Aug 7, 2012

80s TV

I grew up on 80s television. Ghostbusters, Thundercats, Starcom, MASK, Airwolf, The A-Team. I had the toys. I played the oh-so basic video games. I even took coloured pencils to my copybooks and drew my own action scenes.

From a fairly early age, I came to realise that these shows had a very strong structure, even a predictable one. You had your leader, typically the main character or at least the one most often the centre of attention. Then there was the 2nd in command. This guy was usually focused on fighting or other physical abilities more than the leader, who was always the best all-rounder. Most groups have the Big Guy (the strongest) and the Smart Guy. Most teams would then have a female character to round things out. TV Tropes has a whole page on the 5-Man Band.

More significant, however, was 80s cartoon story structure. And this was something I really latched onto as a child. First you had the set-up. The villains would show up and start hurting people, with their own evil music. They would just waltz in, utterly dominating any resistance.

And then the call goes out to the heroes. Whether it's psychic visions, a telephone call or special watches that beep when you're needed, the heroes know that it's time to suit up and go to work.

But of course, the first time the heroes encounter the villains, they're defeated and have to retreat. They regroup, form a plan, and promptly deliver a can of ass-whooping, with their heroic theme music playing.

I said this was a predictable story structure. But when I was a kid, I didn't care. To this day, I don't care. If anything, I love that I got to be exposed to such clear examples of how to craft a narrative. I learned to love the anticipation of the next step in the story. Instead of wondering whether the good guys would win, I'd wonder when the theme music would start, or exactly when the hero would start to fight back. Knowing the way the story was meant to go actually made me enjoy it all the more.

I think these early lessons in story structure helped me a great deal when I decided I wanted to be an author. I already knew, roughly, the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, and how I wanted to tell them. 80s tv was really my first education in storytelling.

Have any of you learned anything about storytelling from tv, 80s or otherwise?


  1. Strong, well-written characters trumps vast budget for effects and sets. Blake's 7, Survivors, Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel, Threads, The Good Life, Steptoe and Son, Red Dwarf.

    I think that's the most important thing I learned from TV of the past.

    1. Some great shows there. Absolute classics. And you're right. We can put all the trimmings onto what we do, but if the story and characters aren't up to scratch, it's for nothing.

  2. I love this post, and to answer your question, yes, I think I have learned something from all those old T.V. shows. It was formula writing, but always delivered.

    Right now I'm loving old reruns of Adam-12. That show is chock-full of story after story, all with a continuing plot running through the chaos. Love it.

    1. I really think formula writing is underrated. Twist endings have become the new big thing, and a lot of people can forget the beauty in building anticipation rather than creating surprise.