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WRITING MASTER CLASS: THE X-FILES
Nearly thirty years ago the Fox television network aired the first episode of The X-Files, marking the beginning of a new science-fiction media legacy. To date, the series spans over two hundred episodes (the most recent season concluding in March of 2018) and two feature films. Earning cult status early in its run, The X-Files soon became a mainstream success due to broad appreciation by critics and audiences alike. It is now widely considered a classic of American television.
There are many factors to consider in analyzing this show’s appeal. An obvious go-to would be the two exquisitely written protagonists, FBI Agents Mulder and Scully (expertly portrayed by David Duchovny and Jillian Anderson, respectively). Another would be the wide variety of content—featuring anything from menacing monsters or unhinged killers to advanced bioweapons and alien life forms. And while it’s true that these were critical factors in The X-Files’ success, the glue that holds it all together is the unbelievably solid writing.
By the end of its first season, The X-Files had already found its winning formula. Its structure was both rigid and adaptable; an episode could support nearly any subject matter without throwing off the balance of the season. The series utilized this formula, nearly unchanged, for the entirety of its initial run from ‘93 to ‘02. Never did it grow stale. How did they accomplish this? The secret lies in their expert use of two all-important concepts in writing: Plot and Story. Let’s examine those two concepts (and their application within the show) a little closer.
Plot, in writing, refers to an interlinked series of events that drive the storytelling forward. Think of it like plotting points on a graph: characters in a story move from one “plot point” to the next, connecting each causally within the overall narrative. The stuff that happens between each point (the lines on the graph) is less significant to the narrative—but we’ll get to that later. Plot is what defines what a piece is “about.” In the case of The X-Files, it would be Mulder’s search for extraterrestrial life, and ultimately his attempt to find his long-lost sister. Along the way he and his partner Scully come into constant conflict with government agencies and other hostile groups intent on hiding the truth. The two find themselves always just a step behind, never able to quite get a straight answer but ready to try again next week.
These episodes often feature mysterious characters and devious cliffhangers leaving the viewer always wondering what is really happening. Utilizing technology more commonly found in soap operas, the plot of X-Files progresses only by degrees with every 45-minute episode. While real setbacks happen, such as a character being wounded or kidnapped, very rarely is any actual progress made explicit. And so audiences are left wanting more—they share in Mulder’s frustrated search for the truth. While some criticize the plot for constantly stringing viewers along, it’s actually quite a clever technique that allowed for unprecedented longevity. A long and convoluted plot is very difficult to maintain (especially in the mystery/detective genre). In moving forward inch-by-inch, The X-FIles could produce crazy plot mechanics—like the insidious Smoking Man—without exhausting their material.
Remember all the stuff that happens between plot points? The “lines” on the graph? That’s story. While plot moves the overall narrative forward, story serves to flesh out individual mechanics within it. Within the smaller context of a “story” you’ll see characters getting fleshed out and relationships changing. While story makes only very minor changes to the narrative world, it is invaluable for creating three-dimensional characters and memorable occurrences.
In The X-Files, story episodes usually consist of an encounter with some sort of paranormal phenomenon. These episodes are almost universally closed narratives; which is to say, the entire story happens within one episode. Mulder and Scully will fight a werewolf, or a giant bat, and by the end of the episode the threat is vanquished. In the process we see them grow as characters and watch their relationship evolve. These episodes are the ones with all the charisma—the ones that make you say, “hey, remember the one with the brain-sucking monster?”
The X-Files Method:
The genius of the X-Files lies in the way they handle these two concepts. Essentially, what they did was separate the two types of storytelling into discreet episodes. Then, they balanced the two episode types for maximum impact and longevity. The plot episodes drive the show’s narrative forward bit-by-bit and keep a large audience coming back to see what happens next. Then, they air two or three story episodes for some much needed variety.
The plot episodes create drama and suspense, while the story episodes feature wild spectacle. In both types we see Mulder and Scully growing as characters. But the two distinct flavors of the show balance each other exquisitely, as well as effectively creating two audiences. This formula continued to work without fail for the entire first run of nine seasons. And while they eventually switched to a more plot driven approach (as seen in the movies and the two re-boot seasons) the old formula is still present.
This approach to storytelling has been emulated by some of the best television produced in the last thirty years. In fact, it had been utilized by several shows that came before. But The X-Files is a near-perfect example, as evidenced by its popularity and longevity as a cultural icon. If you want to study the art of writing, and especially writing for T.V., you’d be hard pressed to find a better model.
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