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So You Want To / Be a Long-Runner

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Some works have been short, conceived and filmed or written within weeks, days or even hours, while others are decades in the telling with no end in sight. Want your work to be in the latter group, or want to understand why some works can go for such a long time while others can't? Then read this analysis.

Low vs. High Quality: Obviously, a work judged to be of higher quality has a better chance of earning fans, money, and longevity than a work that sucks.

Animated vs. Live-action: Animated works have the advantage for several reasons:

  1. Animated works rely on voice actors, which can be more readily replaced than flesh and blood actors (since you only need the replacement to replicate a voice, rather than an entire physical appearance).
  2. Characters in animated works are not allowed to grow up. For example, animated families remain in their ideal states while the writers of the live action show now have to deal with the fact that the actor who played the cute little girl four seasons ago is now an angst-ridden tween.
  3. In addition, animated works can be cheaper to make, as you don't have to make sets or move actors around to different locations.

Disposable Cast vs. Iconic Actors: A TV show or movie series may have an iconic actor that no one can see being replaced and end once the actor leaves the role (be it to do other things or if The Character Died with Him). Another work may just have the actor replaced and continue on as usual; if actors getting replaced every few seasons (be it through The Nth Doctor or The Other Darrin) is a part of the show that's already accepted, then it will be able of continue to run even if a particular actor or actress was very key to the show's success.

Large Cast vs. Small Cast: Although large casts may be expensive, that fact really only applies to mediums involving actors or actresses (books don't have to pay for 4 actors and 100 extras every installment). Yet regardless of the medium, a large cast is better for two very big reasons:

  1. A large cast can more easily have characters be Killed Off for Real, Demoted to Extra, or Put on a Bus, or bring new ones on as needed, because in a small cast it would be more difficult to change the cast without disrupting the chemistry established among the cast members or without angering fans who have gotten attached to one particular character (wheras in a work with a large cast, fans are more likely to have secondary favorites to fall back on if their favorite goes away).
  2. A larger number of characters allows for more storytelling opportunities, because a larger number of characters means that there are a greater number of possible interactions among characters or events (for example, more romantic pairings are possible with 8 characters than 5). For example, a simple plot premise may be readily used twice, considering that the outcome and nature of the plot will be different when Tomboy and Girly Girl do it instead of the Action Duo. In a work with just the Action Duo, the creators wouldn't have that opportunity.

Franchise Spanning Multiple Medium vs. Single Medium: A work is more likely to continue if it becomes a franchise and branches out from its original medium. This makes it more likely for the creators to have more fans and money, and it makes disaster less likely to sink the franchise entirely; if the fourth sequel of The Movie flops, the comic books and TV show will generally remain unaffected.

Character Development vs. Static Character: There's almost a fear among creators that if you somehow change any aspect of a character's personality (which does often lend itself to Characterization Marches On), that it's essentially writing the character's death sentence. Character Development, however, is always a good thing to consider for a Long Runner, because on the same token, if such characters remain exactly the same over a long period of time, eventually, one would grow bored of that character's schtick. Character Development not only allows new areas to explore within that character's world, but at the same time, it reflects Real Life as well, as people learn and grow from the experiences they have in life, therefore, to see characters do the same, offers fans to see the characters learn and grow from their experiences. Many Short Runners have characters that are exactly the same from the first to last episode; Long Runners, on the other hand, are able to explore more about their characters through Character Development that spans throughout the run of the work.

Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters: A series whose main appeal are its character cast is more likely to become a long-runner than one that one driven by a particular Myth Arc, because the writers can come up with an infinite number of plots for their iconic characters to partake in, while a Myth Arc can only be stretched out so long before it gets bogged down completely by filler and has to be concluded, one way or another.

Reboots: A Continuity Reboot can start a fresh new audience on the concept and adapting to a new medium also attracts a different audience. A cartoon that some kids watch on Saturdays becoming a movie invites whole families to sit down and watch it. Also, and more importantly, movies make more bank at the box office and encourage the suits to keep the idea alive.

Buying In/Selling Out: The Merch's benefits are threefold: First, your fans get to express themselves. Second, you essentially get free advertisement (I.e. t-shirts are basically advertisements when you think about it) opportunities. And three, money! Giving your fans emotional investment in your work, getting word out that you exist, and making money all contribute to a more successful and ultimately long running series.

Serial vs. Episodic: Episodic works have the advantage here, being completely immune to things like Continuity Lock-Out (which makes it hard for new fans to get into a work) and The Chris Carter Effect. This ensures that new fans are easily assimilated into the fanbase, which is doubly important if your work is a TV show or in some other medium where sales and ratings are key to survival. In addition, a lack of continuity and an unstable canon makes it easier for writers to invoke things like Geographic Flexibility, which are convenient to get around writing difficulties. Still, a continuity allows for longer, deeper stories, although some writers have the best of both worlds by pressing the Reset Button at the end of each arc, or revamping the work every installment or season.

