There once was a time when I would get only feature scripts to read and the odd novel; in the last two years then, I have received A LOT of TV drama series specs.
This has been quite an education for me; I had assumed that people would automatically “get” the structure of television. After all (I thought), most people are surely only going to have time to go to the cinema once a week maximum or watch a film on DVD once every couple of days, whereas most people (especially those who want to be writers) must watch TV for at least two hours every day, right? That *must* mean that TV spec scripts are less likely to have the kinds of problems of film specs?
However, it would seem that daily exposure to various techniques does not mean scribes necessarily absorb them like osmosis. There can be the same issues as spec features in character, dialogue, arena or anything else you care to mention.
Now, one might argue that’s because we write so much shit TV in this country, but not only do I think that’s not true, that’s not actually what I’m going to be talking about in this post.
There is one issue a TV drama spec *can* have that a feature spec does not however: what I call “dangling structure”. In other words, the Scribe involved wants a cliffhanger at the end of their pilot episode, so they set everything up in that all-important first episode, but crucially do not answer any of the questions they pose in the plot.
So what’s the problem with that? Mystery is good, right? Let me illustrate WHY it’s not:
Your friend has been out shopping and has dropped by at your house on his/her way back. They’ve seen something AMAZING.
They start to tell you about it, but every time you ask a question about what happened, they don’t answer. Instead, they start another description of something else related to *that thing* that happened, only you still don’t know what happened!
By the time your friend has been talking for nearly sixty minutes about *this amazing thing* (without actually saying what it was), the people who were involved and what they said about it too, you STILL don’t actually know what happened. Annoying, right?
If this really did happen to you, what would you do? You’d switch off mentally (and make a note to be out next time your friend decides to drop by I’ve no doubt).
If your friend was a TV drama spec then, you wouldn’t be engaged. You would look at these mysterious set up elements and say: “But who is who in relation to whom? Why did s/he do that? Why did that change? What was that bit for? Why did this happen?”
I’m sure it might “be obvious” if you look at the pitches for the next episodes, but that’s not dramatically satisfying. In any case, every pilot that makes it to screen demonstrates that you don’t JUST set up the situation, you have conflict AND resolution too – even if you DO have a cliffhanger.
So all this is the problem with a good 80% of the TV spec series I see: they leave everything dangling from the offset (oo er); they completely underestimate the power of conflict or resolution within the episode itself.
A lot of writers I’ve spoken to do not understand how you can resolve stuff when there is a cliffhanger and overarching serial storyline, so here is my take on how TV drama series work according to the various “models” I’ve seen or discussed with people.
Obviously you may have read these ideas with different names or seen people describe TV structure in different ways: this is how I understand it, so it may not work for you too. However I’ve tried to break it down in as simple a way as possible, so hopefully it’ll prove useful if you’re having trouble with a TV spec yourself… If not, nothing to see here: move along now! ; )
First off, here’s the two elements of plot construction I see in TV Drama:
Part 1: Story of The Week
Every drama series needs a story of the week: this is what gets us hooked, brings us in. Maybe the story of the week will be responsible for bringing in infrequent viewers too: I don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy for example regularly, but recently it came on and the story of the week looked interesting and I watched it. Think of the Story of The Week as the FOCUS of your episode: examples could be a particular case for CSI, House, Boyd in Waking The Dead; a mission for Dr. Who or the Torchwood Team. Usually this story of the week can STAND ALONE, though strands of it may break off into the serial element, which is why I think this element is confused in specs sometimes (next). It is this element that will need resolving in your pilot.
Part 2: Serial Element
The serial element is obviously something that runs throughout a series (thus does not need resolving), but crucially this is usually subordinate to the “story of the week”, the serial element is not the main plot (though they can become stories of the week).
Whilst Gray’s revenge formed the main story of the week as the series finale of Torchwood for example, who Gray was and why Jack was tortured by his loss ran throughout series two from the offset: even Captain John’s appearance in episode one was not about Gray himself, but rather to introduce that serial element.
A similar thing was undertaken with Luke and Boyd in the last series of Waking The Dead. In the latest series of Dr. Who, the return of Badwolf aka Rose is an obvious sub plot serial element; we *just know* she’s going to turn up soon and bring a story of the week with her, as did the 333 caller in CSI:NY.
