstacles. When your audience starts to roll their eyes and think ‘Not this again,’ it’s time to stop! When in doubt, get a second opinion.

Luke Cage: Don’t lose the plot at the midway point.

I was enjoying Luke Cage. I liked Cottonmouth as a villain and Luke as a reluctant hero. Then, at the midway point, Cottonmouth’s cousin brutally bludgeoned him to death, and a new villain emerged who’d only been mentioned a few times as a truly terrifying guy.

We’re supposed to believe this new villain is Luke’s childhood friend and brother, only there was no mention of him in that context before he showed up. He came out of nowhere. Not only that, but he was just a gun toting villain with a grudge, a let down after Cottonmouth’s clever villain with an emotional back-story. It was such a jarring experience that I never finished the series.

Don’t let the plot fall apart mid way through your story. Make sure your plot has depth and the problems your character faces are clear. If you introduce a secondary villain they should be more villainous than the first to raise the stakes and carry the story forward. If not, your readers may feel the story already reached its climax and give up.

The Flash: Don’t make your plot too complex.

The Flash Season 3 delved into the complicated realm of time travel. The villain, Savitar, turned out to be a remnant* of a future version of Barry Allen (The Flash) who’d become evil after being created in the fight to stop Savitar. Honestly it’s so complicated I’m giving myself a headache just thinking about it again. The events followed no logical path. It was a time loop with no starting point for the chain of events. I loved the idea of Savitar, but I hated the execution.

*Those with super speed can create duplicates of themselves if they run fast enough.

s03e20_The Flash faces Savitar

Don’t make your plot too complicated. If you do have a complex chain of events make sure you explain it well enough so your readers can understand what’s happening.

Once Upon a Time: Beware having too many sub-plots.

Once Upon a Time, especially season one, contains lots of sub-plots. The story dragged in places, because some episodes didn’t feel relevant to the plot, and there was a lot of focus on the back-story of minor characters. Some of those characters only appeared once or twice, and I feel like the amount of episodes could have been easily cut.

It’s nice to see back-story, but too many sub-plots can overwhelm your reader or slow your story down. You don’t need to show the origins of every character: Focus on the main ones who impact the plot, and only add characters/scenes if they have a purpose. Beware shallow, meaningless events, and write compelling, memorable scenes that move the plot forward.

Merlin (BBC): Have a satisfying conclusion.

The main point of BBC’s Merlin was that Merlin had to keep his magic secret from Arthur. At the beginning this was a great plot point, but as Merlin and Arthur grew closer and Arthur became king I kept waiting for the magic reveal. It never happened, at least not until Arthur was dying.

merlin reveals magic to arthur

I, like many fans, felt cheated.* I expected Arthur to die (He dies at Camlann in the legends) but it would have been great if he’d found out about Merlin’s magic earlier and we had a season where he gradually accepted it. It was one of the most unsatisfying endings I’ve experienced.**

*As evidenced by the sheer amount of ‘magic revealed,’ fanfiction where Arthur finds out earlier!
**It’s why I’m writing my own Arthurian Legend story!

I’m not saying don’t kill your main character at the end, but at least make the ending satisfying. Don’t rush to resolve all your plot points in the final pages, some can be tied off earlier, and don’t forget to conclude all your sub-plots. Give your stories and characters the send off they deserve. Epilogues can be a useful tool for this, although personally I’m not a fan!

So what have we learned about plot?

  • Writers should do everything in their power to avoid plot issues before publication, especially plot holes and continuity issues.

  • Stories should be well paced and include tension to keep the plot moving forward.

  • Surprises and twists are great ways to avoid a predictable plot.

  • Don’t focus so much on the beginning and end that you end up with a weak middle. Continue to raise the stakes throughout your story.

  • If you have complicated plot issues, explain them. It’s good to have a plot with depth, but not when you confuse your readers.

  • Don’t have too many sub-plots. Each scene, character and plot point should relate to the main plot. The recommended amount of sub-plots varies depending on genre.

  • Write a satisfactory conclusion. Your readers have invested time on these characters, so the ending should tie the story off nicely.

Use beta readers to give your story a test run. They’ll tell you if they think you have too many sub-plots, and may spot plot holes that would have made them, and others, DNF your book. You can then make changes before publication!

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Thanks for reading!

What’s the most devastating plot hole you’ve found in books or TV shows? Has a poor plot ever discouraged you from finishing a story? Can you recommend me anything with a superb plot? Let me know in the comments!

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36 comments

  1. “bad transitions can interrupt the story” so many examples of this. I hate when writers don’t take the time to establish a new location or a break in the timeline.

    And I couldn’t agree more about too many bubplots in Once Upon a Time. There were so many episodes where I was left to wonder why we needed an entire episode devoted to the backstory of a character who would just end up hanging out at Grannies.

    great post

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bad scene transitions are a pet peeve of mine. They interrupt the story for me, because I have to stop and think just how we got to this random new location!

      Exactly: Once Upon a Time really dragged for me because there were so many different subplots. My fiancee watched the first few episodes of season one and then skipped to the last two episodes because he got bored!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Plot holes and inconsistencies can really damage a story.

