The Episodic Table of Plot Elements

sitcomIf you have ever watched commercial programming on television you may already be aware of this, but sometimes the shows repeat plot points. Surprising but true. It generally works something like the instructions on a shampoo bottle:

  • Hire a core troupe of actors and put them in a setting, like a meat packing plant or a sewer treatment facility
  • Go through the episodic table of plot elements
  • After a certain period of time, usually 3-7 years, replace the actors and the setting, like the actuarial tables dept. at an insurance company
  • Rinse and repeat

When watching a show with my wife, within the first 30 seconds I’ll shout out the plot variation as soon as it is recognized. Trust me, she really loves this. “Oh, god, no!! It’s plot #42. Wacky birthing episode ending with a touching isn’t-that-thing-cute moment. I’ll be on the computer. Let me know when it’s over.”

Here’s a few excerpts from the episodic table:

  • A previously unknown family member of a main character comes to visit for a short time (father, mother, brother, sister, child, etc.)
  • A main character is extremely distressed because an extended family member gets engaged, married, divorced, is involved in adultery or illicit love affair and/or dies
  • Two main characters are involved in a marriage proposal, wedding, break-up, divorce, adoption, pregnancy and/or birthing

Even with those three limited examples from the table the possibilities are almost endless. I bet they could be used to generate over 500 specific plots. Mother and cousin come to visit. Father and sister die. Brother and niece get engaged. Mother pregnant, father having an affair. Father pregnant, mother having an affair. Yep, the permutations are practically unlimited.

When watching Northern Exposure the other day I noticed one of the rarer elements. “Looks like #138 coming our way,” I shouted. A mute traveling performer had been courting one of the main characters for several episodes. Sagely, I predicted, “I’ll bet the mute guy is moved to speak in a moment that will be especially poignant.” It was so touching, that I nailed it, I mean. My wife couldn’t have been more pleased.

The episodic table easily applies to movies, too. George Lucas, for example, often calls crap like this “notes” that are repeated across films, again and again and again and again and again. Did I mention again? To make this point I’ll now transport you from one galaxy far away to a make-believe land of medieval sex, violence and political intrigue. It won’t require that much suspension of disbelief.

Or, as I like to call it, “A Note Ripped From Star Wars By Game Of Thrones.” Introducing element #78: The Fake Greeting.

Episodic Element #78 – The Fake Greeting

Television and films are about telling stories. An exposition scene introduces important characters or elements that are critical to the story. For example, the moment two main characters meet and, by way of the meeting, we learn a little bit more about each of them. Exposition.

The producers of these entertainments get off on little tricks of the trade. They might be inside jokes that they try to slip by the audience unnoticed. Or industry-insider things that only great people like themselves could ever possibly notice. And, more often than you’d think, they simply try to trick the audience. They’ve dipping in this well so often that we’ve learned to expect it and are hardly ever surprised. Still, they make the attempt. The show must go on.

landoIn a little movie called Star Wars a character named Han Solo was out for a joyride in his spaceship. He needed to pull over for a pit stop.

Luckily he remembered his old friend, Lando Calrissian. Yeah, he’d be willing to help a buddy out, right? Never mind that he hated Han’s guts, right?

Ooh. What might happen?

In what was intended, I guess, to be a moment of dramatic tension designed to make us swoon with fear, Lando strides out to the landing platform with a goon squad in tow. Whoa! Check out that look on his face. He looks pissed.

The ruse is allowed to carry for several beats. Will Lando really turn on his friend? Will they be home in time for supper? But then the tension breaks. Lando and Han break into grins and laughter and clasp each other firmly. A little too firmly if you know what I mean. Lightsaber duel! The heady shift from deadly tension to love fest is supposed to dazzle our admittedly limited senses. As opposed to actual storytelling.

Oh, and the goon squad? They mysteriously turned around and, unnoticed, walk away. It seems that Lando was clever enough to bring them with him on the platform for no purpose other than trying to briefly fool his friend. And, by extension, us. A practical joke I guess. Ha ha. That Lando is one clever dude and quite the kidder. This is classic George Lucas. (That’s not a compliment.)

Viola. The Fake Greeting has just been served.

thronesNow cue up the Game of Thrones. Although the weirdo author of the series literally cranked out 1.4 million words of source material, that wasn’t enough for the producers. (That’s about three times as many words as the entire The Lord Of The Rings series of books. I used to think those were long.)

