How To Build a Series: Spy X Family

Okay, repeat after me: Stories don’t need conflict if you don’t want people to pay any attention to them.

Of course, if you DO want people to like your stories, they need some kind of tension or conflict. It’s the creation and eventual release of tension that makes a story interesting to watch/listen to/read. It’s the emotional payoff at the end of the tunnel.

And that’s as true of comedies as of drama. In fact, that’s how comedy works: You create an expectation in the audience, violate the expectation (creating tension), and cue humor.

You know who knows that? The people who put together Spy X Family know that. They are masters at it!

So now we have the Forger family. Father Loid is a psychiatrist, Mother Yor is a clerk, and Child Anya is in school. They look like a fairly normal upper-middle class family, you know, except for the adults being drop-dead gorgeous and Anya cuter than three bugs.

From left: Loid, Anya, Yor

Look at what they’ve cooked up here:

First of all, the viewer is omniscient: We know all because we can hear the characters’ thoughts. And because we can hear their thoughts, there’s an immediate tension (this is level one; start counting) between their wholesome family appearance and the fact that Loid is a spy and the whole family is a ruse he put together to infiltrate Anya’s school.

And (level two) while he thinks Yor is just some spinster office worker in dire need of a husband, she’s actually a fearsome assassin.

You all know level three: Anya is actually some orphan Loid picked out more or less at random at a shady orphanage.

This is already a good start to a story because they always have to assert both their public and secret identities AND Loid and Yor have to keep their secret identities secret from each other (or at least think they do).

Now let’s chuck in the topper: Anya is telepathic. So not only does the audience know everyone’s secrets, so does she! And she’s like, FIVE, right? and has trouble keeping her mouth shut. Level four. She might accidentally blab AT ANY MOMENT. Ahhhhh!!

BUUUT (level five) Anya is TERRIFIED of going back to the orphanage. She’ll do ANYTHING to avoid it. So she’s always teetering between what she knows and what she can’t say.

And the audience knows about everything, including everything the characters don’t know. It’s like watching the three of them try to tip-toe down a tightrope: One slip and the whole thing will come crashing down. Will they slip? Will they? WILL THEY?

And the writers are shaking the rope as hard as they can. For instance, Anya’s school is elite and highly competitive, and she’s dumber than three bricks. She gets through her exams reading the other kids’ minds … but if she’s overwhelmed by too many other minds, she faints! Oops.

Yor needs the appearance of a husband because a woman her age in her society is suspicious, but the reason she needs the appearance of a husband, beautiful as she is, is that she has the social skills of a hard core geek. She’s never been kissed! But she has to act like a devoted wife … oh, and her brother is in the secret police. Where are we at, level seven?

Oh, and the secret service Loyd works for is grossly underfunded or whatever, so they keep sending him off on other jobs that constantly threaten his cover.

Do you see it? They could have stopped at level three, but they just kept piling it on and piling it on, and that keeps the show moving right along from bump in the road to bump in the road. And at each bump in the road it could all come apart. If it was a drama it would be a nail-biter, but it’s not. It’s a comedy.

And because it’s a comedy with constant tension in it, it’s hilarious. It would be hard for it not to be. That’s the way they built it.

Plus there are places for it to go. What about Loid’s mission, and what happens to the little family when he does? Who the heck is Yor working for? And are we going to see Loid and Yor troo lurve 4-ever? And what can Anya do to put the boot in if Loyd decides to send her back?

See? It’s set up to deliver non-stop gags but it also has places – powerfully emotional places – it can go.

I haven’t seen a show with such a complex set-up in a while, and from my perspective as a writer it’s almost idiot proof. Nice job.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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