ASF’s Sweet Sixteen Party Begins with Miniseries
Today, November 15, is the official birthday of About Schuyler Falls, which launched sixteen years ago in 1997. To celebrate the occasion, and also, y’know, continue the darn series, the Sixth Season has begun in an entirely new format: a miniseries, called “Six Weeks.” If I’d been clever I’d have gone with “Sixteen Candles” but I didn’t want four months to pass, and I can’t think of another non-meta reason for using “sixteen” in the title. So, the banal “Six Weeks” it is!
What is this miniseries, and what’s so special about it, and why is it called “Six Weeks,” you may ask? Read on, good reader.
The miniseries will probably comprise the entire season, meaning that Season 06 will take up six weeks of in-universe time. That seems quite short, but let’s put this into perspective: it took ASF all sixty-three episodes of the fourth and fifth season (formerly just the fourth season) to get the serial calendar from January 1 to February 14. Yipe! Trust me, Season 06 is not gonna be sixty-three episodes. I’m aiming squarely at a maximum of 16 – 20. The first episode, “Whom the Gods Love, Part 1,” is available now. The second will be posted on Monday, Nov. 18.
Now, the reason for the truncated season, and why I’m going with the six-weeks theme, is because I’m going with an experimental format for the first time in ASF’s history. Instead of the usual episode style consisting of multiple, often completely separate storylines, “Six Weeks” episodes will do exactly what’s on the label: they’ll tell the story of the six weeks following the tumultuous season finale and how they affect one character’s storyline, or a few closely connected characters. This means in many instances you’ll be following a single plot throughout an episode, and sometimes (as in the case of the first two-part episode) through the viewpoint of a single character.
I was inspired to try this idea by the fourth season of “Arrested Development,” where each episode showed us only one character’s storyline directly. That word, “directly,” is quite important: often, we’d see other related characters doing their own thing off in the corner, or having some curious and tantalizing lines of dialogue that seemed utterly mysterious out of context. But the episode would generally not follow up on those tidbits and clues; we only saw whatever the point-of-view character saw. Only subsequent episodes focusing on these different characters would ultimately reveal the context and meaning behind the various conversation snippets or strange costumes or sudden job changes or… well, you name it. “Arrested Development” is known for being a comedy where almost anything can happen, since it’s basically a live-action cartoon.
This miniseries/mini-season won’t be quite that ambitious. I don’t have delusions of grandeur. However, I really liked the idea of following a single character, or a small group of characters, and only showing the barest hints of what’s going on with the rest of the storylines. This actually solved a problem that had worried me following the massive cliffhanger of last season. With so many characters in jeopardy, and so many plots ripped open and demanding a great deal of emotional follow-up, it would take me forever to do justice to each batch the way I like to. That’s why ASF has such long seasons and moves so slowly, you see; I am a continuity whore and feel very strongly that consequences are the meat of any story. It’s not enough to place your characters in a thrilling storyline; for the story to matter, there must be significant consequences and aftermath to whatever major set-piece you’ve thrust your characters into. At least, that’s how I feel as a reader, and as a writer too.
The trouble is that not all of my characters experience these consequences at the same rate; it wouldn’t be believable, nor even feasible considering the massive size of ASF’s cast.
Using this “six weeks” premise, I can show each of the characters and move their plots as fast or as slow as I need to. Having written the first three full episodes already (meaning both parts, if the episode is a two-parter), I can already see a huge difference in how my storytelling has been affected by this format. Time is freakin’ moving, yo! I don’t have to show what’s happening every day for every character. I can skip whole weeks if necessary. For example, in the first part of #6.01, two weeks pass in only seven scenes (and those seven scenes only show three separate days); by the end of #6.02, another month will have gone by! Can you imagine? When the heck has that ever happened on ASF?
Of course, once #6.02 is over and I move to the next character/group of characters, we’re resetting the clock and zipping back to February 14. So it’s not as if each episode is moving us six weeks further in time. However, now characters can set their own pace and there’s no need to backburner anyone. Time flows naturally for the storyline in a linear way. It’s refreshing. It’s not how I would do a full-length season, because that would get tedious. It’s also important that I don’t repeat beats–I promise you that readers won’t be forced to view the church shooting over and over again from each character’s viewpoint. Yes, for some we’ll see that particular moment (as long as it’s unique rather than repetitive); for others, I’ve shifted the start of the story to a later point in time where appropriate.
