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TV shows nowadays are elaborate, lasting 45 minutes or more per episode, with each episode being a full-blown movie in itself, since they have their own screenplay the length of a Hollywood film.

What are some must-knows about structuring a story into separate episodes? It seems like such a huge task to organize multiple parallel subplots in a way that makes sense to an audience without losing track of where you are as the screenplay writer. How do they even pull it off?

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    Hm. A TV show episode lasting 45 minutes (as most do, some last 1 hour) is not the same length as a screenplay (usually 2+ hours). Or am I misunderstanding your first paragraph? Can you clarify?
    – Erk
    Mar 27, 2022 at 17:46
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    @Erk increasing episode length is a well-known phenomenon. Broadcast TV had to keep episodes about 45 min long to keep them within 1-hour time slots and be able to put in all the commercials. Cable TV didn't have many commercials, and episode length increased to about 55 min. Now with online broadcasting becoming the norm, 1 hour length is only a convention - many modern episodes run for 80+ minutes.
    – Alexander
    Mar 28, 2022 at 20:52
  • It is a big task, and to handle this big task, TV shows have a big staff. Different parts of this process are handled by the showrunner, the head writer, staff writers, script editors, script supervisors, script coordinators, and so on.
    – Juhasz
    Mar 29, 2022 at 17:49
  • @Alexander, oh? I may be too conventional in my TV consumption (haven't seen longer than 1 hr episodes), but what you say seems logical... well until the episodes get so long people get distracted and drop the show I guess...
    – Erk
    Mar 30, 2022 at 16:22
  • @Erk that's depends on how people perceive "series". In US, sitcoms usually run within 30 minute slots, dramas within 60 minute slots. In other markets, like Europe, short series with long (like 90 min) episodes are common. People just need to have different expectations before sitting down to watch a show.
    – Alexander
    Mar 30, 2022 at 18:20

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I'm not privy to the series writing rooms, but from what I have seen and read:

Many series are "episodic", like Star Trek series. This means you can watch them in nearly any order; the characters do not change from episode to episode.

Long plot lines are planned in advance; like love stories, but they are written so that the turning points ("beats" in the long story) can be scattered into these other episodes, like "filler". At least until enough of it is told to dedicate some episode mostly to the long story.

So they aren't more complex than, say, an entire movie about a love story, like Sleepless in Seattle, It is just that the roughly 40 beats of the series love story are scattered as 1-3 minute scenes across many episodes. Which is why we may see them develop over several seasons, or even the entire series. In The Big Bang Theory, the relationship of Sheldon and Amy took seven years, from meeting to marriage. But if you just list the turns in their relationship, you might compress them into a movie. There are several episodes that focus on that relationship, but a great deal of it occurs as filler within other episodic one-off plots. And there are several episodes where their relationship is not mentioned at all; but others are: Howard and Bernie, Leonard and Penny, Koothrappali and a girlfriend, or Howard, or his parents, etc.

Ongoing series that DO have character development, as I see them, tend to plot out the ups and downs of several relationships (beats), stretch that plot out over a season or more, and then within episodes focus on a "distraction" one-off issue that can be resolved in one episode, but can support one or two beats of some long-game relationship stories.

It isn't easy creative work, by any means. But from the outside, that is a framework I think I see.

To answer this question specifically, I think the same structure applies regardless of the length of the episodes, even movie-length episodes. You would just need to develop about twice as many relationships to work with, as an hour-long series has.

P.S. You can often do that (double the relationships) by just adding one or two more characters; because they have relationships with all the rest of the cast. The Big Bang Theory added both Bernadette and Amy Farrah Fowler relatively late in the series; as romantic interests for Howard and Sheldon, respectively.

PPS: In response to OP, "How do they pull it off?"

I don't think there is one way, I've known several writers that use various methods, you should use what appeals to you. Some, like Stephen King, use no method at all, he just starts writing. Others make detailed outlines in Word. Others draw hierarchical graphs on a whiteboard. Others handwrite beats of different stories on index cards (a beat is a turning point in the story; an event, a relationship change, etc), then mix and match and revise the beats as they go along. You could do that in Word: an outline of each long story; make up a symbol to track finished beats in that story, then choose a few beats from some of the arcs to advance in a given episode, then mark those as done.

