Narrative Structure: Television Stories

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When asked if he thought films should be a slice of life, director Alfred Hitchcock is reported to have said, no, they should be a slice of cake. We might well pose the same question about television: Is it a slice of life or a slice of cake? The images we see on the screen show us real people and objects, and the sounds we hear are taken from our real experience, with dialogue spoken in a language and idiom with which we are familiar. Often we suspend disbelief and imagine that television characters are real persons, with tangible pasts and a future toward which time is carrying them. We might muse, "I wonder what happened to Steve Urkel after Family Matters was cancelled?' It seems as if we just happened to drop in on these TV people and witnessed a slice out of their lives.

But we should be aware that for all their seeming reality, the stories we watch are actually slices of televisual confections. As if making a cake, the screenwriters and directors follow storytelling "recipes" that suggest the proper ingredients and their proper amounts for creating a television program. They mix those ingredients in conventionally prescribed ways--adding a chase scene here and a romantic clinch there--to maximize viewer pleasure. Just like the frosting on the top of a birthday cake, a television narrative has been blended to satisfy our appetites.

To understand television narrative, then, we must look beyond the appearance of reality the medium promotes and understand the recipe that created that reality. We may ask of any program, "How is this story put together? What are its narrative components, and how do they relate to one another?" As we begin to look at television's narratives, we will notice a limited number of basic structures, a finite set of recipes for mixing story ingredients. Historically, there have been four principal narrative modes on television:

1. The theatrical film (originally shown in theaters)

2. The made-for-TV film and miniseries (also known as the MOW)

3. The series program

4. The serial program

This section charts these four structures and explores the differences and similarities among them.


From Antagonism to Alliance When television experienced its first growth spurt in the years after World War II, the U.S. motion picture studios and the television industry were mutually antagonistic. TV, an upstart medium, stole the cinema's customers and under mined the studio system that had dominated North America's narrative market.

Indeed, the entire world depended on Hollywood for its stories. But the 1950s would be the last decade that U.S. viewers would rely so heavily on the cinema for their entertainment. By 1960, television had replaced the cinema as America's primary form of entertainment, and many within the film industry were bitter about this loss of control. Just as film executives resented television's intrusion into their domain, so were their counterparts in the television industry hesitant to deal with the film studios. Television producers wanted to create their own material and not have to depend on the whims of the film industry for their product.

What began as antagonism between the film studios and the television industry soon evolved into a wary alliance. Television was hungry for narrative product; the studios controlled thousands of movies. After their initial runs, these films were warehoused, seldom heard from again, and thus not a financial asset. RKO, Monogram, and Republic--three of the smaller studios--were the first to begin leasing their older movies to television. Soon the major studios were compelled to join in. It wasn't long before newer and newer films began making their way to television more and more quickly. The ratings success of NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies (1961-) led to all of the broadcast networks featuring "nights at the movies." By the end of the decade there were recent theatrical films running on television just about every night of the week.

Since that time, the relationship between theatrical filmmaking and television has become more complex. Rather than disdaining television, most of to day's film studios also own and operate television production facilities, blurring the economic distinction between the two media. Bringing film and television even closer together are the VCR and DVD player, which were introduced to the home market in the late 1970s and late 1990s, respectively. Indeed, in the late 1980s videocassette rental revenue bypassed theatrical box office receipts.

Nowadays more viewers see a videocassette or DVD of a movie on their television sets than go to see a film projected in a theater.

Although the VCR/DVD and premium cable channels (HBO, Showtime, etc.) have radically changed the way we view/consume movies and have virtually eliminated programs such as Saturday Night at the Movies, theatrical films continue to play a major role in television programming. Most local stations and many cable satellite stations such as WGN, W WOR, and WTBS continue to use theatrical films to fill much of their schedule. (Television mogul Ted Turner, for example, now owns-not leases--the MGM film library, and has based his TNT and Turner Classic Movies channels on that collection.) Moreover, the narrative structure of the theatrical film is still used as a standard by which other TV programs are judged. It is important, therefore, to consider how the theatrical film structures its stories and how those structures are modified when they appear on broadcast television.

The Classical Paradigm

The theatrical cinema was not always a powerful narrative machine. Around the turn of the century film stories were in a rather primitive state. Some early movies told no stories at all: a baby is fed, a train arrives at a station, a wall falls over. Viewers were so enthralled with the mere sight of movement on the screen that characters and plot were superfluous. However, cinema viewers soon developed an obsession with narrative, and the young film industry was more than willing to provide it. When D. W. Griffith's milestone, Birth of a Nation, was released in 1915, the cinema had already established itself as an accomplished, mature art form, a specifically narrative art form. The popularization of sound a little over a decade later threw the industry into upheaval and forced the cinema to readjust its storytelling methods. But by 1934 American movies had settled on a certain way of constructing stories as well as a conventional style of editing, visual composition, dialogue and music, and so on. This filmmaking method has come to be known as the classical Hollywood cinema, or, more simply, Hollywood classicism. Classical narrative structure is the concern of the present section. Classical editing and sound are discussed later.

In order to avoid one possible point of confusion, it is important to note that "classical" film, in this sense, does not refer simply to well-established and admired films that have maintained their appeal over the decades. Calling Casablanca (1942) or Gone with the Wind (1939) a "classic" is not using the term as we will be using it here. Rather, classical in our sense refers to a specific mode of filmmaking and can be applied to almost all films made in Hollywood since the 1930s. Casablanca and Gone with the Wind are classical films, but so are What! No Beer? (1933), Showgirls (1995), Ishtar (1987), and Basket Case (1982), not to mention Basket Case II (1989). Moreover, of the theatrical films shown on broadcast television, only the very rare exception is not a classical film. Non-classical films find a home on cable channels such as Sundance, the Independent Film Channel, Bravo, and Arts and Entertainment (A&E). The foreign-language "art" and U.S. "independent" (i.e., independent of the major studios) films are often aggressively anticlassical. Although they have little impact on network narrative television, one can see their influence in music videos and television commercials.

