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.
I think you pretty much nailed it there, at least in the sense that it chimes with stuff I’ve been doing this week for my writing course and for Sharps. It’s also involved watching a lot of TV (mostly because I’m drawn to TV more than features).
I have to say I’m surprised that TV structure isn’t well understood (not claiming that I’ve nailed it of course) – even if you don’t have their books, it’s not like there aren’t TV writers with blogs (Jane Espenson, Lee Goldberg, Alex Epstein, etc etc).
The one thing I would say is that I think season lengths are going to meet in the middle (somewhere over the Atlantic, perhaps?) – with 12 or 13 episodes for a primetime season becoming the norm in both the UK and the US. HBO and other cable networks typically run at this length, and they already announced Lost would have 16 episodes for the last 3 seasons. Lost On Mars was 8 eps, and Moving Wallpaper was 12. My big prediction of the week for you there.
Final note: I get the feeling that US series bibles aren’t as prevalent or up to date as we might think (Jane Espenson has some blog posts about this here and here). Also, Aaron Sorkin’s on record saying that he made West Wing character backgrounds up as he went along and needed them for story ideas (specificaly the President’s father).
You had me going for a second, thinking you were writing about my current line of work – drama serials – when what you have written about (according to the BBC Writers Room terminology) is drama series.
Do you have any insights to share about the particulars of serials (State of Play, the State Within etc.)? And, out of curiosity, do you see many specs?
I think you’ve pretty much nailed it, Lucy – though I think it’s interesting to see how, with the increased access to previous episodes (through DVD sets and online availability and +1 digital channels and the like) there’s a greater tendency towards the serial nature of things, with the running subplots culminating later in a series (cf Bad Wolf or whatever); it assumes, more than you might have had 25 years ago, that the viewer’s got some familiarity with what’s gone before. Which I have no problem with – the idea of stuff that pays off for an attentive viewer shows a bit of care and effort by the creators, which is fine by me, as I like to think I’m attentive.
As I’ll say at almost any possible opportunity, I’m a huge fan of the TV show Twin Peaks, which I think might well have had a role to play in kicking up the serial aspects of TV series, as it was very much reliant on viewers following it and even re-watching it (the ‘Previously On…’ bits were little help as things got more advanced, really), and the show got big viewing figures, at least initially. I think this was partly responsible for shows such as the X-Files and later 24 and Lost, with US networks realising that if you get an audience’s attention, you can ramp up the serial aspects and play down the ‘done in one’ aspects of episodes (I think Lost took that too far, really, though I know a lot of people still rate it; I’ll see what the fans say when it ends, and if it was worth the effort).
Before that, Hill Street Blues struck me as a classic template of the way to do a serial but not to alienate new viewers, as they’d always have self-contained plotlines as well as the ones that ran through the season (and lo and behold, one of its head writers was co-creator of that programme I was bigging up in the last paragraph).
But I think that the current structure – which, as you say, is prevalent in Waking the Dead, Torchwood, Doctor Who, and the CSIs – is likely to stick for a while, as it makes for a satisfying experience whether watched all in one go (the boxed set) or in bits (as broadcast). Whilst I’m sure there’ll be a point where the weekly experience and TV schedules falls away to be replaced by a new scheduling approach as the internet and TV channels merge, I think it’s interesting at present to see how TV and comics have seen the ‘collected form’ (boxed set or ‘trade paperback’) have seen a surge in popularity, whilst music has seen an increased fragmentation – they lob the album on iTunes or wherever, and people pick and choose which bits they want to buy. An odd contrast there, I think.
I think Nigel raises a good point about the distinction of drama series, though I think they can sometimes seem less tightly plotted in arc terms – there are often storylines that seem unnecessarily drawn out so that, for example, the Max-Stacy-Bradley triangle doesn’t reach its climax until the Christmas episode of EastEnders. On the other hand, as ‘continuing drama series’ are intended to go on pretty much forever, they’re free to be slightly looser in the timing of the pay-offs; plus, the never-ending nature of the show means they can’t ‘not worry’ about not grabbing new viewers in the final or penultimate episode of a series, so they need to pay more attention to exposition to explain what’s going on (which, I have to say, I think they do pretty darn well).
