For a bit of fun, I thought it would be great to examine the TV series, Once Upon A Time, which, in my opinion, started strong before faltering in quality and becoming laden with oh-so-many plot holes, inconsistencies, disappearing characters, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I still love OUAT despite all its flaws. However, I thought it’d be fun to glean writing lessons from it. Even though a novelist doesn’t have all of the external factors that can plague a screenwriter or showrunner, such as actors leaving before your narratively ready for them to, there are still commonalities embedded in the simple act of telling a story. (Spoilers begin after this point.)
Setting The Stage
Both forms require well-developed characters who grip the reader/viewer and enticing plots designed to hook. OUAT definitely checked all of those boxes in its first season. It had a great premise: fairy-tale characters are brought to our modern-day world by a curse, their memories replaced by false ones, and they are unable to leave the town of Storybrooke, Maine. Episodes featured present actions and flashbacks to the Enchanted Forest, the latter of which often tied beautifully into the character’s current situations while also unveiling more about the show’s worlds (both magical and present-day) and how the characters ended up in Storybrooke.
The characters were stellar in season one. Our main character is Emma Swan, who fills a “chosen one” role (she’s called the Savior). Her parents, Prince Charming and Snow White, sent her through a magic wardrobe to our world so she could then wake them and the other fairy-tale characters from the evil queen’s curse. Despite being a chosen one, Emma is relatable and has her problems and negative character traits in addition to her positives. It’s also awesome that she’s working as a bail bond agent. She is dragged into the action when on her 28th birthday the son she gave up for adoption (Henry) crashes her party of one, spouting a story of trapped fairy-tale characters and, most troubling, Emma’s parents being there only they don’t remember her. She doesn’t believe him, of course, but she feels a connection with her son and is also concerned about his home life with his adoptive mom: the mayor of Storybrooke, Regina Mills aka the evil queen.
For the first season, the driving action is done by Henry to get Emma to believe, so she can break the curse. Which *spoilers* she does by the end of the season, but the writers took it a step farther and, in my opinion, shot themselves in the foot.
Where It Goes Wrong
Not only does Emma believe at the end of season one, but she also breaks the curse by the season’s last episode.
This would ultimately paint the show’s subsequent seasons into a rinse-and-repeat plotline of “There’s a NEW curse.” A second curse might have worked if it’d been done right and not allowed to become an overused plot device. But since it did become overused, viewers could only roll their eyes–many also abandoned the show.
It offers a great lesson for writers to plot out their own series as fully as possible to avoid such pitfalls. Sure, show producers and writers don’t always know how many seasons they will receive, but neither do novelists, who might find their series dropped if they underperform by a traditional publisher. It pays to have multiple routes mapped out in advance. Even if you are self-publishing, you might have to make tough calls if a series is continually in the red — unless it is a passion project to you versus a business.
Since they had to be hoping for a longer-running show, it would have been wise for the writers to only satisfy one of the overall goals: getting Emma to believe. By all means keep the already-existing hints that the curse is weakening, but leave the fulfillment of the second goal for the second season/book–give viewers/readers a reason to continue on. Even without the curse breaking, maybe more so because it hasn’t, there are plenty of intrigues to do just that.
If Henry is kept in a coma at the end of season one (plus Pinocchio turned to wood), it leaves Emma alone to figure out this new world that she now acknowledges and solve the ultimate challenge that she, as the Savior, was born to do: break the curse. While in the existing season one, Emma does have a period of time where she is alone, having a full season would have allowed a deeper dive into her character with more ups and downs as she sets out to satisfy her role as the Savior.
Presenting her with more of a challenge to break the curse would make for a more rewarding viewing experience, especially if she were pitted more against Regina while the two women are still drawn together by Henry’s state–people love juicy drama. Speaking of drama, Emma is now aware of her parents; that is a gold mine of emotion, especially if they still don’t remember her. Additionally, the weakening curse might also result in more flashes of real memory for the other fairy-tale characters, thus resulting in many different reactions or dramatic situations, particularly if it’s the wrong character having them.
Season two would mainly focus on breaking the curse, accumulating in success, while also setting up the next conflict for season three (don’t you dare drop another curse! And might want to tone down the baddie of the season trend as well), which would be the season where fairy-tale characters also deal with the sudden return of their memories and grapple with their situation: do they remain in Storybrooke or do they return to the Enchanted Forest? Between new conflicts, which could be internal or external, the audience should be hooked. The formula that drew in people would remain intake and avoid the pitfall of repetitiveness.
Plot out your series and have a rough idea of how you will get from Point A to Point Z, yet remain flexible to adapt to changes that may come while actually writing the series’ individual novels or due to external real-life demands. In addition to knowing key plot points, trace out key moments of character development. Seriously examine the ground you want to cover:
- Do you have enough material? Or are you recycling plot points, making for a tired retread? Perhaps you don’t need as many installments as you originally anticipated. If you are set on the number, you need to dive into your story and see where you can expand the plot, add subplots, or expand character development points/find new challenges for your characters. Be careful, however, that these additions do no feel forced or come out of the left field. They must feel like a natural progression of story and character. If this cannot be achieved, don’t push for an unneeded number of books.
- Or conversely, are you trying to pack too much in one book? Breaking the action up between your books in a different manner would be helpful, maybe even inserting a new, at-the-time-unexpected book. Authors also need to honestly ask if some items are benefiting their story. If no, rather than expanding the number of books, writers will want to cut the excess.
- Are you wrapping up your protagonists’ arcs/goals too quickly? Is all momentum for sequels arrested because of this? Would it be a better option to extend their journey (or at least a part of it) over the course of a book or two or three? Dynamic characters, who change, will need new challenges, goals, and growth over the course of a series. It keeps readers interested. However, such progress requires plotting out. If too much is solved by characters too early in an intended series, why should the reader want to continue?
- Are your characters’ arcs repeating themselves, all progress from previous books lost? Just like plots, no reader wants to retread the same character arc with the same character who underwent it in the last book. It is frustrating and makes the reader wonder why they’d even bothered to read the previous installment. Once one arc is resolved, add in a new challenge for the protagonist that might tap into another aspect of their character. Make it fresh, a new discovery for the reader.
Taking the time to ask these types of questions can help prevent your series from going off the rails or becoming reliant on already-tread paths or, in the case of OUAT, repeat curses. It will make for a more rewarding and enjoyable reading experience as the reader witnesses pieces come together in a logical, earned manner (maybe having a few ah-ha! moments as they click together). They will also lose themselves in characters’ development, which will progress in a natural way that lacks backslides to square one for no reason (as if a previous installment never happened).
I intend to have an ongoing series of essays that examine Once Upon a Time from a novelist’s perspective. The next one I intend to write will deal with characters: when you have too many they start to fall through the cracks.