Sometimes serial elements are more obviously subordinate and do not form an exact story of the week, but add to another one: Lost’s scary unseen monster for example in series 1, Grissom’s deafness in CSI, or Dr. Dave’s mission to discover what really happened to Dr. Weaver’s foot in ER all those years ago.
Secondly then, I think it’s useful to consider how people construct those two elements – and how they add to them too:
UK MODEL # 1 (OLD SCHOOL)
The UK model in 60 minute drama used to be very specific and does not seem “fashionable” at the moment so much, though I have seen this style in crime dramas like Trial and Retribution or Silent Witness recently.
Basically, the Old School UK style seems to be composed of a “Story of The Week” and a secondary element, which sometimes incorporates a serial element, sometimes not. It ends up like this:
PLOT A: Story of the week – main case or mission, ie. why the characters are involved, usually on a professional level (probably why this is popular within crime drama).
PLOT B: Sub plot. Can include a serial element (like Leo’s dead family in Silent Witness or The Guv’s errant son in Trial and Retribution).
Sometimes however, that sub plot can stand completely alone, which is worth remembering. The striking thing here is that if characters are involved on a professional level in this style of TV plotting, which they nearly always are, then usually the serial element is dedicated to a personal issue one of the characters has to face.
UK MODEL (US STYLE)
This is the style of the moment it seems – and accounts perhaps for some Bloggers’ issues with UK TV at this time I wonder, in that UK TV is emulating the US but not enough? Waking The Dead and Torchwood are the most obvious examples here, (as mentioned previously) since they seem to be laid out plotwise like this:
PLOT A: Story of the week. The case, the mission, the problem etc facing the characters as always.
PLOT B: Serial element. If you consider the Luke storyline in WtD, this ran as the subplot in every episode of this past series; interestingly it was never a story of the week either, though it seems the norm it becomes one (and often for the final episode), as in Torchwood with Gray.
Other serial elements that have become stories of the week (though not always season finales) include Adam’s near death experience, diminishing sanity (and worries for son Wes) in Spooks; the hatch in Lost; House’s disability; Sam’s realisation in Life on Mars and Alex’s parents’ demise (and who was really responsible) in Ashes to Ashes.
I think what is important to remember with the US Model is those 22 episode runs: I never recommend Bang2writers undertake a series bible with a such a lengthy run in mind, for what’s the point? If the likes of Babarba Machin, Tony Jordan, Tony Marchant, Ashley Pharaoh and Matthew Graham cannot secure such huge runs for their highly successful and celebrated writing (having already had huge chunks of success), then what chance do we have as people with no TV credits yet?
Also, I’m unconvinced that the 22 run is something the networks or producers want to commit to: even if there was the money, I’m not sure the (non writing) audiences’ interests would be held. TV culture here demands that “less is more”, perhaps due to neccessity, perhaps due to lack of imagination, perhaps because psychologically British people LIKE being made to wait? Perhaps *all* of the above!
Whatever the case, a 22 run series needs an acre of hard work and there’s a reason writing teams do it over in the US I think – they need twice the content and it’s twice as complicated to structure. Do you really want to put yourself through that on your own? If you do, the US model seems to run like this:
PLOT A: Story of the week # 1. This is the “major” case, mission or problem and usually runs across the entire sixty minutes, resolving just before the end of the show.
PLOT B: Story of the week # 2. This is the “minor” case, mission or problem and usually covers three quarters of the show where it will resolve in either a) the 45th minute OR b) it will merge with the major story. Sometimes, but infrequently, the major and minor stories will run parallel all the way through, or the major story will not resolve.
The most obvious examples that do these two stories of the week are the three CSIs: they will have two lots of investigators running two cases that are sometimes related, more often not.
House is a less obvious example of the two stories, usually because Story #1 involves his patient and Story #2 involves his team of doctors and colleagues, plus the various backbiting and general politics as they pit themselves against each other for whatever specific reason each week.
PLOT C: Serial element. Those story strands that run throughout the series as before – Grissom’s deafness or relationship with Sara; the 333 caller in CSI:NY; House’s disability or Thirteen’s possible Huntingdon’s Chorea; the Lost monster, etc etc. Some of these will become stories of the week, others will fade away.
When writing a TV drama spec pilot, you need at least one STORY OF THE WEEK and at least one serial element. The Story of the Week MUST resolve in the course of your sixty pages; the serial element does NOT have to.