Your story is one joke. Even if it lasts 10 seasons. It’s one joke. At least — it should be if your Prius is running on all fuel cells. Whether you’re writing comedy or drama, your entire premise boils down to “. . . but the joke’s on them.” Where “them” = your main characters.
The joke isn’t necessarily funny. But it has that thing that all jokes share: surprise. We start in one world, and we wind up in another, with the old world blown up in our face. That’s what a joke is. When it’s short and tight and sharp, it’s funny. When it depends on context and character, it’s dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is what happens when we know more than the characters do — because we know them better than they know themselves. Because we perceive something in the situation they don’t. Because we’ve picked up clues they’ve missed. So the joke is on them: they strive, struggle, blithely unaware of what’s about to happen. And we enjoy it. Because when we know more than they do, tension builds as we watch them struggle to find out what we know — because the joke’s on them. And we win. We’re in the superior position.
Dramatic irony happens when a character doesn’t know he’s in a joke, and he’s surprised by the punchline.
Dramatic irony is the joke your character finds least funny right now. Because we want them to suffer. Because that’s what we find funny — or alarming — or affecting — or profound.
Your character may run into variations of the same joke over and over, or she may live out the consequences of the joke slowly over the course of the story. The joke must be clear, and your entire story must boil down to this one joke. To test this, see if you can answer “how is the joke on them?” about your story. Here are some examples:
People survive a plane crash only to fight for their lives against mysterious Others who force them to confront their past lives. (LOST) (joke’s on them.)
A boss loves his office like family but taints everything in it with his incompetence. (THE OFFICE) (joke’s on him — and the other people in his office.)
Humans create a race of machines who now want to destroy them. (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) (joke’s on them.)
These are TV examples, but it works for all stories.
Distill your story to its essential joke — ask how is this situation a joke on them? — and then repeat that same joke on a larger and larger scale, with greater consequences, until you reach your conclusion or 100th episode. Here’s my post on how to tell a joke.
Telling jokes keeps you tight and light on your feet. And it’s fun. Try it.