What binds together the thousands of classical films that have been made over the decades? The seven basic components of classical narrative structure are listed here. As we outline these components, we will illustrate them mostly with examples from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Raiders was chosen because it is one of the most widely viewed films in the history of the cinema (as of 2000 it was still one of the 20 highest-grossing films of all time) and because it exemplifies classical principles so clearly.

1. Single Protagonist. The protagonist is the central character in a film, book, TV program, or other fictional mode. The story revolves around him or her. Classicism has usually limited a movie's protagonist to just one or, at most, two characters. Filmmakers reason that this facilitates viewer identification and streamlines the narrative action. Viewers can identify with one person more readily than with a dozen and can comprehend a single character more quickly than several mixed together at the beginning of the film.

This seems commonsensical enough, but narratives do occasionally use more than a single protagonist. Soap operas usually feature a dozen protagonists at any particular point in the story. Russian silent filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein argued that an entire class of people could be the protagonist. In Eisenstein's Strike (1924) and Potemkin (1925) masses of people serve as the narrative focus. Of course, there are even classical films that break this "rule" of the single protagonist, but instead of splintering the story, these films often unite several characters with a single purpose so that they function as a united force within the narrative. The four "ghost-busters" in the film of the same name (1984), for example, work together to destroy the ghosts.

2. Exposition. The exposition introduces the viewer to two components of the story: (a) The principal characters' personas, their "personalities," and (b) the space or environment the characters inhabit. Every story must have an exposition, but not necessarily at the beginning of the film. Many movies, especially murder mysteries, start in the middle of the action and then later explain who the characters are and what their space entails. Stories that open in such a fashion are said to begin in medias res. Raiders of the Lost Ark be gins in medias re s; the hero, Indiana Jones ("Indy") is nearly crushed by a huge rolling boulder and is then pursued by angry natives. All of this occurs before we know who he is, where he is, and why he is doing what he's doing. Once Indy escapes from the jungle, the film's exposition begins. His profession and motivation are established when we see him lecturing about archeology; and the entire story (its characters and their locations) is mapped out by the government bureaucrats who visit Indy and pique his interest in the Ark of the Covenant.

3. Motivation. In any classical story, something must catalyze events.

The action must have motivation. Here the importance of the single protagonist is reemphasized, for classical narrative is motivated by the desire of a single character to attain a goal or acquire something (or someone). Raiders of the Lost Ark illustrates this unequivocally: Indy desires to acquire the Ark of the Covenant. The protagonist's desire-his or her lack of something or someone or some emotion-catalyzes the story, provides a reason for events to happen, and establishes the narrative's central enigma.

4. Narrative Enigma. Early in any classical film a question is explicitly or implicitly asked. This question forms the central enigma of the classical story.

In Raiders the questions is: Will Indy find the Ark and prevent the Nazis from using it? There may be secondary enigmas (What is in the Ark? Will Indy get together with Marion?), but every other aspect of the story stems from the one central enigma. It is essential to classical narrative that the enigma must not be solved immediately. If it were, there would be no story. Imagine how short Raiders of the Lost Ark would be if Indy found the Ark in the first 10 minutes. Consequently, Raiders of the Lost Ark and all classical narratives rely on a series of delays that forestall the solution of the enigma.

Chief among the delaying tactics of the classical cinema is the introduction of a character who blocks fulfillment of the protagonist's desire-and, thus, blocks the resolution of the narrative enigma. This blocking character is known as the antagonist. The antagonist can be as simple as a solitary character with whom the protagonist battles or competes-for example, Belloq, Indy's nemesis, to whom he loses an idol in the opening scene. Or, the antagonist may take the shape of the character's environment: for example, the Civil War in Gone with the Wind or North Atlantic icebergs in Titanic (1997). Some classical films even pose the antagonizing force as being within the protagonist-as in Jerry Maguire (1996), where the title character faces a moral crisis about his life and his career as a sports agent. These narrative conflicts are not mutually exclusive.

A film may contain a combination of them, as when, in Ordinary People (1980), Conrad deals with his internal conflicts about his brother's death at the same time he works through his antagonism with his mother.

In any case, the conflict created by the antagonist delays the resolution of the enigma until the end of the film. These delays form the basis of the chain of cause-effect actions that compose the main body of the film.

5. Cause-effect Chain. Once the exposition has established the characters and their space, and the protagonist's desire has sparked the forward movement of the story, the narrative begins a series or chain of events that are linked to one another and occur over time. Events do not occur randomly or in arbitrary order in classical films. One event causes the next, which causes the next, which causes the next, and so on (Fig. 2.1). Raiders of the Lost Ark illustrates this: The visit by the bureaucrats causes Indy to go looking for the Ark, which causes him to track down Marion Ravenwood to find a clue to the Ark's location, which causes him to become realigned with her and take her to Cairo, which causes them to battle the Nazis in the Cairo market, and so on.

Link by link the narrative chain is built.

Each single narrative event is commonly called a scene or sequence. A scene is a specific chunk of narrative that coheres because the event takes place in a particular time at a particular place. The space of a scene is consistent, and time passes in a scene as it does in real life. Contemporary narrative theory has renamed the scene the syntagm. The order in which the scenes or syntagms transpire is the film's syntagmatic structure.

FIGURE 1: The Cause-Effect Narrative Chain

Scene A Causes - • Scene B An effect of Scene A Causes - -O. Scene C An effect of Scene B Causes Scene D And so on

In a single scene time is continuous, as it is in life; but as we make the transition from one scene to another, the potential for manipulating time arises.

Time in film does not match time in reality. If it did, it would take months to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark Story time, several months, in this case, is rarely equivalent to screen time-Raiders of the Lost Ark's 115 minutes. To maximize narrative impact, the duration and order of story time are manipulated as it is converted into screen time.

Most commonly, screen time's duration is shorter than that of story time.

