Yvonne Grace explains why the Structured Path is the right path when it comes to television series writing.
The writers that work with me regularly via Script Advice, and those familiar with my blogs, will be all too aware of how much I bang on about the importance of structure in all television series writing.
All great series drama has a congruent, harmonious structure that works within the storyline to highlight the best bits, to hold up the slightly weaker bits (they are always there, even in the best long running shows) and to generally make sure the story and its characters shine.
The goal here is to form a rock solid basis or foundation for your storylines. If the structure works for the story and the story grows within the confines of what you have set up, then you will be assured of full audience engagement and the Holy Grail will be reached—that is, a commercial and creative success.
Here’s my 8 step plan to structuring your television drama ideas…
1: THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I have blogged about the creative process in much more detail here, so I want to just say; ask yourself this question throughout your initial thinking process, when the ideas are unformed and there’s a general feeling of ‘I may have something here’: What do I want to say exactly?
Nailing your intention from the start will bring you back to that idea/thought, time and again when you get lost and may stray away from your original intention as you develop the long form storylines.
2: MAPPING AND STRUCTURE—THE MACRO V THE MICRO
So you have the ideas—they’re still in a bit of a muddle—you have a setting or a world, you have a message you want to say, you may have characters forming.
Now you need to work out how you are going to explore and demonstrate your world and your message to an audience. That’s key here. You have something you want to say but it’s not worth saying if you don’t connect with a wider audience. The interplay between the wider view point—that is—the Macro Viewpoint and the personal, or Micro Viewpoint is what ensures your audience stays hooked from the first to the last scene.
Taking the example of in my view, one of the best television drama series in recent years, Happy Valley by the incomparable Sally Wainwright, the Macro Viewpoint is the back drop of the drama—not only the West Yorkshire valley in which she sets her world, but also the police station where Catherine Cawood works. The audience can look in; as if from a distance, the world that Catherine inhabits each day and can also see, set against this, the people who struggle along, with their various concerns, emotional, financial, social, all set against the rugged beauty of the Penninnes. The Micro Viewpoint is that of Catherine herself; her observations, her mind set, her choices and her decisions. And too, those of her family and her work colleagues as we go through the arc of their various storylines. The viewpoint is wide and then close up—as if the camera lens itself has set a master shot and then pulled focus on a character, or a particular story moment. This shift of perspective is the key to a great series narrative.
3. CHARACTER ARCS
In the work I do with writers, this forms the bed rock. Each character you create has a story arc that you must control, incrementally, across the arc of not only the series as a whole, but also each individual episode. The journey for all characters starts with your rough mapping of their narrative across the main trajectory of the series. Block this out for each character to begin with and then work into it as you go through your episodes. This way, you will have a broad stroke story line set down so you can create detail and complexity within that story line without losing your original intention for the character.
4: TREATMENT TEMPLATE
Identifying the DNA of your series idea. This is one of my most popular blogs and reading this will give you a solid basis for shaping your next television idea.
Here I will merely say that without a treatment, you will most definitely feel overwhelmed by the task of controlling a series narrative across more than 3 episodes.
5: OUTLINE THE SERIES
This document will give you the confidence to proceed to the pilot. The arc in general terms, of the series as a whole, needs to be broadly plotted. Find the jump off point for everyone, then the midpoint and the ending. These are 3 main story blocks that need to be cemented in place so you can work out from each point and give the series arc more detail and complexity. Ask yourself this key question to focus your creative mind: what is the narrative throughline for my series? In the case of Happy Valley it is the trials and tribulations of Catherine Cawood and her quest to bring the rapist who murdered her daughter to justice.
6. OUTLINE THE PILOT
Before you allow yourself to write actual scenes, do a Beat Sheet which maps out, in short paragraphs, each paragraph denoting a scene, what happens in your pilot. This way you will be able to see at a glance, if the story has a motor, if the characters are used to their full potential and if there’s anything extraneous or unnecessary in the plotting.
7: THE FIRST TEN PAGES OF YOUR TV PILOT
How to make sure your first 10 pages sell the other 50. This is another popular blog I wrote to support a work shop I ran last year. The essence I want you to take away having read this, is to realise just how important it is to hold the attention of audience and you do this in several key ways—all of which is outlined here.
8. THE FIRST DRAFT OF THE PILOT
The Vomit Draft. Horrible phrase I know, but I use it in the work I do with my writers because it describes exactly what you need to do when you are faced with the task of getting your first draft down. Just get it out of you. Because I have insisted up to this point, that you write not only clear character story arcs but also a beat sheet of the pilot, this is not a total free wheeling exercise. There is a beginning, there is a middle and you know the ending – of the series arc, now you need to drill into the first episode and make that sing so it sells the rest of the series.
STOP PRESS: July 21st/22nd and 28th/29th London.
My course SCRIPT EDITING FOR TELEVISION shows you not only how to handle series narrative using real examples of television scripts but also introduces you to the art and craft of the Script Editor in Television and enables you to meet industry professionals and work with a prolific writer from EastEnders. It will change the way you write – believe me – for the better. There are a few places left. Get in touch!