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Shaping the Story for Television

Most writers I work with at Script Advice, or those I have met in my fairly long career in creating drama for television, write with a compulsion. It is not something that they have any real control over.

If you are reading this and nodding your head…great. You are in the right place and in good company.

This compulsion is the bit we all wait for; that moment when we know that an idea is forming and we need to get to a computer, or a piece of paper to get the beginnings of it down fast.

heart rockThe creative process has begun. But this is also where the problems start. Now, the germ of an idea has planted itself in your brain, the fleshing out process has to happen and this is often where writers, in my experience, begin to stumble.

How do you take control – at the outset – of your creative “splurges?”

First, ask yourself these key questions:

  • What is the element of this idea that is exciting me?
  • What is it I want to say?
  • What do I want my audience to learn?

Write the answers to these questions down in a “mini statement.”

This mini statement (one sentence) will be the message – the ethos of your idea – and you will find that whenever you get lost, as you go through the storylines you are going to create and develop further, you will find that this mini statement of intent - this Modus Operandi of your series idea – will re-focus your mind.

Often, the series title will present itself at this point. I urge you to attempt, (even this early on in the process) to nail your title if you can.

Titles are extremely important in television. They focus, distill, highlight and pinpoint the internal essence of a great series.

Some examples where the essence or message of the series is revealed in the title are:

Breaking Bad. The Good Wife. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And in the UK, Humans. Prey. Call The Midwife.

Ideas come from many ‘jump off’ points. In my experience, the starting point for the creative “splurges” is usually when I come up with a character I want to bring to life. So for the sake of this article, let’s take character as the start point for this series.

So you create a character and now, this person: what they do, what they want, what they love, and what they fear seem to literally bash you in the side of the head with their impatient fists. “Get me a story! Give me a voice!”

This then, is the easy bit; you’ve got your protagonist and now that you know what drives them, you will begin to flesh out the story line that describes their journey across your episode.

Now you can introduce characters that will influence, prevent, aid and expose your protagonist and you will begin to make connections between these characters.

Distant Picture

Many storylines are now beginning to reveal themselves. But you have to control all of them and make the best impact on your story.

You need to orchestrate exactly where and at what point in each characters’ journey across your episode and beyond (into the body of your series format) any given storyline will connect or cross over.

Creating a strong television drama series is all about structure. A great idea sloppily put together and not given the right amount of episodes to really stretch the story will fail due to lack of internal structure.

Structure will also reveal weaknesses in a story. One that lacks enough impetus or character strength will fail at the mid-point of the series.

The creative compulsion is vital. But how you handle that rapidly multiplying body of story and character to which you have given life is your measure as a writer for television.

Can you nail the structure early on? You need to get your storylines properly in line. Make them relate in the best possible way to each other. Do not miss any dramatic opportunity.

Keep the subtext ticking along under the body of your text – your narrative – and always refer back to character. Every impulse, every action, and every word your character says and does on the page and ultimately on the screen, is influenced and controlled by character.

What is it that makes this person tick? What or who drives them? What do they want? How are they going to get it?

hearts linked

Here at Script Advice I work a lot with writers who are not confident in turning their ideas into a coherent, commercially savvy form.

If this is you, fear not. You will find that writing a tight, specific, creative treatment of your idea will solve a lot of the issues I have already outlined and answer the questions that have been nagging in the corners of your mind as you allow your initial idea to take shape.

Over the years in drama development for both ITV and the BBC here in the UK, I have formulated a blueprint for a typical television treatment that, if you follow when creating your long form ideas, will give you structure, shape and a solid springboard from which to take your TV ideas further.

Here are the basic elements I believe all treatments must have. Aim for no more than 8 pages:

  • Great title
  • Clear format length
  • A succinct, pithy logline/short paragraph summing up the territory
  • Expanded logline: A longer paragraph of engaging description. Expand on your vision of this world. Draw us in to it.
  • Character biographies that really grip and shine. In broad strokes, outline each character’s story arc and what they will learn following it.
  • Episode outline. Broad strokes again. Keep this engaging. Know how the episode starts, the mid-point of the main storyline, and how it ends.
  • Main story arcs. Broadly speaking again. Give a strong impression that the narrative has ‘legs’ and can go the distance of the number of episodes you suggest in your format length.
  • Central message. What do you want your potential commissioner/producer to come away feeling/thinking?

Heart Leaves

To help control your creative “splurges” and turn your ideas into a cohesive, saleable shape check out my Online Television Writing Course here. I take you from treatment, through character arcs, series outlining and finally the first 10 pages of the pilot episode.

Thanks for reading and I hope to help get your work into shape soon.

Yvonne is an award-winning television drama producer with 20+ years experience in script development, script editing and drama production for the BBC, CITV and ITV.

She script edited EastEnders for the BBC, produced My Dad’s A Boring Nerd for the CITV (winning Best Children’s Comedy Drama), produced Holby City for the BBC (which was BAFTA nominated) and executive produced Crossroads for ITV.

Her script consultancy, Script Advice,  delivers workshops, provides online tv writing training and develops writer talent.

Her book Writing For Television: Series, Serials and Soaps is 5-star rated and available on Amazon here.

Written by: Yvonne Grace
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