Very few films last as long as the actions they represent on the screen. Obviously, films must compress time in order to tell their stories without taxing the viewer.

Only occasional oddities equate screen time with real time. For example, in High Noon (1952) 82 minutes in the life of a sheriff are presented in 82 minutes; Rope (1948) is presented as if it were one long, continuous shot; and Time Code (2000) shows us four screens of continuous action simultaneously. Further, screen time is not always shorter than story time. This is less common than is the reverse, but certainly not unheard of. In Fantastic Voyage (1966), a tiny submarine passes through a human heart in 57 seconds of story time, as we are told by the characters. But this 57 seconds of story time elapses over 3 minutes of screen time. Thus, the duration of time may be manipulated to maximize narrative effect.

The order of screen time may be similarly manipulated. In most classical films, the events shown in the second scene occur after those that appear in the first scene, those in the third scene occur after the second, and so on -that is, the temporal structure is normally chronological. However, it is not uncommon for films to use flashbacks or, less often, flash-forwards, to rearrange a story's temporal structure. In classical film these departures from chronological order are clearly marked with special effects so that we are certain when we are shifting into the past: The image goes wavy, the focus shifts, smoke appears before the lens, or the character's voice fades out. In non-classical films, such as those by Main Resnais and Luis Builuel, the past is jumbled up with the present and the future in challenging and sometimes contradictory ways.

Also important to consider is the increasing intensity of events, the basic dynamic force of the narrative. As the enigma's resolution is delayed again and again, the narrative level escalates. As Indy comes closer to the Ark, his battles become more and more death defying. Eventually, this results in the film's climax.

6. Climax. At a classical film's climax the narrative conflict culminates- necessitating a resolution. The film's central enigma, which has been delayed for 90 minutes or more, demands to be solved. At the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the conflict between Indy and Belloq peaks as Indy and Marion are tied to a stake while Belloq and the Nazis open the Ark. The central enigma (Will Indy find the Ark and prevent the Nazis from using it?) and its subsidiary (What is in the Ark?) are solved in this scene: Apparently the wrath of God is contained in the Ark and consequently the Nazis are destroyed when they open it.

Climaxes are the most concentrated moment of the narrative conflict, but typically they are not the very end of the film. Classical films normally incorporate a short resolution to answer any outstanding questions.

7. Resolution or Denouement. Up to the point of the resolution, the enigmas have been consistently delayed and the narrative action has constantly risen. In the resolution, in contrast, the enigmas are solved and the narrative action (or conflict) declines. After the apocalyptic destruction of the Nazis, Raiders of the Lost Ark resolves by showing us the Ark being stored in an anonymous crate in a huge warehouse, and Indy and Marion getting together for a drink. The questions about the Ark's contents and the Nazis' use of it are answered. Also answered is a subsidiary question about whether Indy and Marion will reunite. There is a strong sense of closure at the end of this and most classical films. The enigmas that had been opened at the start of the film are now closed off, secured. The narrative's questions are answered.

If a narrative concludes without answering its questions and the ending is ambiguous or open, this is an instance of narrative aperture. For the most part, narrative aperture exists only in non-classical films. Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa Vie (1962), for example, concludes with the protagonist being suddenly shot and killed, with no subsequent explanation. There are very few films that follow classical conventions up until the very end, and then tantalize us with an ambiguous finish. The horror genre contains most of these films. Halloween (1978), with the mysterious disappearance of the killer's body, is one example.

There are, of course, economic reasons for the openness or aperture of horror films. An open ending facilitates the return of the killer in sequels. But aperture also suits the horror film's raison d'être, which is to call into question the stability of rational life. An ambiguous ending undermines the narrative equilibrium that is the goal of most classical films. The horror film does not share that goal.

Theatrical Films on Television

The transition from theater to television can have significant effects on feature film narrative. The most drastic of these effects is the shortening of a film to fit it into a television time slot. Large parts of the narrative are excised in this process.

A Chicago station once ran the 118-minute From Here to Eternity in a 90-minute time slot. Subtracting more time for commercials, station promotional materials, and other interruptions left about 75 minutes for the film itself. The Artists Rights Foundation tracks the time cut from theatrical films. It notes, for example, how The Silence of the Lambs lost 29 minutes when broadcast on the WB network. Obviously, cutting this much time from any film is going to severely affect the coherence of its narrative chain. Characters appear and disappear un predictably and entire subplots cease to exist. The cause-effect linkage of classical films is disrupted, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility, when films are edited in this fashion. Specific scenes that the Artists Rights Foundation noted were missing in the 1999 CBS screening of Dead Man Walking (1995) included:

1. Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) entering the prison-flashback scenes of the murders that Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) was found guilty of committing and that he will be put to death for.

2. Four separate scenes that show Sister Helen working to get Poncelet a new trial.

3. A court room scene that denies Matthew Poncelet the right for a new trial.

4. A scene with Sister Helen asking the prison priest to be Matthew Poncelet's spiritual advisor. At this time, we learn she will be the first woman to advise a prisoner on death row.

5. Three separate scenes with Sister Helen speaking with the murdered victim's families. Movies shown on broadcast television are also shortened for reasons other than time concerns. Typically, broadcast standards for television are stricter than U.S. obscenity laws for motion pictures. Images, language, and even entire scenes that television networks deem unfit for family viewing will be excised. Slap Shot (1977), Raging Bull (1980), and the originally X-rated Midnight Cowboy (1969) have all been ravaged when broadcast on commercial television. Even when movies are shown on cable premium channels there is no guarantee they will not be edited. When Showtime-a pay service that boasted running films "uncut and uninterrupted" -presented Montenegro (1981), it removed a sexually suggestive scene involving a motorized toy tank.

