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TV WRITING TIPS & TRICKS: Storylines - How to Create Narrative Stretch

Yvonne Grace digs into the art of writing storylines for television and show how to create narrative stretch in television series writing.

Yvonne Grace is an award-winning Television Drama Producer with 20+years experience in Script Development, Script Editing and Drama Production for the BBC, CITV and ITV. Her Script Consultancy Script Advice delivers workshops, provides online TV writing training and develops writer talent. Follow Yvonne on Twitter @YVONNEGRACE1.

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I have worked for many years in the U.K Television Industry as a Script Editor, Producer and Executive Producer of long running drama series.

I was fascinated with storytelling and stories in general before I got into television, but I soon found that once I was through the Production Office door (as opposed to persistently knocking on the thing) I fast became obsessed with storylines and how to keep them delivering for the series format.

Producers in Drama Series have many concerns to give them sleepless nights, but not having enough story or not having quality story was THE thing guaranteed to deliver round-the-clock heartburn.

Whilst Producing the ratings-pulling medical drama series Holby City for BBC 1, it was not un-usual for me to wake myself up in the early hours muttering cryptically like, "We need to blood test the English teacher; he has the key’ or ‘an incurable disease isn’t in itself dramatic."

I took to keeping a notepad by my bed; as invariably in the full light of day, I could not remember what it was I thought was so obvious at 3am. This did not necessarily solve the encrypting problem; as a writer friend once reported to me, that on waking from a vivid dream, in a creative fervour, she grabbed her pen and wrote down the essence of what her subconscious had delivered to her slumbering self. Then next morning, confident that she had noted the essential elements she consulted her note pad.

One word; Bananas. Not helpful.

The components of a good story are not immediately obvious to all writers all of the time.

In my experience; sitting around a Story Conference Table of a long runner with a block of episodes to fill does not guarantee against a writer mistakenly pitching what they think is a story line, but what, under the inevitable analysis that ensues, is in fact an idea; a sequence of moments; an event with no outcome or resonance.

Series storylines have to go somewhere and carry with them a certain amount of dramatic baggage to travel the distance.

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So, given that quality storylines are the one, pure, unadulterated MUST HAVE in any long running television drama; here is a Storyline Wish List I compiled during those sleep-deprived years of Drama Production, and I still mentally refer to this list in my consultations with my Script Advice writers.

Quality storylines for a long-running series must have:

* Text - the story needs to be about something; say something. Even if it is not a plot-driven story (eg: the collapse of a business enterprise) but more of a character-driven story (eg: the collapse of a marriage following a car accident).

* A strong story engine. What keeps the narrative running through the episodes? What or Who is driving the story and why and how are they doing this?

* Solid Subtext. Paramount importance in relation to Text, this is the under-tow, the shadow cast by the plotline and the motivator of character. Subtext gives all stories essential resonance.

* Resonance. Does this story have an impact? Visual? Emotional? Psychological? The storyline needs to be able to vibrate throughout the episode and beyond; the audience needs to feel and see that ripple effect.

* A good series storyline needs to engender connections with other storylines. So the storyline knits itself into the fabric of the episode, via its interaction with other story strands.

For me, quality long-form narrative is all about this knit; the way the storylines in the dramatic world we see unfolding on our screens; weave, move, interact and contrast with each other.

* The storyline needs to express but also explore the character/s involved in it.

* It needs to carry a message - it needs to deliver a textual (this is what happens from A - B) as well as a sub textual message (this is what you are left thinking about when the story finishes)

Prime examples of Series storylining excellence over here in Blighty?

Cucumber - Russell T Davies (just finishing on air over here) Blindingly original, clever, emotive, immediate and relentlessly polishing the character subtext episode after episode.

Shameless - Paul Abbot (the earlier series are better) Again, a mould breaker when it first aired on C4 in 2004. Crude, character-ful, story-packed, naughty, funny and sad in equal measure.

My favourite Series in terms of storylining strength from the U.S?

Well, anything (literally; I would watch this man’s shopping list come to life if he had penned it) by Aaron Sorkin but most significantly for me of late;

The News Room. The opening sequence of the first episode is nothing short of sublime.

The Good Wife. Stylish, sassy, exactly what the U.S does best in the eyes of a Brit; caustic, witty, pacey and just very, very good.

Shows like Holby City and soaps I have script edited and produced like EastEnders literally eat storylines, and generating water-tight stories, creating characters that audiences resonate with, and delivering all of this to budget and on time makes writers and producers alike adept at seeking out the best and the quickest way to gaining maximum on-screen affect.

As writers, we all know that the guaranteed way of achieving on-screen Story Narnia, is by honing the storyline at the planning stage.

Here’s the storyline check list - a long running narrative must have:

1. Text

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2. Story Engine

3. Subtext

4. Resonance

5. Make Connections

6. Explore Character

7. Message

I strive to be Glinda the Good Witch of TV Series and Serials and run my script consultancy Script Advice to help writers write better television scripts in a constructive, professional and easily accessible atmosphere.

Check out my book, Writing for Television: Series, Serials and Soaps, my new Online TV Writing Course; taking you through the process of crafting and shaping your ideas for TV, follow me on Twitter: @YVONNEGRACE1, and join my Writer’s Group Script Advice Writer’s Room on Facebook.

Happy Writing!

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