Tag Archives: downton abbey

Why I’ve Learned to Love Story Structure – Part 2 by Xandria Horton

I mentioned in a previous post why I know first-hand that structure can feel for some like their script nemesis. This blog post outlines some more thoughts I’ve found useful of ways to think about structure:

orange is the new black script angel story structure

Structure: micro and macro

Structure is most often referred to in the macro – the number of ‘acts’ in your script and its shape as a whole. But structure is less often thought of in the micro; the way in which your story delivers a single scene. Each scene has a status quo which is interrupted by something (ideally) dramatic, where a unit of story is delivered to the audience (almost certainly) through conflict, and the result is a changed situation. It’s easy to forget that it is this level that can shape the clarity and tone of the script.

Structure: when is a problem the story, and when is it how it’s put together?

When there’s an issue in your script, one of the biggest questions is whether it’s the story or plot – which are usually intertwined in the writer’s head – that’s at fault. Is it something that doesn’t quite sit right in the dynamic of your character’s journey and what happens (content), or is it because of where a piece of information sits in the script and how it is delivered (context)?

I’d love to hear any tools that you have for this process, but for me it’s getting the writer to test it in different ways: if it’s a feature, what’s the overall message or theme of the script – and does this scene fit within that? If this scene were removed, what would be the result on the larger plot? What would the opposite outcome of this scene look like? It’s also often useful to see in its simplest form (cue cards, scene by scene outline). Other suggestions are welcome!

Structure’s Toolkit

Below are some common elements in scripts that relate to structure:

The circular narrative: this is frequently used in TV and feature specs alike (and particularly in comedy). The opening scene of a script presents a scenario, usually a tense/climactic situation, after which the narrative jumps back in time to present the events leading up to this moment.

  • This structural tool succeeds or fails on whether the scene you are ‘hooking’ the audience with is sufficiently extraordinary and creates enough narrative questions (not only “how did they get here?” but “how are they going to get out?”). Ideally, assumptions created by presenting this scene out of context are subverted as a result of experiencing the story as a whole. As I’ve already mentioned in my X Factor blog post however, this can be a way that writers who know there isn’t enough story in the first 30 pages of their script can inject some narrative questions. However, this can also be a legitimate way to present two disparate story elements side-by-side.

The flashback and montage:

  • Whilst many writing resources have now come around to the fact that flashbacks, montages, dream sequences are not just lazy storytelling, this doesn’t mean that writers don’t sometimes rely on them in a way that delivers lazy storytelling.
  • Flashbacks should create drama in their own right and move the plot forward in the present, despite dealing with something from a character’s past. Bang2write has a great post on this here, which also delves into other often misused storytelling tools such as voiceover and dream sequences.
  • The flashback has had a revamp of late: Orange Is the New Black uses flashbacks as an integral part of its structure, which both humanises the inmates by presenting them in a world we recognise and creates ironies between their past and present lives. It also provides the occasional pressure release from a claustrophobic story world. Other recent UK TV like Utopia and The Honourable Woman made some bold and – I think – successful choices by carrying out large portions or entire episodes in the past, which then constantly informed the storytelling in the present, rather than dipping back and forth.
  • And as for montages, whilst they’ve moved on somewhat from Rocky (Team America, anyone?), they often aid a script to deliver a character change, but should never be in lieu of scenes that chart a character’s emotional journey – the audience want to see these up close. A good example of this is Groundhog Day; we skip the hundreds of days in which Bill Murray’s character learns to ice sculpt, play the piano, learn about Andie McDowell and generally become a better person. However, it doesn’t montage the scenes in which his character is challenged or he develops a better emotional understanding.

Multiple storylines a.k.a. ‘plate spinning’

  • Whether this is for a feature with an ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ story, or an episode of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, structuring and interweaving multiple storylines is what allows you to keep your stories moving forward. The difference is whether the viewpoint you create revolves around a central protagonist or an ensemble cast of characters.

Twists vs. Dramatic Irony

  • Structure constantly negotiates whether to let the audience in on one a piece of information before a character in the script (dramatic irony) or hold back so the audience experiences it at the same time – or even after the protagonist (plot twist). When you learn information and how is important in any story, but particularly in genre stories, where the audience can feel involved at key moments of the storytelling, e.g. playing “armchair detective” in Crime. Far from holding back on the plot, the more thought-out clues the audience can invest and speculate in to create plot twists, the better.

