Ozark: How to Maintain Story Momentum
One of the most reliably tense and unpredictable shows on recent television has been Netflix’s Ozark, a crime genre show that combines traditional stories about drug empires with themes of family, loyalty, and deeper questions of humanity. The first half of it’s fourth season dropped a bit ago, and I was pleasantly surprised that, despite a two year hiatus, the show is still incredibly gripping. I want to use this post not only to tell as many people as possible that this is a show worth checking out, but also analyze the ways in which the show is able to consistently craft it’s seasons in a way which is constantly intriguing yet never repetitive.
What I found is that, at it’s core, the show runs on a variety of rather simple screenwriting rules, executed at an extremely high level. Those rules are…
RULE ONE: Find The Conflict in Every Relationship
One of the first things that became evident in Season Four is how the writers make sure any and every relationship in the show has a center of conflict which characters need to navigate around. No character relationship in this show exists peacefully - Marty and Wendy are constantly at odds about how to protect their family, their two children can’t agree on whether or not their parents are evil, and the tree of cartel leaders and corrupt officials surrounding the family are, of course, battling against each other.
What particularly surprised me was the relationship between Wyatt and Darlene who, at the end of Season Three, seemed to have the healthiest (albeit, strangest) relationship in the show. Rather than have the two live in harmony for this season, the show introduces a tension to their relationship via Ruth- Wyatt’s sister and Darlene’s business partner. As Ruth and Darlene begin to fight over how to handle their budding heroin empire, Wyatt is in the middle of it, meaning scenes between him and Darlene are no longer genial. They begin to morph into fascinating interrogation scenes, with Wyatt constantly being thrown off-balance by Darlene’s perverse mind games.
RULE TWO: Give Your Characters Tough Problems to Solve
Season Four starts out hot. Within the first episode, Marty and Wendy are tasked with a ton of problems, many of which will take the entire season to solve. These problems include:
- Getting the FBI to drop all charges against their cartel boss, Omar Navarro.
- Have Darlene stop selling heroin out of the Ozarks.
- Nullify any suspicion about the disappearance of Wendy’s brother, Ben.
- Stop the investigation into Helen’s disappearance.
- Set their companies up in a way which makes them wholly legitimate.
These are a lot of problems and, as a result, a lot of goals. What’s more, each of these plot lines have massive stakes attached to them. For example, if they fail to get Darlene to quit selling heroin, Omar’s nephew, Javi, will either kill them or ‘solve’ the situation in his own bloody manner. If they fail to free Omar, they may get ‘replaced’ (and killed) by Omar.
By so clearly outlining the goals and attached stakes of the season, the writers make an unspoken agreement with the audience that every scene will matter. A momentum is then naturally imbued into each episode, with many of them being built entirely around Wendy and Marty attempting to achieve one of these goals.
This brings me to…
Rule 2.5: Every Solution Creates a New Problem
Every time a character seems to solve the current problem they’re facing, a new problem arises. For example, halfway through this season, Marty brokers an unofficial agreement between the FBI and his cartel boss, Omar. This deal would seemingly guarantee the FBI dropping charges against Omar (solving one problem), but it results in Omar’s violent and obsessive nephew, Javi, becoming suspicious of Marty. And so, a new problem arises for our characters: they must find a way to get Javi to trust them without revealing Omar’s ultimate plan.
This story-planning strategy adds to the momentum and unpredictability of every episode and effectively allows the series to avoid dull or awkward moments in which characters goals are murky. The audience is made constantly aware of what each character wants, how they plan to get it, and what potential consequences will arise from their actions. At the same time, there are a variety of characters in this show and, more often than not, their goals will conflict with one another in unexpected ways. By having so many plot lines attributed to each character, it becomes incredibly hard to predict just how each plot line will resolve. Within this season alone, there are a ton of unexpected twists and turns that come as a result of the surprising ways each character’s narrative intersects.
RULE THREE: Story Emerges From Character
Here’s a rule which is much easier in theory than in practice: let the characters dictate the story. Effectively, this means not forcing any of your characters into situations which are disingenuous to them. It seems relatively simple but, as I’ve found through my own writing, can be really hard to follow if you lack a deep and personal understanding of your characters.
Luckily, Ozark doesn’t have this problem at all. Each of the show’s principle characters constantly act in ways which speak to their deeper values and goals, even if their actions are irrational. Wendy, for example, has been revealed to be someone who craves complete control of every situation she’s in. As a result, when her son, Jonah, begins to rebel against her by working for a rival business, she makes a decision which, though irrational, is staked in her deeper desire for control: she tries to get Jonah arrested. When this moment occurs, it doesn’t feel flashy or done for the sake of shock or intrigue. Rather, it feels like a natural, albeit extreme, externalization of Wendy’s character.
Character moments such as this are what drive the story and add to the unpredictable nature of the show. Rather than creating shocking set piece moments without regards to character, the writers adhere to following each character’s arcs, wounds, and motivations, thus creating shocking moments which feel natural and structurally grounded.
On the surface, Ozark seems like a fairly complex show, lined by webs of characters and conflicts that constantly intersect and explode in manners which feel decidedly intentional. But, when taking a step back, this complexity all emerges from base screenwriting strategies, executed on a massive and impressive level by the creative team.