Medium Considerations:

  • Literature: Literature is a very accessible medium to an aspiring creator. It's just words on paper, and is arguably the simplest form of entertainment, both to create and to absorb. Budget problems and the like are not of concern, and sales are only of extreme importance if you live off your work. Executive Meddling is very possible, but is not as prevalent as in other mediums. In addition, since books can vary wildly in length, you can cheat your way to longevity by splitting up what could have been a 1,000+ page Door Stopper into three 300-ish books released every other year, turning a one time work into a 4 year long saga. Bring in Trilogy Creep and take your time writing each new installment so you can spend decades on less books than one can count on their hands.
  • Video Games: Video Games are an extremely diverse medium, ranging from simple Apps programmed in a day to massive projects with multinational corporations and dozens of millions of dollars behind them. Video games are an extremely profitable medium, making money from direct selling of the game, advertisements in-game (this is common in mobile games), microtransactions, and DLC; a profitable game ensures sequels (and thus longevity) and not having to worry about the bottom line is always a good thing for the creators of a long runner. However, video games are also dangerous as a medium. Constantly changing consoles, software, game engines, and audience tastes may render a game obsolete before it is even finished, an expensive flop can shut you down, and video games as a medium also face the most criticism and scrutiny from Moral Guardians.
  • Webcomics: Webcomics are quite easily long runners. Their simple nature (drawings and some text here and there) ensures that even a single person can make one, which means that there are probably not a lot of budget concerns, contract disputes, or executive meddling going on. Though fans are certainly appreciated, theoretically a webcomic can go on even if the creator is the only person who knows about it, since the dedication of the creative force, not ratings and money, are what drive many webcomics. In addition, since there are only a handful of panels to work with each update, it can take a month to publish a single conversation, and it may take a year in real time to cover what supposedly happened in a single day. Webcomics get a lot of real time out of a little story, even without Schedule Slip and Arc Fatigue.
  • Movies: Movies get off relatively easy when it comes to audience patience. A good sized movie is roughly 90-120 minutes long, and one movie a year is a fast pace for movie-based franchises. For comparison, one year of a TV show will require 220 minutes of content, given an average season length of 22 episodes at a modest 10 minutes in a half hour slot.
  • Television: Television is a brutal place for a budding new franchise. Ratings are king, and it is not uncommon for particularly unsatisfying shows to get cancelled before their first season has even ended. However, if a show becomes firmly entrenched in the network or pop culture and gains a steady viewership, it will stay on forever. If the executives and audience are on your side, you can push on through Network Decay and Seasonal Rot for decades before cancellation.

Younger Target Audience vs. Older Target Audience: Shows aimed at young kids tend to survive for a long time because little kids have less refined tastes than adults, and thus works made for kids have more reliable demographic turnover. For example, one can always count on the next generation of 8 year old girls liking ponies and princesses, but it's anyone's guess whether the next batch of middle aged men will fall in love with a gritty, psychologically troubled anti-hero who sells crack and makes illegal business deals so he can invoke Crimefighting with Cash with his profits. Another advantage is that kids have lower expectations than adults, ensuring that dips in quality will not lead to fans leaving.

Unfortunate Occurances: If you start a work when you're in your childhood and make it until you're a centenarian, that's fine, but many long runners have outlived their original creators, and thus if your franchise is to go on, you must have a contingency plan in the event of your death. Even if you are still speculating about the future plot of your work, at least have some ideas down so that your successors will be able to fill in the details by themselves, thus allowing them to learn and experiment without being completely in the dark about what to do. Children are always nice successors, but if your children don't care (or if you have none), setting up a system where other people can comfortably fill in your place if you pass away (or you know, go on vacation).

Fanbase Considerations: Without exception, none of the above matters if you don't have this. Even the best children's animated with loads of disposal characters with episodic, character-focused stories with character development, that also lends itself well to merchandising and is in every medium ever, will fail if no one is there to be an audience for it.

The criticism of the Hate Dumb and Moral Guardians will hurt your work if it goes unaddressed. Even if there is no one creating the work, a few very lucky or talented fans may ascend to the status of Running the Asylum. If your work is banned or cancelled, a fan campaign can bring it back. If your work experiences a dip in quality, loyal fans won't leave you. In short, there's a reason why they call it a fanbase; it is the foundation upon which a work or franchise rests on. Regardless of anything else, if your work cannot secure a loyal and supportive fanbase that is sizable enough to justify the work's continued existence, then it will never be a long runner.