Thus, various bits and pieces of theatrical films are missing when they are presented on commercial television. Of course, the portions of the film that remain are not presented without interruption -except on rare occasions (e.g., the initial screening of Schindler's List [1993]). U.S. television inherited from radio the convention of interposing commercials within the body of movies and programs. Commercials and their impact will be considered later; but we may note here that the appearance of TV commercials within classical films adds a distracting, narrative detrimental element that is absent from the film's presentation in the theater.' The abbreviation and interruption of classical film narrative are not the only ways that film stories are modified on television. In somewhat uncommon circumstances, theatrical films are sometimes actually lengthened when presented on television. Network TV added 49 minutes to Superman (1978) and 19 minutes to Superman III (1983) when they were originally telecast. In one of the strangest of such incidents, a 1980s telecast of Rear Window (1958) extended its running time by presenting the credits in slow motion and inserting a dream sequence that had not existed in the original film! The narrative effect of such alterations varies from film to film, but it is seldom beneficial.

Hence, for a variety of reasons the movies seen on broadcast television and cable premium channels may substantively differ from the versions shown in theaters. Narrative can be a fragile component of the movies and often is distorted beyond recognition in the transition from theater screen to television screen. However, theatrical films are not the only "movies" appearing on television. There are, of course, many films that were specifically designed for the electronic medium.


Until the mid-1960s, the only movies shown on television were ones that had originally been designed for theater audiences. The early 1960s success of "nights at the movies" made networks hungry for more, cheaper films-ones that might also serve as springboards for television series. Consequently, the made-for-TV movie was born, and, within the industry, christened the MOW (for "movie of the week"). See How They Run inaugurated this new form in 1964.

Since then, MOW films have been mixed with theatrical ones on networks' film programs in increasing numbers. In the 1978-79 season, more MOWs were broadcast than were theatrical films, which continues to be the case.6 Viewers seem to distinguish less and less between the two. Of the two highest-rated movies in the history of television, one is a theatrical film (Gone with the Wind) but the other is a made-for-television film ( The Day After [1983]). Moreover, the made-for-TV/theatrical dissimilarity is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain because U.S. made-for-TV movies are often shown theatrically in Europe (e.g., the pilot for Twin Peaks 119901) and films shot for European television are sometimes shown in U.S. theaters (e.g., The Full Monty [1997] was co-produced by Channel 4 TV [U.K.]). Are there substantive differences in the narrative structure, then, between theatrical and MOW films? What is it about the latter that marks them as being produced specifically for television? Narrative Structure As we might anticipate, there are more similarities than differences between the narrative structure of the made-for-TV film and that of the theatrical movie:

1. Single protagonist.

2. Exposition establishes characters and space.

3. Protagonist's desire catalyzes story.

4. Central enigma underpins story.

5. Narrative progresses by antagonist delaying enigma resolution.

6. Conflict peaks in a climax.

7. Closure assured in the resolution.

With so many similarities, what is it that distinguishes the two forms? The distinctions arise from the MOW's recognition of interruption as a sustaining force on television. In short, MOWs are designed to be interrupted. Their narrative chain is segmented to take advantage of commercial breaks. Rather than a continuous chain of events in cause-effect relationship with one other, the MOW often (though not always) halts the action and provides a small climax just before the commercials begin. This climax does not resolve the enigma, as does the final climax of a theatrical film. Instead, it heightens the enigma, posing questions that entice the viewer to stay with this channel through the commercials to find out what happens next.

Theatrical films have these small climaxes on occasion, too, but they are not coordinated with television's commercial breaks; they don't occur with regularity every 15 minutes or so. MOW narrative structure aligns itself with the rhythm of television, taking advantage of the pauses to heighten narrative suspense. Television's rhythm also determines the length of most MOWs. To fit into a 2-hour time slot with an average of 15 non-programming minutes per hour, they must run 90 minutes-with little room for variation. Theatrical films typically run 90 to 120 minutes, with the nature of the story determining the film's exact length. In contrast, the 90-minute precondition for MOWs strictly determines the length of the story, as it must be made to fit this time slot. Screenwriters and directors working within the MOW form must plot their films with this rigid time limit in mind, just as poets must confine themselves to the rhythmic pattern of the sonnet and painters must cope with the usually rectangular shape of a frame.

Many MOWs are used as pilots-programs that introduce new series. This function of some MOWs affects their narrative structure, distinguishing them from the classical model. Classical films end with a strong sense of closure.

Questions are answered; enigmas are solved; couples are united. Those MOWs that do double duty as pilots for projected television series cannot tolerate this narrative closure. Instead, they serve to open the narrative of the series to follow.

Typically, a pilot will resolve some narrative issues, but, more important to its producers, it must establish ongoing enigmas that will underpin the program during its regular run. Thus, the 2-hour pilot for Miami Vice (1984) establishes the characters of Rico Tubbs and Sonny Crockett, and, through the death of Tubbs' brother, provides the motivation for Tubbs moving to Miami. But the pilot concludes without Tubbs apprehending his brother's murderer--as would have been typical for a classical film. There is no closure to the pilot's central enigma: Will Tubbs capture the killer? We had to wait until several weeks into the season before the murderer was punished during the run of the series. The pilot, which is frequently presented as if it were a stand-alone movie, uses a certain degree of narrative aperture to engage us, drawing us into the narrative structure of the regular run of a series.

In sum, the MOW shares many attributes with its theatrical counterpart.

The two are getting harder and harder to tell apart. And yet, the MOW's narrative structure does reveal the traits of having been "made for television." It recognizes television's interruptive form, and it has developed narrative strategies to cope with it. These strategies are even more evident in the television series, a format that is quite distinct from the movies, whether theatrical or MOW.


Early television drew on a variety of sources for its programming material: theatrical movies, sports events, vaudeville-style music and comedy skits, and such. In many regards the infant medium relied most heavily on its broadcasting predecessor, radio, for programming strategies and narrative forms. Indeed, the influence of radio was so strong, and the television image in the 1940s so poor, that early television was little more than radio accompanied by fuzzy, indistinct, black-and-white pictures-with the emphasis on sound rather than image. Television has changed a good deal since then, but the basic narrative form that TV inherited from radio endures to the present day: the series.