Experiencing something first hand vs reported action

  • Generally, it’s more dramatic for the audience to witness first-hand an event in the story, although there are some caveats to this. I frequently see traumatic events in the protagonist’s backstory shown in flashback or in the prologue, when it is possible to show this in a less conventional way. Also, on some occasions, it can be very moving if the plot understates the importance of an event by not flashing back or showing first-hand: examples include Thomas J’s death in My Girl, the fate of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List and the famous climactic scene in Se7en.
Yeah Brad, we know  structure can sometimes be tricky...

Yeah Brad, we know structure can sometimes be tricky…

So this is just a few thoughts to steer clear of structure potholes, identify structure issues and be aware of some of the more popular structure shortcuts (and when you might not want to use them). Feel free to add them to your structure ‘toolkit’ – and post below your own suggestions, or how these concepts have worked (or not worked) in your own writing experience.

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Creating An Original TV Drama Series

We all know that writing a killer feature film script is hard but how about creating a pilot script for a drama series; something that will be compelling not just over an hour, or a series of hours, but over years?

downton abbey

I’ve been working a lot recently with a couple of talented Script Angel clients who are creating original tv series on spec. Developing a new series is an ambitious undertaking and not something I’d usually recommend early-stage writers to attempt. After all, creating a single protagonist story over ninety minutes is challenge enough. But my writers love television drama; they are avid viewers, know the medium and envisage a career writing for it. In the UK you can’t impress a television exec with a spec of their own show, so writers have to create something original in order to demonstrate their abilities both to create original shows and to write on existing shows.

It’s reminded me of the challenges we face in developing that pilot episode script, which must do so much more than just entertain in its own right.

1) Be consistent. You might only be expected to write the script for episode one on spec (please don’t waste time writing the others) but in order to write the pilot you have to know your show inside and out. The pilot script must look and feel just like any other episode in the show. Having sat on the other side of the fence I can tell you that there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a pilot script that feels like one kind of show and then reading the series proposal which is pitching something entirely different! You need to have a clear vision for the series and the pilot episode must sell that vision.

2) Where to start? So how do you begin to shape your original Drama Series? The characters and setting will play a major role in the success or otherwise of your series. However, knowing what story form your show will take will help you to begin envisioning what your episodes will look and feel like.

3) The episodic series. Drama series can take two distinct forms. The first is the ‘episodic’ series, sometimes referred to as ‘story of the week’, whereby there is a new story each week and it concludes at the end of the episode. There are regular characters who return each week and often a recurring setting but the primary plot driving each episode is set-up and paid-off within one episode. One advantage is that viewers can miss episodes and still enjoy the show – you don’t need to have seen last week in order to enjoy this week. Most crime dramas take this form whereby the crime is investigated and ‘solved’ at the end of the episode; CSI, Sherlock, Castle, NCIS, Death in Paradise and also Call the Midwife.

4) The serialised series. In this form we tell stories over multiple episodes. These shows usually have a central character but also a significant ensemble cast around them in order to spread the story weight over multiple hours. Most episodes will move stories on for a number of regular characters. This is where a whole new skill-set comes into play as you develop multi-protagonist storylining. Examples include Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Breaking Bad.

5) The best of both? Of course you can combine the two and it’s typical for even episodic series to have a serialised element for their regular characters. Many of the UK’s long-running one-hour shows (Casualty, Holby City) started as almost purely episodic but became more serialised over the years in order to give the regular characters more rewarding material, thus also rewarding long-term viewers. Indeed, in the current climate it would be unusual for an episodic series to have no serialised element for its regular characters.

6) The story engine. Figuring out where your show will sit on this story form spectrum will help to determine where the drama will come from in your episodes. What is the central conflict at the heart of your show? Deciding how much screen-time is spent on the story of the week (if there is one) and how much on unfolding series-long story arcs will help you know what your pilot episode and all subsequent episodes will look like and where to focus your attention in developing the show. Of course, both your characters and your stories need to be awesome but in a serialised series the characters are even more important because they are your story engine.

7) Have a central character. Even with an ensemble cast we almost always come in to the show through one main character. Over time the show might expand out to give more weight to other characters but you can bet your bottom dollar the show didn’t start like that. If you go back to the pilot episodes of any long-running show it’s very clear who the focus of that episode is. Casualty today might look like an ensemble show with no lead character but the pilot episode was entirely focused on male nurse Charlie Fairhead. Downton Abbey began life focused on Lord Grantham, The Paradise centred on shop girl Denise, Orange Is The New Black focuses on Piper, Mr Selfridge might have a great ensemble cast but the title of the show tells you who is at its heart. You might have lots of great characters but we need to watch that first episode and know ‘whose story is this?’ The answer should be the same for the rest of the series.

