I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing, particularly those authors who write in your genre. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. Every other week, I’ll bring you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show. This post will help you learn how to write a story arc. The first half of this post covered creating character development.
This week we'll take a look at Friends. Potential spoilers follow. There's a lot to be learned from this sitcom, but I want to look at wrapping up fiction, whether it's a series or a standalone piece. Specifically, we'll talk about story arc.
This post is part of a series of related posts on what popular television shows can teach us about writing. Be sure to check out other posts that cover writing excellent characters, creating conflict and tension, and perfecting the details in your fiction. You can also read posts covering popular shows such as, How I Met Your Mother, Fargo, and House of Cards.
For those of you who don't know—and, sadly, I was one of those people a couple of months ago, having never given the show a chance—Friends follows the lives of six single friends in New York City. The show begins when Rachel Green runs out on her wedding, seeking out her childhood friend, Monica Geller. She moves in with Monica, joining her circle of friends: Joey Tribbiani, Chandler Bing, Phoebe Buffay, and Monica's brother Ross. The show spends the next ten years following their humorous adventures and mishaps in the world of dating and their careers.
4. Create Consistency from Beginning to End
Joey fits into a certain mold, from beginning to end. Over the course of the series, we see each of the characters evolve and change, mostly through relationships. Chandler and Monica develop a relationship. By the series finale, Rachel and Ross finally choose to be with each other. (This is also a consistency in the series—their on-again, off-again relationship is part of the central story arc. The fact that it finally gets wrapped up, and that they end up together, is a satisfying resolution.) Even Phoebe ends up with the perfect guy for her, finally breaking her character's pattern of short-lived flings. Joey, though, remains the same. He's still goofy, a little slow, but absolutely reliable, even at the series' end.
"The One Where Joey Speaks French," in the final season, is a perfect example of creating consistency. At this point, Joey has established himself as an actor. But in this particular episode, he lies about speaking French on his résumé in order to get a part in a play. Phoebe attempts to teach him, and Joey thinks he's got the hang of it. Little does he know that he's actually speaking nonsense the entire time. Even as everyone else changes (even if their personality doesn't), Joey remains the same. And that's good for the show. It's good for fiction. Joey is still like a big brother to the other characters—loving and over-protective. And that's why Chandler and Monica promise to always have a room for him at their house.
Apply This to Your Story Arc
One of the biggest challenges in writing fiction is creating consistency from the very beginning. That begins with consistency in character. Yes, characters are going to grow and change—in positive and negative ways—over the course of any work. But there's also an element of consistency within their character arc. You know that a certain character is going to make the same decision, every time. James Bond is going to shoot first, and ask questions later. Harry Potter is going to make a bold, impetuous decision that will impact the safety of himself and his friends. Joey fits this type of character mold. A good story arc needs characters like him.
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5. Take the Audience Back to Earlier Times
Some of the best moments in Friends are when the creators take the audience back to each of the characters before they actually became friends. I'm thinking specifically of when Chandler and Ross were college roommates, and Monica and Rachel were best friends in high school. This starts in early seasons with the running gag that Monica used to be extremely overweight. It continues into the final season with the episode "The One Where the Stripper Cries." At their college reunion, Ross and Chandler reminisce on pacts they made to never date certain girls. They learn that each of them broke the pact, and that Chandler kissed Rachel at a party to get back at Ross. Ross is upset, because that party was the same night he and Rachel first kissed. As it turns out, though, he actually kissed his sister Monica. Ross and Monica's realizations are classic, and the intertwining flashbacks that accompany this episode are perfect.
Apply This to Your Story Arc
Flashbacks, or recalling to earlier times in a story, are a perfect way to encompass a story arc. It gives the audience a chance to create connections between current moments and previous times. The flashbacks to Monica are some of the funniest moments in Friends. But the creators never overdid these moments, using them sparingly throughout the series. Sprinkling these moments make them more powerful. And recalling them towards the end of the series, while also revealing a secret between Monica and Ross (that neither knew!) that was set aside for 10 years, is good writing. If you're going to pull off a technique like this, you need to make sure you plan out your novel or series. Create moments early on that you can tie back to at the end. This is about rewarding readers for getting through your story. It gives a full circle to your story arc.
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6. Wrap Up Every Loose End
This should be obvious. You can't have a story arc without wrapping up every loose end. Sure, you can leave a thing unexplained here and there (see The Pineapple Incident, How I Met Your Mother), but the major things should be resolved. Friends accomplishes this with two of their major storylines. First, they resolve the will-they, won't-they question between Ross and Rachel, with a tremendous series finale. The drama builds over the final moments, as the audience and Ross wonder whether Rachel will truly get on a plane bound for Paris, where she'll start her new job—and a new life. Of course, she doesn't. Secondly, the writers wrap up Monica and Chandler's arc, as they become adoptive parents to twins. This resolves drama that built from the end of season nine, when they learned it would be difficult for them to conceive. Season 10 follows their adoption process, including their lies about who they actually are. At the end of the series, though, they end up with the babies because they're ultimately good people.
Apply This to Your Story Arc
A story arc means you need to have a beginning, middle, and—perhaps most importantly—end. It's not enough to just have an ending, though. You must create a satisfying ending to your story arc. If you plant something early on in the series, you have to follow through on it. The writers of Friends pulled this off. With six, single friends, all exploring relationships and love lives, it was natural that a couple of them end up together. This was an underlying premise early in the series, and the writers followed through with two relationships at the end: one everyone was rooting for all along (Ross and Rachel) and one that everyone grew to love (Monica and Chandler). Remember to deliver on your promises. The hook you set for your reader in chapter one should ultimately prove to be worth it. Fulfilling that hook completes your story arc.
Are you a fan of Friends? Let us know in the comments, and share anything you’ve learned from the show that can be applied to writing—there's simply too much to cover in just one post, which is why you should stay tuned for the second half of this one! If you have suggestions for future posts in this same vein, feel free to post those in the comments, too!
Cris Freese is the managing editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the editor of Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. You can follow him on Twitter @crisfreese, where you can laugh at his frustrations as a hopeless Cincinnati sports fan.