Naw, the source material isn’t enough. So the producers steal a moment from the George Lucas playbook. Yep, it’s our old friend, The Fake Greeting. I wonder if they had to pay Lucas Disney Corporation royalties?

The King? Is coming here? We shall redouble our efforts!

King Robert rides into Cloud City Winterfell. Will his old friend Lord Stark help him in his time of need? It’s supposed to feel ominous that the King is coming, right? After all, the trip from King’s Landing took him a whole month. That’s no small thing.

Finally, the moment is at hand (heh). The King strides up to Lord Stark, who quickly kneels in fealty. Boy, the King sure looks pissed. And is that a moment of fear we see ripple across our noble warrior’s face? What the hell is going on between these two?

Dramatically the King motions for his loyal servant to rise. They gaze upon each other with gritty resolve and glinty eyes.

Holy shit! I’m scared. What the fuck is going to happen?

The alleged tension lasts for several beats. Then it’s all laughs and smiles. We’ve just been had. Again.

Well played, The Fake Greeting. Well played!

If you, the loyal reader, and I should ever meet, I promise you this: You’ll get The Fake Greeting served up ice cold. Think of it as my gift to you.

No doubt, somewhere, J.J. Abrams will be pleased.

14 responses

  1. I’ve never faked anything in my life. Greetings or anything else.

    May I have that ice cold greeting stirred instead of shaken? Just to add a little twist.

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    1. As you wish. And I never fake anything, either, except for sincerity, of course.

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      1. Or your negativity. Thankfully.

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      2. Faking negativity? For me that would be akin to having my fingers crossed while praying to God. Sacrilege!

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  2. Tom just did “The Fake Greeting” on me. I asked to borrow his ink pen. I used it, handed it back to him. He grabbed the pen in his hand and looked at me lovingly, a loving glint in his eye. He slowly came in for a kiss while at the same time raised his pen and “Fake Jabbed” it towards my face. Only thing is the pen connected with my face. He was so shocked he started laughing hysterically. I was fuming and screamed “What the fuck?” He replies “I just had this urge”. I think I”ll go with plot number #43, the “Fake Divorce” … or is it fake?!

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    1. I thought “I just had this urge” was an acceptable defense for practically any behavior. At least that’s what I learned from the evening news. My apologies, madam.

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  3. The Beloved and I have a habit of watching procedurals which are the kings, I think, of using the plot point table of the elements. Our current one is that the most famous guest star probably committed the murder.

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    1. That is very sound reasoning. Any time CSI introduces a non-regular character I usually yell, “They probably did it.” About 70% of the time I’m right.

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      1. Snoring Dog Studio

        No kidding. Most people can spot the character who’s going to be killed in the next few minutes, too.

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  4. Snoring Dog Studio | Reply

    Yeah, it’s annoying – all this recycling of plot lines and gimmicks. But then, I think, well, are we humans that interesting and unique? Aren’t we all just recycling behaviors and comments that we’ve heard over and over again? Is it even possible to strive for originality in TV and movies. Really, I know people who seem just like those I see on TV and in movies – without all the sex-having, of course. That’s where real fantasy comes into play. But, yes, originality is a rare thing on screen. Heck, Hollywood decided they had to remake “The Sound of Music.” And I’ve seen that plot line replayed a million times over. Well, maybe just a dozen, but still.

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    1. If you pay attention, the repeating plot lines stick out like a sore thumb. That’s one thing I loved about Seinfeld and Larry David. Refreshingly different.

      I agree with you, though, it’s the way that it’s told that sometimes makes a difference.

      Remake of The Sound of Music? Wow. How odd. I’m still surprised there has already been a remake of the Spider Man movie. I’m currently waiting on remakes of Ender’s Game and The Life of Pi.

      Let us carefully check the plots of the next three Star Wars movies, too. We just might not be surprised. 🙂

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  5. The comments were as good as the original post! I figured out on the show Cold Case that the third person the detectives interviewed was the killer. The show died for me after that. I also hate the fake greeting and serve my drink with a slice of lemon.

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    1. Clever. Thanks to you unraveling that mystery a lot of cold cases can now be solved. All they have to do is interview at least three people!

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      1. As long as they get to the third person all the cold cases will be solved. I’ll be worried if they have a show with only two suspects.

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