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…

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Book Review: Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays

Slightly late on this one – Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays by Lucy V Hay came out a few  months ago, and I’ve been meaning to review it ever since… But finally, here we are!

Thrillers are one of the best genres for new writers to work in. They’re relatively cheap to make, can attract good audiences if the concept is strong enough, and well-written thriller roles can attract name actors.

Unfortunately, they’re also one of the hardest genres to write. They require a strong mastery of plot, but unless they have well-realised characters and original plot twists as well, they can fade into the thousands of other generic thrillers in your Netflix queue.

So what can we learn from Lucy V Hay to improve our chances as thriller writers?

The book starts with a definition of thrillers – an interesting one, actually, utilizing the “fight or flight” reflex as a primary reference. Hay then looks at the various sub-categories of the thriller, and common issues in spec thriller screenplays.

Where the book gets really interesting is in the characterization section. Hay addresses the overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual nature of the thriller to date, pointing out that the white heterosexual male hero is often every bit as stereotyped as the female or gay characters. She points out that many thrillers only feature only one female character, as if being “the girl” was sufficient characterization for her, and as if having more than one female was somehow unnecessary. Then she takes an interesting look at atypical thriller characters, and how avoiding character clichés can strengthen your story.

The book then takes a look at writing the thriller screenplay, applying the usual structures and techniques in a specific thriller context. There’s good stuff here, especially if you’re not experienced at constructing and writing screenplays, but few of the structural pointers will be genuinely new to anyone to anyone who’s read other screenwriting guides.

Then there’s a section on getting the screenplay made – pitching, the workings of the industry, and a useful section on budget (it’s surprisingly hard for an inexperienced writer to tell what will be expensive and what won’t!) There’s also a useful section of writing resources and resources looking at the thriller.

So what’s the verdict?

Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays is an excellent reference for anyone starting to write and thinking of beginning with a thriller. It’s also a good quick catch-up for anyone wanting to check up on the basics before their next screenplay – and the section on characterisation applies across pretty much every genre. So if thrillers are a subject of interest to you, take a look!

Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays by Lucy V Hay, in the Creative Essentials series from Kamera Books  (kamerabooks.com)

Destroying The Earth Is Hard

I’m working on a big science fiction idea at the moment – a terrible enemy has taken over the planet and mankind must fight back – and I’ve run up against a bit of a problem. The ending.

I’m starting to think that in post-apocalyptic stories is it’s very hard to convey victory to the audience.

If you’re writing a movie about terrorists trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty, then if at the end she’s still standing – victory. If it’s about a man trying to get back together with his wife, and they don’t divorce at the end – victory.

But if the world we know and love is already gone, what does victory even look like? Okay, you defeated the alien invaders, or the killer robots, or whatever – but half the planet is a smoking wasteland and mankind’s sliding back into the Stone Age, so where’s the cause for celebration? Things aren’t going to get any more shit – but they’re not getting any less shit either…

And that’s the problem with destroying the earth. It’s hard to believe that your plucky hero’s victory, however much good he’s done for mankind, actually means anything in the grand scheme of things.

There are ways round this. Alien invasion movies like Independence Day often leave enough standing to suggest that the world can get back on its feet without too much difficulty. Or you can suggest a new future for mankind – a restored Earth, or perhaps a new world (though I find the ‘starting again on another planet’ approach is viewed very negatively by producers and execs. Again, it feels like defeat, not victory.)

But if you’ve genuinely pushed mankind to it’s limits and there’s nowhere else to go – how do you convey the sense of victory and triumph that the end of any good movie has to deliver?

I’m A Success, Get Me Out Of Here!

As much as it offends my English sense of modesty to admit it, I seem to be a bit of a success now. Certainly I’m not paying the bills by working in a supermarket any more, and that’s pretty much the definition of being a successful writer, right?
Now, I’m not complaining… Well, all right, I’m a writer, we do nothing but complain! However, I love my job and wouldn’t change it for the world. But what’s interested me over the last year or so is how much actually getting to do what you want changes how you do what you want. And I’ve been noticing a few things.
Something always has to be ’your day job’. Once, I was working the tills at a certain supermarket, and going home to work on Wolfblood evenings and weekends. So writing Wolfblood was the thing I really wanted to be doing. Now I am doing it… And suddenly the other projects I’m trusting to get off the ground seem a lot more exciting and attractive than doing yet another draft of episode five!
Part of that is the attraction of the new, of course. The only script that’s ever perfect is the one you’re just about to start writing, so that’s the one that seems the most fun. But also, to an extent, Wolfblood is my day job now. I love every second of it, but it’s somehow not quite the same experience.
There’s more to writing a TV series than just writing a TV series. There are public appearances, invitations to speak to students or at festivals, meetings, visits to the set, possibilities of spin-offs and merchandise to be dealt with, and of course, endless questions on the blog and on Twitter. Writing the show only takes about six months of the year, but non-writing stuff devours a surprising amount of the rest…
It’s harder to impose your own deadlines once you’ve got used to having them imposed for you. On Wolfblood, of course, when outlines and drafts are handed in is dictated by the production schedule – and there’s always a script editor eagerly awaiting the episode you know you should be working on. But it’s fatally easy to get used to that, and to think of any day when you don’t have an externally-imposed deadline as a potential day off!
Writing anything that isn’t Wolfblood is… odd. Working on a TV series, you’re constantly handing in versions of your work and getting feedback. Reactions are immediate and honest. Ideas are shaped collaboratively. And then you return to something you’re writing on spec, and there’s just you. No feedback, no one to share ideas with, no one to remind you not to blow the budget. It feels a bit weird – and frankly, rather scary…
In other words, however much of a “success” you become, you always go back to square one for the next project. That new idea doesn’t come pre-approved, there’s no one to force you to work on it, and there’s no one rooting for it but you.
And surely that’s a good thing?