There are precedents for the television series in both literature and the cinema. Literary series have been published that center on figures such as Tarzan, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew; and theatrical film series have featured a variety of characters: Tarzans (dozens since Elmo Lincoln first did the role in 1918), sophisticated detectives (the "Thin Man" films, 1934-47), homicidal maniacs (Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street, beginning in 1984), sports heroes (Rocky, beginning in 1976), and so on. Even so, the series has never been as important to literature or film as it is to television. Each season, the list of the top 10 rated shows is dominated by series (see, for example, the 1998-99 season, Table 7.1). What characterizes the narrative television series, and how is it particularly well-suited to the form of television? We can begin to answer these questions by examining the series' narrative structure.

Narrative Structure

The television series is a narrative form that presents weekly episodes with a defined set of recurring characters. For example, the five most popular series during the 1998-99 season were Friends, Frasier, Jesse, Veronica's Closet, and Touched By an Angel (Table 7.1). In series such as these, each week's episode is basically self-contained. Although they will occasionally have two-part episodes or a narrative arc that recurs, the narrative does not consistently continue from one week to the next. Each episode does not begin where the previous one ended, as episodes do in the television serial. The series and the serial forms have gotten progressively closer to one another over the years. Friends exemplifies this. It's a program where narrative arcs (such as Ross's numerous marriages) do persist over the course of several episodes, but the bulk of the issues raised on it each week are resolved by the end of the episode. It is thus considered a series even though it contains some serial aspects. We'll use it as our principal source of examples as we discuss the characteristics of the series.

In some respects, the television series resembles the classical film. After all, series do present chains of events driven by enigmas. But the pressures of constant interruption and of repetition, of a weekly appearance before the viewer, force the television series to rely on some distinctly different narrative strategies.

1. Multiple Protagonists. Many series center on a single protagonist: Mary Richards ( The Mary Tyler Moore Show [1970-77] ), Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote [1984-96]). But it is more common for a TV series to use a pair of protagonists or even an ensemble cast of five or six main characters. Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey ( Cagney and Lacey [1982-88] ) held equal narrative importance, as did the central characters on Cheers (1982-1993) and Friends (1994-). The main function of these multiple protagonists is to permit a variety of plots within the same environment. One week Friends was concerned with Phoebe giving birth to triplets (October 8, 1998). The next week Joey appeared on a PBS telethon, disappointed that he wasn't hosting it; Ross decide to move to London to marry Emily; and Phoebe's triplets were nearly forgotten. Narrative emphasis shifts from one episode to the next, but the core characters remain the same.

2. Exposition. The constancy of the series' central figures means that each episode needs only a brief exposition. Most of the characters and their space are known to the viewer from previous episodes, and often they are reestablished in the program's theme song: for example, "Come and listen to my story about a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed.. ." ( The Beverly Hillbillies [1962-711). Only the particulars of the current episode's characters and any new locations must be established. We rely on the consistency of characters and space; it is part of what makes the show comfortable to watch. We know that every week-or every day in syndication-the characters of Friends will congregate at the Central Perk coffee house, and that Andy Taylor and Barney Fife will preside over their jail ( The Andy Griffith Show [1960-68] ). Only new characters and new locations need be established in the exposition. Obviously, this is different from a one-time presentation such as an MOW, which must acquaint the viewer with an unknown cast of characters and an unfamiliar setting.

Series characters have a personal history of which we are usually conscious and to which references are occasionally made. In Friends, for example, the humor of each of Ross's marriages depends on our knowledge of his previous marital failures. On most series programs, however, these personal histories are rather vague and ill defined. The past is a murky region in series television. The present tense of a specific episode is usually all that matters. In the 1986-87 season of Miami Vice, Detective Larry Zito was murdered-a narrative event important enough to warrant a two-episode story. Subsequent episodes of the program, however, seldom mentioned Zito. That segment of the program's past virtually ceased to exist, except in reruns. Thus, series characters do have an established past, and their characters do not need reestablishing each week; but they often misplace this past and, in any event, it is usually not necessary for our enjoyment of a specific episode for us to know the details of the characters' pasts.

3. Motivation. The constancy of a series' characters and setting establishes a narrative equilibrium. A state of balance or rest exists at the beginning of each episode. However, if this balance were to continue, there would be no story.

Something needs to disturb the balance to set the story in motion, to catalyze it.

The most common narrative catalyst, as in the classical cinema, is the lack or desire of the protagonist. Since the series incorporates multiple protagonists, this permits it to shift the narrative catalyst function from one character to another. The desire of one protagonist may dominate one week; the desire of another may arise in the next episode. In the episode of Friends titled "The One With Chandler's Work Laugh" (January 21, 1999), several characters have desires that motivate the narrative: Will Rachel discover Monica and Chandler's secret romance, and will that affect their friendship? Will Monica continue to love Chandler-despite his obsequious demeanor around his boss? Will Ross find true romance? Each lack (of the truth, of commitment in a relationship, of romance) raises the question of whether the protagonist's desire will be satisfied.

In short, each raises a narrative enigma.

4. Narrative Problematic. Questions such as these underpin the narrative of a series and capture our attention (if they are successful). But, of course, as in all narrative forms these enigmas must not be immediately resolved. There must be a counterforce that prevents their instantaneous resolution, or there would be no story to tell. In the Friends examples, there are several counter-forces. Monica functions as the antagonist for Rachel's desire for the truth-lying to her and concealing the relationship. Chandler's boss and his behavior around the boss are counter-forces to Monica's commitment to him.

And Janice--an ill-suited date for Ross--delays his attainment of love. As with the classical film, the counterforce need not be a single individual. It may also be the protagonist's environment or an internal, psychological element within the protagonist. The main point is that the protagonist's acquisition of his or her goal must be postponed, deferred, so that the narrative may develop further complications.

