What do you do when you commit to turning a short film into a TV series, but you don’t know the first thing about how to make a TV show?
Back in 2010, I played the lead role in a short film called The Wars of Other Men. It turned out to be really good. I was impressed and proud to be a part of it. The producers decided to take it around to Steampunk conventions around the Midwest, and it gained a small and devoted following.
But the question begged: “What do we do next?”
Usually, the next step after making a short film is to make the “feature length” version. But, the film’s creator, Mike Zawacki had a different idea.
“I’ve always envisioned this as a series.”
Well, then. Let’s do THAT!
Most of the rag-tag volunteer crew that had created the short film had already moved on to other projects and different lives. There were only a handful of us left. So, Mike and I decided it was up to us to make the dream happen.
I’m used to working in front of the camera. I used to produce documentaries in college, but that was many long years ago. And producing an episodic series of stories is a whole different animal. I dove into several books to learn the basics of creating a series so that I might lead a small team of writers in the process.
Now that the project is in development, people who want to create their own series have been asking me about how we’re going about ours. So I thought I’d share a little summary of what I learned before jumping in.
The following is the rehashing of a pep-talk and guidelines I wrote and distributed to the creative team to keep us on track with the creation of The Wars of Other Men, The Series:
Goal & Purpose
Our Goal here is to create a full-fledged episodic series — not a “movie”, or a bunch of 15-minute webisodes — that could potentially air as 30 to 60-minute episodes on a major television, cable, or internet-streaming network. It’s important that we keep THIS ultimate goal in mind. It will direct our creative process.
We are not shrinking this goal down for the sake of being “realistic”. We are thinking big, and moving toward that big goal. If we get something smaller out of it — such as a web-series, or a “movie” — then so be it. However, that will be a lesser success, and the unintended by-product of our failure to create a series. We will be following the steps to create and produce a SERIES. Period.
The process for writing episodic stories as part of a series is DIFFERENT than writing movies. Disagreement with this premise is a big mistake and will hinder our progress. If you haven’t read anything about writing for TV as opposed to movies and other fiction, please do so now, so that we have a common language and frame of reference. Otherwise, we’ll be working against each other, pulling in different directions, and not working with each other towards a common goal.
Episodic storytelling is different from that of the movies in that it does not simply tell one long, ongoing story in the traditional sense with a beginning, middle, and end. A television series is not a serialized novel. The way a series works is not to follow one story, but instead to explore a set of conflicts that have been established in the Pilot.
Those conflicts are defined by the World in which the series takes place. The storytelling style in which those conflicts are explored is what defines the Franchise. In other words, the stories that are told have to serve the greater purpose of the Franchise.
For that reason, the process by which we create the series has to start with defining the larger view of the Series — Franchise and World — and then work down to the Pilot story, to be sure it establishes the Franchise sufficiently.
We will be working through the following steps in order:
Create the World
Define the Central Conflict & Springboards
Populate the World (Create the Characters)
Define the Franchise Style
Plan the Pilot
Write the Pilot
Plot Season & Character Arcs
Each step has to be comfortably (if not perfectly) completed and understood by everyone involved before moving on to the next step. We can always go back and make changes, but that should not be an excuse to jump ahead to latter steps prematurely. Ideas for future steps should be noted and written down, and then discussed fully later, when we get to the appropriate step.
The following books about TV writing are what I have based this series creation process on:
Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin
Probably the fastest & cheapest read, and the most directly-related to our purposes.
Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box by Alex Epstein
The first half of this book is about what makes great television and how to write for it. The second half is about breaking into the business as a writer.
Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg & William Rabkin
Mostly about breaking into the business, but with some very good lessons in writing. The appendices include Writers’ Bibles/Guidelines from actual shows we can use as examples.
(All of these books are available on Amazon.com as paperbacks and Kindle books. Click on the titles above to purchase them online.)
Creating the Franchise
“A television series is the continuing adventures of a character, or group of characters, setting out each week to achieve a predetermined goal: enforcing the law, exploring space, healing the sick, raising a family, fighting monsters, or governing a nation, to name a few. The pursuit of that goal, and the manner in which the characters do it, is the framework for telling stories. There’s another word for that framework: It’s the Franchise of the series.”
