by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
The opportunities to write in television have exploded over the last few years, and the number of shows produced each year is only going to go up. Thanks to streaming platforms like Amazon and Netflix, over 400 original scripted shows aired in 2015. That number went up this year, and it will go up again in 2017. All of that content means that writers are getting more freedom to experiment. Limited series are becoming more prominent, many shows on streaming platforms are disregarding the usual act breaks, and the standard forms of hour-long drama and half-hour comedy are evolving.
I recently spoke with Daniel Calvisi about the emergence of half-hour dramedy shows, shows like Louie, Atlanta, and HBO’s little known but brilliant High Maintenance. (Seriously, this show is my new favorite thing. Check it out.) Daniel is an experienced screenwriter and story analyst. In his book Story Maps: TV Drama, he breaks down how the most popular dramas of the day work using his innovative story map method for structuring screenplays. Learn more about Daniel’s books and his script services at his website, Act Four Screenplays.
Angela Bourassa (AB): Let’s start with a quick definition of these 30-minute dramedy shows.
Daniel Calvisi (DC): A single camera, serialized television series, half hour in length, that tells a story or stories that mix drama and comedy. Very character-driven, where emotional arcs are more important than familiar plot-driven engines. They often come from creative teams with experience in movies or one-hour dramas.
AB: How do you distinguish them from more traditional 30-minute shows?
DC: The new 30-minute dramedies can’t be pinned down as merely “sitcoms” as there is no way to predict how much an episode will even feature comedy. They don’t recycle the same dramatic conflicts and engines from episode to episode like a more traditional sitcom like Modern Family does. (For the record, I love Modern Family, but we pretty much know that much of the conflict will come from spouses keeping secrets from one another, leading up to an explosive event where everyone’s true intentions are revealed, and somehow the duplicitousness leads to reconciliation and greater understanding, and they all kiss and make up! The writers do an amazing job of maintaining surprise and laughs within the familiar paradigm.)
In a new 30-minute dramedy, the “week to week” structure is not predictable. On Casual, we don’t know if this week Valerie and Alex will be adversaries or allies. On Girls, we don’t know which of the many characters will appear in each episode. (Last season there was a “bottle” episode focused on Allison Williams’ character in which Lena Dunham didn’t even appear.) In Louie, an entire episode may be a flashback to his childhood and continue into the next episode. For their unpredictability and their short length, these shows are great for binging!
AB: What sets these shows apart structurally?
DC: As far as script format on the page, they are basically written like one hour dramas, with labels to denote the beginning and ending of acts, with the exception of some pay cable pilot scripts which do not have act markers. Dialogue is single spaced, as opposed to the double-spacing employed by some multi-cam shows.
Length is normally in the 32-38 page range, and the most prevalent structure is a Teaser (or “Cold Open,” depending on how the writer labels it) plus three acts. But there are variations. Kimmy Schmidt’s pilot is written in only three acts and Veep was 45 pages with no act markers. Silicon Valley was 39 pages with no act breaks.
You can’t go wrong with using the standard “teaser plus three” structure, no matter how unique your pilot. I think you should learn it before you really start to experiment with it. You may think that your show will eventually end up on a streaming network like Netflix to be binged with no commercials, so that means you can go nuts and employ your own 13.5 act structure. But it’s just like how most films, whether indie or studio, use the four-act structure, so do most half hour TV shows.
[Note: While most screenwriting teachers ascribe to a three-act structure for films, Daniel breaks the standard structure into four acts. You can learn more about his take at his website.]
AB: What sets half-hour dramedies apart thematically, if anything?
DC: There is a meta-theme that hangs over the story as a whole, and it is probably a serious idea or concept that will be explored over time by these individual characters. Week to week, you will find more experimentation with themes and tones in 30-minute dramedies. An episode may end in a huge win, or a miserable failure. Overall, these series tend to be darker and more for adult audiences. R-rated, to use an American film term, not just in obvious ways like language or nudity but in pacing, tone, character sympathy and the unpredictability of story beats.
AB: When did you first notice these shows popping up? What were the first examples on TV/streaming networks?
DC: Louie, Transparent, Casual and Catastrophe come to mind as shows that really created a lot of buzz once they got going. Louie just had no rules, and was more like a series of short films strung together with no continuity from episode to episode. Transparent and Casual were on the level of high-quality indie movies, usually with more drama than comedy, and Catastrophe was a uniquely raw and irreverent look at couples and parenting set in London. They were also on networks that weren’t really known for that type of material in the past so they felt extra fresh.
