Last week, we chatted about the importance of setting the tone and genre of TV scripts right from the get go. Another common issue I come across when reading TV scripts; particularly comedy sitcoms and drama series’, is a lack of foresight regarding the story engine – something that hugely influences the show’s longevity appeal.
So what is a story engine? Well, as the name suggests, it’s like an “ideas machine”. In order for a series to keep going and maintain the interest of its audience, it needs to keep chugging along. It feeds on stories, and if you run out of these then your engine will go kaput and you’ll be grounded to the spot. That recommission is looking pretty unattainable by this point – if it was even commissioned in the first place.
Producers/commissioners want to avoid this hassle. When you pitch your series and present a pilot episode, it needs to not only fulfil genre expectations but to radiate longevity and a healthy story engine. There’s a reason why flagship shows (in any genre) are so long-running and successful. Think Friends, Breaking Bad, Tracy Beaker/The Dumping Ground, New Tricks, Casualty, Being Human. They all have a high level of “story turnover” whilst also having compelling characters and quirks within their arenas and genres.
The setting is what creates an emotional arena that the audience can identify with, but it’s the combination of situation and characters that creates the comedy or the drama. Conflict is needed between characters; usually caused by their connection or situation such as friends/flatmates in Friends, a job in Casualty and a care home in The Dumping Ground.
Sitcoms have a “series engine” or theme that offers up continuous storylines. In Only Fools and Horses, the theme is money-making (they want not only to survive but to be rich) which provides endless potential plots when schemes go wrong. Sometimes the setting can help with this – in Fawlty Towers the character dynamics work so well because they are trying to run a hotel, and this setting offers endless plot opportunities because of the different guests and situations that arise in a hotel environment.
Dramas work in a similar way, although often focus more on character issues across a series (arc) as well as arena-based “stories of the week”. The arena is about more than just physical location. It can also apply to the era, which can help feed that story engine. Downton Abbey is set in the early 1900s and, as such, uses events such as war and women’s voting and so forth to enhance its plot potential.
A “dramatic question” may be present – one that drives the series to its end. In the current series of Downton Abbey, the main overarching dramatic question could be considered to be Edith’s baby dilemma. Will she keep her baby in the end? In Gavin and Stacey, the dramatic question for series one was “will they or won’t they get married?”.
Remember, the theme will need to be clear. In the first episode of Gavin and Stacey, we know very quickly that it is about two very different young people who are trying to maintain a long distance relationship. In the first episode of Spaced, we know that it is about two unsuccessful homeless 20-somethings who need somewhere to live and so join forces.
Gavin and Stacey’s story engine is fed by the conflict created by the situation (long distance relationship), setting (Essex and Barry) and all the characters (different personalities). In Spaced it is fed by the situations (lying about being a couple and trying to live with someone you don’t know very well) and the characters (conflict between new acquaintances, love rivals, etc.) and aspirational endeavours (trying to be a writer/comic artist).
So remember, folks, if you want your TV pilot and pitch to scream I’M AWESOME then be sure to set the genre and tone and ensure there’s a strong enough theme and story engine. The questions…
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