Sunday, July 11, 2010

Importance of format in TV drama spec scripts

I'm developing a new spec script at the moment for a returning TV drama series. Writing for Doctors is brilliant experience and I learn something from every draft, but few people read sample scripts from continuing drama series. Why? Because you're writing to an existing format, working with pre-created characters and storylines.

So you need to create an original series and writer the pilot script as your calling card. Chances are, it will never get made, but you need to prove you can do it. Just look at the roster of writers who've worked on Doctor Who since it returned in 2005. How many of them hadn't already created a TV drama series of their own? Very few. That's the benchmark.

And you'd better make it contemporary. Very few writers get to create a drama set in the past. The period shows you do see on British TV tend to be based on books. Period drama costs more to make, so commissioners want the insurance of a story that's already worked in print. Put it this way: how many original period TV dramas can you name from the last year?

So I'm developing a new, contemporary returning drama series. I've devised a cast of characters, been doing research into the working world where my concept is set, and got a clutch of different storylines for my pilot episode. Yesterday I spent nailing down the format for my series. Unless I get my format right, all the other effort might well be for naught.

Format is an ugly word to be throwing about while you're developing a new TV drama pilot script, but it's something you do have to think about. What exactly does the word mean in this context? It's long been applied to game shows or reality TV series when production companies, broadcasters or whoever holds the rights looks to sell their properties into other territories.

Witness the worldwide success of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire or the many international iterations of Strictly Come Dancing. Even a cookery competition show like Masterchef can explode in other countries [it's a massive hit in Australia]. But when it comes to TV drama, a lot of companies simply sell the original for transmission in other countries, dubbed into the local language.

US shows such as CSI, CSI: Miami and House are hugely successful internationally. The UK also exports plenty of drama, with series like Doctor Who and the Morse spin-off Lewis broadcast around the globe. [Lewis sells into 120 territories, more than Inspector Morse ever managed. If it keeps going until 2014, it will have made more episodes than Morse as well, unlikely as that seems.]

But there are examples of TV dramas [and sitcoms, come to that] getting remade in different countries. Doc Martin is Doktor Martin in Germany, Doctor Mateo in Spain and there's a French remake in production too. US series Ugly Betty was based on the Colombian telenovela Yo soy Betty, la fea. HBO drama In Treatment was based on an Israeli series, Be Tipul.

New Zealand drama series Outrageous Fortune has been renamed to the UK [where it was renamed Honest and ran on ITV] and the US [renamed Scoundrels]. The show's been a huge hit in NZ, with the final series launching on Tuesday with the 100th episode imminent. But the US and UK versions haven't recaptured that lightning in a bottle as Ugly Betty or In Treatment did in the US.

So, what is a format in TV drama terms? I'd say it's a lot of things - the characters, the set-up, the arena, sometimes whole storylines. But essentially format is what sort of stories your series tells, and how it tells them. An awful lot of that is about tone and attitude and viewpoint. Through whose eyes is the narrative seen? Who does the show makes us care about?

I was going to try a mix of scenes featuring my regular cast and scenes that introduced or developed the guest characters. That works well for an ongoing series like Doctors but poses problems for a calling card script. By including scenes with none of your core characters, you run the risk of losing focus. I need to keep this first ep tight on my regulars.

That means adopting a narrative rule used by shows like The Bill: every scene must feature one of the core cast. It makes plotting tougher and forces you as writer to work a lot harder to ensue key story events are shown, not told. On the other hand, it automatically create empathy with the core cast, as they become our point of view on events as storylines unfold.

That narrative choice - how I'm going to tell stories - will have a major effect on format for my calling card script. It means completely rethinking the stories I had planned. Hopefully it's a choice for the better, even if it means more development work now. Better to sort out format issues up front, than spend forever rewriting later to resolve them. Onwards!

1 comment:

Sally A said...

If you have a story of the day in your series, would you not see the guests alone in that? Personally, I think it would be fine so long as you create intrigue and keep it a page turner. I've recently got into that thing of wanting to see guests on their own so we can see what's really going on for them and, therefore, see what potentially is at risk/stake for our reg - especially if it cuts against them.

But, also know what you mean about seeing it absolutely from their POV.

Thought provoking, David.... h'mm.