Writers On The Web: Developing Web Series Ideas, Part 1

So you’ve decided to write and produce your own web series… now what?  It’s time to start brainstorming and developing web series ideas, characters, and premise.  But before you do, read on…

WRITING AS A PRODUCER

Developing a concept for a web series is no different than coming up with a TV pilot idea.  You need compelling characters that people will keep coming back to watch, and conflicts that can “drive” the series as long as you need it to go, whether it’s a few webisodes or several seasons of the show.

You do want to remember one crucial difference between creating your web series and creating a television show: you’re going to be filming your web series yourself.  Which means, whatever you write has to be filmable on your budget. Which, let’s assume right now, is pretty darn low.

There are many, many considerations you’ll deal with in the process of producing your series, and we’ll go into detail on those in later articles.  However, there’s one consideration we need to dive into today before anything else: locations.

If you live in Los Angeles or New York City, finding locations will likely be the most challenging aspect of producing your own work.  Particularly in Los Angeles, filming is not a novelty and the pervasive thinking is that a film crew on your property = damage and destruction.  Businesses are used to being approached about filming and are sophisticated about the process.  Many locations will require a location fee, insurance, and permits.  This can add up to big bucks, especially if you’re financing your production out of your own pocket.

If you live in another part of the country where filming is not a regular, everyday occurrence, you may have a much easier time finding locations.  People may be excited about the prospect of having a film crew around and go out of their way to help you.

For this reason, I would advise filming wherever filmmaking is NOT an everyday occurrence to increase your chances of securing great locations on a low budget.

For example, when I started filmmaking, I did a 72-hour film contest in Chicago where we had to write, shoot, and edit a short film over Memorial Day weekend.  Our film (that we had to shoot in one day) had a scene that required a nail salon location.  I picked up the phone, called the local nail salon that I frequented, and explained our situation and that we’d need to come over to shoot our scene right now.  They said they weren’t busy and opened their doors and let us shoot there for free without a problem.

I’m not saying it always goes like this.  But your chances increase the farther out you go.  This doesn’t mean you need to leave the state if you live in L.A. or New York, but consider driving outside of your comfort zone to get the best deal.

I would also strongly encourage you to make a list of every location you or anyone you know can get for free.  This is how you will keep your costs low so your series is filmable.

Does your uncle own a restaurant? Does your mother work in an office? Does your best friend manage a coffee shop?  Is your sister a doctor with her own practice? Do you have an apartment or house?  Do your friends and family have apartments or houses?

Who do you know, that likes and trusts you, who will let you shoot at their residence or business for free?

I was in a film class a couple of years back, developing the short film that would eventually become the genesis of my web series, Split.   I had no money at all but I was determined to make my short film.  I lived in a large apartment complex that had several amenities for the residents, including a conference room that no one ever used, and a large parking structure that remained mostly empty.

I went to the leasing agents in my building, explained I was a film student, and asked if I could film my short using these locations.  They said, “Sure, those are for resident use, you can use them for whatever you want.”  BAM!  They signed a location agreement and before you know it, I had two great free locations.

THEN I developed my script.

I thought, what could happen in a conference room and a parking lot?   I wrote for only those two locations so I knew I could film the movie, which was important because I had to film it that next week.

This is key to low-budget producing.  I call it “writing with your producer hat on.”  It’s one of the many hats you’ll juggle as a web content creator, and definitely the most important one.  Because running out of money = no web series. And… no location = no web series.  Don’t let that be an option.

Be creative and do your very best to spend NO money on locations and use your resources that you already have.

It also helps considerably to write a script that takes place in relatively modern day so you have easy access to wardrobe and props that you can find around the house (or your friends’ houses, or at Goodwill).  It doesn’t help to have a free location if you decide to make a Jane Austen-themed series and have to rent thousands of dollars worth of period costumes, props, and set pieces.

Also, remember, if you’re planning on writing more than one season of your show, you have to be able to recreate these locations, costumes, props, and set pieces, so it’s best to keep it to what you can use over and over again for no or low cost.

GENERATING IDEAS

So now that you’ve made a list of free and cheap locations you have access to, it’s time to start developing your idea.

