Since early last year, I’ve been writing scripts for a dramatic webseries called Darken House, set in a mysterious world with no experience of ‘outside’. It’s been an amazing ride, and has gotten positive reviews from readers. And it’s rare, because dramatic series are barely ever attempted in the format.
Darken is being written under my Alden Caele pseudonym that I coined in the virtual series world when I was a teenager and just beginning to share my work online. Here’s a link to the community where the scripts are being released: Darken House Forum. Despite others’ reticence to try the format, I’m enjoying it just as much, if not more, than the standard hour-long television episode format.
There’s a greater freedom in this way of telling stories, with more chances to let gaps between scenes tell as much story as the scenes you show. You can tell a whole story inside of 50-ish pages that would have felt squished into an hourlong episode of television, and much of that can be attributed to the space between webisodes. In an hour long episode, it would be near impossible for every 2-3 scenes to occur on a new day, while webseries have that space built in. It also has a way of completely cutting out ‘filler’ from stories, as you show exactly as much as you think the story needs to work at its best.
(* I use ‘sequences’ instead of ‘seasons’ when talking about webisodes, mostly because it’s easy enough to tell more than one story / set of webisodes per year. Also, unique terminology is one way to help new formats develop their own identity.)
I like my webisodes to span 8-15 pages. Enough to have a dramatic arc within it, without encroaching on full episode territory. It’s also enough that you can include, say, a dialogue segment and an action segment, or an extended reach of either. In Darken House‘s first sequence* of webisodes were mostly either ‘all talk’ (with the conversations centring on some cultural element of the universe) or ‘talk/run’ (where a conversation segues into an action sequence). Episode 1 was montage-with-voiceover, 2-4 were ‘all talk’, 5 and 6 were ‘talk/run’ and the finale was a tense ‘talk’ with a violent twist ending. However, the approach for this sequence was all small parts of the greater serial, comprising a part but few separate from the whole, and one plotline dominated the entire show – Travis’ acclimatization to Darken.
For the second sequence, the show slipped into a dual-lead focus, with two separate-but-parallel plots running in each episode. This meant that each episode included a Bram plot and a Kanna plot, sometimes intersecting. That made the plotting more complex, with more potential for thematic parallels and to cover more ground. Ultimately, every episode told a more complete story than in sequence one (in fact, two more complete stories per episode), while all contributed to the greater serial story. In both sequences, however, I got the chance to develop dramatic characters and intense situations within the format of the webisode, and it’s been successful.
What has helped it work? What does a dramatic webisode series need to do?
One thing is having an overarching mythology. You can build a mythology with hints and scraps very easily, and they intensify reader engagement very effectively if done well. I’ve seeded a few mystery arcs into Darken as well as the main question, which is essentially, “What is Darken House?”. But beyond that, there’s tantalizing hints about the characters’ pasts, the cultures and systems within Darken, etc.
But a mythology, empty of anything else, begets a series with no real meat to it. That’s why you need a compelling story told with an interesting cast. Now, Darken’s story is only really compelling in the opening sequence because of the slowly-developing mythology and characters, but once sequence two hits, it’s a tense character-focused story that lets the mythology slip into the shadows. Yes, you’re curious about Darken, but you’re more curious as to what Bram or Kanna is going to do faced with the situation they’re in now. Kanna (and Travis, and Bram) drive the story, instead of the mythology pulling them along for the ride.
You also need to effectively use the dramatic structure. That is, both a beginning-middle-end for the overall sequence, and within each webisode. This is the challenge I’m finding myself up against now. Sequence one floats on nicely until a mad rush at the end, rather than a tight structure. Meanwhile, sequence two peaks dramatically in ep 2.5, and the dramatic tension vanishes thereafter. I have strategies to deal with this problem in forthcoming sequences, but we’ll see how effectively I deal with them. The best way is tight outlining of the dramatic arc, and audience management, where you look at said dramatic arc from the point of view of the audience’s experience.
Ultimately, as with any dramatic form, it takes practice and love for the story. I tried to tackle Darken in prose and hour-long format plenty of times before I tried webisodes because I loved the stories and the characters at its centre. And the more webisodes I write for it, the better my grasp of the format and its effectiveness is, the better I get at managing exposition without sacrificing drama. I’ll hopefully be cutting my teeth on more stories in this format soon: I’m developing a genrebending webisode series called Five, and a trio of dramatic webisodes originally intended for school called The Inhuman Condition. I’m excited to stretch my writing muscles in a format not many folks have dabbled in.
Do you watch or write dramatic webseries? What are your favourites?