So basically you can have, with say 5 characters, 20 possible relationship arcs mapped out in 20 beats or so; but you don't pursue them all in every episode; just one or a few of them. In series there is usually some main adventure going on (which they are not mapping out very far ahead, they brainstorm those on the fly), and then you also execute a beat in one or two of the 20 possible relationships but not the other 18 or 19.

So in the Big Bang theory, Bernadette, Penny and Amy go to Vegas without the guys, but Penny is busy working, so Bernadette and Amy party and get to know each other better. Or in one episode, Amy waits with Leonard for Sheldon to show up, and Leonard learns something about Amy. Or in another, Penny and Sheldon end up with time alone, and exchange information that shows they have something in common, which Sheldon did not expect.

If you are watching for it, you can see this happening, the cycling through of relationship beats; show after show. Of course in a 24 minute sitcom, the main attraction is 20-21 minutes of screen time and the relationships advancement scenes are the other 3-4 minutes; so relationships can advance quite slowly.

But sometimes that gets flipped for some major beat in a relationship, a whole show is geared toward a big relationship update, like when Howard and Walowitz on a whim devise an online dating profile for Sheldon, and he ends up meeting Amy, his appropriately weird soul mate, who joins the cast as a character in nearly every episode: And then, your new character can add new life to the series: We had five characters (Sheldon, Leonard, Penny, Howard, Koothrapalli), and we added Bernadette (Howard's mate), but with her comes five new relationship arcs with all the main five. Then you introduce Amy, and she comes with six new relationships, the main five plus Bernadette; there are several episodes of just relationship development with the three girls, or one episode of just Bernadette and Amy (both scientists) bonding over the treatment of women in science.

It is hard to start a series with more than five main cast members (5 have 5x4=20 pairings, 7 have 7*6=42 pairings), but once you have spent a few years developing core relationships in the main crew, replacing a main crew character or coming up with an excuse to add a new character to the crew opens up a lot room for new relationship arcs to be devised and then developed.

In the NCIS long term series, this is a staple, main cast members move on or get killed on the job, because the writers have completed relationship arcs (or the arcs weren't working out that well) and they need a change to keep the series moving on.

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    you give notice to what we all observe in tv show structuring, but the question was more about how do screenwriters go about organizing and formulating such a lengthy plot structure into e.g. 10 episodes. How, physically. Storyboard, paper card cut-outs on the floor, which screenwriting software designed for mega projects like these, etc
    – user610620
    Mar 29, 2022 at 1:07
  • @user610620 Apologies. I don't think there is one way, I've known several writers that use various methods, you should use what appeals to you. Some, like Stephen King, use no method at all, he just starts writing. Others make detailed outlines in Word. Others draw hierarchical graphs on a whiteboard. Others handwrite beats of different stories on index cards, then mix and match and revise as they go along. You could do that in Word: an outline of each long story; a "" to track finished beats in that story, then choose a few beats from some to advance as you write each episode, and "" those.
    – Amadeus
    Mar 29, 2022 at 9:57
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    This depends on what creative phase the show is in. At the beginning, a screenwriter may have great flexibility in writing and pitching screenplay to a studio. Later, there might be an imperative coming from show producers: "We have this many episodes, and target episode runtime is this much - do your best to fit the story in this format". Screenplay between those two phases can be completely rewritten.
    – Alexander
    Mar 29, 2022 at 17:58
  • @Amadeus could you work your comment above into the answer, physically?
    – user610620
    Dec 7, 2022 at 15:40
  • Regarding your "different writers having different styles" J. Michael Strazynski meticulously plotted out Babylon Five such that he had all five seasons largely figured out by the time he pitched (and notably included a series of back up characters who could replace main characters if the original actors had to leave the series unexpectedly... which happened twice during the show's production. Conversely, Greg Weisman of Gargoyles said that much of the interconnected plot of season 2 was to find a way to bring back a one off season one character who's actor he enjoyed working with.
    – hszmv
    Dec 8, 2022 at 15:32

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