It should be noted also that Louie and Catastrophe represent a big trend that has produced a lot of great content in recent years: the talent-driven series. They weren’t just scripts first that later cast actors; the stars are also the writers. FX handed Louis C.K. a budget each month and told him to come back with a show. Catastrophe is written by its two stars, Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who found each other via Twitter. Broad City and Insecure both began as web series.
AB: What are the benefits of writing a show that breaks the mold in this way?
DC: Firstly, it’s cheaper to make a 30-minute show than a one-hour, so on that basic level, it’s easier for the industry to accept you as a newbie if you’re asking for less money to realize your vision. Secondly, any “noisy” concept that is out-of-the-box and quirky has a better chance of attracting interest from the industry, and now that it’s established that the 30-minute form is getting noisier and finding audiences, they will be more open to hearing your pitch in this form.
How many 30-minute shows have there been about young adults in the dating world? But a show like Wilfred throws in a talking dog. Or Man Seeking Woman mixes fantasy and reality, really playing with the rom-com genre, to the point where the protagonist goes on a blind date with a troll. An actual troll, not an internet troll! Or a show features really horribly selfish people, like You’re The Worst, Difficult People, or Broad City. I mean, the Seinfeld four were selfish, but not on this level!
Ultimately, your pilot script is going to act as a writing sample that highlights your unique voice. It will show that you can write both comedy and drama in a deft mix with killer, industry-level structure. If you can do that, you will get meetings around town and, ideally, get staffed on a show that you love and respect. But nothing will happen unless you take the plunge and write something that only YOU could write, that breaks rules in a way that only YOU can break them. Be true to your voice. Write a show you would binge in a single weekend.
AB: What are the drawbacks of writing this type of show?
DC: Execs want to know where a series will fit in the television landscape and who it will be targeted at. If your show is really out there and crazy and experimental, then it will be hard for them to “see the show.” To be totally honest, it will be very tough to market something that no one has ever seen before. BUT… it’s hard to market ANY script (especially if you’re a newcomer) and your practical, realistic goal should be to write a killer writing sample that gets you in doors.
Now, if you keep getting shot down with the note that your pilot is too crazy to fit in anywhere, I would suggest you tame the craziness down a notch (or five) and move it closer to some kind of defined genre with understandable dramatic logic, or you shoot your own trailer to use as a pitching aid so they can really see the tone of your world. I’ve heard different opinions about the use of video in pitches. Some people love them and some hate them, for different reasons. Do what feels right for you and your project.
AB: Which shows do you think are using this new format most effectively?
DC: My current, personal faves include Transparent, Louie, Casual, Catastrophe, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, You’re the Worst, Girls, Insecure, Man Seeking Woman… and I’m probably forgetting a few. Okay, I watch too much TV! But there’s just so much good stuff out there. There are even two shows that were canceled that I keep revisiting: Married and Togetherness.
AB: You’re a firm believer in structure. Any structure advice for writers attempting a 30-minute dramedy pilot?
DC: I would first suggest you watch my webinar at The Writers Store, “The 30-minute TV PILOT BEAT SHEET: From ABC to HBO to Amazon to Netflix,” which will give you a nice general breakdown of standard industry structure for half hour pilots, both on the page and on the screen. You probably want to begin with the classic “teaser plus three” act structure.
But if you’re looking to play with that template a bit, then find a favorite “template show” that uses pacing and storytelling techniques that your series will use, and map out two or three episodes. Note how long each act lasts and how many story threads are launched and where and how they weave together. Look for how the writer incorporates theme into the beat sheet and character construction.
Use this basic structure as a template for your Story Map. (I have a Story Map worksheet I can send you if you email me via my website.) If it feels too flat, don’t be afraid to experiment with scene order, act breaks and various dramatic devices until you really “find” the structure that will work best for your show. Use your Story Map to compile a complete scene list, then keep that list on your desk as you write the script! Try to finish at least one scene each time you sit down to write, and simply check off each one on your list after you finish it. I can help keep you on track, if you’re interested in my coaching services. Take a look at www.actfourscreenplays.com for more information.
Check out Daniel’s new webinar, Writing the 30-minute Dramedy: The New Frontier! at The Writers Store.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.