I have just finished a busy weekend up in the freezing North – the glorious grandeur of Edinburgh to be exact – teaching a talented, creative bunch of would be television and feature writers how to story line a long form drama for the screen.
This is my Story Lining workshop. We use as a template, a Bible for a Soap I wrote called ‘Harkness Hall’. I have run this workshop for smaller groups, but this weekend there were 15 writers, so we plotted the story arcs for the 11 strong cast of Harkness Hall across 10 episodes.
As much as possible, in this workshop, I try to ape the activity and dynamic of a real Story Conference on a real Soap or long running Series.
Each family/character grouping is discussed and around the table, writers pitch their story lines to the group. Often writers new to this game, pitch ideas that are not story lines, but are in fact a series of moments or beats along a character time line. These are important – these beats may form the subtext for this character – but they do not constitute plot or text, and so these ideas fall at the wayside early on.
The story lines that do meet the grade and that I plot up on the white board, are those that not only have a strong ‘story engine’ – a story that creates its own momentum and drives character along with it – but also has enough subtext to draw out the characters it informs.
I write this line up on the board at the beginning of the day:
Text must marry Subtext and Message come to the Wedding
I refer back to this whilst discussing the story lines that are pitched. Story analysis is hard work. Lots of questions must be answered in the positive for this to be a story that the show can take on board.
It takes a lot of thinking, a lot of debate that starts with ‘what if?’ and often the story lines that were originally pitched around the Story Conference table do not get used in their original form. So writers must come armed with more than one great idea and be ready for it to be re-shaped, or rejected outright, by the Story Exec (me).
1/ Is this tonally right for the show in question? Harkness Hall explores the dynamics of a wealthy, essentially corrupt Aristocratic family hanging on by their finger nails to a life fast being eroded by the influences of the modern age. So for example: a story line that explores the ins and outs of Fracking is not an ideal contender – however, if it is told via the motivations of one of the central characters, then this may be of use.
2/ Does it have legs? The story line ideally needs to be told across more than 2 episodes.
I like to start the workshop off with at least 3 strong long running storylines – those that I can plot across from episode 1 to at least episode 5 and ideally the last episode. We can then spend time finding the smaller arcing ones, that link into the longer run story lines.
3/ Does the story inform/expand/develop the character/s it is meant for and does it affect or have influence over any other characters in the series? Ideally the answer to that is yes on both counts. There is lots of material to create here – 25 minutes x 10 episodes is a lot of screen time and the more connections we can make with our story lines, the more contrasts and counter points we can create, the better – this, done right, will be a solidly woven piece of story fabric by the end of the process.
4/ What is the message here? What does this story teach us? Hopefully, it will teach us something. Not only about the character/s it is designed for, but also about the world of Harkness Hall.
The best story lines operate on two levels. Micro (getting to the inner desire/motivation of a character) and Macro (throwing into relief, the world in which the series sits; we see this larger world, through the eyes of the people who populate it.)
So it’s not an easy task. But the act of story lining; mapping out across the length of your series arc, the path of each character, and in so doing, nailing what it is that makes that character tick and showing how their behaviour influences the people around them and their world at large, is how successful, strong, engaging series are created.
I talk a lot about connections in this process. For it is only when the story lines we create begin to inform and influence the others around the table, that I feel that old surge of excitement that I always get when I know we are getting towards solid story ground.
Script Advice is currently working with the Skriva Writing School to deliver a television script development programme across a number of months. This workshop forms part of the programme. Watch this space for further news of more workshops like this, coming from the Script Advice and Skriva partnership in 2015.
I hope you are enjoying my new-look website; very shortly I will be offering my ONLINE TELEVISION WRITING COURSE – covering writing Treatments, Developing Characters, Plotting, Series Outline writing and the crucial first ten pages of your script.
So keep an eye on me and my activities on Twitter: https://twitter.com/YVONNEGRACE1 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/237330119115/ LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=101316373&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile and via my website: www.scriptadvice.co.uk for news of this new exciting course.
And if you haven’t already – my book is a great way to focus your energy into productive television writing https://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Television-Yvonne-Grace/dp/1843443376/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1400840643&sr=1-7&keywords=writing+for+television
Happy Writing! Get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org