Thus, the narrative focus shifts from one week to the next, but it is important to recognize that these individual desires and enigmas exist within a larger narrative problematic. Because fundamentally the series is a repeatable form, there must be some narrative kernel that recurs every week. In effect, the program must ask the same question again and again to maintain consistency and viewer interest. Of course, we wouldn't watch exactly the same material each week (although the number of times we watch a particular episode in syndication contradicts this), so there must be some variation within that consistency. But, still, every series must have some recurring problematic, some dilemma with which it deals in every episode.

For Friends the dilemma revolves around issues confronting friends in their 20s-just out of college, but not yet fully settled into a career. We might think of that dilemma as: Will the friends' camaraderie be disrupted? That is, will the friends stop being friends? Related questions include: Will Chandler/Joey/Monica/Phoebe/Ross find romance? Will Chandler/Joey/Monica/ Phoebe/Ross find fulfilling work? Almost every week the program tests the bond among these six friends. To take another example-this time from a police drama-the problematic of Miami Vice is: Will Crockett and/or Tubbs surrender to the temptations (the "Vice") they are immersed in and become villains? Individual episodes counter-pose various antagonists against Crockett and Tubbs, but overriding these specific concerns is the more general issue of their moral character.

Each episode, drawing on the multiplicity of protagonists in series TV, poses a slightly different narrative enigma. As John Ellis has noted, "The basic problematic of the series, with all its conflicts, is itself a stable state.'7 Specific enigmas come and go-briefly igniting the viewer's interest-but the fundamental problematic remains firm, sustaining the viewer's ongoing attachment to the program.

5. Cause-effect Chain. As in the classical film, events do not happen randomly in series television. One scene leads into the next, and the next, and the next. A cause-effect chain is erected scene by scene. However, this chain must be broken at least once during a half-hour program, and at least three times during an hour-long program, for the insertion of commercials. The TV chain is not continuous as it is in the cinema.

The series deals with this discontinuity by segmenting the narrative. That is, the story is broken into segments that fit between the commercial breaks.

These between-commercial segments, sometimes called acts, consist of one or more scenes that hold together as strongly as classical scenes do. They end with their own small climax, which leads into the commercial break. The function of this pre-commercial climax is not to resolve narrative dilemmas, but instead to heighten them, to raise our interest in the narrative as we flow into the commercials. New, minor enigmas may even be posed just before the segment ends.

In "The One With Chandler's Work Laugh," for example, Ross is despondent about his failed marriage to Emily. As act one ends, Monica, Joey, Rachel, and Phoebe quiz him about being out all night. He is evading their questions when Janice enters the room-revealing that Ross was with her. As the segment fades to black with a shot of an embarrassed Ross, the viewer is left with the enigmas: Were Ross and Janice romantically involved the night before? Following the commercials, this question is answered in the very first scene (yes, they were) and the narrative chain resumes.

In sum, the segmentation of the series narrative interrupts the rising curve of increasingly intensified action that we see in classical cinema and replaces it with portions of narrative equipped with their own miniature climax-in a sense, a series of several upward curves. In this way, television narrative more closely resembles the play, with its division into separate acts; or the mystery novel that ends each section on a note of suspense. The chain is slightly ruptured, but not sundered by the so-called commercial breaks.

6. Climax. Series episodes do have a final climax, where the action finally peaks and asks for some form of resolution. In the final scene of "The One With Chandler's Work Laugh," Ross' whining annoys Janice, and she breaks off their relationship. However, series programs' climaxes are undercut by one main factor: the repeatability of the program, its need to return the following week with the same problematic. The conflict reaches its peak, but there is no final resolution. In this example, we learn that Ross and Janice's relationship is over, but we don't know about Ross' future romances or the possibility of Janice reappearing on the show. The small question: "Will Ross find romance with Janice?" is answered. Larger questions such as "Will Ross ever find romance?" or "Will romance and marriage take him away from his friends?" are not fully resolved. The last shot of the episode shows Janice teasing Joey, the one male "friend" with whom she has not slept, that he might be next. And so future complications are already being seeded.

7. Resolution/Denouement. Series episodes can have no final resolution, no narrative closure, because to do so would mean the end of the series itself. If there were no more threats to the friends' camaraderie, if they were all happily coupled up and satisfied with their jobs, or if the moral character of Crockett and Tubbs were assured, there would be no more conflict on which to base Friends' and Miami Vice's narratives. Consequently, the ending of each episode must leave us in doubt as to the ultimate resolution of the series' overarching conflict. There must be a sense of narrative openness, a limited aperture.

We know about Ross and Janice, but we do not know about Ross and Joey and their future relationships. And, most important, we don't know if further rifts will develop among the friends.

On rare occasions, television series will conclude the program's run by providing true narrative closure. M*A*S*H ended the fictional doctors' and nurses' conflict with the Korean War by presenting a 21-hour episode (February 28, 1983) of the war's end. With no more war to play antagonist to the medical protagonists, the narrative motor of the program ran out of fuel. Its repeatable problematic had finally been resolved--after 11 years and hundreds of episodes. Most series, however, do not close in this fashion. One moment they are part of the weekly schedule and the next they are gone. Their abrupt departure sustains their narrative aperture, which is helpful if they are sold into stripped syndication, where their problematic is re-presented daily.


The serial is another form of storytelling that successfully made the transition from radio to television. Even before radio made use of the serial, there were examples of it in literature and the cinema. Nineteenth-century novels, such as those by Charles Dickens, were often originally published section by section in magazines. Silent movie serials such as the hugely popular Fantornas (1913) in France and The Perils of Pauline (1914) in the U.S. entertained audiences during radio's infancy. Neither of these forms, however, would reach an audience as enormous as the TV serial's.

Unlike the series, the serial expects us to make specific and substantial narrative connections between one episode and the next. In the series, the link between each week's programs is rather vague. In the serial, the connection is fundamental to its narrative pleasures. The main difference between the series and the serial is the way that each handles the development of the narrative from episode to episode.

