Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pssst… You can learn plot by watching Frasier re-runs!

I know it sounds too good to be true, but it’s not!

Even if it’s for the boob tube, television writing is still writing, and in the case of Frasier it’s smart, funny, and GREAT for learning plot. Why? Because the episodes are pretty classic in terms of using time-honored plot and story devices that have been cracking audiences up since Shakespeare’s comedies and probably before (like identity mix-ups, overheard/misunderstood conversations, downfall-producing character flaws, tempting the fates, and accidental double entendres that lead to scandalous consequences). More on that another day, maybe.

But for now, what I love about Frasier is just how well they do plot—nothing ever goes to waste, and each action has a cause and effect that lead to hilarious endings. In fact, over the course of a 20-minute episode, you can sit down with a pad of paper and draft up something like the following to describe the whole plot as a cause and effect sequence—sort of like a math equations. I just randomly picked episode 17 from Season 1, called A Midwinter Night’s Dream (P.S. Right now, all Frasier seasons happen to be available via instant streaming on Netflix).

I ended up breaking it down into 5 progressions, although you can do it in a lot of different ways—the main point is just to pay attention to how plot works. The basic breakdown I use was inspired by the book Make a Scene (see more info below). Anyways, each progression begins with a “want” (ie, the cause or related to the cause), followed by a “but” (that’s your conflict), followed by a “results in” (voila, the effect!). The “results in” leads very craftily to the next “want”, and on and on you go, like a daisy chain, until the problem is resolved and the episode ends. It’s kind of fun—here’s my stab at it:

FYI, for below, D is Daphne; E=Eric (Daphne’s boyfriend for this episode); F is Frasier; M is Maris; and N is Niles.

1. N wants E to stop hitting on D (because he really wants D) BUT F challenges N by questioning his happiness with M AND RESULTS IN N wants to spice up his marriage to M

2. N tries a pirate-themed romantic role play (see swash-buckler photo!) BUT it fails and M leaves him to go on a trip AND RESULTS IN N wants to win M back

3. N accepts D’s offer to help him make a nice dinner for M’s return at N’s house BUT a storm prevents M from arriving and keeps D trapped with N at N’s house AND RESULTS IN N wants to avoid the temptation to make a move on D

4. N tries to call F at home for help BUT F is out (he’s found out about N and D’s tryst, and is on his way to them) AND RESULTS IN N wants to make a move on D

5. N makes a move on D BUT N is forcefully reminded of his love for M by his gift to her, a chiming Glockenspiel that goes off as N is making his move (yielding the triumphant comic moment from D: “Dr. Crane, your Glockenspiel has sprung to life!”--see photo) AND RESULTS IN N wants M and resolves to go back to her

I’m sure you could disagree or argue how I’ve laid this out—it is a little difficult to separate between cause and effect and want and result, and all that, because they’re often very related. But the point is that doing this can help you start getting an idea of how they relate! You’ll love getting to watch TV while you “study” writing. (P.S. Sorry if you don’t happen to be a Frasier fan for this blog post, but if you’re not, get cracking and watch it—you’ll kick yourself for missing all 11 blissful seasons.)

The book I mentioned above: Rosenfeld, Jordan E. Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time. Writer’s Digest Books: Cincinatti, Ohio; 2008. Chapter 3 (Powerful Scene Middles) has a great way to do scene-by-scene breakdown by identifying scene intention, complication, and result.


  1. Don't apologize to non-Frasier fans. They're imbeciles. :)

    1. You're right--thank goodness for smarties like you! :-)

  2. You need a FB "like" button on your posts so I can like the hell out of them ;)

  3. What a simple but elegant way to break it down. Thanks Mary (Maybe you should be teaching @ Gotham - Bob C