Episodic Plotlines

by Anne Robb
(Grand Prairie, Texas, USA)

Question: I was wondering if you have any tips on writing stories in a more episodic format. I'm writing scripts for a comic book series that my friend is drawing, and we want to have a format in which there is an over arching plot line, made up of smaller, individual stories.

I found this site years ago, and the Dramatica theory has worked wonders for me in the past with my personal projects, but I'm wondering if you have any tips as to how I could possibly use it in this format.

Thank you for your time.

Answer: There are basically three approaches.

First approach: You can apply the theory to each episode, to make each one a complete story. Your overarching plot will have its own story structure, and you simply find opportunities to tell a little bit of the overarching story in each episode.

Second: You plot out the arc for the entire series. Certain issues will be events in this overarching story. Other episodes will be separate tales used to explore other themes or character backgrounds.

Third: The beauty of Dramatica is that it is recursive. Any event or signpost can be turned into a sequence of smaller events with its own arc. For instance, if you are using the Dramatica software and you have created a structure for the overall series, take a look at the Plot Sequence report. This report breaks down each signpost into a series of four stages, which you can think of as 1) setup, 2) complication, 3) climax, and 4) resolution.

For instance, let's say your story goal for the overall series concerned Obtaining, and that the four signposts for the overall arc were Understanding, Doing, Obtaining, and Learning. If you were doing a 4-issue series, each of these signposts would become the story goal of one issue/episode. Issue 1 would be about a new understanding or misunderstanding. Issue 2 might be
about doing something complicates the plot. Issue 3 might be where the characters get/lose something, and Issue 4 would be about learning something that resolves the story.

However, let's say you wanted to do more than four issues. Turning to the Plot Sequence report, you might see that the first signpost, Understanding, breaks down into four stages: Truth, Evidence, Suspicion, and Falsehood.

You can then create four stories, making each of these topics into the story goal for a standalone story. Do this with each signpost, and you now have goals for 16 stories.

The beauty of this approach is that each issue is an episode within a larger story arc, which is in turn one act of the overarching series story, so it all hangs together. The readers want to get the next episode to see what happens next in the overarching story. Yet, you can still tell a complete story in each issue, so the reader gets a satisfying experience.

You could take this a step further. For instance, let's say you take the time to design a separate story form for Act 1 (or season one), which is about Understanding (or misunderstanding). You would make Truth, Evidence, Suspicion, and Falsehood the four signposts in the overall throughline for this act. If you turn to the Plot Sequence report for this act, it will break down Truth into four stages. Same with the others. Now you have story goals for 16 issues within this Act. Repeat for the other acts and that's enough for 64 issues.

Even if you don't have the Dramatica software to guide you, you can take this same approach on your own. Break your series into 4 acts, each act into its own 4-part arc, and each of those into a 4-part sequence, etc. Each part is an issue.

There are other ways to break down signposts into sequences, but this is the simplest.

Best of luck.

Comments for Episodic Plotlines

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Thank you very much for your time.
by: Anne Robb

Thank you for answering my question so promptly, you have provided me with a veritable well of useful information.

Great, now how do I do it?
by: Douglas Clarke

This is just what I was looking for and it all make sense, right until I try to do it in the tool.

If I go to the "Story Engine" section and click on the "Signposts" tab, I get a domain and four signposts for each story. So far so good.

The Overall story for my act 1 is, (Doing) is explored in terms of Investigation, Appraisal, Reappraisal, and Doubt.

The only domain that seems close is "Activity"
The first signpost is then "Gathering information"
The second then has to be "Understanding" or "Doing". I guess Appraisal is understanding how much something is worth.
The third then has to be "Doing" or "Obtaining" Neither of these seems to match "Reappraisal"
If I skip to the fourth I'm again left with "Doing" or "Obtaining" and once again neither seems to be a good substitute for "Doubt"

I went through the other stories and didn't have any better luck.

I'm sure I'm missing something simple here. And help would be great.

Douglas Clarke


to: Doug
by: Glen

The original question was how to design an overarching plot in a comic book series made up of many individual stories/episodes/issues.

So, assuming you have created a storyform in Dramatica for the overarching story, that story will have 16 signposts (a four-part story arc for each of the 4 major throughlines). Each signpost could become an episode in the series.

In your example, the first episode might be all about the protagonist's effort to Do something (overall throughline, signpost 1). Your storyform tells you that Doing should be explored through Investidation, Appraisal, Reappraisal, and Doubt.

So that story would have four acts. Act one, the setup, would have an Investigation or looking for evidence to confirm if something is true. In act two, things would get more complicated as, perhaps, the evidence gets Appraised. Act three moves to a crisis as something happens to cause a Reappraisal. And act four might resolve the story by creating a Doubt that will lead into the next episode.

Now, let's say you want your series to be much longer than 16 episodes. Perhaps as many as 64 episodes. You could develop each of these 16 stories/signposts into sequences of 4 episodes.

For instance, lets say you want the Investigation to be a story arc that takes place over four episodes. You would then divide the investigation into a four-act story.

Act one would be the setup (perhaps the story of how the protagonist is put on the case). Act two would be where the investigation gets more complicated as problems and conflicts arise. Act three would bring the investigation to a crisis; and act four would bring it to a successful or unsuccessful resolution that leads into the Appraisal sequence.

You could then repeat this for each of the other parts of the Doing signpost to create 16 episodes/stories.

At the moment, the dramatica software does not have the capacity to generate a complete story form for each of these potentially 64 episodes, but you can apply the theory on your own (check out the other articles on this site which are written for mostly people who don't have the software).

Multiple Throughline Signposts
by: Andrew K.

Hi Glen,

This site has been amazing and a huge help.

I had a quick question.

I understand how to set up 4 episodes/stories from the signposts in the Overall Story. That intrinsically makes sense.

Where it starts to break down a little for me is when you stated that you could take the signposts from each throughline and create up to 64 episodes.

It seems like it would create a jumbled mess. Or because it comes from the Master Story Arc document that it will tie back into the overall story?

Does this make sense? If not, I'll try my best to rephrase it.

Thanks again,


To Andrew
by: Glen

It might seem like jumbled mess if you were trying to hold all 64 events in your mind at once. But it's a matter of perspective, or perhaps zoom.

For instance, if you look at a story, you can see it has four acts. Zoom in on one act, and you can see it has something going on (a signpost) in each of the four throughlines. Zoom in on one signpost, and you might see it's actually a sequence of events with its own four part structure. At this point, you may have 64 events, but most people can only grasp two or three levels at a time, so you you may lose sight of the story as a whole while you work on individual scenes. But as long as you stay aware of the next level up, you can stay on track

Most writers shouldn't/won't try to plot in more detail than this.

However, if you are writing an episode in a series, it can help to zoom out to look at the arc of, perhaps, the first 16 episodes, of which this episode is only a part. Seeing how one episode fits into the longer arc helps you foreshadow what is to come. (Throw in a few stand-alone episodes and you have enough stories for a season of TV.)

If you are planning a longer series, perhaps a monthly comic book you hope will run for many years, you might zoom out again, and consider how the first 16 episodes might be act one of an arc that will span the entire series.

The point is that the structure is recursive. You can have as many levels as you like, but you can only hold a limited number of levels in your mind at once, which is one reason never see a series arc that spans more than a few seasons of television. The other reason is that it's a lot of planning when you don't know how long the series will last. Consequently, longer series (such as some comic books) lean towards episodic structure. However, if you love long tight arcs, and you can take the time to plan, the theory will support you.

by: Andrew K.

Hi Glen,

Thanks for the response, that makes a lot of sense.

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