Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Series/Serial Sample

Do readers frown on scripts for serials? They probably won't know they've read one until it's too late, but are they effective ways of grabbing interest, or just viewed as lazy? Do you have any advice in this area? I hope the answer isn't to avoid serialized stories because it's clearly a style that's popular right now thanks to 24, Lost, Heroes, Prison Break, et al.

In most cases, unknown writers who write a sample script for their new drama have probably written an episode for a serial rather than a series. This is where the distinction between ‘series’ and ‘serial’ is important.

A drama series is a show that can generate new and interesting story lines around the series’ premise and characters for however long is required. These are often referred to as ‘returning drama series’, where they can run for pretty much forever.

The way to determine if your idea is a long running drama is to ask yourself: “what happens in episode 4? what happens in episode 54? what happens in episode 154?” If you’re struggling to come up with an answer beyond series one, you’ve probably got a drama serial on your hands.

A drama serial is usually a concept and story line that will have a definite resolution over a fixed amount of episodes. Shows like State of Play, The State Within and Five Days. They lure the audience in with their interesting premise, usually high concept or grabbing in some shape or form, and twist and turn the plot over a set amount of eps before coming to a satisfying conclusion.

The current trend in successful drama is to take the serial approach to the style of storytelling, but this does not mean that the shows are necessarily drama serials.

For example, Lost, 24, Heroes, and The Wire may appear like novels because of the way they eke out their plot into various chapters but ostensibly, the shows can run forever based on their existing concept and characters.

The serial style of storytelling from episode to episode is just a new and engaging way to keep the audience hooked in a world where multimedia, internet and a host of other distractions compete for our attention.

As a sample script, it’s perfectly fine to present an episode from a serial. What the reader is looking for is the writer’s ability with character, dialogue, structure, and basic storytelling craft.

Most people opt for a one-off feature script as a sample, and that’s fine, while others do occasionally present the pilot episode of an idea they have for a drama series, which is also acceptable.

It doesn’t matter, really. As long as it’s a piece of writing that demonstrates your ability, whether it be an hour/half hour/comedy drama/sitcom, whatever, then the reader’s not going to trouble himself over questions like: “oh hold on, this is a serial script, pah!”

It is worth remembering the distinction between serials and series, though.

Serials tell a story with a definite resolution over a fixed amount of episodes.

In the UK, successful series can have a two or three season run but broadcasters are always on the look out for a valuable returning series that can run as long as possible. Cops and docs like Holby and Casualty usually fit The Bill (ooh, word play!).

Don’t take my word for it, check out some hot tips from John Yorke (has your series got the gang element?) and Ashley Pharoah (what happens in ep 154?) from previous posts.


Dan said...

Thanks Danny! I was concerned a spec for a serial would be a bad choice, but your comments have helped relieve any tensions I had.

As you say, I suppose it doesn't really matter as long as the characters, dialogue and story is interesting to read. I just wasn't sure because most serial Pilots involve elements that go unresolved (e.g, the tree-moving "monster" at the end of Lost's first ep)

Oli said...

How often do you think writers put in unresolved elements in pilots without having a clue how to resolve them, just to hook the audience?

If J.J. Abrahms knew what the damn tree demolishing monster was when he wrote the pilot for Lost, I'll eat my figaritve hat. It's a figurative fedora, by the way.

Lucy V said...

Clearly Oli you should have a beret ; )

Re: the tree-moving monster, it got me interested and it turned out by episode 2 that I HATED Lost and was bored by the rest of it tho I don't think I bailed until about ep8. I think that first ep is all about pulling people in - kind of like a tide thing, some will go with it, some will get washed up like me going, "Oh crap, it's one of those let's-be-as-obscure-as-possible-using Greek-myth-dramas-and-have-trillions-of-flashbacks-to-fill-in-the-gaps-YAWN!" But the crucial thing was, even I still stayed until episode 8, bumping up their audience figures. So I'm not sure it's so much writers knowing what these devices are on these commissioned shows, so much as a device to pull people IN and hopefully keep them there. That wouldn't apply in a spec, since it's more about the story than audience figures.

Jason Arnopp said...

Thanks Danny - this is useful at a time when many of us are busy preparing Sample Agent-Snaring Scripts.

Do you (or anyone) think we should get too hung-up on the lengths of these scripts? Adrian Meade swears by a 10-minute one, a 30-minute one and a feature-length job, but I'm wondering if it would be disastrous to make my 30-minute script a 45-minute series pilot...

Oli said...

Having not been produced (yet), I have my 'aspiring writer giving other aspiring writers advice' hat on, but...

I think Adrian's advice is to have scripts of that length ready so that if a competition or oppurtunity for that specific length comes up, you have one ready to go.

Generally, I think the length of the pilot should suit the script, but most importantly reflect other similar shows. A drama pilot would be too cramped at 30 pages, a comedy probably stretched at 45 minutes. Life on Mars was 60 minutes, so if you're doing something in that style, that's what I'd go for.

My current spec pilot is 57 pages, and no one's complained about the length yet.

Here's hoping it doesn't come back from writersroom with 'too bloody long' stamped on it. There would be egg, it would be on my face, it wouldn't be pretty.