I suggest you think about what you truly know about and start from there.  That seems obvious, but sometimes writers dive into a subject they know nothing about and find themselves stuck.  Web series thrive when they appeal to niche markets (think about The Guild as a prime example, appealing to gaming geeks in particular). So, what’s your niche?

What are you passionate about?  What are your hobbies? Do you have a particularly interesting job?

Maybe you adore your kooky bowling team, or you’re an avid tri-athlete… maybe you work as a veterinary assistant and deal with barking dogs and their crazy owners all day… or maybe you drive a cab and have some insane stories to tell.  Whatever it is, make a list of what excites you that would inspire you to spend weeks or months of your life writing about.  Write about something that has inherent drama and conflict in it that can spur many stories.  (This is why police, medical, and law procedurals are so popular—endless wells of drama and conflict can come out of these recurring situations.)

DEVELOPING CHARACTERS AND CONFLICTS

Before you sit down to come up with your main characters and plot, I would strongly urge you to read this book:

Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin.

Last year, I was sitting at a panel discussion with TV writers held at Universal, and the subject of Mr. Rabkin’s book came up.  The guy sitting next to me taps my shoulder, and with extreme intensity says, “You MUST read this.”  He had his copy with him, and held it out to me like it was plated in gold.

Writing the Pilot is inexpensive, short (only 90 pages), and is the best book I have ever come across about TV writing (thank you, creepy dude sitting next to me, for the recommendation!). With concrete examples from recent shows, Mr. Rabkin clearly explains how to create a lasting franchise premise with enduring conflicts and compelling characters that drive your series and keep viewers coming back for more.

I learned a couple of important lessons from the book:

The most important thing to remember when developing your series is that it is a series.  Sometimes when developing TV pilot ideas, writers get hung up on the first episode and forget that there needs to be enough juice for episode 2, 10, 24, 58, 72, and 100.  The conflicts that are created between the characters, and the characters themselves, need to be compelling enough to be able to churn out stories for years if you want the web series to last that long.  Even if you’re doing a web mini-series with only 6 episodes at 10 minutes each, let’s say, the pilot episode needs to have enough gas in the tank to power 50 more minutes of content, which is actually a lot harder than it sounds.

The conflicts between the characters can’t be easily resolved; they need to be ongoing.  If there’s a simple fix and you can solve their problems easily and tie everything up with a ribbon, there’s no drama, and no show.

Take the ABC primetime soap Revenge for example. Amanda Clarke has a quest.  Her father, as part of a massive conspiracy, was framed for the downing of a jet that in actuality, his employer, Conrad Grayson was responsible for.  She’s made it her mission in life to get back at every single person that did her father wrong, namely Conrad, by moving back to her childhood home and pretending to be Emily Thorne, a wealthy heiress. She even manages to become engaged to the Grayson’s son. Therefore, she can get close enough to the Grayson family to infiltrate their private and public lives and plot their destruction.

There’s inherent conflicts present from the pilot episode on that cannot be resolved.  Amanda’s in love with her childhood best friend, Jack, but has to put on the ruse of being in love with Daniel Grayson so that she can exact her revenge on his family—her life’s mission.  So on a daily basis she has to wrestle between true love and her life’s purpose… there’s a conflict!  She also has to constantly put on the act of being Emily Thorne, although she desperately just wants to be herself.  Yet if she reveals her true self, her life will be ruined. However, as she keeps the charade going, she’s miserable and tormented.  So she’s always stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Revenge is fun to watch because instead of watching cops arrest criminals, or doctors save lives, or lawyers fight for justice, we’re tuning in to watch Emily exact revenge on people, while struggling with that decision all the while.  Every week she gets even with someone, and we’re waiting to see… when is she going to take the Graysons down?  When will Daniel find out she’s a fraud?  When will she confess her love for Jack?  When will they kiss again?!

We shall see.

Put your characters between a rock and a hard place and leave them there.  Don’t make it easy for them to get out.

In my next article, we’ll continue our discussion on web series development with an interview with web content creators Paul Karpenko and Evan McNamara, talking about their exciting new political sci-fi thriller web series, Re-Election.

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