I cut my drama teeth on Eastenders. This fact made two things true about me:
1/ That I thrive on pressure
2/ That I like making stories happen.
To continue in a symetrical vein, this show also made me very good at two things in particular regarding the knotty problems we face when coming up with and constructing storylines and I have regularly called upon these strengths in my career since:
1/ It made me fast at decision making
2/ It made me good at seeing the bigger picture
Whilst I am not suggesting you become a swifter storyliner/creator/writer, I am suggesting that you focus on seeing the over-view of your storylines; how they can travel across not just one hour of drama, but run through a multi-part format?
Sitting around the Story Conference Table at our 3 monthly sessions on Eastenders and discussing storylines, both those pitched by the writers and those created by the script team, exposes you brilliantly to how stories are created and this contact with ideas, concepts, themes, stories makes you soon able to pick out and recognise very quickly, when a storyline has the potential to go more than a couple of episodes and when a truely fabulous storyline presents itself – even if it is only the edge of one that you can see.
Experience teaches you that digging a bit deeper into that idea, will reveal a wealth of other storylines that are off-shoots and tributaries of the initial storyline. So a small idea can often become a huge unweildly beast that needs plotting over many episodes.
An illustrative example; Tony Jordan,(when writing regularly for Eastenders) came up with the storyline of Phil Mitchell’s affair with his Sister In Law Sharon whilst Grant, his brother, was in prison for GBH. We knew this wasn’t going to be a medium-sized storyline, their affair revealed so many facettes of the personalitites of the three characters involved and the impact of their betrayal of Grant was felt by so many other characters in the Square, that we found we could stretch that storyline to an inordinant length without losing it’s initial impetuous. Grant had a history of violence, so that planted the seed of jeopardy into everything Phil and Sharon did from that point on; the audience naturally waiting with bated breath for when he found out and there would be a filial war on the Square.
We plotted this storyline across a whole year of the show’s output. It ran and ran and ran. No-one, not even Tony had thought it had that much milage but that is the business of storylining, sometimes, it’s worth stretching an idea to the absolute limit to get everything out of it.
The episode that focussed on Grant finding out, where Sharon and Phil had to face the music, got 22 million viewers.
A lot of writers I help now, via Script Advice and those I have met on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/237330119115/and Twitter https://twitter.com/YVONNEGRACE1 are unsure and unconfident about storylining and making their stories go the distance of more than one episode. It seems to me that many writers do not have a problem structuring their story across a traditional 3 act single drama. Nor do they even baulk when straying from this set format by writing more than 3 acts into their story structure. No, it is not the single format that seems to give writers the heebie jeebies, it is the 2, 4, 6 parters and (horror of horrors) the continuing drama formats that cause the nervous breakdowns.
Take a break. Calmly does it. Here’s how to think about longer running formats.
Each character you invent has a journey and a narrative path they must follow in order to earn their place in the first of your scripts. If your idea seems to fit into a format longer than a single, then it goes without saying that you are going to have to control their journey for longer.
And control it you must. Because there is nothing worse than a sloppily constructed storyline. A badly plotted, mis-managed storyline undermines the whole integrity of the script. Characterisation, dialogue, pace, emotional impact, the message, the tone is directly affected. Get the storyline right, get it structured right and you have the template you need to add all the other bells and whistles.
This sounds like a lot of work but it is important to do this stuff before you sit down and bash out your first draft of the first episode of your 2/4/6 parter.
1/ IDENTIFY THE THROUGH-LINE OF YOUR STORYLINE:
What is the main thread that runs through it? What is it, essentially, about?
2/ PLOT THE THROUGH-LINE IN BROAD STROKES ACROSS THE NUMBER OF EPISODES:
Do this by using index cards, or sheets of paper, which you can rip up and move about, or use a white board (I love a white board, but you can get away with less overt expenditure!)
3/ IDENTIFY THE CHARACTERS THAT YOUR STORYLINE MOST OVERTLY AFFECTS:
4/ PLOT EACH CHARACTER’S THROUGH-LINE (their journey through the episodes) SEPARATELY IN BROAD STROKES:
5/ PLOT EACH CHARACTER’S JOURNEY NOW IN MORE DETAIL:
Make connections between each character’s storyline, finding smaller and more emotionally resonant story beats.
6/ FILL IN THE STORY GAPS BY MAKING MORE CONNECTIONS AND PARALLELS FOR EACH CHARACTER
Once you have pulled out your storylines in this way, you will be able to literally see where you can fill in any gaps that occur and where you may have missed a drama beat.
The key to good storylining is to be both methodical and creative.
PLOT THE OVER-VIEW THEN ADDRESS THE DETAIL.
I would not leave anything to chance when you are writing an episodic drama. Get a system in place that works for you and stick to it when you embark on structuring your episodes.
Planting the seeds of a great storyline upfront in the first 10 pages of your 1st episode and drawing the storyline out, carefully, with attention to both the broad and the more subtle story beats, will guarantee you have your audience still hooked by the end of your last episode.
When you storyline a multi-episodic drama well, you are taking the hand of your viewer and leading them through the duration of your drama – you don’t leave them stranded at any point, you are in control of their experience the whole time.
Be the boss. Get good at structuring your storylines.
Your work and your audience will thank you for it.
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