Skip to content

Plot Construction # 4: Mini Series and Serials

**No Real Spoilers, though there is mention of Steven Moffatt’s Dr. Who episodes**

I don’t get many of these through my script reading; it would seem that spec scribes out there want to invest in features, shorts or TV drama series before they consider mini series or serials. I do read some though every year – probably between 5 and 7 typically – and like the spec TV drama series, they often set up too much and leave their structure “dangling”.

But first off, what is a mini series or serial? Well, as far as mini series go, you may have watched Our Friends of The North, Elizabeth, Second Coming, Best Man, Jesus of Nazareth or Edge of Darkness (you can see IMDB’s list of “best” mini series here).

Oh, but wait: lots of those same names appear in this article from The British Film Institute too when they talk about the best TV Drama serials, along with the likes of Boys From The Black Stuff, Queer As Folk and Clocking Off.

So is there not much difference between these two, or even TV drama series?? Perhaps this is why scribes are reticent to give them a go – because they’re not sure exactly WHAT they are? A quick surf on the internet revealed lacklustre results in terms of really naiing it down officially, once and for all. So I thought I would have a go. Here goes… >GULP<. I actually believe there is not as big a gap between a mini series, serial and TV drama series as one might think initially: I don’t think it’s a question so much of structure as perception. In lots of ways, they even overlap. I’ll explain. As I outlined in this post, the TV drama series has its “story of the week” and its serial element, combined in one of three ways: old school, US style (UK) or actual US series. The mini series or serial then is exactly the same then – but different.

It seems to me that the main story of the mini series – the whole point of why we watch – runs throughout both, much like the serial element of the TV drama series’ plot construction. However, unlike the serial element of the TV drama series, that main story is not wholly subordinate: instead everything in the story returns to it, again and again. So rather than have a Plot A that is a story of the week, we end up with something like this:

PLOT A – “Focus” – each episode might have a focus that LEADS INTO

PLOT B – the whole point of why we are watching

but crucially “Focus 1” is resolved (at least in part) for it will in turn lead into the next episode as

PLOT A – “Focus 2” – a new focus, (as a result of “Focus 1”)

PLOT B – Same as before, though more information will be added to make the bigger picture according to how many episodes there are, for that “bigger picture” will ultimately be the resolution of the last episode…

UPDATE: The lovely Anya makes the very good analogy in the comments section of this post that, in a sense, a serial or mini series is like “Hansel & Gretel” in that a each episode of a serial is like one of the breadcrumbs… We “focus” on the “breadcrumb” every week which leads us to the “gingerbread house” -that all-important FINAL EPISODE.

If we consider The State Within, a BBC serial last year about an English Diplomat in the USA, this *could* have been a TV series. There’s loads of potential there, the running of the UK office in the US, the politics, back biting and sabotage, could have hours and hours in it, surely?

Yet it wasn’t a TV series, it was a serial. Why? Because our English Diplomat had a specific mission that ran throughout the series; each episode’s “focus” took him one step nearer to the mystery. One week there was a terrorist bombing; another week his girlfriend was kidnapped; another one of the people who could help him solve it was executed. Yet week on week, step by step, the serial focused on elements that brought him closer and closer to his goal.

A TV drama series in comparison then would have had a “story of the week” which may have had nothing much to do with the matter in hand, returning to the serial element LATER: if considering Ashes to Ashes, Alex never stopped looking for her parents’ murderer, but she did other stuff in-between. Same goes for the likes of Sam Tyler or Mickey Briggs in Hustle, etc. Our English Diplomat then (what was his name?? Argh) only did stuff that was RELATED to the whole point of why we were watching in the first place – but crucially in two strands, not just the one since that would become dull.

Similarly to a serial then, a mini series will have these “focus points” – a kind of scaled down “story of the week” that comes hand-in-hand with the serial element. A mini series is effectively a condensed serial. A mini series is typically a two parter, though sometimes as many as four – less usually more. A serial then is typically six episodes, though sometimes they are as many as eight. Both rarely return for a second outing. It would seem that longevity is not the concern of the mini series or serial, which is probably why we see so few of them – and when we do, they’re usually written by celebrated and/or award winning writers rather than “newcomers”.

