YOU WANT ME TO READ WHAAAAAAT? A Snob’s Guide to Alternative Sources for Structure in Plotting for Screenplay and TV Writing, Part I: Stories of an Epic Nature


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bibleUsually when people suggest books for screen- and television writers to read for ways to structure and plot their scripts, they tend to point them towards tomes written by screenwriting gurus. I don’t think I have to name them. We all know the usual suspects and everyone has their favorites.
And this essay’s purpose isn’t to denigrate any of them and suggest that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
The purpose of this essay is to perhaps point out other sources, sources you might not immediately think about, as guides to us in trying to tell your story, sources that you might not have thought of or even considered of any use in this area.
The idea of writing this essay originated with the sudden rise of what is now being called a second golden age of television, as well as a paradigm shift in the way movies are made.
There are now so many different ways of telling a story on the tube, from episodic, to soap operic, to a different story each season, to a story being told over a very small number of episodes, so many variant structures and styles that, unless you have been a devotee of the BBC, which has been telling these sorts of narratives for almost fifty years now (aesthetically, the U.S. has often been the last out of the gate), you may not have realized that writing has become a whole brave new world that hath such people in it.
And in movies there is a shift away from the Hollywood/Studio type of filmmaking (who are making fewer and fewer of the films being released today) to an approach even more independent than the 1990’s.
Because of this, I believe that thinking outside the box when it comes to finding ways to tell stories might be a wise move to make at this time.

This will only be the first in a series as I will focus on different types, genres and structures of movies and television series.

However, before proceeding any further, I would also like to say one other thing. You may look at many of my lists and recoil at the hoity-toiteness of them all and even accuse me of being a snob.

Well, what can I say? I am a snob and I’m proud of it.

But I seriously doubt it would hurt anyone’s ability to write if they let a little more snobbishness in. In fact, it might help. You never know, so give it a try.

Today I will focus on stories of a more epic nature, stories that cannot be completed in a single episode or even a single season. The TV series that most resonates today with such a description is, of course, Game of Thrones. But it can also be seen in such series as Spartacus, The Tudors, The Borgias, Boardwalk Empire and many others.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, just some suggestions that reflect my personal preferences. So I apologize if I didn’t include your favorites. But please, do share. The more choices given, the more writers have to choose from.

  1. The History Plays of William Shakespeare: a series of epic dramas that chronicle the rise and fall of the various people who have sat on the thrones of England, especially, but not exclusively, during the War of the Roses. Reading them in order gives you a true sense of how power changes hands and how history itself works.

henry vKing John; Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, part II; Henry V; Henry VI, part I; Henry VI, part II; Henry VI, part III; Richard, III; Henry VIII.

  1. Other History plays: If you really want to have a good time and maybe perhaps an epic mind fuck, here is an even more complete list of plays that cover the English royal power struggle over an even longer period of time. They are by different authors, and thus have different styles and attitudes, but can still give you that classic sweep of how a country may change. I will list the authors of the non-Shakespearean plays.

edward iiEdward II (Christopher Marlowe); Edward III (anonymous, but possibly partially Shakespeare); Edward IV, Part I and II (anonymous, but possibly Thomas Heywood); King John; Richard II; The Lion in Winter (James Goldman); Beckett (Jean Anouilh); Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, part II; Henry V; Henry VI, part I; Henry VI, part II; Henry VI, part III; Richard III; Henry VIII; Anne of the Thousand Days (Maxwell Anderson); Elizabeth the Queen (Maxwell Anderson); Mary of Scotland (Maxwell Anderson); Mary Stuart (Frederic Schiller); The Madness of King George (Alan Bennett); Victoria Regina (Laurence Housman).

  1. I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves.

i claudiusThese are two novels, “autobiographies” in a sense, about the stuttering, club-footed Claudius, who eventually became emperor of Rome (simply by managing to stay alive longer than anyone else). It begins with Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, continues through the reign of Nero and Caligula and ends with Claudius’ own ascension as a Caesar until his death.

  1. Plays about the Trojan War: This list will contain several different plays by different authors and will also have different attitudes, themes and styles, but are generally in chronological order of action.

trojan womenIphigenia in Aulis (Euripides); Tiger at the Gates, or The Trojan War Will Not Take Place (Jean Giraudoux); Ajax (Sophocles); Philoctetes (Sophocles); Troilus and Cressida (William Shakespeare); The Trojan Women (Euripides); The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides (Aeschylus); Electra (Euripides); Electra (Jean Giraudoux); Orestes (Euripides).

  1. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman.distant mirrorA history of the century that gave us such fun and games as The Little Ice Age, the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death, the fight over the Papal head of the Catholic church, and the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into Europe.
  1. Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf War and And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts. Both non-fiction books are epic in nature, covering a large number of years and the lives of a large number of people while following the path of a single subject matter.

and the band played onConduct Unbecoming… begins with some references to the American Revolution and World War II, but mainly focuses on how the U.S., the military and its attitudes toward Gays and Lesbians changed over a course of decades by following the lives of those personally involved. And The Band Plays On is equally as large in its approach to its subject matter, the growth of AIDS from the late 1970’s to 1985.

  1. The Ring of the Nibelung (The Ring Cycle) by Richard Wagner.ringConsisting of four operas, The Rheingold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods, the story revolves around a ring which gives its owner the power to rule the world. Made by gold stolen from the Rhine Maidens, the ring makes its way through various characters from Norse mythology, destroying anyone who tries to possess it, resulting in the destruction of the Gods, headed by Wotan, and their home, Valhalla, eventually being returned to the Rhine maidens.
  1. The Pentateuch and The History Books of the Bible. The Pentateuch consists of the first five books of the Christian and Hebrew Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, covering the story of mankind from its creation through Abraham as the first Jew and then the establishment of the Israelites as a nation, ending with the death of Moses and the entry into Canaan, the Promised Land.

bible 2The History Books records the early years of the Jewish nation and consists of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles. It begins with Joshua, Moses’ assistant, leading the conquest of Canaan and continues on through the establishment of a government led by a group of Judges, until the Israeli people opted to be ruled by a Monarchy (including Saul, David and Solomon), with the eventual destruction of Judah and the people going into exile in Babylon, ending with Cyrus of Persia conquering Babylon and restoring the temple and allowing the exiles to return.

And just for kicks and giggles:

  1. The Oz Books by Frank L. Baum, a series of stories that tell the fictional history of the fantastical Land of Oz.ozThere are 14 novels in all written by Baum and they begin with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published in 1900 in which Dorothy and her little dog, too, get swept up in a tornado and find themselves in Munchkin Land, and ends with Glinda of Oz, published posthumously in 1920, wherein Glinda, Dorothy and Ozma try to stop a war.

All in all, these series of stories can help suggest ways of telling a story that is, let us say, a bit larger than most. So if your goal is an oeuvre of a more epic in scope, these might be the sorts of references that might give you some idea as to how to achieve that goal.

And remember, “the book you don’t read won’t help”: Jim Rohn

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