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On Drama, Fan Service, and Serials

September 19, 2012 by Kiersi

Okay. Here it is. My guiltiest admission.

I am a total sucker for drama. Teenage girl drama. Soap operas. Recently, a friend turned me on to a trashy TV show called Gossip Girl (yeah, you heard me) and I couldn’t stop watching it for nearly three weeks. It’s like ordering bottomless fries at the pub down the street–you just can’t pull yourself away.

Drama works because it’s the fantasy that no one really has. I mean, who wants their life to be this complicated and messy? Daddy issues, amnesia, unexpected pregnancies, the gamut–but we kind of do. We envy their glamour. We envy their passion.

So why does it work? And how do you do it?

The Conflict Cycle

I don’t think anyone in TV has mastered the cycle of conflict, tension, and resolution like the serial drama writer. The nuances are incredible, if the content itself is banal and totally vapid. He’s bringing who to the party? She told you what about my sex life? And yet, like watching a train wreck, it’s impossible to turn it off. Each episode resolves as many questions as it asks. It ties up as many threads as it leaves hanging. It leaves the audience feeling a combination of satisfaction (for the resolved threads) and trepidation (for the cliffhangers).

Serial dramas and soap operas work with a large cast–and there’s a good reason for this. Each character or couple has a cycling timeline of tension and relief to keep the serial going. Each timeline runs independently of the other timelines. See the below illustration with three couples from Gossip Girl:

the conflict cycle of drama

While Blair and Chuck are in the throes of conflict, Nate and Vanessa are getting along, while things are heating up for Dan and Serena. It’s very carefully calculated. It makes me wonder what the writers’ own timeline looks like, and whether they have some sort of dartboard of potential conflicts waiting to be used when a character’s timeline cycles back again.

I can only imagine that writing a serial with plot continuity (as opposed to an episodic serial, like The Simpsons) is tricky business. There’s no drama without conflict, and there’s no conflict when our characters’ lives are all smooth sailing. But how does a writer keep the audience interested without making conflict feel forced and pre-meditated? How do we get our readers and watchers tied up in the drama, rooting for the characters, without disappointing them?


When I first heard the term fan service, it was usually used as a pejorative–the writers had “stooped” to giving the fans what they want in order to earn ratings.

But a good drama writer reads fans, and has a sense for what appeals to them. Success in a serial requires fans to come back with each new release, whether it’s an episode of a TV show or the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel.

Every drama uses fan service, to an extent. The writers get fans rooting for certain characters to have certain outcomes, lusting after a resolution. A good example is Blair and Chuck in Gossip Girl. They are both characters with enormous flaws, and by way of careful exposition, the writers lead the audience to believe that they are destined to be together–that only Blair can make Chuck happy and honest, and vice versa.

Then the writers drag it out. Episode after episode, they dodge a resolution: Chuck loves Blair, but Blair can’t admit she loves Chuck. Blair admits she loves Chuck, but Chuck has already made a mistake. The tension escalates. The stakes become higher and higher until it’s all or nothing.

Eventually, the writers give in and give the fans what they want. In a grand finale, Chuck and Blair accept their feelings and become a couple. The tension is resolved. The fans are pleased as punch. The season comes to an end.

Doling out the crowd-pleasers is not a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s the mark of a talented writer to know what the audience wants and play to it. Tease them, deny them, and finally reward them for their loyalty. But then you realize, this is a serial. No happiness can last for long, or the audience grows bored.

The Serial Problem

Now we have a problem: we can’t break up Blair and Chuck–at least, not yet. The fans are still as in love with them as they are with each other.

So the writers let them be happy for a while. Throw in trivial conflicts, strengthen the bonds, spotlight the conflict cycles of other characters and couples. But the audience notices. The audience still wants Blair and Chuck.

This is where Gossip Girl lost me. In a drama made up of essentially uninteresting characters (a problem that originates in the setting of Upper East Side New York), Blair and Chuck are complex and pleasing in a way that no one else is. But in a serial drama, no character can stay in paradise forever–so, naturally, they have to be broken up. The spider web of coupling must go on. Chuck is paired off with a random minor character, and Blair is embroiled in a separate drama. The “epic” relationship is broken. Destiny becomes meaningless.

We, the fans, lose faith.

I’m not sure that there is a solution to the Serial Problem. Perhaps the writers lost their sense of what the fans desired. Perhaps I’m the only fan who was disappointed by this choice, and the other fans had grown bored of C+B.

But I doubt it. After being introduced to the show, every other fan I encountered loved nothing about Gossip Girl more than Blair and Chuck. So what is a serial writer to do?

Thus Comes the End

Why does drama work? Why do we, the audience, get hooked on it like some mutated version of crack-cocaine?

It teases. It pulls our strings along, knowing what we want and only waiting until the tension is excruciating to deliver. It is constantly giving us hope while burning down bridges. But when there are no bridges left to burn, the show must come to an end.

So, I stopped watching. Maybe I’ll pick it up again someday, but regardless, I’ve learned some invaluable lessons. Mainly that I love drama and it’s silly to deny it; and maybe sillier not to write it myself! (Well, I’m fixing that.)


  1. Drama, gotta love it! It does keep people reading, or in the case of TV, watching.

  2. Great post! Now I know there’s a name for what my kids do (and thank God!): Conflict Cycle. When one of them is a mess, the other one seems to do pretty well. They take turns having meltdowns.

    As to TV writing, I totally hear you. One of the best books on writing craft is by a Hollywood script writer, Robert McKee, called simply “Story.” Well, there’s a long subtitle, but everything in the book is geared toward analyzing what makes a tight story.

    Confession: I LOVE American Idol. But that’s another post, and another kind of drama.

    • Kiersi says:

      Hahaha! You should write that post! And how it somehow relates to writing. Because I would be interested.

      Good suggestion on the Robert McKee book. I’ll have to check it out. Trying to buff up my storytelling chops as we speak.

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