Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Secret to a Long-Running Series

Erica here:
This week I've been watching NCIS. I checked out the first couple of seasons from my local library, and in the evenings, I've been watching them.

And it occurred to me that NCIS has been TV's most popular drama for ages. The show has been on for 13 seasons now. That's unheard of in Hollywood these days. That's Gunsmoke, Law and Order, Murder She Wrote territory.

So what is the secret to these long-running series?

I have a theory.

I think it is brand-recognition. If you watch Gunsmoke or Law and Order or NCIS, the characters never change. Marshal Dillon and Agent Gibbs and Jack McCoy, although they go through many trials and tribulations, are essentially the same men as they were in episode one.

Looking closer at NCIS, every character, from lab technician Abby to medical examiner "Ducky" to Agents McGee and DiNozzo, is essentially the same character from the first season to current seasons.

Viewers know exactly what they are going to get with these characters. Abby is a delightful mash-up of goth queen, science prodigy, and delightful child. "Ducky" is a font of trivia and personal experience, caring about his craft and his 'patients.' DiNozzo is a terminal adolescent who uses humor and juvenile hijinks to hide his investigative skills and his bravery. 

Each of the long-running shows I mentioned are also ensemble casts that spread the stories around from character to character each week. While each show is about one individual (NCIS = Gibbs, Gunsmoke = Matt Dillon, Law & Order = Jack McCoy) the supporting characters are strongly interwoven into each story, and different ones have bigger roles each episode.

I also considered shows that I start out loving and then come to feel kind of 'meh' about. There are two that come to mind right away. Remember the show Chuck? He was an ordinary guy, working at the Buy More fixing computers, when he is implanted with "The Intersect" a database of National Security Secrets. In the first season, the lovable, bumbling Chuck saves the world with his knowledge of Tetris, virus programs, and Chopper Command. But by the final season, Chuck is an accomplished spy. He has changed so much that all the things that made me love him and root for him have vanished.

The other show that I'm now feeling ambivalent about is Castle. I love the early seasons where Castle's abilities as a novelist help him solve crimes. And in each episode, there is a parallel story running, one at the precinct and one in Castle's home with his wife and daughter. It is often the resolution to the home story that gives him an idea of how to solve the current case at the precinct.

After the first couple of seasons, things got wonky. Castle becomes more of a cop than a writer, the stories focus less on the cases and more on the relationship between Castle and Beckett. Odd things start happening, like Castle disappearing for months, Kate and Castle getting married, then separating, and every ten or twelve episodes, it feels like the writers are attempting to reboot the system.

I suspect that Castle's days are numbered, mostly because people can't figure out what to expect from week to week.

As I have thought about this, I of course needed to translate it into the writing world. How can I have a long-running career where readers will keep coming back again and again? Brand recognition. Readers need to trust that they will get what they are expecting when they pick up one of my books.

So, I have a few "Must Have" things that are my brand:

1. Historical Romance - all my stories are historical romances
2. A Detailed Setting - well-researched, well-planned towns and homes and regions
3. Actual Historical Events - each story will have some basis in fact
4. A Broad Vocabulary - I hope readers have to look up at least one word in each book
5. A Smash-Bang Finish - Each book will be plot-driven and have a dramatic high-stakes finish.

Question: Are you an NCIS fan? Who is your favorite character?

Erica Vetsch:
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Earl Grey Aficionado
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  1. Erica, you forgot number six: lots and lots of humor. That's what I've enjoyed most about your books.

  2. This is a really good point. I often want to keep on favorite characters or know more about them. You begin to care about their life and stories. It's hard if they change too much or disappear.

    1. I agree! I become attached to these fictional people, and I want to feel as if I know them. If the writers deviate too much from the original, or they kill off or write out a character, I get sad!

  3. Just watch an episode last night. One of my favorites.

    1. I can't choose a favorite I love them all.

    2. It is hard with ensemble casts, isn't it? Especially when they are all so well-written and acted. I love Gibbs and Abby and Ducky the best, though I couldn't choose among them who I love the best.

  4. Last night on Bones, Brennan said, "I don't know how I know that, it's just a gut feeling." SO not her character for the last ump-teen seasons. Ted noticed immediately and said, "huh? That's not Brennan..." To your point. We want our character's characteristics to remain predictable.


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