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Plotting The A-Team Way

A-Team (cover)< Dum Dum Du Du De Dum (you’ll just have imagine the tune) >

In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

< Bah ba bam bah, bum bum bah… (again, use your imagination or click here to listen) >

Got your attention? Reliving those Saturday afternoons? Sorry, you are not that old? Ah, well, just try to imagine, if you can, the excitement that we oldies felt, when we were youngies, when those words were spoken and that theme tune kicked in. We knew what were in for. We didn’t have to guess, we really knew. I’d bet that, by the end of series one, almost everyone who’d watched could write their own episode.

So why am I going on about it here? It’s not fantasy is it? Well, no it’s not, but it is the epitome of 80s (1980s that is) television. The decade that gave us such greats a Knight Rider, Airwolf, Streethawk, Dallas, all shows that could be considered sci-fi/fantasy (Bobby was resurrected in a shower, it was all a dream – it has to be fantasy!). However, the real reason to examine The A-Team series is its usefulness in terms of structure and plotting.

Right, so, now, if you are still with me, let’s begin.

Characters

A-Team - CastThere are five characters in The A-Team. Yes, five. I know most pictures show just four, but we will come back to the fifth later.

Each of the characters is distinct from the others. They are easy to tell apart and not just in terms of physical appearance, which television uses much more easily than a novel. Each character has a ‘hook’, something that we can immediately recall, which brings them to life, and that tells us what we need to know. They also have their own, unique set of skills that complement each other’s. It is the perfect D&D adventuring party.

Amy AllenHannibal Smith, B.A. Baracus, Templeton ‘Face’ Peck, Howling Mad Murdock, Amy Allen.

Amy? Yes, Amy. She’s the fifth. The journalist who finds them in the pilot episodes and then joins them on their adventures. And it is here caution needs to be applied. In way too many episodes Amy is relegated to an expositional role, to ask the questions the viewer needs the answer to, to ensure the plot is clear. There are episodes when she is much more active character, but she is under used, not rounded, not complete.

Plotting

Now, here we bite down on the meat of the piece. Almost without fail, every episode of The A-Team followed the same format. Normally, we would view this as a crime against literature, against storytelling, but it works. Part of The A-Team’s draw was the knowledge of this formula. So, let’s look at it for a moment.

It follows a simple three act structure.

Act One

The inciting incident. Through a little hoop jumping, the person in need meets Hannibal, in a succession of clever disguises, never realizing they are meeting the leader of the very mercenaries they seek, and tell him of their need. The team feel sympathy for their plight and agree to help. At this point, the people in need quite often vanish or are not seen in any meaningful way until the end. This act it usually very short.

Act Two

The team sets out to see the ‘Bad Guys’ and give these bullies a taste of their own medicine. There is an initial win, a feel good moment. We see the team’s skills and power, develop a confidence in them. It also creates a sense that the main villain is being challenged, that they are worthy of the battle to come. You are giving the villain power too.

A-Team (screenshot)Hannibal has plan – he loves them when they come together, by the way. This referral to a plan, though we never get to know all the details, gives the viewer a sense that everything is happening because the team are making it happen. They are competent, in charge, there is no way the villain is going to win here. Which could be a problem in any story. Where is the challenge?

Ah-ha! The plan goes wrong and the team are captured, imprisoned, beaten back and must hide out somewhere. Luckily they all end up in the same place and it just happens to have a collection of junk that maybe, just maybe, could be put to better use. The obligatory, expected, and looked forward to, build sequence is our transition into act three.

No surprise, but Act two is the longest.

Act Three

A-Team (screenshot 2)The build is finished, an incredible piece of original thinking. Just when it all seems lost, they have found a way to beat the odds. The ‘Bad Guys’ and villain are on their way to finish off our plucky heroes who promptly break out and begin fire cabbages, for instance, at them. Shots ring out, mostly at the ground. Jeeps flip over in that stunt we saw every episode. Punches are thrown, as are bodies. A heavy steps up to fight B.A, who just takes the punch, standing strong and then punches the big fella’s lights out. Hannibal gives the victors speech and the bad guys are vanquished.

After that, there is nice end to show where the team return to the people in need, the ones we met at the start of the show. Then, look out, here come the military MPs and off race the A-Team, wheels spinning.

What Have We Learned?

Stephen J Cannell and Frank Lupo, creators and writers of the show, were no fools. We can look back on it now and laugh at the storylines, but they have a lot to teach us about plot, structure and pace. And whilst it sticks to a quite rigid formula, it works. They honed it to a fine edge. I’m not saying that every book should be plotted this way. Good grief, no. I am saying there are some lessons in The A-Team, in the characters, the plot, the pacing, that we can all learn.

So, some things that The A-Team teaches us:

1. Create a hook for each of your characters
2. Don’t neglect a character – make them all real, rounded and useful
3. Three act structures do work
4. Don’t neglect the inciting incident or people in peril – keep the sympathy/empathy going
5. Keep Act One short, get the story moving
6. An initial win, to show the power of your hero, gives your villains their own strength and makes later defeats feel all the more bitter
7. Your hero(ine) must lose, must be challenged and seem on the edge of defeat
8. Get your transitions right so scene flows into scene, chapter in chapter
9. The heroes win in the end (usually) through some imaginative use of tech, magic, swords, guns, skills, or the sheer determination to never give in
10. Go back to inciting incident and wrap it up
11. Leave the door open for a sequel

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3 Comments

  1. Johnnyboy says:

    I think one of the most important elements, one that you mentioned in the article but not in the summary points, is the element of planning. The protagonist’s plan, one that we frequently do not know the details of, gives a sense of momentum and mystery. It shows they are an active hero/ villain. In my opinion there’s nothing more interesting than a motivated character with a mysterious plan!

  2. Thanks a very useful article

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