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.