(Um, I’ve just rambled, haven’t I? Ah well, feel free to slap me down…)
Have to say I’m with Nigel on this. Leaving aside one-offs and two-parters, British TV drama breaks into three categories – serials, series and continuing series. Perhaps people sending you their TV specs to read are blurring the boundaries between these categories, or don’t recognise the differences?
Five Days was a serial. Five episodes best watched one after the other. Each episode had its own plot arcs and character progressions, but were essentially parts of a finite story, like a novel.
Doctor Who is a series. Thirteen episodes, divided into one episode tales and two-parters. There are plot arcs and character progressions that run across each series, but the different stories are essentially standalone efforts.
Continuing drama is like a series, but it never ends. At one extreme these are soaps where ongoing elements predominate and stories are rarely started, progressed and finished in a single episode – such as EastEnders.
At the other end of the continuing drama spectrum is a series like Doctors, where the bulk of each episode is devoted to a story of the day, interspersed by ongoing story and character elements.
Ideally, even a serial should have episodes that can be watched and enjoyed in isolation. At its best Lost achieves this by concentrating the A story on a single character and building thematic resonance through the supporting storylines.
Of course, I could simply be talking out my hat, if I had one.
You’re absolutely right fellas, I meant drama “series” not “serial” -I think writing the words “serial element” somehow infected the word “series” in my brain and turned into a different one in the post (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I’ve put it right now!
I think I’ll be taking a look at continuing drama in another post as well as one on TV SERIALS like State Within and also the fabled MINI SERIES too… These are really interesting too and I actually get a fair few mini series these days too, but for the time being sopa opera *usually* has four story strands A, B, C and D and I *think* Holby and Casualty does too… Though someone like Paul Campbell would be better off answering that if we can attract him over here??
Oh – and I think David does a grand job there or differentiating the difference between serials, series and continuing dramas there.
I feel another post coming on…
A very, very good example of one to watch is Buffy. It does the story of the week (monster of the week it is called in the case of Buffy) and the ongoing storyline. Sometimes the monster of the week is tied into the ongoing storyline, and sometimes it’s in the background.
I’ve just watched I Only Have Eyes For You, which ties the MOTW into the ongoing story in a quite interesting way.
A good example to avoid what you were talking about at the begining is actually a lot of pilot episodes for American shows. I’m not talking about the likes of Studio 60, where the show already had a confirmed number of episodes, but things like The West Wing pilot, which was written and filmed to try and get the show comissioned. They have the stand alone thing working for them, but with a hint of ongoing storylines just in case.
@Will: Total aside: I thought Studio 60 was written as a pilot first, which they filmed to try and get a network to pick it up? They certainly imply that (if not state it outright) on the DVD commentary.
More relevant: I totally agree that US pilot episodes are a good model.
You’re spot on Lucy, as ever. Having been going through putting together a TV series for the BBC we’ve been having to strike a good balance between the serial element and the story of the week. I worked on Coronation Street a few years ago and they had a “wave” structure for storytelling. This meant that as one story reached a climax, the one which had been building behind it was ready to start cresting in the next episode. Each story had a different colour and you could clearly see the stories building and then ebbing away.
Also, I’ve read recently that US TV makers are very jealous of the British model of 6 parters. Writing 22 eps is a huge amount of work. My gut feeling is that we’re going to move towards 8-10 parters over here. Financially it makes more sense and it’s not the full on commitment that US drama demands.
Also, I think it’s worth noting that the pilot episode of your show which gets you the commission or the further development can be quite a different prospect to the pilot episode which gets produced. I think the episode that gets you noticed initially has to be totally full on in terms of story, character, hooks and active questions, etc. You can relax on that a bit if/once it gets picked up. Of course you have to demonstrate that you can write a belter of a cliff hanger. Everyone wants a long runner and the viewers to come back in their millions.
Also very interesting to hear that readers hate pitches…..
It seems the US create tv series (a season of 26) designed specifically for those with goldfish memories. Acts are broken up into bite sized chucks punctuated by a multitude of ad breaks. There’s no time for sufficient story development within the 22 or 47 minutes (depending on the show). There. I’ve said me piece.
There is something about this article that is excellent.
Thank you very much for the information and the effort.
