Monster of the Week

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I’ve been watching Season 5 of Supernatural and am really enjoying it, as I have the entire series. I got to thinking about the format of this and other series in similar genres, what works and what doesn’t.

Supernatural, much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (another of my favourites) employs the “monster of the week” format which I think really works.  There are more layers here though. Once a series is well established, at least 2+ seasons in, you begin to get a real feel for the series-wide story arc; a direction that the main characters are taking, the way they interact and their combined, or individual, story lines that will flow from season to season. Then there’s the season specific story line. Usually a ‘Big Bad’ trying to bring about the end of the world as we know it, ushering in a time of darkness and unleashing the forces that our ‘heroes’ spend their time beating back. On an episode by episode basis we have the “monster of the week”, a specific target that will, almost without fail, be defeated before the episode’s time is up.

I like that with Supernatural every episode pushes the story forward (season or series), some more than others of course, but you never feel like you’ve stepped out of the main story arc, even with the ‘light relief’ episodes. This provides consistency, making it easier to keep track of what is going on. For example, I also watched X-Files and despite viewing a lot of it back-to-back over the course of a few weeks (Oh for those heady student days where free time flowed like water) I still never really understood what on earth (or not?) was going on when it came to the series and season story arcs! Some episodes would be purely focused on progressing them, others would make no mention of it so you got confused about the order things were happening.

True Blood is another example. Season one was extremely promising, but Season two was all over the place, it was following so many threads that every episode left you feeling frustrated as no one story had moved forward more than an inch and resulted in the end of the season feeling rushed as all the loose ends needed to be tied up fast and weren’t really given the time they deserved. Season three is  much, much better and seems to have recognised and addressed a lot of what was wrong. There are still the multiple storylines, but they don’t follow every thread in every episode so it doesn’t feel so rushed and frenetic.

So, what can I take from this when it comes to writing? Good question. Whether writing a short story or novel, the ‘monster of the week’ concept is not going to be terribly valid. There is, however, something here about being mindful that your audience is only human and it’s not reasonable to expect them to keep notes in order to keep up. Keep the storylines tight, consider if the multiple threads work together, or if perhaps they deserve their own story or series. Recognise that if you set off in multiple directions you will need to pull it all back together in the end and the question is, can you do that within the boundaries of the piece? Side-tracking the story for light relief, or otherwise is fine, but don’t forget to keep to the point, or at least nod in its direction.

There’s more to this subject, but I feel it’s too much for one post and I’m concerned of breaking everything I’ve said in the previous paragraph if I continue here, so I’m going to do a separate post on it. This is, in itself, an exercise for me. So double whammy with today’s post 😉

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3 responses »

  1. X-Files…ah yes. I loved the mythology episodes. I used to get a little mad when there was a stand alone episode. I’m fascinated by how a character changes over time. I want to see the story working towards that (which is why I’ve gotten really bored with House). In Buffy, I think the writing managed a sense of stand-alone episode while keeping the undercurrent of the big picture. Even if it wasn’t always intentional, it felt that way. Everything flowed together (mostly).

    Whenever I hear Big Bad I can’t help but think of Spike. Sigh. Love that character. Why can’t he have his own series? LOL.

  2. Don’t get me started on Spike. Such a fantastic character. I actually followed James Marsters to the toilet in Milton Keynes, England at some sci-fi convention once…no I’m not a stalker..well a really bad one!

    Characterisation was something Buffy did extremely well. The characters were shades of grey, not black and white, so I think far more believable. Tieing this in with my post, I think that story line consistency is essential for that characterisation. To believe in the people you’re watching, you need to see them learn and change through every event, not simply act like last week’s drama didn’t happen. They might not make massive leaps, but you need some sort of reaction/acknowledgement.

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