How To Write A Television Series
Crafting a serialized narrative is easy once you know the storyform.
Writing and producing a television series is difficult. With the recent popularity of streaming services and "binge watching", writing and producing a television series is daunting. Trying to tell a serialized story over the course of a season or several seasons overwhelms even the most accomplished writer.
There is a way, however, to streamline the process while making it both productive and fun.
On Vox, Todd VanDerWerff discusses the one thing Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu get wrong about television, namely how most series tend to get "really saggy in the middle":
This was particularly true with [Jessica] Jones, which reached a climactic point around the middle of its first season, then screwed around for several episodes before staging its final battle. By the time Jessica faced off with the season's main supervillain, their encounter didn't nearly have as much potency as it would have if the season had run for only eight episodes instead of 13.
This only happens because the show's creators are unaware of the storyform they are trying to tell. Whether strung out across 13 episodes or 26, a competent and dynamically interesting story can be told as long as the story's dynamics are kept in check. Outlining a television series to tell a single story in such a way that it does not "sag" in the middle is possible: you just have to know Dramatica.
A Dramatica storyform is a collection of 75 different story points that communicate the original intent of the Author's narrative. While the purpose of the storyform is to maintain the integrity of the Author's message, it also has the beneficial side effects of insuring there are no "story holes" and that characters stay motivated and tightly interwoven within a dynamic and developing plot. Knowing this storyform and using it to outline your work is the best way to avoid any of the pitfalls VanDerWerff speaks of.
Telling a Single Story
Streaming services have an unfortunate tendency to assume they should use all the time in a season — including the extra moments freed up by not having to remind viewers of certain plot developments — to tell a single story.
Telling a single story for one season is a smart and productive approach. Audiences only want to know that the time they give to a show is time well spent--they want the experience to be meaningful. As long as the writers and producers have something to say and know how to say it, they can easily fill 13 episodes with thematic material that captures the audience's attention and keeps them engaged. The first season of HBO's True Detective did this; by crafting a coherent and complete structure they delivered a powerful and captivating story.
In those instances where you do find that the story "sags" or lingers in the middle, you can fill that gap by defining a smaller storyform for a single episode.
Storyforms within a Storyform
This was the approach we took consulting on an animated series for a major studio, and the approach we take with novelists wanting to craft stories that span several books. Designate a storyform for the entire series, then identify smaller storyforms for a single season or book that support the larger storyform. When needed, and for variance, create smaller storyforms for individual episodes.
These last, extremely small storyforms, don't necessarily have to have anything to do with the larger storyforms at play. For instance, think back to The X-Files and their mythology vs. monster episodes. The mythology had one single storyform spread out over several episodes; the monster episodes had one storyform per episode. Classics like Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose or Beyond the Sea told complete stories all on their own.
The recent update to the series (2016) took a similar approach: one storyform for the two bookend episodes and then different storyforms for the interior episodes. Data needed to develop and complete the larger over-arching storyform found itself woven into some of those self-contained episodes while there was one that stood out on all its own.
The number of fictional works that are so dense that they require tellings longer than three hours is pretty slim. Certainly, gigantic epic novels like The Lord of the Rings or War and Peace fall into this category. But most other stories are rather slim when you come right down to it, and stretching them out just means adding pointless incidents and busywork, stuff that distracts from the story's "spine," or its most central conflict.
The Lord of the Rings in fact had several different storyforms all running concurrently. This is yet another approach writers and producers can take to flesh out and more fully develop their seasons. If they don't want to craft standalone episodes or worry about "sagging", they can easily and confidently run several storyforms at the same time within the same work. You simply need to know what it is you are trying to say.
Knowing Your Storyform
The storyform acts as the carrier wave for the Author's intent. Plug in what conflict you want to explore, how you want it to turn out, and how you want the audience to feel about how it turned out, and Dramatica will provide you with a storyform.
Of course, stories are more than their conflicts. The best ones feature interesting characters who drive the plot forward, and those characters could help or hinder the progression of that plot through their actions. And all stories have obstacles that stand between the characters and their ultimate objective...But the number of obstacles a writer can organically introduce into a story before those obstacles start to feel pointless and random is very small.
This only happens when the writer or producer has no clue as to the storyform. Vince Gilligan (X-Files alum, btw) and David Simon and Beau Willimon may not have direct knowledge of Dramatica and its concept of the storyform, but their writer's instinct--which is what Dramatica was built on--drive them to craft stories that do have complete storyforms.1 Shakespeare didn't have access to a Mac, yet Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello stand out as prime examples of solid storyforming. Bill had something to say and his legacy persists because of his effectiveness in communicating that message.
Dramatica just makes it easier.
Replicating the Bricks
A story can be told in a scene, or in an episode, or in a handful of them. But over a full season or series, it can easily fall apart, as writers lose focus and the obstacles placed in front of characters start to feel random and unmotivated. Streaming shows, because of how they're presented to us, tend to look at the wall of a great series like The Wire and assume they just need replicate that wall. But that's not the solution at all. Instead, they should start by replicating the bricks.
Brilliant analogy, but not entirely accurate. Crafting self-contained episodes, or bricks, can be an effective deterrent to unmotivated narrative. However, replicating the chemical makeup of the bricks and understanding the fractal nature of those bricks within the wall would better serve writers and producers. Dramatica helps to identify those base components of narrative.
The key to combatting this problem of losing focus lies in knowing exactly what storyform a particular episodes or series of episodes is telling. There are so many story points within a single storyform--not including the 45 or so sequences hidden deep within the storyform--that a writer would find it rather difficult to maintain a story that felt "random" or "unmotivated". As always, clarity in regards to intent--whether through character, plot, theme, or genre--keeps an audience engaged regardless of length.
Size doesn't matter when the message is clear.
- Vince Gilligan is responsible for Breaking Bad, David Simon The Wire, and Beau Willimon House of Cards.↩