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How important is formal structure for television projects?

by on Mar.11, 2010, under Questions

How important is formal structure (either beat points or acts) to a TV series set of scripts? In the ‘old days’ when we had ads predictably every 15min you had four very clear parts. Then this was changed of course to allow more regular TV advertising.  I’m working on a spec series and I’m wondering how much should we be looking to more formal structure?  It’s very difficult to obtain copies of scripts developed in Australia. So, I can’t even work back from the product and assess from that direction.
– Sue, Sydney

Television is probably the most rigorously structured narrative form after Kabuki. Structure is of paramount importance on any television project (both acts and beat points) whether comedy or drama, narrative or “reality” programming.  Feature films aim for a certain length, but the screen doesn’t usually go black if they go over by a few minutes or seconds.  In television, there are well defined segment breaks where the commercials need to go.  If they don’t get planned in the writing stage, they’ll be crammed in during the editing stage for certain.

Any given television series has very distinct structures that incorporate various interwoven storylines (A-, B-, C-stories etc.), characters, and running bits.  If you were to watch a season’s worth of episodes from a single show those tropes and patterns would leap out at you.  I’ve actually been doing exactly this all week for an interesting adaptation project (actually two seasons-worth) and I have a sneaking suspicion I could load up a few episodes to play simultaneously, and they would be in an uncanny sync throughout.  When I was writing on a network pilot recently, the segment breaks were dictated to us by the frame.  Of course those are segment lengths, not the structure of stuff that goes within each segment, but it reflects how very tight television tolerances are.

You mention that you’re developing a television series on spec.  If you’ve decided to go that route, I’d caution you against spending too much time on individual scripts.  I don’t know how things work in Australia, but in the United States, you really don’t sell television projects by developing a bunch of scripts like you would with a feature film project.  (And you definitely don’t want to put the money into actually shooting a spec pilot.  To me that’s a fool’s errand.)

Selling television projects is the complete opposite of selling features.  With a feature, it’s okay to pitch a concept, but unless you have a long track record of success, most people aren’t going to get far without sitting down and actually hammering out a helluva good script.  The script is the model for the movie.  You’re proposing to make one film and they want to know exactly what it’s going to be.  However in television, an individual episode is much less important than the development that goes into the show’s specific format, characters, and relationships.  The producers are going to have to develop something that has a solid form but also the legs to go several seasons with each episode feeling like it’s part of the same series but also fresh and unique.

Sending a bunch of spec scripts to a television network is probably premature unless your partner has a very long history with them.  Even if the network loves your concept, they’re going to want to get their fingerprints all over it and mold it into a show that meets their specific needs (in terms of audience demographics, advertisers, network brand identity, etc. etc.).  Your pitch to a network is more maleable from a treatment or series bible than a series of finished spec scripts, which come off as rigid, complete, and tough to tinker.  That turns your pitch into a take-it-or-leave it proposition on what feels to the network like a completed project.  That’s long odds that you’ve magically incorporated all their many needs into your project from the get-go.

Television projects really need to be pitched with a very refined treatment/bible that spells out the magic of the series and its characters, relationships, audience appeal, and longevity plan.  A pilot script that exemplifies your structure might be part of this as well as a list of “story springboards” (brief but powerful ideas for future episodes), but a bunch of finished scripts are just going to work against you.

I’d suggest that you put your time into the treatment instead with a lot of thought on how your various plotlines play out from moment to moment.  Typically, shows have a fairly rigid formula for when their B- and C-storylines interact with their A-storylines and how characters generally interact with each other.  It sounds very structured, and it is, but like a sonnet, it can be seen as a format that applies an invariable structure to infinite possibilities.  If you can create a great concept married to a strong, reproducible format, then you’ll likely have more luck selling your television project than you would with a stack of finished scripts no matter how good they are.

Good luck with your project!


2 Comments for this entry

  • Sue (Australia)

    Thanks for the fulsome and informative reply Douglas. Let me get this out of the way: we’re not writing scripts. :) Just a work sample.

    I have been thinking about those thematic/plot touch points but I didn’t know the tolerances were that tight. Certainly I believe you need to offer story directions across seasons.

    Thanks again.

  • Emmanuel

    This is Emmanuel from India, want to start T.V channel. so I need to prepare project report to raise funds from bank. so can you help me to prepare project report, so that I can start a channel in India.

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