All I Need to Know about Pacing I Learned from 80s Television

This is truly the Golden Era of television, with inventive hits like Stranger Things, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Orange Is the New Black lighting up screens across the country. Today’s TV has more diverse casts, complex storytelling, and often…a way to skip the commercials. In our household, we DVR most of the TV we watch so that we only encounter ads during live sports events. I don’t miss the advertising, exactly, but I have to say that the commercial breaks during the 1980s TV dramas taught me a lot about how to pace a story. Maybe today’s generation is missing out?

I watched a bunch of those action-adventure/mystery shows back in the day. MacGyver. Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Moonlighting. They all followed a predictable time clock. Top of the hour, we’d get the introduction to the story, usually with a quick hook. Someone turned up dead or in trouble. Maybe there was a robbery or a kidnapping. This is what we call the inciting event. It’s the change in circumstances that sets your story in motion, and it should happen right near the beginning.

We had to get up to change the channel.

After the credits, we’d have that first fifteen minutes of show until the quarter-hour break. During this time, Our Heroes would react to the inciting event in whatever way was appropriate. They’d develop some initial suspects. Look for clues. Right around the first commercial break, there would be some big development to shove the story forward—the kidnap victim is alive! We must find her! Dropping this oomph right before the break is not accidental; the show wants to make sure you stay tuned. Similarly, you want to keep people reading, so you need to make sure that your story has these ‘must keep going’ twists included in the tale.

The half-hour break is longer, so you need to pull out the bigger guns to keep everyone’s butts in their seats during those Energizer Bunny and Avis Rent-a-Car commercials. This means you probably want some bigger twist here, something like the introduction of a new suspect. Maybe the wife did it, not the husband!

Your third quarter is all about subverting expectations and making life even more difficult for Our Heroes. This is the ‘it’s always darkest before the dawn’ sequence, and the part of the story where it looks like the bad guy might get away with it, or that the kidnap victim may die before they rescue her. Things look grim heading into that break at the 45-minute mark!

During the final quarter of the story, things turn around for Our Heroes. They catch a break or find some new evidence and the path to victory becomes clear. In today’s stories, the end isn’t always as clean or simple as it was back on 1980s TV. Our Heroes may get their bad guy but they are altered for the experience. Not every wrong can be put right. Still, most stories close out near where they began: whatever the inciting incident was, it has been resolved, for better or for worse.

That it, the show’s over! Now it’s time for your nightly news…which these days is a bigger horror story than anything Stephen King could ever write.

Did you watch 80s TV dramas? What lessons did you take away?

Leave a Reply