What can TV writers learn from the BBC?
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
Here we turn to the BBC News article How Technology Is Changing the Craft of Screenwriting for some key screenwriting advice accompanied by our own elaboration.
1. Narratives are Everywhere
Screenwriter Steve Pemberton (BBC’s The League of Gentlemen and Inside No. 9) says, “Narratives are everywhere. You watch a football match, and that has an incredible narrative. The Women’s World Cup, or the Tory leadership race, they have amazing narratives, we want to know what happens next. And what we [writers] try to tap into is just serving that up to an audience who might be curious to see what happens next, and see if we can entertain and inform them along the way.”
What drives the audience’s interest is the narrative. Writers need to make them need to see what happens next. That’s why the latest World Cup was such a draw, especially for Americans — the narrative of the team and their journey to winning the World Cup.
That’s what your TV shows need — a narrative that keeps audiences wanting more and wanting to discover what happens to the characters you’ve created and the situation (conflict) you’ve put them in.
2. There Is No Perfect Formula
The article points out that the go-to formula for series success is attaching well-known actors, having a skilled writer deliver a spectacular pilot, and then have a prime slot in TV schedules.
The BBC drama Years And Years struggled in the ratings despite having that “perfect formula.” It was critically acclaimed, written by former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies, starred Emma Thompson, and was broadcast in a prime BBC One slot. Yet it still faltered.
The issue is that television is evolving with the advent of new technology — streaming channels.
3. Streaming Services are Upping the Narrative Game
One of the most in-demand BBC writers in television is Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty and Bodyguard). He points out, “One thing it has changed is the way in which television is consumed. I remember, years ago, where executives would sincerely advise you not to make things too complicated, not to have too much serial story, because the audience wouldn’t remember what had happened last week.”
“Whereas now, the streaming services have driven the mass consumption of this kind of technology, and in streaming services I’d include BBC iPlayer, which was in the vanguard. But what it does mean is people now do catch up, and if they watch an episode and they’re really curious about what went before, they’ll watch not only previous episodes but previous seasons, and that has enabled writers to push the boundaries of complexity.”
Procedurals are still a hot commodity for network television, but the industry is changing with the advancing technology.
Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Amazon Prime — as well as many other current and future streaming channels — offer audiences the ability to binge and revisit previous episodes and seasons. It’s no longer essential to keep things simple for an audience.
So don’t follow any of the old television series writing advice. Make your narratives have depth in story and character arcs.
4. Hooks at the End of Acts Aren’t as Necessary
“The imperative with commercial television is to create a hook before the ad break,” says Mercurio. “But because so many people fast forward now, I don’t know if it’s as important as the executives think it is.”
Network television series writers often need to inject hooks at the end of each act — which also mark the beginning of a commercial break — to keep audiences tuned in after the commercial.
When you’re writing for streaming channels, that’s not necessary.
And even when you’re still writing for a network, most audience members DVR their programs, so the need for those end of act hooks aren’t as necessary because everyone fast forwards through the commercials.
It’s always good to inject hooks throughout your episodes, but twists and turns are a better definition of what you need to spread throughout your pages.
5. Forget Writer’s Block, Just Write
Heidi Thomas (creator of Call The Midwife,) says, “I have writers’ block every day of my life, but somebody once said to me, ‘first drafts don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be written.’ Because once you’ve got your first draft, no matter how ragged and full of holes it is, you can then start to make it better. But if you haven’t written it, you can’t make it any better.”
In the end, just write. Get through it. Don’t sit and stew over your work not being perfect in that first draft. Just write and finish it.
6. Don’t Be Afraid of Feedback, Seek It
Mercurio offers some sound advice to budding screenwriters: “You’ve got to be able to not only accept feedback — but seek it.”
Feedback is scary but necessary. And you don’t have to hold every piece of feedback and advice up as the be all end all. Seek it out, consider everything, and take only what you feel works for your vision of the story.
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