Thursday, March 29, 2007

Screenwriting 104 - TV Drama

TV Drama has changed, and is still in the process of changing. The six types of television drama or converging and swapping places in an effort to cater for greater viewing audiences. Take Entourage, for example, it is a drama but has lots of comedy moments and is slotted into a sitcom style 30 minutes. Desperate Housewives is a drama but has lots of comedic elements. Currently there are 6 types of fictional television:

  • Single - This is a 1 or 2 hour, one off drama (not very profitable for the channel because it doesn't get repeat audiences).
  • Sitcom - The standard 30 minutes situational comedy, or the new strain of off the wall vignettes slotted into a 30 minute time frame.
  • Series - Your standard television dramas (Lost, 24, Battlestar, Heroes, Life on Mars, Doctor Who). In the UK a series is roughly 8 to 13 episodes in length. In the US a series is roughly 20 to 24 episodes in length.
  • Mini-series - UK series' are classed as mini-series in the US. In the UK, a mini-series would be classed as Prime Suspect, or Cracker (which runs for 6-8 weeks, but has separate storylines which run for 2 to 3 weeks and are self contained).
  • Serial - Serial means spread over a number of episodes. A series has serial elements (character of plot arcs). Programs such as Doctors, Casualty, Holby City and the suchlike (not to just name the medical ones) cover one off events (patients) during a program which are wrapped up by the end of the show, but the serial elements come in with characters' relationships with one another.
  • Soap - Long running stories with little resolutions.

In a TV series, each episode is a single story or issue that is resolved by the end of that episode (broadcasters want to allow as many people as possible to pick the program up, preventing viewer drop offs if any episode is missed or viewers don't start watching from the beginning).

There is a main story (A story) and other arcs can take place (B story, C story, etc). There are also serial arcs, or 'serial elements'.

Single Episode

Each episode is roughly 40 to 60 minutes in length (usually 42 minutes). The US has generated a basic structure of a Teaser and 4 Acts:

  • Teaser [6 Mins]
  • Act 1 [9 Mins]
  • Act 2 [9 Mins]
  • Act 3 [9 Mins]
  • Act 4 [9 Mins]

Dramatically, plot points must fall at the end of an act to hold the audience over the advert break. Act 1 is usually a bit longer than the other acts to help develop the chracters and threads of the story, whilst Act 4 sets up the serial elements for the rest of the series or sows the seeds for the next episode.

A move to 5 Acts was made in the last few years - an increase in stakes, pace, and the number of adverts.

House: Season 3. Episode 1

[Section] [Teaser] [Act 1] [Act 2] [Act 3] [Act 4] [Act 5]
[Cumul.] [ 7 ] [ 13 ] [ 23 ] [ 29 ] [ 36 ] [ 43 ]
[Mins. ] [ 7 ] [ 6 ] [ 10 ] [ 6 ] [ 7 ] [ 7 ]

Heroes: Season 1. Episode 18

[Section] [Teaser] [Act 1] [Act 2] [Act 3] [Act 4] [Act 5]
[Cumul.] [ 7 ] [ 15 ] [ 25 ] [ 30 ] [ 35 ] [ 42 ]
[Mins. ] [ 7 ] [ 8 ] [ 10 ] [ 5 ] [ 5 ] [ 7 ]

Now, broadcasters are looking for the Teaser and 6 Act stories, to fit in ever more advert breaks and climaxes to hold the audience in place. It is for this very purpose that new writers of TV Dramas should put in their Acts into their screenplays to show that they are aware of the structure.

The Teaser

We looked at two teasers to two very different TV Dramas, to see what was presented to the audience.

1. Life on Mars
The episode opened with a Starsky and Hutch chase through the back streets (sans boxes), ending up on a football pitch, interupting a match. The cops got the badguy and setup the banter between the protagonist and his boss, comedic elements in the use of language and a bit of slapstick. A call comes in over the radio - a body has been found. Then we flick into the title sequence, where the protagonist sets up the premise for us in a few sentences whilst the music plays - after an accident, our hero finds himself back in 1973 on the Police force... or is he in a coma? (a kind of Buck Rogers in reverse if you will).

The episode is all about Football violence, and in the teaser we specifically end up on the football pitch as an element of foreshadowing. The audience are now into the frame of mind required to follow the episode. It's the football episode, everybody!

2. Battlestar Gallactica
Battlestar opens completely differently, setting up dual timezones: A) Starbuck in a freefall spin, her Viper is burning up as it enters the atmosphere of a planet and she is unable to get to the controls to pull out of it. B) A pilot has survived 1000 flights and is being congratulated, whilst a small set of festivities are being planned.

A) occurs for only seconds, and is a reoccuring element throughout the rest of the episode. It reappears at the beginning of every act as a reminder of what is to come, as well as setting the second set of events into a flashback in the minds of the audience. B) Is the flashback element, but comprises of the majority of the story. Whilst everyone sets up for the festivities, the 1000 flight pilot is being paraded around the flight deck. Unbeknownst to anyone but the audience, the camera zooms into a missile in a rack that is being moved. We cut to Starbuck and Apollo painting 1000 onto a helmet, when Admiral Odama comes in. Someone tips over the red paint, which spills, like blood, across the floor (foreshadowing), and then the three of them head out toward the flight deck, developing the lines of the characters and backstory - getting the audience involved with them.

Whilst the pilots play, the missile becomes loose - DRAMATIC IRONY. Dramatic Irony is when the audience knows more than the characters, and is the most effective manner for building suspense and keeping the audience's interest. This goes back to Hitchcock's notion of suspense, when he places two people in a room, and has them discuss trivial matters. A bomb blows up at the end of the conversation that neither characters nor audience knew about - surprise but no dramatic suspense. The same scene, with two characters discussing trivial things, and the audience is shown the ticking bomb under the desk, then there is suspense, and the audience begins to ask desperate questions - when will it go off? Will they get out? Will someone tell them where it is?

As with Life on Mars having a football episode, this Battlestar episode regards funerals - the missile falls of the rack, ignites and kills several pilots. The episode focuses upon loss and blame. Simple really!

Episodes must have a clear goal with obstacles and finally a resolution.

Characters in TV Drama work slightly differently from characters in Film. They are allowed to talk about other characters and their feelings - something termed 'on the nose' and often crap and cringy in a film. Also, characters can talk about themselves and their feelings.

The end of an episode sets up conflict for the next episode (serial elements) to get the audience to come back, and as with the pilot episode of This Life, we have 8 serial elements by the end of the program set up for the other episodes, as well as it covering A and B stories during the program.

The Pilot Episode
A Pilot episode's teaser element must clearly set up more than things than a usual episode teaser. There are two types of Pilot - the Premise (where characters are set up, location, theme and goal. Characters come together. But, this doesn't give the people in their normal situation, as the audience will find them throughout the other episodes and come to associate with them) - the Midcut (where everything plays on as a normal episode, and everything is already set up and in place).

Ideally, a Pilot should exist in two halfs, where the first half is the Premise, and the second half is the Midcut.

TV Drama Concept
In order to sell a screenplay, 10 elements must be contemplated and answered by the writer - certainly these would be questions raised by a production company:

  1. Does it have integrity?
  2. Who is the audience?
  3. Is it relevant?
  4. Where does it fit in the schedule?
  5. Is it 'Event TV'?
  6. Does it have 'Returnability'?
  7. What is the Universe?
  8. Who are the Main Characters?
  9. What is the Central Conflict?
  10. What is the Genre?

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