I came across “Dr. House” in mid season and I stayed with it, because of the cases. Even this first episode I watched, had much of his disability, I was very annoyed about this part and I never watched it because of that.
I think in most TV shows the serial story is much more important for the makers than for the audience. It helps the makers to keep on track but more, it helps them if a story of the week isn’t able to fill a complete episode. So they can fill the rest of the minutes with serial stuff.
I don’t like shows like CSI or Boston legal with two cases in one episode. At the end it feels like you have seen two trailers. “Silent Witness” for example always extends a story for two episodes and with that for 90 minutes. Of course there is also serial story inside, but not that much. The week stories carry the episodes.
Best is, when the case of the week is combined with the serial story in a clever way, so that both fits perfect together. Good examples are from “Castle” the episodes “The Nose” or “The Good, the Bad and the Baby”. In “The Nose” they have a “Nose-Witness” and in the serial story they a seperated and than they smell on the shirts of the other. In “The good, the bad and the baby”, they have to handle the baby beside the case. It has at least nothing to do with their serial story, but this connection works really, really good. And that’s maybe a hidden secret of “Silent Witness”. The episodes are often combined very clever with the main characters, even that it has often nothing to do with the serial story. But it affects the main characters, sometimes creates arguments and so on.
So I think, on a procedural show, don’t clinch to hard with a serial story, try to combine the weeks case with your characters as much as you can. If the case affects your heros, it will work.
Thank you Lucy. I’m a newb in the USA and two days ago the only Bibles I new were King James and his cousins. So I ask Cortana about series bibles and she led me to your website which I have bookmarked.
Not only did you tell me what a bible is and how to write one but the components of episodes in a series. I knew this subcognizantly but you brought it to the forefront so now I can actively use plot and subplot or should I say co-plot, instead of just fly by the seat of my pants Thank you.
You are so welcome!
What about the story of the week vs serial element for a sit-com?
Sitcoms have slightly different conventions. Here’s a breakdown of THE SIMPSONS to illustrate.
So here in Germany we have hard working rules. It makes it nearly impossible to do a 22 run. We have 6 or 8 episodes per season. The result is, you have 6 or 8 weeks of weekly shows and than 44 weeks nothing. On that it is hard to come back, the pauses are to long. I watched ABCs Castle as it runs on US TV. The pauses there are okay to stay tuned. So I think 20 episodes is a minimum to stay as audience with a show. Otherwise it is hard to come back and you will loose many viewers.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that you have a serial story which simply lasts for 22 episodes or more if you have many seasons. Most shows, who tried brought up absurd changes in story, where it is hard to follow.
But you can solve with a third element. And I think you haven’t made this really clear and you have not separated this. It is, when a character is involved or you get more information about him/her (back story). For example a story of a character long before the pilot starts. Why he is here and so on.
Conclusion. When you don’t get the serial story over 22 runs per season, you have to fill the spaces with personal involves. One episode with serial story, the next with involvement. I think Castle has done this over time in a very good way, but they, of course, have also made a few faults. They waited to long to bring Beckett and Castle together and so on second half of season 3 and nearly complete season 4 they created a complete stop in storytelling AND involvement over the single episodes. It’s important to go the way further, when it is time for it.
No, it doesn’t matter how many episodes a series runs for. ‘Story of the week’ and ‘serial element’ is scaled up or down according to how many episodes there are, plus which character arcs we are following and why. Plus even American shows often don’t have 22 episode runs any more, especially now Netflix and Amazon Prime have made such a splash. Their series will often only run for 10-12 episodes maximum. We are also in period of massive transition – these new shows tend more towards serial as a standard, in a way the likes of the ‘older’ TV series did not, when this post was written (which was ages ago).
I know, for example “Breaking Bad” comes with 7/8 or 13 episodes, but stays clearly under 2 Mio. viewers and that beside a big media hype. It seems there was no day without a media report about how great “Breaking Bad” is. But in the first four season they cannot increase their viewers and I think it depends on the number of episodes. But it shows also, it is hard to extend a serial story to such a number of episodes.
In your last comments from Sep 21st, you mention how things have changed. Do you have intentions to revisit this subject for the current ‘age’?
Hi Jim! Yup I absolutely will be revisiting this in the new year.