Sometimes TV drama series will have two parters within their run – we’ve just watched Steven Moffatt’s two parter of Dr. Who, “Silence In The Library/Forest of The Dead”. Waking The Dead typically has two parters every single week, so is a kind of hybrid of both the mini series and the TV drama series. If considering the last of WtD’s run, “Pieta”, the first episode focused on the discovery of the heroin in episode one, with the second focusing on how the child was saved (and why) in episode 2. In Steven Moffatt’s Dr. Who episodes this can be seen too, since episode 1focused on what the Vashta Nerada was, with the second focusing on what CAL was.

Crucially however, I think what separates the TV drama series two parter from the stand alone mini series and serials is that notion of longevity: a TV drama knows it has to lay seeds down for future instalments and it will do that – in WtD we’ve had all kinds of serial elements set up for the future and Dr. Who is famous for it. A mini series or serial in comparison then is much more self contained, as if it knows there are no second chances; the dramatic satisfaction effectively comes in the fact that all its loose ends are tied, whereas with the TV drama we are champing at the bit to see what comes next. I think a mini series or serial is the ultimate in plot construction for everything pays off – which is perhaps is why it’s so daunting for a scribe to think about writing one.

What do you think?

Share this:

22 thoughts on “Plot Construction # 4: Mini Series and Serials”

  1. I would say that my favourite serial was State of Play and even the resolution of that was slightly unsatisfying – which just goes to show how difficult a technique it is to master if even Paul Abbott can’t quite manage it…

  2. I don’t think I caught it, or if I did, I don’t remember – but certainly lots of people have said the same to me about it, Colin.

    My favourite of the last few years was Talk To Me, and not just for the pornotastic sex scenes! Though I was very disappointed by its resolution as I was looking for more realism and less of a “romantic” feel to its ending. As writing goes though, I think Danny Brocklehurst is fantastic – and I see he is behind the new Take That musical! *SCREAM*

  3. I’ve been tempted by serials but have felt I’m not yet technically competent to handle the structure.

    It seems far more complex but in the end more satisfying. I remember the ones I’ve seem far more vividly than many series.

    I suppose it is more of an event.

  4. I’m attempting a serial myself and bloody hard it is to do, I can tell you. I’ve devoted my blog entirely to it. The fool.

  5. This post has meant a light has come on in my head!

    You’re saying basically that serials (and min series) are kind of like Hansel and Gretal – each of the breadcrumbs is an episode, with the gingerbread house as the last one where it all comes together???

    Right??? (please say yes)

  6. Good lord, aren’t you lot enjoying the sunshine this lovely evening??

    Anya – I LOVE that analogy! But even if I hadn’t, don’t think you can’t see it another way.

    Mark – I think I will get the boxset – and good luck with your serial.

    Rach – serials ARE like an event, well said! Whereas TV drama series are less so cos of the longevity thing. Nice one.

  7. Been waiting on this one but I must say, Lucy, some of your other posts have had a bit more clarity! Great analogy from Anya, and I would second Colin and say that State of Play was easily the best drama serial of recent years – you have to go back ten years for a comparably good one (that I know of): Tony Marchant’s Holding On. The BBC has a tradition of producing good serials, although the most recent one, The Last Enemy, failed dramatically I think even though it raised some very interesting and important points.

    Anyway, what I wanted to say (ahead of sending you my drama serial script this week!) is that if you think of drama series vs drama serials (a mini-series in US parlance, or is there an actual difference?) from the production side, there is no confusion about the difference: are they recurring or one-off?

    That dictates how key is the serial element from episode to episode: a drama serial must be fully self-contained and the plot spine if I can call it that to avoid confusion must be central to every episode. You are effectively writing a film, a one-off standalone story, but one that is spread over multiple episodes. My own is an elaborate story that happens to be eight episodes long because I couldn’t see how to squeeze the story into any less (even though the BBC seem to have a preference at the moment, and HBO has started rolling out 7-episoders). Of course there will be sub- and side-plots, but they will all tend to tie-up near the end and be vital elements of the conclusion, not just along for the ride.

