Those of you that have worked with me in 2018 will know that THE most thing I bang on about during our Skype script edit sessions is the importance of structure in the language of television drama. I literally come out in a rash if a writer says to me that they have ‘no real plan’ when approaching a new television idea; that they ‘let their characters speak for themselves’ and they also do the unthinkable which is ‘just write until I get stuck and then stop for a bit’. Ok. I wouldn’t be so terribly invasive and arrogant as to directly quote anyone here, but you get my gist.
A plan is essential because structure is essential and you don’t arrive at the correct and fitting structure for your drama series without a plan.
So here is how I suggest you go about it.
IDENTIFY THE FORM
I am assuming your television story has more than one episode (it is rare indeed to see TV singles anywhere but increasingly common to see series of plus 6 episodes on terrestrial channels and SVOD platforms such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu etc) It is not, therefore, format you need to identify here, it is the form – the shape and therefore the initial structure you envisage carrying the story forward across your series duration.
When talking about structure in story form, I find a visual helps.
If your story is led by an ensemble cast it’s often the bicycle wheel that presents itself as a structural shape.
The members of your ensemble sit in the middle of the wheel and from them the story lines emit like spokes in the wheel. Their point of view is how we see their world and their stories unfold.
Other crucial characters who also carry the story may appear as a second smaller wheel, around the central one. The edge of the wheel could be seen as the limit of the world you have created and also can be viewed in terms of structure, as the whole world not just of one episode, but of the series as a whole.
You can also apply this image to a series that has just one character at the centre from whom all story lines are generated ie: it is what they do that influences what others do. A good example of this sort of structure is Happy Valley.
Some narratives are best told in a non-linear pattern, so the time line flips from perhaps a Flash Back to the present day and then to perhaps a Flash Forward. So the story line vacillates between Now and Then and also What Will Be.
If you follow the threads of a knotted rope you can image how you may bend and shape those story lines to not only go back on themselves but also be connected to one another and so form a cohesive shape.
The way in which characters connect via their respective story lines; the moments they touch or cross, I refer to as Impact Moments and these are essential to engender a strong and cohesive story and a feeling from your audience of total immersion. You will find this happens when you are presented (via great structure and story telling) with a world that feels whole, believable and present. Structure is to be applauded here as much as any action sequences or character development (both of which of course have their vital role to play) but it is the shape of the story structure and the connectivity of its story lines that will bring full engagement and therefore appreciation from your audience.
WRITE THE TREATMENT
I can not emphasis enough the importance of this process in the development of your television series ideas.
It is only by writing a Treatment that you will know if your story has enough ‘legs’ for a series format. If there really is something great to say here (what is your message?) and if your characters are formed enough to carry the plot line. And also what the plot line actually is. Here is my way of writing a Treatment for you to follow in future if you’re not already doing this:
The next structural steps in the Development Game are all about identifying the shape and story of your series and then aiming to get it talked about and ultimately on the desk of a Producer.
By the time you have written your Treatment, written a cracking Pilot and possibly produced a series outline in order to express your character arcs across the duration of the series, you will be a good way into these five, and be aware that there may not be an occasion whereby you will need to produce all five, but I have them here for you to reference when and if it’s necessary, in order to keep the conversation going between you and a potential Producer.
This year, Script Advice ran my favourite course Script Editing for Television for several lovely bunches of writers, would be script editors and development execs. I helped my regular and new writers better their writing game via my Development Packages and also spent a jolly day at Casualty giving their story people a refresher course on Story Lining. I will be doing the same for Holby City next year.
So its been a busy year but now, 2018 is fast disappearing over the drama horizon and I look forward to working with writers, script editors and development executives again when 2019 hoves into view once more….
Happy Writing one and all and see you on the other side!