In Praise of Plotting Slowly

I’ve discussed here before that one of the reasons I love television as a medium is that it provides an opportunity for epic narratives. When you have hundreds of hours to span with your content, you really can take the story in a lot of different directions. You can get really complicated. You can pull arcs across multiple seasons. You can challenge viewers in all sorts of interesting ways and they’ll stay along for the ride as long as they are getting something out of it.

One of the pitfalls of television, though, is the very epic nature of it, especially here in the United States, which is something else I’ve also addressed. When you have a show that will air indefinitely, it can be hard for writers to keep it dynamic and interesting and challenging, because they eventually run out of ideas. Or they get boxed into a corner by viewers who have come to expect certain things, and will resist vigorously if the creative team tries to mix it up by allowing characters to change, or adding new characters, or taking characters away; television is a complicated long term commitment for actors and creators alike.

Sometimes, a show starts to feel slow. The pacing drops through the floor and nothing is happening, just a string of episodes that don’t really make sense, unless the plan is to bore viewers to tears. There’s a stage in almost every long running show where I just have to stop watching for a couple of episodes, because there’s just not enough to hold my interest. But sometimes, those slow episodes where nothing is really happening are actually a really important part of the storyline.

Because it is in the slow episodes that writers can engage in more character development, and can push characters in subtle ways. Sometimes this provides a great testing ground in terms of a chance to make small adjustments and see how viewers respond. If they resist, you know to pull the character back, and because the change wasn’t dramatic, it’s not going to unsettle the show or make it feel inconsistent. If they seem to like it, you can get more extreme and start pushing the character more in that direction and seeing where it goes. You can start actually changing your characters and you can help them grow, a bit.

Plotting slowly doesn’t have to be a disaster when you craft it well. Those sluggish mid season episodes that bore viewers don’t have to be boring if you’re actually invested in character development and you want the show to grow. In fact, they can end up being the sleeper hits, the episodes people will keep returning to because there’s always something more they can get out of it. These understated, subtle episodes don’t just provide a relief from high drama and tension in a show that can’t sustain this level of intensity full time without starting to annoy viewers.

They can be a chance to play with characters in a sandbox, and I wish more shows did that. When you plot slowly, you have to beef up the story with some character studies and explorations, and it provides a great opportunity that creative teams should be picking up on and running with. You can make a simple episode into a delicious one with just a little bit of tweaking; you can change a flat, dull storyline into one that’s stark and sparse, sure, but in an artful way, a way that will pull readers in because they get invested in the characters, not the plot.

It’s the characters that keep viewers coming back, ultimately. Look at much of Six Feet Under. This was not a show that necessarily lurched from crisis to crisis, although there were certainly crises. There were a lot of episodes where not very much appeared to happen on the surface, but the episode still said important things. There were numerous episodes where the characters had a chance to grow into themselves a bit more, actually talk with each other about their lives rather than the latest crisis. Where viewers had a chance to see sides of characters they might not have had a chance to interact with if the show had been bent on keeping everyone in a constant state of tension.

Slow-moving stories aren’t a crime, unless you fail to utilise them the way they’re meant to be used. Neglecting slow plots, treating them as dross to fill an hour time slot rather than as an opportunity, now, that’s criminal. Every episode should count in television, whether you’re in your second season or your twentieth, because there’s a reason that viewers keep returning. Why would you want to go punishing them for their loyalty with garbage episodes that not only don’t advance the overall story, but also don’t provide a chance for the characters to advance themselves?

I’d say that Alan Ball has, perhaps more than anyone else, mastered this art, of pulling characters along a journey of growth within his shows through those quiet, sleepy episodes that end in a starburst that makes you realise you were sitting there complacent while something huge was going on. He’s not the only creator with this capability, though he’s certainly one that others could take tips from. Sometimes, great television is quiet.