Thursday, 23 January 2014


Writing a storyline is great fun. You are creating characters that you make do whatever you want. Hanging out with pretend people, in a pretend world is or should be like child's play, but sometimes it is not. There are a few basic rules to it. When writing an episode for TV, you have to think about the length. An hour on screen has to fill the time with something that drives it, sustains our interest and not just the long story narrative. Storylines need to be threaded through, and you need to know what structure that will take.

William Goldman said in Adventures in the Screen Trade 'the essential opening labour a screenwriter must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing.' This, he believes, is 'the single most important lesson to be learned about writing'. He continues to hammer home the point by stating 'nifty dialog helps one hell of a lot; sure, it's nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have terrific characters spouting just swell talk to each other, and if the structure is unsound, forget it.'  

Structure is all about planning. With TV episodes there is no opportunity to over/under-run, so you need to plan it out carefully. The first thing to understand is that an hour-long episode on most channels will be around 50 minutes for drama and 20-25 minutes for SitCom. A full TV Drama script will be somewhere between 46-50 pages and SitCom betewen 20-25 pages. It is worth noting that some channels have longer ad-breaks and these will dictate the exact length of the script, and you will also need to allow for credits. That's a lot of pages if you are writing a six episode series. Each episode needs its own structure and story to drive it forward. You need to show you know what those stories or story lines will be, and this is where the guides come in. The treatment is an overview but the guides give us snippets of insight into how it will work and entertain. 

  1. These are written in the third person, present tense.  No dialogue should appear at any point.  I would suggest 50-100 words per episode - less can be more if you can entice us with the story progression. Check Rocliffe's Terms & Conditions as word counts may vary depending on each particular script call. 
  2. Each episode must have vital moments, so describe the essential moments in each episode. Stay true to your story. Be dynamic - in drama significant things as a consequence of, and not merely after, what has happened before. Too often we see superfluous scenes – everything should be part of the bigger story or driving the story forward. When writing episode guides or storylines you are describing the dramatic moments within the script.
  3. When you have a series arc, which is apparent in a long running story of a mini-series, remember this is the backbone of the series and we should see progression of this in each guide.  The overall structure of the beginning, middle and end is in the treatment.  The episodes must match the treatment. 
  4. Remember that each episode has to draw the audience in, keep them coming back the following week whilst revealing enough of the main story and still telling single story strands within the episode. There is a complexity to this but it should be clear if you are clear what your main story arc is.
  5. When creating a storyline that is contained within a single episode ensure that it has some closure, even if you continue other storylines into future episodes. Remember it is by engaging with these characters that draws an audience in and makes them come back for more.
  6. Show the characters history, backstory and interrelationships/interactions with the other characters. A great example of this was the series Cold Feet, which ran for 6 series, 32 episodes from 1998 – 2003.  The bind was the ups-and-downs of 3 ordinary couples in Manchester. Good times and bad times were followed through the 32 hours, which were finally tied up in the last episode of the sixth series when all the history of the previous years’ came together.
  7. Whilst we all follow the maxim of all scripts ‘show not tell’ even in guides and storylines that doesn’t mean you replace loads of dialogue with lengthy emotional description and action. Replace it with one line.
  8. A good writer is a good reader.  Watch and read shows.  Assess how they end and finish stories that are interspersed within the main series narrative. This will give you a greater understanding of the structure of the show as well as a greater appreciation of what your story can be.
  9. Work out your ending of each episode, right at the start, it makes it easier to know where you are driving the series rather than rambling along.  You can’t wing it.
  10. Stay true to your story. Don’t self-sensor at the first draft or second-guess at the spec script stage what our panel or a commissioner will be looking for. Ensure that your characters are believable and by that I mean behave the way real people actually do today. It is crucial to reflect characters how they are.  Go out and observe the world.  Spend time in the world you are creating if you are reflecting a world you don’t know.

I've always thought everything William Goldman says is very clever. So my writing quote for this blog is a whole lot of William Goldman saying lots of things and explaining exactly what he meant by NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Spend the time watching this amazing youtube interview!

Research, reflect and be adventurous, who says you can’t be big, bold and challenging! Keep writing...