Tag Archives: sherlock

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!

Cinema or Living Room: Writing for Film and TV by Joe Williams

With the emergence of VOD platforms and cheaper forms of digital film production, there has never been a more exciting time or as many opportunities to create film or TV content as there is now.

tv vs film

TV in particular is said to be going through a ‘Second Golden Age’ with shows such as True Detective, Broadchurch, Breaking Bad and Sherlock rivalling or even superseding films in terms of public discussion.

The UK has no shortage of distinctive and talented writers working in both formats; yet despite this, there are only a few who equally move between both mediums. Examples of these ‘format hoppers’ include: Abi Morgan, Jeff Pope, Peter Morgan and Dennis Kelly. At the same time, iconic writers such as Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright and Russell T Davies have carved out enduring careers exclusively in television, while Jane Goldman, John Hodge and Hossein Amini have concentrated on film.

I personally adore both and will happily jump from Sherlock to Sherlock Holmes in the blink of an eye. Having also worked in film and TV development, Hayley has kindly asked me to share a few thoughts about writing for both mediums and what can be expected in the development process.

Structuring Your Script: Arguably the greatest difference is the amount of freedom in terms of length and structure. When writing film scripts, entire pages can be added and discarded often with little consequence to the overall film. In TV, a script’s length is poured over, especially in production where a read-through will typically be timed. The length of your script is even more pronounced if you have to factor ad breaks when writing for broadcasters such as ITV or Channel 4. While working on the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course, we would discuss the importance of creating a strong inciting incident at the end of ‘Part 1’ (around p12-15), to ensure a potentially fickle audience would be hungry for more. In film, you are able to delay this to a later point, giving you the freedom to write closer to your own pace.

If you’re writing for TV, your series also has to compete with any number of distractions in the home from the kitchen to your iPhone (in my case, guilty as charged!), so the need for attention-grabbing material is more pronounced. When your film is on general release, you can take comfort that the audience is locked in and hopefully free from distraction. Of course, many TV writers relish these challenges and such constraints can push you to write taut and tightly structured scripts that still allow your vision to shine through.

The Development Process: A common complaint heard in film or television development is the lengthy amount of time it takes to get projects off the ground. Even so, there is still often a clear difference between the mediums in terms of the amount of time spent developing projects. In film, you are typically allowed to work to your own timescale within reason. Even if you have a creatively strong script, it can still take months or even years as the producers delve in to the quagmire of film financing. In TV, the time scale is notably accelerated, particularly if you find yourself working for hire on an existing series. This does not necessarily mean that TV is the quickest way to getting your writing out there, as a variety of issues from the broadcaster’s end can come into play before your work reaches the screen. Either style can work for you depending on your personality but when writing for both mediums it’s worth preparing for lengthy periods of waiting, punctuated by occasional bursts of energy.

Broadcasters and Distributors: In the British film industry, while there are many distribution companies with distinct identities (Artificial Eye generally release ‘art-house’ films, while Lionsgate tend towards action genre titles), there is generally less consideration of where your script will end up during the writing process. While no TV broadcaster would wish to compromise a screenwriter’s vision, when assessing material they still look for stories that will sit comfortably alongside their current slate. Therefore, when writing your TV script, it can occasionally be worth bearing in mind where you want to see your show transmitted. Say you’ve written a gritty crime drama, do you want to see it in the company of Luther (BBC), Broadchurch (ITV) or Top Boy (Channel 4)?

Directors: In television, despite the influx of ‘auteur’ directors, the writer is still traditionally in a greater position of influence in contrast to film. To give an example, whenever Abi Morgan pens a new TV series, such as The Hour, she tends to take centre stage in terms of its promotion. This is in contrast to her film work, in which she has generally taken a backseat in the public eye to either the director (Shame) or the subject matter (The Iron Lady). The world of film is undoubtedly exciting and writing for it can offer more structural freedom, but it is still, at least in the public eye, the medium of the director.

Your Characters: Another factor to influence your writing is the different directions you can take your characters in. When writing a film script you can decide your characters’ endpoints and use it to inform their actions. Television offers you the chance to keep on developing the characters while knowing who will be cast in the roles so you can write to their voices. What’s more, TV can allow you the opportunity to re-invent your work based on background characters. Kryten in Red Dwarf and The Fonz in Happy Days are both breakthrough characters that emerged long after their pilots were written.

Ultimately, it’s a question of personal preference whatever medium you choose to write for in terms of working habits and your own creative instincts. As mentioned, many writers have succeeded in finding their voices in both fields and given the increased opportunities in terms of technology and platforms, it’s very possible to wear two hats or one, depending on what fits you best.

Joe Williams is a freelance development consultant working for numerous film and television production companies. He has previously worked in development for Scott Free Films, Sprout Pictures and Channel 4’s Drama Department. Joe recently also participated in the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course as a Shadow Script Editor. You can follow Joe on Twitter @josephmwilliams

 

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.