    I only saw season one for Once Upon a Time when it aired so I don’t remember too much about it, but I did enjoy the episodes about minor characters that brought in other fairytale stores. I think that’s probably what they were doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly: Plot holes can be so off-putting, especially when they’re big ones!

      That sounds right, I think Once Upon a Time wanted to use every fairytale character they could think of! It was just irritating because there’d be an episode with a cliffhanger, then the next episode would be about entirely different characters. I’m glad I’m binge watching on Netflix so I don’t have to wait a week between episodes 🙂

      Like

  3. I’ve been enjoying this series! Especially the shows you reference. I’m totally with you, once the plot starts getting ridiculously twisty it’s over for me. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader/viewer, but the more I have to keep track of the less patience I have for it! Especially in book series, when the author continues to introduce new complications/villains/locations/subplots in a naked attempt to keep the books going, I just start thinking “oh, come ON!” and stop reading. It’s a pet peeve of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 😀
      I did wonder if I were a lazy viewer when it came to that twisting plot of the Flash, but when I have to spend hours on google reading fan theories to try and make sense of the plot, I’m done!
      I hate that too, although I’ll admit in my younger years I wrote fanfiction where I kept on piling on the complications to keep the story going ^^’

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think your point about Sherlock is well made. There’s a definite need to alternate scenes, between tense and mellow, and in other ways. Contrast is a marvelous thing, and audiences need time to “recover”, come back to their center, so that they will “feel” and appreciate the next “punch”.

    And your observations about Merlin highlight a form of “payoff” that never came. Most forms of tension promise an eventual “release”, but Meriln never really moved to that “next step”.
    I admit, at a certain point the whole “secret” wore a little thin for me. As with all things, what at first is new and interesting gradually grows “normal”, and I feel that’s what happened with Merlin’s secret magic.
    The issue of revealing himself to Arthur could have added tension to a conflict, as the aftermath could have enriched consecutive episodes.
    Definitely a missed opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🙂 I do love a plot where there are calm before the storm moments.
      I felt the same about Merlin’s secret. There were so many moments Arthur could have found out, although I think in the end the writers had to rush to conclude the show because it got cancelled! Maybe if that didn’t happen we’d have gotten a more in depth magic reveal.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You know a great example of a TV show adapting is Babylon 5. They had a very interesting technique where every character had at least one “black box” moment written into the plot, where a character could leave the show and it would fit, or something serious would happen to them, but they would recover. Granted, the show still has some rough points, but I was very impressed by how well they adapting to actors opting to leave midway through.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Very true. One of the things I like about writing, along with the budget. Whether it’s a small town or an epic kingdom, neighborhood dog or regional dragon, costs never deter a novel.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Re Annie, how in the world does a plot hole that gaping get missed?? And yes about TV shows with season after season of teasing a happy ending. It’s probably the same thing for some book series. I love the show/book and don’t want it to end, but at the same time, can’t there just be a happy ending already?? 🙂 I’m totally seeing all the parallels you’re laying down, and they’re very helpful. Great post again, Louise!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have no idea how the plot hole in Annie got missed, but it was definately frustrating and it wasn’t the only one!
      I usually never want shows or books to end either, but sometimes the writers take it too far even for me!
      Thanks, glad to help 🙂

      Like

  6. Good tips. I think the excessive subplots were why I gave up watching Once Upon a Time. I loved the concept, but there was too much happening, and the number of subplots meant the main plot wasn’t getting as much attention as I’d have liked.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🙂
      Once Upon a Time is something I’ve watched on and off for a few months because of the excessive subplots. I kept watching a few episodes, getting bored, and picking it up again! I’m in another slump with it right now because they’ve just added even more characters!

      Like

  7. Another amazing post. Thanks, Louise. As I said before, I can really feel your enthusiasm and passion for these posts. This post was full of spoilers for me since I abandoned all of the shows earlier than you did (because of time not necessarily lack of interest), but you pulled great examples from them (and though I want to say I will get back to all of them more than likely it isn’t going to happen). Like Michele, I found your point on bad transitions ruining the flow insightful. I came across this in a couple of pieces I critiqued recently. It can be difficult to spot sometimes but transitions are critical to keep things moving in an easy-to-follow way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 😀
      I already came across a couple of spoilers for Once Upon a Time. (I’m only up to season 5) They’re hard to avoid with older shows, and it’s difficult to find time to watch everything, especially with how long some shows are.
      I’ve read some stories where I’ve done a double take and had to pause to figure out what was happening because of sudden location changes. It’s definitely worth getting others to read over your work to spot any bad transitions!

      Like

  8. Wow. Such an in-depth post. My favorite to look for is plot holes. It’s so easy to forget a character read a letter and then later couldn’t read. This could certainly ruin a story. Great example that I won’t forget.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I completely missed the plothole in the Annie remake… I do think, though, that Arthur knew that Merlin had magic but he ignored it for the sake of their friendship and all the political ramifications. But maybe I’m reading too much into his expressions and actions 😉
    Great post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a great analysis, Louise. I’m working on the plot for my next books so your timing is perfect. I love this point: “Make the reader think your characters have won, then pull the rug out from under them.” My poor characters, I can’t wait. Lol.

    Liked by 1 person

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