Create the World
Following Mike’s lead, and based on his World Bible, we will discuss, describe, and define the World in which the stories will take place. Being an alternate-Earth and alternate-history premise, it’s not as simple as saying “a reimagined First World War Europe.” This is not a period piece. It is a series set in an entirely new world – one which may have similarities to ours but is nevertheless a creation unto itself.
Elements that define the World include:
Location & Geography
Countries & Culture
Desires & Conflicts
People & Relationships
Roles & Jobs
Secrets & Public Knowledge
… and other things that help us to understand how people in this world relate to each other, and to themselves.
Define the Central Conflict and Springboards
Springboards have to be based on internal and external conflicts in the context of the World. Here’s a quote from Writing the TV Drama Series:
“As long as characters have long-range quests that incur conflict, and their stories present both internal and external jeopardy, you can discover “springboards” for stories within your world.”
There are two types of conflicts in a show’s franchise, and the series needs both of them to thrive.
The first type of conflict is the obvious one that provides the show’s basic premise. Every story in the series — including the Pilot — is going to involve some basic variation on this basic conflict. Being in a World at War, our series’ Central Conflict is somewhat defined already: To defeat and defend against the enemy.
This basic premise can translate into various “Springboards” that kick off and drive each of the stories. Examples from other shows include: people come in with cases to solve; A crime; A disease; Coping with extra terrestrials; Coping with internal demons.
What kinds of situations, discoveries, questions and so forth will make stories happen in THIS World? What will “drive” each episode?
The second type of conflict is a deeper layer of conflict underneath that surface level, giving the series depth and meaning. The purpose of this second level of conflict is to convey the Theme of the series. This is often the conflict within the protagonist (and other lead characters) struggling with two sides of his or her personality…
Characters — Populate the World
Now that we have the world, with its ongoing conflicts and jeopardies, it should be clear what kind of people live in it. We can now define characters that actually make sense in this world.
At the heart of what defines a character is his/her goal and the choices he/she makes in trying to obtain it. We understand characters by observing the choices they make. The characters become interesting when they experience some conflict — struggling with two sides of his or her personality — in resolving those choices.
As we describe our characters and their internal desires, external goals, and personality conflicts, we need to be sure that they represent or embody opposite sides of the Central Conflict. This will be how we keep the premise and conversation ongoing — through the characters.
Define the Franchise Style
To round out the Franchise, and further distinguish it from any other series that has or will be done, we will need to define our storytelling style.
Questions we need to answer include:
What is the dialogue style? Quick and crisp? Paced and clear? Direct, military-like?
Will we use straight chronological order, or use flashbacks or flash-forwards?
Will we stick with the battle-front, or jump to other parts of the World?
Will we stay with the soldiers of one unit or explore stories through other branches of the military or civilians?
Will there be A, B, & C storylines, or will we just follow one story per episode?
Let’s open this discussion to other styles of storytelling, and decide on what will define our style.
Plan the Pilot
The Pilot has a big job to do. It has to establish the Series and Franchise, as well as lure people in, tell a compelling story, and leave people wanting more in a way that they come back to watch the next episode.
Before the Pilot is written, it has to be planned. All the elements necessary have to be laid out, and organized into position before a story can be written that includes all those elements. If we’ve done all the previous work correctly, the Pilot and its story should be relatively clear in our minds.
Some considerations and requirements of our pilot will include:
How do we place our characters in situations that force them to make choices that will define their desires, goals, and personal conflicts for he audience?
Have we included the fun aspects of the Franchise? Cool technology, design elements, and effects, for example.
Is the Theme well represented?
Do the first 10 minutes GRAB viewers immediately?
Have we generated enough anticipation by answering basic dramatic questions?
(i.e. Do we care about the main character and his goal? Do we feel his jeopardy?)
How many Acts are we working with?
These are just sample questions, and we will discuss and determine the important ones during this planning stage.
Write the Pilot
NOW we can write. Writing will come AFTER we do all the above steps. This is crucial. We can have scenes in mind and bounce ideas around throughout the entire process but first things first. Writing begins after all the parameters are set.
The Future of the Series
Plot Season & Character Arcs
After writing the Pilot, and thus establishing our Series, we can discuss its future. Character and Season Arcs, and where we will go in the second and third seasons. How do we see the Lieutenant and other characters developing from here? What might be the tide and turns of the War? Will subsequent seasons explore different parts of the world entirely? New terrain and battle fronts? What? Where do we go, and what do we EXPLORE next?