8) Make them flawed. I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing worse than a boring central character whose most apt description is ‘nice’. While in a long-running series you may never complete your characters’ journeys as you would in a feature film story, you still need to know what that ending would be. Knowing your character’s flaws allows you to exploit them dramatically. The theme of the show (what it’s really about) is usually dramatised through your central character’s flaw. Your central character also needs to be in opposition to something / somebody and preferably to lots of things to give you an abundance of story riches to choose from.

9) Where are we? The story world, precinct or setting can have a major influence on your show, particularly on its tone and style. DCI Banks and Death In Paradise might both be cop shows but with one set in Yorkshire and the other on a Caribbean island they couldn’t be more different.

10) Establishing tone. Be consistent and make sure that your stories, characters, setting and writing style all work together to create a show that has a clear tone. Is it light and warm, easily consumable like Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Call The Midwife, Castle or NCIS, or tough and challenging but rewarding like Peaky Blinders, The Wire, True Detective or The Americans.

Putting all that together is hard. You need a story engine that can run for years. Your characters need to be flawed enough to be interesting but with enough redeeming qualities that we’ll keep watching them. But if you get it right, and the pilot script is executed well enough to sell that coherent vision, then you could really impress and, who knows, even get your show commissioned!

Writing Drama With Ambition and the Rise of the Co-Production

breaking badWe’ve long had a love-affair with American television drama and the list of US shows we Brits love to watch is long. Whether you were there twenty years ago with The Sopranos, E.R and Grey’s Anatomy, or ten years ago with House and Dexter, or are just discovering the joys of The Americans, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, True Blood, The Good Wife, Nurse Jackie, Under the Dome, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D or Nashville, chances are you’ve seen and fallen a bit in love with a US drama series. Heck, we even watch US remakes of our own shows – House of Cards on Netflix anyone? And the Americans aren’t averse to a bit of UK drama themselves, whether watching our original show (Doctor Who) or producing their own version (Shameless).

sherlockThat symbiotic relationship has also created a production partnership which, particularly between the BBC and WGBH/Masterpiece, has a very long history; many a period BBC Drama has been a co-production with Masterpiece; Bleak House, Cranford, The Lost Prince, Little Dorrit to name a few. In a climate where few UK broadcasters can fully fund the high-end dramas, many of today’s UK originated shows are hugely dependant on co-production money from the US. Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge (ITV Studios,  WGBH/Masterpiece), Sherlock (BBC, Hartwood Films, WGBH/Masterpiece), Parade’s End (BBC, Mammoth Screen, HBO), Dracula (Sky, NBC), Top of the Lake (BBC, Sundance Channel), The White Queen (BBC, Starz).

Lately we’ve discovered that there is a world of great drama beyond the US. We’ve been enjoying The Bridge, Inspector Montalbano, Borgen, Spiral, The Killing and The Returned. And where there is a willingness to watch each other’s drama productions, there seems to follow an appetite for co-producing. Red Planet Pictures’ hugely successful Death in Paradise is a co-production with Atlantique Production and France Télévisions. While Sky’s new drama The Tunnel, a Shine/Kudos/Canal+ co-production, is doing great numbers for them on Sky Atlantic.

But an apthe tunnelpetite for drama from other countries doesn’t always translate into successful co-productions on new projects. Zen, a co-production between the UK, US, Germany and Italy, didn’t take off in the UK and was cancelled after its first series. Will Gould (Tiger Aspect) has commented “sometimes a script comes to your desk and it has four or five different nationalities and a note saying ‘these nationalities will change depending on who is financing the project’. I worry about creating drama purely by the funding.”

At the annual Totally Serialized conference in London, organised by the Institut Francais, there are public screenings of the best of European dramas. The event runs 16-19 January with one day (16th January) given to an industry event discussing the topic. This year it includes a panel discussion of the challenges and opportunities of writing for co-production dramas.

As budgets get squeezed and our storytelling ambitions get bigger, co-productions feel like a natural solution. And with French film producer and distributer Studio Canal taking a majority stake in Nicola Shindler’s hugely successful UK indie Red Productions last year, it seems that developing partnerships beyond our own shores is set to continue. So if you’ve got a compelling story to tell that straddles countries, there is definitely the will to make it happen.