For most it may seem a bit of a lark, a wryly funny way to present the drama of MadMen as a scientific table of elements. But look a little closer at this infographic from Flavorwire and you’ll see a whole lot more going on.
For any screenwriter seeking to comprehend and utilise the building blocks of dramatic narrative - tension, action, theme, concept, premise, flaw, wound, identity, essence, obstacle, turning point, archetype, thresholds, bisociations, inversions, circumstance, initiating actions and contexts - this table provides a remarkably clear conceptualization of the complexity of MadMen as an episodic drama.
As I have written about before in regards to Breaking Bad, what is crucial to creating not only an engaging episodic drama, but a sustainable one, is the Dramatic Cauldron of the story world. Is there enough pressures occurring as Natural Drama within that world? Are all your elements pulling in consistent patterns to ensure ongoing fresh dilemas and anxieties? Are their constructed tensions and differences for the viewer between what they know and what the characters know; the results of which are secrets, lies and subtexts? The period table of MadMen illustrates all these elements and how they sit in opposing blocks between disappointments, vices, realities and the swatch of cultural references that contextualise them.
Now seeing this layout Im starting to be convinced that having students design such a periodic table layout for their own episodic series projects is a vibrant and tangible to engage them in constructing a compelling and rich story-world. Too often inexperienced writers of episodic projects get bogged down in an over-concern for plotting. The result is often arbitrary tossing of extraneous plot events at the characters rather than a naturally dramatic world organically bubbling up dilemmas for the characters. The mantra should be ‘World First Then Plot’ and designing a table such as this seems to help with that process by focusing on the Pressures of the world not the plot events they trigger. A period table for a screen drama such as this is so rich and dense and bursting with natural frictions that plotting becomes easy - a kind of organic chemistry.