    My first draft of my first episode was unsatisfactory because it was essentially just the first 60 minutes of the story, which I think happens to be a damn good story, but what it taught me was how crucial it is that every episode works in isolation, has its own internal conflict and resolution and so on and doesn’t simply advance the story and end with a cliffhanger to make sure you turn in next week. Working out a story like that across 6-8 hours requires some hardcore engineering, but if you are up to writing a satisfying film and structuring and pacing it, there is no reason not to have a stab at a serial.

    As a final note I’d just say that there has been some blurring of the boundaries, notably in the US, in recent years, where recurring drama series have featured a serial element more heavily. Shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica were conceived of as stories with a resolution, and now that the networks have fixed the number of episodes each show has still to air and the producers know what they are working to, they have become much more like serials than series. Damages, of course, although a recurring series, was written very much as a serial with a clear resolution at the end of the first series, rather like Prison Break (they get out of prison) and, of course, 24 (Jack saves the day, the end, until next time). Whatever the span of episodes, it is that final punctuation, that full stop, which defines the serialness of a series.

    OK, now I’m rambling, and have probably contradicted myself…

  8. Hello Terraling! It is a good analogy from anya and pretty much sums up what I’m thinking, I will probably put an update into the post myself since I prefer that to the notion of a focus that “double backs” on itself which on reflection possibly means different things to different people, anyway.

    Agree with you on Last Enemy – gave up watching half an episode in – but I think there have been decent serials post State of Play. I though Mobile was fantastic. Or was that ITV? John Fay is always good though.

    As for serial elements being more involved in US shows, I’m unconvinced. I think it’s more that shows are becoming more high concept in a “real” sense. I’ve never watched Battlestar Galactica (shock, horror: get her!) but would we have had LOST twenty years ago with all those effects etc, shot on location with such a big cast? I think it would have been more LAND OF THE GIANTS or LOST IN SPACE style and would have *seemed* smaller. I think they can do more now technology-wise, so stories can be “bigger” if that makes sense.

    So you’re sending me a serial as well, or are you somebody I’ve already spoken to?? Now I’M confused! ; )

  9. I thought you were very clear, Luce: serials are like Tv drama series… except they aren’t, cos there’s an overarching goal thing just like in a film except it’s chopped up into little bits but we’d soon get lost with little bits so you need to focus on the little bits each week and why they’re there???

    Rock on! I could be a writer. Right?!

  10. Yes, that’s it Evil – in a roundabout way… Though quite possibly my post was roundabout too! It’s hard to pin down, definitely, but I like the Gingerbread House thing best of all in describing it.

    What we need is someone who has written a serial that we’ve seen to comment – and since people have all been going on about state of play, let’s see if we can attract Paul Abbott across cyberland through the power of thought alone!

    All together now! ****ommmmmm*****

  11. Sorry, Lucy, yes you are expecting something from me, Nigel, booked in for Thursday I think.

    About Lost, obviously technology, budget etc. make it a very different animal from earlier shows, but it runs deeper than that. JJ Abrams says that from the very outset he has always known what the final frame of the final scene of the final episode would look like, the only thing that was up for grabs was how many episodes it would take to get there, which was ultimately a decision for the network which they then had to work to. Lost is really a massive drama serial over something like 100 episodes it will be.

    Likewise, it was always planned that Battlestar Galactica would reach a conclusion (whether or not the humans reach Earth and what they find when they get there), and that conclusion will now come in 11 episodes time, effectively making it, too, a mega serial of 80 episodes.

    The key is, I guess, that over their lifetime these shows pose an identifiable Central Dramatic Question which is ultimately resolved. That is something relatively new (at least I don’t recall it from the shows of my youth) and also helps explain the huge popularity of these shows. (And why Lost audiences tailed off badly when it went through a phase of making-it-up-as-they-went-along because they didn’t know how long the episode order would ultimately be, ie the serial element was diluted to the show’s detriment).