With the exceptions of Dallas (1978-91), Dynasty (1981-89) and ER (1994-), the serial has seldom been as important as the series to the broadcast networks' prime-time schedules. In contrast, the narrative series has never been a significant factor in the networks' daytime schedules; there, the serial-in the form of the soap opera-reigns supreme. The television serial has long been the least respected narrative form. There is a creeping sexism in this attitude, for it assumes that soap opera is something that only "housewives" could find interesting. More recently, however, critics have begun to reevaluate the serial, with intriguing results; and producers/directors have reworked the form in sophisticated, sometimes quirky serials such as ER, St. Elsewhere (1982-88) and Twin Peaks (1990-91). Moreover, ER was a ratings champion throughout the late '90s-often triumphing as the highest rated show of the season.

How is it that serials tell their stories? What is their narrative structure, and how does it differ from both the classical cinema and the television series?

Narrative Structure

1. Multiple Protagonists. In our discussion of series programs, we noted an increased tendency toward multiple protagonists. The serial-especially the daytime serial-uses an even larger number of protagonists, each of whom is equally important to the narrative structure. Hour-long soap operas typically have 15 to 20 central characters-many more than the classical film, and even more than multiple-protagonist series such as Friends (whose main characters number just six). Soap opera casts are the largest of any program on television. The multiplicity of protagonists permits a variety of simultaneous story lines within the narrative world of a serial. And, more important, the quantity of characters decreases the importance of any one character. Indeed, soap opera characters lead a precarious existence. They come and go with a swiftness that is uncommon in other fictional forms. This is due partly to economics. Most soap opera actors work under contracts that may be cancelled every 13 weeks.

If the producers feel that actors are not generating enough viewer interest, they may suddenly disappear, along with their characters (although characters are also frequently recast). However, economics is not the only reason for the large number of protagonists. Soap opera relies on a multiplicity of characters to create a narrative web in which most characters are connected with one another.

2. Exposition. As does Raiders of the Lost Ark, the television serial begins each episode in medias res. The story has already begun, the action joined in progress. This is especially remarkable for daytime serials whose story may have begun decades before. Guiding Light has been developing its story on radio and television for more than 60 years-making its radio debut on January 25, 1937. As the World Turns has been constructing its narrative since April 2, 1956.

If these were classical films they would have lasted thousands of hours and their exposition would have occurred years ago! Few, if any, viewers have watched these serials since their inception. And the programs are always adding new viewers. So how do serials cope with viewers who have missed episodes or are new to the program? The answer is that serials, particularly the long-running soap operas, contain a large quotient of redundant narrative information. Character A has coffee with character B and they discuss how C has fathered a child with D. This narrative fact is now established. But in a later scene (the next day, perhaps) we will see character B at the nurses' station discussing the situation with two more characters. The information is redundant to the regular viewer, but serves as exposition for the viewer that has missed the previous scene. Through this redundancy the soap opera constantly re-establishes its characters and their situations.

Part of the redundant information that is regurgitated in the serial is the pasts of the characters. Serial characters carry a specific, significant past-much more so than do the series characters. In the series, as we previously discussed, the past is obscure and indefinite; but in the serial, characters constantly refer to it.

Previous love affairs and marriages, murders and double-crossings, pregnancies and miscarriages, are layered on top of the current goings-on. For the regular viewer in particular this creates a remarkably dense, multilayered narrative. A casual remark between two characters can be loaded with repressed, unspoken associations. A kiss hello can signify years of ill will or unrequited lust. A complex weave of character relationships exists from the very first second of a day's episode of a daytime serial.

This is not to say that new characters are never introduced on serials. Obviously, they must be, to keep the narrative fresh and interesting. These characters all undergo a conventional exposition, as does a character entering a classical film. However, daytime soap operas frequently abbreviate this exposition by providing familial associations for new characters. Often, new characters will be someone's never-before-seen cousin or uncle, or even sister or mother. The use of familial relations quickly incorporates new characters into the story lines associated with those families. Their characters are established as being similar to, or different from, the rest of the family's overall character.

3. Motivation. Like the exposition, the original catalyst for long running television serials took place years ago. In the episodes we watch day after day, or week after week, the many protagonists' desires and lacks are mostly al ready established. Only the occasional new desire/lack is introduced to maintain the narrative diversity. In both daytime and nighttime serials, these lacks/desires normally concentrate on heterosexual romance and familial relations (especially paternity). In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the serial diversified, with Dallas leading the serial into themes of corporate greed, and General Hospital (1963-) introducing international intrigue and science fiction (the "ice princess") into the soap opera world.

4. Narrative Enigma. The serial is saturated with enigmas. It thrives on them. Will Luke reunite with Laura ( General Hospital)? Will Tad conquer amnesia and marry Dixie (All My Children)? These are just two of the thousands of enigmas that have been posed on daytime serials. Indeed, the multiplicity of protagonists ensures that several-up to a dozen or so-enigmas will be running on any one program at any one time. Unlike the classical film or the TV series episode with their one central enigma, the serial nurtures multiple enigmas.

They are its foundation. The multiplicity of enigmas ensures that serials will never lose their narrative momentum. If one enigma is solved, many others still remain to slowly pull the story forward.

5. Cause-effect Chain. The narrative chain of daytime serial television is interrupted more frequently than that of series television. There are more commercial breaks per program minute in daytime soap operas than there are in nighttime series. (It is no coincidence that soap operas are the most consistently profitable programs on television.) In an hour-long episode, almost 20 minutes are taken up with commercials and other non-narrative material. Indeed, barely 9 or 10 minutes of story material elapse between commercial interruptions.

Serials adapt to this constant interruption much the same way that series do. They segment the narrative. Each serial narrative segment ends with a small climax, which raises new enigmas rather than leading to resolutions. We enter, or "flow" into, a commercial break on the heels of a question mark. Will Betsy arrive home in time to see Craig walking around the house-him having forgotten that he's faking paralysis to trap her in a loveless marriage (As the World Turns)? After we return from the world of commerce, we'll get our answer to this small enigma (no, she doesn't), but the overarching enigma is sustained.

6. Climax. Eventually, individual story lines do climax on serials. If they didn't, we would probably stop watching out of total frustration. So we do have fairy-tale weddings in which long-separated lovers are united, and climactic gun battles in which evil characters are dispatched. But these climaxes never result in narrative resolution.

7. (The lack of) Resolution. Almost by definition, serials cannot have total resolution. They cannot resolve all of the enigmas. If they did, there would be no reason to tune in the next day. Climaxes are used to generate new enigmas, rather than resolution. The fairy-tale wedding raises questions about whether the groom will realize that the bride is pregnant by the altar boy. The gun battle raises the question about whether the protagonist will be imprisoned for life. Even death is not a certainty-as was illustrated by Bobby Ewing's return to Dallas after "dying" in front of Pam's eyes. (Apparently it was just a dream of Pam's-a dream that lasted an entire TV season!) Many serial characters have returned from (presumed) death two and three times. So even death is not a permanent resolution on the soap opera.

On the extremely rare occasions when a serial story line does achieve relative narrative closure-say, a couple marries and leaves the program -it is still of little consequence to the enigma structure of the program because of the abundance of other enigmas. For example, the sixth season of ER ended with Carol joining Doug in Seattle-the conclusion of a very rocky relationship spanning several years. Since both actors have left the show, it seems unlikely there will be further developments in their relationship, but the show has no lack of on going enigmas (e.g., Carter's drug addiction and Benton's romantic life). With numerous protagonists, someone is certain to be lacking or desiring someone or something at any point in time on ER and other serials. The one imperative of the serial is that the story must continue.


Narrative forms must share television time with all sorts of other material: news, commercials, game shows, public service announcements. And yet, stories are what principally draw us to television. Theatrical films, made-for-TV films (MOWs), series programs, and serial programs lure us with the promise of entertaining stories. These television narratives share certain characteristics. They all present protagonists-established by an exposition -in a chain of events motivated by desire. There are always antagonists-individuals, environments, or internal-that prevent the attainment of that desire. The chain in each narrative mode is comprised of actions connected to one another by narrative enigmas that pull the story toward a climax. All of these aspects are necessary for conventional storytelling, though their order and emphasis may differ from mode to mode.

However, important distinctions separate the narrative modes. Series and serials rely on a viewer foreknowledge of characters that is not possible in individual films, whether made for TV or not. The MOW, the series, and the serial adapt themselves to television's constant interruptions through narrative segmentation, to which theatrical films are not accustomed. Each mode handles enigmas and resolutions somewhat differently-depending on whether the mode must be continued the next week/day or not. On one end of the spectrum is the classical film, with its firm narrative closure; on the other is the soap opera, with its never-fully-closing narrative aperture.

We should resist the impulse to use the classical film as our yardstick to measure these individual narrative modes. Instead, we should understand them on their own terms as television narratives. Every narrative form on TV must somehow conform to television's flow, interruption, and segmentation. The daytime serial-with its extreme segmentation, multiple protagonists, multiple enigmas, and lack of full resolution-owes the least to the classical film or the 19th century novel and is perhaps the most televisual of the narrative modes.

The theatrical film is, obviously, the least suited and consequently suffers the most. The series and the MOW each has its own way of accommodating the medium. And still, all are television stories.


The most cogent overview of television narrative, especially as it compares with the narrative of other related media, is John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema: Television: Video (Boston: Routlege, 1992), although his references are becoming a bit dated. Another and more theoretical overview is provided by Sarah Kosloff's section, "Narrative Theory and Television," in Channels of Discourse, Reassem bled, ed. Robert C. Allen (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992). Kosloff includes an annotated bibliography of narrative theory of literature, film, and television. Using Star Trek's holodeck as a portent of the future, Janet H. Murray details the development of narrative in the digital age in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997). Analyses of the narrative structures of film and literature can often provide insights into those of television. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have written frequently on narrative systems in film. Their Film Art: An Introduction, 6th ed. ( New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000) offers sections that summarize their work elsewhere. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) is a meticulous analysis of the evolution of classical film narrative form as a mode of production. Edward Brannigan, Narrative Comprehension and Film (London: Routledge, 1992) examines both narrative structure and our interpretation of it in film. Seymour Chatman's Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978) provides a summary of narrative analysis in those two media.

For discussions of the narrative structure of specific television genres and formats, see Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985); Paul Attallah, "The Unworthy Discourse: Situation Comedy in Television," in Interpreting Television: Current Research Perspectives, eds. Willard D. Rowland, Jr., and Bruce Watkins (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1984); and Elayne Rapping, The Movie of the Week: Private Stories, Public Events (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992). Of course, television narratives do not exist in isolation from one another. Mimi White, in "Crossing Wavelengths: The Diegetic and Referential Imaginary of American Commercial Television," Cinema Journal 25, no. 2 (Winter 1986): 51-64, explains just how narratives may bounce off one another in television.


1 For an exhaustive consideration of classicism, see David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

2 "Film Victim of the Month," Artists Rights Foundation January 1999, Available:

3 Midnight Cowboy is so butchered when it is shown on television that Leonard Maltin advises, ". . . please don't watch it on commercial TV: the most lenient prints run 104 m. [out of an original running time of 113 minutes] and are ludicrously dubbed to remove foul language." TV Movies and Video Guide (New York: Signet, 1990), 719.

4 Recently U.S. theaters have begun running commercials with the films, a practice that had long been done in Europe. Still, theatrical movies are not interrupted by the commercials, as they are on television. Instead, the commercials are always shown before the feature begins.

5 Maltin, 1081-2.

6 Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 7th ed. (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 687.

7 John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema: Television: Video (Boston: Routlege, 1992), 156.

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