So time moving forward is one big benefit, as well as the ability to focus more tightly on specific character arcs. Another one is something that worried me, again as a result of the Big Cliffhanger of last season: how do I maintain suspense over what happened to everyone that day? It wasn’t just the church shooting; there was the action outside the church too, with Daphne/Ian/Tyler; then there was Beth’s reunion with her father, and Chelsea’s proposition to Greg, and Jem discovering (or possibly discovering) Greg’s betrayal of Rena, and Maxine’s continuing investigation of Greg, and so on.
My standard season openers are huge, lengthy episodes devoted to showing as many of these aftermaths as possible, since most of them usually happened at the same time. (See Season 03’s ending with the explosion at the newspaper.)
Now, however, using this one-storyline-at-a-time method, I can throw in subtle hints about what might have happened with other characters just by having them interact briefly with the main point-of-view characters. As a hypothetical example, let’s say I have a Chelsea episode. Perhaps she briefly bumps into Doug at the hospital and he’s distracted and looking sickly. Since we’re following Chelsea, she’d probably just roll her eyes, insult him mentally, and go on her way–and we wouldn’t see Doug again in that episode, because we’re focusing on Chelsea’s hearing loss and her possibly-continuing affair with Greg and so on.
As a result, now the reader suspects there’s a mystery afoot regarding Doug: does his sickly pallor mean a) he discovered his BFF and sponsor John is actually Elaine’s abusive husband, b) Daphne is gravely ill or dead from the shooting, c) he’s been called to testify about Greg faking prescriptions for him at a hearing due to Maxine’s investigation, d) he’s fallen off the wagon and is using drugs again, or even e) little Hope was hurt or killed in the church massacre? You won’t know until it’s his turn for an episode. Psyche! (Well, you’d probably know about the last option considering Hannah’s episode comes first, and you may safely assume Hope’s fate will be part of that, but you get the drift.) Suspense and intrigue! Speculation ahoy!
I must say in addition to all these positives, it’s the challenge of doing this–of providing clues such as the above, of maintaining the suspense in a believable way, that excites me. It brings back memories of all my tapdancing during Season 03 to maintain the Beth/Danielle/Tristan mystery. At heart I’m a game-player, a riddle-lover, a puzzle-solver. This is the sort of thing I love to do. It’s the old “pick a card, any card,” and even though you know the magician’s going to trick you somehow, damn it, you end up being tricked anyway and picking the card the magician wanted you to pick the whole time!
That is the rationale for this miniseries and in particular this potentially risky and more difficult method of telling these stories. To be honest, the very first episode is the one that convinced me of how interesting this style can be. Hannah’s story is one that really had to be told straight through. It’s almost not fair to her to keep shifting away and dragging it out. It’s one of the hardest arcs I’ve written, even though it lasts only two episodes (well, it lasts longer than that, but the bulk of the setup is in these two initial parts), and I didn’t want to shortchange the drama or the poignancy of what she experiences by cutting to a different plot, thereby allowing readers to look away from the reality of what’s going on. This is also possibly the only arc where you’ll be seeing the whole episode through a single point of view: Hannah’s. (Sadly, Hannah’s mind isn’t a very joyful place to be during this episode, so please, take your Prozac or chocolate dose before reading.)
This brings up a good point in that there’s a big downside to this, I’ll admit that. If you don’t like Hannah, if you hate the teen storyline(s), if you cringe at Doug/Elaine, or (pick any despised storyline or character of your choice)… forcing a focus on one of these plots per episode means you might not enjoy that particular episode very much. I apologize in advance for that. But I also hope that, just maybe, the more in-depth look at the characters this format allows will pique your interest enough to let you slog through even a Bert/Ronald scene.
Okay, that might be hoping for too much.
Anyway, on the plus side, it won’t last forever. It is just for this mini-season. I like the multiple-storyline format far too much to lose it forever; ASF began as an homage to soap opera-esque storytelling and I like the variety of characters I’ve created over the years (with big help from co-creator Cassie, and other helpers such as Kim and Jill along the way). Knowing I’m able to bounce back and forth from story to story in an episode keeps me on my toes and maintains my interest–and I think yours as well.
In the meantime I hope you’ll join me on this experimental journey and will let me know how it’s working for you. I need your feedback, well, I always need your feedback but now I need it more than ever! Most of all, thank you for your patience (I’ll spend another blog post explaining the reason for the delay; for once, it’s not writer’s block, yay!) and a huge thanks to those of you who’ve spent sixteen years watching the story unfold, sometimes in big chunks and sometimes in small dribbles. (Wow, how many mixed metaphors can I shove into one sentence?) I hope it’s been fun, and I hope you’ll continue to enjoy it. As the old song goes: “Happy birthday sweet sixteen!”
P.S. If you do enjoy ASF, won’t you please visit and “Like” my Facebook page or share ASF’s link (http://skyfalls.com) with someone? It would be a great help!