Story arc

From Academic Kids

In episodic storytelling media such as television, comic books and comic strips a story arc is an extended or continuing storyline. In a television series, for example, the story would unfold over many episodes. In television, the use of the story arc is much more common in dramas than in comedies, especially in soap operas. Web comics are more likely to use story arcs than newspaper comics, as most web comics have readable archives online that a newcomer to the strip can read in order to understand what's going on.

Many American comic book series are now written in four- or six-issue arcs, within a continuing series. Short story arcs are easier to package as trade paperbacks for resale, and more accessible to the casual reader than the never-ending continuity that once characterized comics.

Although story arcs on television have been around for decades, and are common in many countries where multi-episode storylines are the norm (an example being Britain's Doctor Who), their use in American episodic series (as opposed to mini-series) has been sporadic, in part because of the belief that arc-heavy series are difficult to sell in syndication where stations might not air episodes in order, or casual/occasional viewers might lose interest. Many arc-based series in past decades, such as V were often short-lived and found it difficult to attract new viewers; they also rarely appear in traditional syndication. One area of American television where story arcs have always thrived, however, is in the realm of the soap opera, and often episodic series have been derivatively referred to as "soap operas" when they have adopted story arcs.

A new type of arc-based television storytelling was introduced in the early 1980s when several dramas, notably Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, began to use a format of overlapping story arcs; that is, in any given episode one new arc might be starting, while a second was ongoing, and yet another might be concluding. These story arcs were typically resolved much more quickly than in a soap opera show, and they might be of varying lengths and were often combined with additional storylines that were contained within a single episode. The early 1990's David Lynch-Mark Frost-produced ABC series Twin Peaks used this method extensively, which, despite critical acclaim and extensive media attention, contributed to its abandonment after two seasons. The technique proved highly influential and was adopted for later, even more successful dramas including L.A. Law and ER as well as for some comedies.

In recent years, American viewers have become increasingly more accepting of story arcs, with arc-based series such as Alias and 24 finding critical acclaim and ratings success, and the release of arc-heavy TV series on DVD generating huge sales. The tide has turned to the point where arcs have become expected elements of dramatic series, and shows that rely upon standalone episodes are now quite often held up for criticism (a good example being Star Trek: Enterprise which enjoyed fan and critical acceptance only after adopting an arc format after two seasons of mostly standalone episodes).

Arc-based series draw and reward dedicated viewers, and fans of a particular show follow and discuss different story arcs independently from particular episodes. Story arcs are sometimes split into subarcs if deemed significant by fans, making it easy to refer to certain episodes if their production order titles are unknown. Episodes not relevant to story arcs are sometimes dismissed as filler by fans, but might be referred to as self-contained or standalone episodes by producers.

See also

External links

  • BFI webpage: Drama series and serials ( explaining the difference between a series and a serial

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