Writing High-Concept Television

Recently I had a question from blog visitor petergosiewski about how to go about writing high-concept television, and I thought it was probably deserving of a complete post. So here we go…

In many ways, writing and selling high-concept television is like writing and selling any kind of television – it’s a combination of novelty, familiarity, clarity and luck! But there are specific difficulties with trying to sell high-concept ideas, and specific strategies that might help.

Be simple. In Inception, Eames says that in order to incept an idea into the subject’s head, you have to implant the simplest form of the idea. And pitching an idea to a producer is very much like performing inception. Until you have the simplest form of the idea, you won’t be able to sell it, and you probably won’t even be able to write it.

Wolfblood has evolved a fairly complex mythology, with wild packs, ancient traditions, ‘fixers’ helping out their fellow Wolfbloods, and all kinds of other rich details. But none of that was there at the beginning. The simplest form of the idea – the thing that sold – was basically  “A teenage girl who’s secretly a werewolf meets a boy with a very different view of their shared secret”.  In order to create the richness, we had to start with a simple foundation and build our way up from there.

As always – if you can’t describe your idea in one sentence, it isn’t ready yet…

Be character-focused. Whatever your concept, it has to be grounded in specific characters in order to be relatable. It’s how the concept affects those characters that will keep people watching, not the concept itself. No one watches a soap opera because they’re interested in (for example) the moral complexities of euthanasia: they watch because they want to see what lovely kindly Joan will do when ailing husband Fred begs her to help him die.

This means you want to find the characters who are most affected by the concept, and who are put through the greatest physical and emotional stresses by it. In the earliest version of Wolfblood, there was no Shannon – but we quickly realized we needed a character who would be profoundly affected by the secret Maddy had been keeping, someone whose whole life had been shaped by their secret, even though she didn’t know it yet…

Be sure that your concept will sustain a series. This is partly about the ‘story engine’ of your series: is there a murder each week, a secret to protect, a new enemy to fight, a life to save? Producers sometimes ask something like  “What’s the plot of episode two of season three?” – in other words, will we still be able to generate stories out of this universe at that stage?

But it’s also about finding a concept that has enough richness and flexibility to grow across series after series, and for each character to react to it in unique and interesting ways. This will sometimes require a radical shift in your story universe: Battlestar Galactica discovered new stories and new sides to its characters when it stranded most of the human survivors on a planet under Cylon rule for several episodes, for example.

Avoid the traps of destiny. Beware the ‘chosen one’ as a concept: you’re then completely at the mercy of your lead actor. If he or she decides to quit, your show’s over. Destiny and fate are probably also best avoided in any form –  audiences warm to heroes who forge their own path, not simply do what destiny has already predicted that they will…

Make sure your idea can be achieved on a budget. In Wolfblood, we can’t afford to show the characters in wolf-form every episode. What we can do is show them using their ‘wolf powers’ – sight, hearing, sense of smell – to overcome problems and save the day. That’s basically what makes the series achievable on our budget. So where are the low-budget elements of your idea that you can achieve every episode?

Appeal outside your genre. I know every nice girl loves a vampire these days, but there was a time when teen girls wouldn’t watch supernatural drama. But they watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Why? Because it had a competent, witty heroine who was kickass in the face of danger, yet struggled as much as they did with family, friends, school, and love life.

So how can you use casting, humour or subplots to expand your audience beyond the usual fans of your genre? The wider your appeal, the longer you stay on the air.

If anyone has any other thoughts on high-concept television, feel free to chip in…

One comment on “Writing High-Concept Television

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed post. This has given me so much to think about. I’d never considered budgeting or exactly how long the story could continue for. To me it seems like television is harder to write and yet films are harder to get made. But maybe that’s just my perspective. Thanks again.

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