This post actually began as a self-imposed “homework assignment.” I never thought it might be blog material! But I have a mild case of Creative Burnout, and as part of my self-care I decided to re-watch a Doctor Who Christmas episode…but with a writer’s eye. What I mean by that is this: I dissected and charted the structure of the story–the ebb and flow of the plot, the various “acts,” and the rise and fall of tension and conflict.
Every well-written story ever told has a solid structure–and most follow the exact same basic structure. We’re all familiar with the idea of a “First Act,” “Second Act,” and “Third Act,” but there are also acts within acts, costs (sacrifices) and rewards (dividends) for the characters to endure or enjoy, over-arching goals, and terrible consequences if those goals aren’t reached. Different stories have different skins and personalities, but all of them (or, at least, the ones worth your time) share these basic characteristics. Even if you aren’t a writer, I hope this post will help you recognize the “skeletons” of your favorite stories!
One more thing: you do not have to watch Doctor Who in order to understand this post. I simply typed up and refined my handwritten notes with the help of K.M. Weiland’s materials (you can find her website here and her workbook here*), RollForFantasy.com (an extension of the Fantasy Name Generator site), and the fantastic How To Write A Book Now site.
The Time of the Doctor
Story Goal: The Doctor must protect the planet of Trenzalore and the town of Christmas from a war between the Daleks and the Time Lords.
Consequence (what will happen if the Goal is not achieved): if the Doctor doesn’t protect Trenzalore, the war will destroy the innocent planet.
THE HOOK (the very beginning of the episode, what catches the audience’s interest right away): Tasha Lem’s intro about the Man Who Saved Christmas. Who is this man? What is the terrifying question that brought the Daleks and the Cybermen to this unassuming little planet?
First Threat that the Consequence may happen + Subplot: the Doctor barely evades the Daleks and Cybermen + Clara asks him to pose as her fake boyfriend for Christmas dinner (her relatives are nosy & insensitive about her singleness).
Subplot: The Doctor at Clara’s flat–a disaster of epic (hilarious) proportions. Her gran likes him, though.
First Plot Point: Handles, the Doctor’s pet Cyberman head, identifies the mysterious planet as Gallifrey.
“The First Plot Point, which occurs around the 25% mark in your story, is the moment when the setup ends and everything changes for your characters.”–K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel Workbook
Inciting Point: Tasha Lem allows the Doctor and Clara to go down to the mysterious planet. (Here we have what the Dramatica Theory calls a “Requirement” here: the Doctor can’t protect the planet until/unless he actually goes to the planet.)
Second Threat: The Doctor and Clara vs. the Weeping Angels. All of his enemies are converging on Trenzalore. Why?
Key Event (the protagonist is drawn straight into the plot): the discovery of the Time Rift, a rip in the fabric of Time and Space. The Time Lords are trying to get into this world and are broadcasting through the Rift the oldest question in the universe: “Doctor who?” If the Doctor answers the question the Time Lords will barge through in search of him, provoking an attack from the Daleks, and “all hell will break loose.” (This is where we learn the exact details of the Consequence.)
Foreshadowing: We also learn the mysterious planet is actually Trenzalore, where the Doctor is prophesied to die.
Reaction to Key Event: The Doctor sends Clara away to protect her.
First Pinch Point: The Doctor spends centuries protecting Trenzalore while his enemies continually attack the planet. (The Doctor’s physical deterioration is also a Cost of pursuing the Story Goal.)
“Halfway through the First Half of the Second Act the antagonists are given a chance to flex their muscles and impress readers (and probably the protagonist as well) with their scary might…[It] also raises the stakes and foreshadows the Climax. Its focus will always be that of the central conflict, rather than a subplot.”–K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel Workbook
Dividend (some writers call this “Profit” or “Reward”): The Doctor earns the love of the townspeople.
Midpoint (everything changes all over again at this point): Clara makes it back to Trenzalore and reunites with the Doctor.
Cost: Handles dies + The Doctor reveals to Clara that he’s gone through a full cycle of twelve regenerations: he will likely die on Trenzalore.
Third Threat + Second Pinch Point: The Daleks conquer Tasha Lem and her spaceship, but she breaks free of their influence and sends the Doctor back to protect Christmas. The Doctor sends Clara away again.
“Like the First Pinch Point, this scene showcases the antagonist(s), either personally or in some manifestation that emphasizes his power and his potential ability to defeat the protagonist.”–K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel Workbook
Subplot + Dividend: Back on Earth, Clara’s gran reminisces about her husband, forcing Clara to recognize her own feelings for the Doctor.
Third Plot Point: Tasha and the TARDIS come to Earth to bring Clara back to Trenzalore one more time. Clara reunites with an ancient, feeble Doctor just as the Daleks break through the planet’s last defenses and demand his surrender.
“From here on in, your clattering dominoes will form a straight line as your protagonist hurtles toward his inevitable clash with the antagonistic force…This will lead right into your character’s low point. The things he wants most in the world will be almost within his grasp–only to be dashed away, smashing him down even lower than before.”–K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel Workbook
Foreshadowing: Clara reads the Doctor the poem inside the Christmas cracker: “Eleven’s hour is over now; the clock is striking Twelve’s.”
Requirement: Clara begs the Time Lords to save the Doctor. They close the Time Rift, ending their side of the conflict.
Climax: The Time Lords grant the Doctor another regeneration cycle. (Also a Dividend: this insures more Doctor Who :D)
STORY GOAL REACHED: The Doctor’s massive burst of regeneration energy destroys the Daleks once and for all.
Cost: Clara goes back to the TARDIS and finds the Eleventh Doctor in his final moments. (Also marks the Falling Action after the Climax.)
Resolution: The Eleventh Doctor regenerates into the Twelfth Doctor.
CONCLUSION: “The Time of the Doctor” is, in my opinion, a comi-tragedy. The Story Goal was reached, yes, but only at a steep and heartbreaking cost: the death (for lack of a better word) of the Eleventh Doctor.
I was amazed at how well this episode adhered to this basic story structure! It really gave me a lot to think about regarding my own writing, too. I didn’t have this particular resource when I first started writing Lionhearted, but it would probably be very enlightening if I went back and charted it like this. I definitely know it’s going to make a huge difference with my next project.
Do you outline your stories before you write them? Do you have any thoughts about my dissection of this episode? Should I chart other stories for future blog posts? Let me know in the comments!
2 thoughts on “Story Structure Study: “The Time of the Doctor””
I know I’m very late commenting on this post, but WOW, I love it. I’ve always specifically thought that the story structure of The Time of the Doctor was noteworthy. It’s great to see it all laid out like this. Time isn’t an utterly perfect episode in every respect, but I still think it’s very underrated overall. I’ve rewatched it more than once over the years. That final speech of Eleven’s is just perfect…not to mention a certain cameo from a past companion. OUCH, my heart.
Gotta admit, I read your comment with a big grin on my face 😀 I had so much fun putting this post together! After some failed attempts of throwing a few plots together, I realized I needed to go back and study the whole science of structure–and watching TTotD like this was so helpful! And I agree, it’s a very underrated episode; I actually enjoy it more than “The Day of the Doctor.” The final scene is beautiful. The first time I watched it, the music alone made me emotional: I recognized it as the same theme that plays when Clara offers up her leaf at the end of “The Rings of Akhaten.”
(But now that I’m actually watching Amy’s series, her appearance at the end of TTotD is really gonna mess me up the next time I watch it.)