Friday, October 17, 2008

BBC Structure?

When writing one off spec BBC TV dramas, is it expected that you structure your scripts around regular act breaks like in a US TV drama? I'm wondering how important this structure is for a broadcaster that doesn't air commercials during drama.

We’ve spoken about TV structure on the blog before, here and here (some good comment discussion on these posts, particularly the latter) but to answer this question about writing spec scripts to impress the Beeb: structure your scripts so that they tell the best story.

If that coincides with a hook every 15 mins, then so be it, but if it doesn't, no biggie. What goes for BBC is the same for ITV: a cracking script/story. ITV script editors & execs may encourage dramatic hooks right before an ad break (which is certainly an effective technique) but in general, these hooks should be natural turning points in a story anyway, and having that in a BBC script is just as applicable and useful as it is with a commercial channel.

It goes back to the basics. A story should ‘turn’ in order to maintain the audience’s interest. It should keep moving; the stakes getting raised, the protagonist facing increasing obstacles, the plot advancing forward all the time. For a commercial channel, having key moments ‘turn’ around an ad break makes good structural sense. For the BBC, they need just as strong turning points in order to stop the audience from flipping the channel. It’s become a natural shorthand for both storyteller and the audience. Make something happen. Keep it interesting. Structure the script accordingly.

It can be a fine balance sometimes between ‘join-the-dot’ storytelling and effective technique. Join-the-dot storytelling occurs when it’s easy for the audience to see what the key turning points, or ad break moments, are going to be. The writer is being lazy. The story is predictable because it’s following a reliable and easy path. Think of the bigger picture. Think of the whole story.

In HBO’s Entourage, look at how much they pack in to each short half hour episode (20-25 mins), and then watch how they subvert audience expectation on how each story thread plays out. The set-up makes you think of one outcome (the predictable one), then the story twists it another way (the next obvious choice) before settling with the final pay-off (or perhaps even getting one more twist in there). Six Feet Under and The Sopranos are good examples of this type of smart storytelling. In the UK, Shameless and The Street also shine with this kind of approach while another hit American series, The Gilmore Girls (currently being shown on E4), is known for having unconventional 'ad break' moments (i.e. they just follow the characters & story, and never to try grab the audience with contrived hooks).

Good storytelling will ensure that an audience keeps watching, regardless of whether there’s ad breaks or not. But don’t get sucked into the trap of designing your story around ad break moments that are predictable and convenient. The audience is always one step ahead. Gotta keep them hooked by setting up certain expectations, then sucker punching them with a different twist. Make them want to find out more.


ScaiacS said...

Thanks for being there -- that's the first thing I want to say. The second comes in the form of a question: What basic format pleases the BBC for an episodic sitcom spec script? I ask because I'm lost amid all of this criteria. On one hand, the beeb makes overtures about their willingness to read anything and in any format sent them. On the other hand, there is this importance for keeping things visually expeditious that's bandied about. If you have the time, could you clarify? Thank you, ScaiacS

Danny Stack said...

Hi Scaiacs

My advice would be to use standard script format rather than the BBC sitcom format (which puts the description and dialogue on the right hand side of the page, and you start a new page for every scene).

When I worked on the first series of Black Books, Dylan Moran & Graham Linehan wrote the scripts in Final Draft software, and then the script supervisor transferred them into BBC sitcom style, as that was what she was used to, and it helped her to track the timing of scenes.

But you don't have to worry about that, especially for a spec submission. Stick to standard script format wherever possible, unless you're told otherwise.

ScaiacS said...

Hollywood scripts are said to handle jumping forward or backward in time with "TITLE OVER:" positioned in the same place as any slug line and followed by the date in the center of the page. Does the BBC handle this the same way?

Danny Stack said...

"TITLE OVER" is when you want to put a caption on-screen, like 'TITLE OVER SCREEN: PRESENT DAY' but it's rare to use 'Title Over'. Usually, it's just 'CAPTION: Present Day', unless you're talking about the OPENING TITLES, then it's common to see 'RUN TITLES OVER' and then describe the opening action.

The best way to handle jumping forward or backward is to signify FLASHBACK or FLASHFORWARD in the slugline. That should be enough. Some writers don't specify if it's a flashback/forward, just to keep you on your toes, but this is tricky to pull off (see films like 21 Grams and Amores Perros).

Keep sluglines on the left hand margin, no need to centre anything in a script.

ScaiacS said...

Reading a spec script that has been formatted with Final Draft, or for that matter Celtx, seems to me to be less friendly on the eyes and consequently less fast a read than the BBC columnar format, which puts it all neatly in front of you, versus forcing the eyes to fan tiresomely left and right. So, would you still advise sending a Final Draft version? Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

Danny Stack said...

The BBC format can be quite handy for half hour scripts. However, I wouldn't recommend it for hour long scripts, as the page count is too much, I think. For example, Dr Who, Life on Mars etc are all written in standard Final Draft version. That's the industry standard. That's what I stick to, unless otherwise told (for instance, "Doctors" ask you to format your scripts into the BBC standard before you begin writing).

ScaiacS said...

Terrific! ... until the next question pops into my head, that is. And before I sign off, about the FLASHFORWARD/FLASHBACKWARD thing: Would this just become another slug line, i.e., "EXT. MOMA FLASHFORWARD-DAY" or what? Thanks again for the patience, ScaiacS

Danny Stack said...

Yep, that's it, pretty much.

Or, if you want to get nit picky about it, this would be better:


Antonia said...

I'm new to formats like Final Draft, and though I've had a look at Scriptsmart, all you seem to get is a couple of headings, without any idea how to use them? Could you help me on this one.

P.S. I have looked at archived scripts at Writersroom, but not sure if they're scriptsmart or Final Draft.

Danny Stack said...

Hi Antonia

I'm not familiar with Scriptsmart, so couldn't help you specifically but if you went to the BBC writersroom blog, and left a question/comment over there, I'm sure Piers (the wizard behind the curtain) would sort you out...