    This side of the pond you can see something similar in a show like Ashes to Ashes where the serial element really is a Central Dramatic Question (will Alex make it back to the present?) which the audience expects to eventually be resolved (rather than ongoing elements in a show like Waking the Dead where your man’s son just died etc. but are not a dramatic question).

    Sorry, rambling, BFN.

  12. Sorry, one last thing, evil twinz made me think I better read your post again as I didn’t mean to disagree, except on re-reading, the one line that threw me was “I actually believe there is not as big a gap between a mini series, serial and TV drama series as one might think”, because I think there really is a big difference between a serial and a series, though your subsequent analysis is an accurate discussion of the differences. It’s a question of emphasis, I guess.

  13. My favourite serial from 2007 was Five Days, but even that didn’t absolutely nail the dismount, IMHO. Must re-watch State of Play. I read somewhere Paul Abbott wrote the first drafts without any forward planning – a rarity in TV writing these days, if true. Gripping TV, whatever the case.

  14. Aaah, Nigel! Hi. Didn’t realise you had a blog. Please disagree with me all you like if you want to. The whole “same…but different” argument is totally down to perception in any case – I see serials as completely different ‘cos of the breadcrumbs thing but also ‘cos of the focus on those breadcrumbs, what is that but a *kind of* story of the week if you (as in “one”, not you) want to split hairs? This of course is why serials are so hard, I do think the gap between them and tv drama series is small, though significant.

    David – enjoyed Five Days, but found the pace perilously slow. I also was peeved by the fact it set off chronologically and seemed to be 5 days in sequence and then seemd to change the goal posts and jump several months’ ahead, but perhaps I’m a stick in the mud. On balance I preferred Talk to Me and Elizabeth last year. Oh and Krakatoa: The Last Days. In fact, there were loads of great serials/mini series last year: where are they this year???

  15. “…an identifiable Central Dramatic Question which is ultimately resolved. That is something relatively new (at least I don’t recall it from the shows of my youth)”

    Does Babylon 5 count on this one? It was planned as five series with a specific finish. Only it suffered towards the end because the production companies were less inclined to commit on that scale.

    The problem with the long running ones is guaranteeing the audience stays with it. There is a lot of history you need to keep up with. I missed a few weeks of Lost and that was it. Lost.

  16. Perhaps the strangest event in serials is where the subplot is made to be dragged out to keep things going. X files might be one. Moonlighting might be another. The series arc became so large it overshadowed the actual show.

  17. Hi Lucy, just got round to reading your article, though I am somewhat newer to your pages. Very interesting info. Though I have, what I would call, an 8 parter but consider it a mini series… I think Band of Brothers is a mini series… I noticed you state that this sort of thing would be done more by established writers than newbies. Though as I have the concept, structure and now re-writing the pilot (getting it ready speculatively pre any commission), I do sense the story idea is unique and compelling enough to gain interest.
    Would that make no difference? I hope I am not wasting time.
    Thank you for your articles.

    1. Hi Russ, it basically comes down to this: EVERYONE is looking for a great story, with great characters, so don’t worry 🙂 Sample-wise, you can send out pretty much anything these days as far as I can see; a sale for a TV series may be more difficult as a new writer but again, if it’s an AMAZING concept, story and characters doors may open. Good luck!

  18. Just reading this for the first time – v. helpful, but I’m wondering if there’s a term (if there needs to be a term for these things) which is a serial where there’s ‘story of the week’ leading back into a definitive dramatic arc for the six or eight episodes, and the whole thing is all (or mostly) wrapped up at the end – BUT the protagonist has changed by the end of the serial and could come back for subsequent serials/series? e.g. a ‘returning serial’ or summat. Am possibly overthinking this one…

    1. Blimey, I wrote this one donkey’s years ago and a fair amount has changed with Netflix/ Amazon Prime etc … But yes, there should be a name I agree. If there is one, I don’t know it though, soz

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *