In June, I offered a taste of my experiences in writing dramatic webseries exploring the process of writing Darken House. Well, since the summer’s begun, I’ve played around with a few dramatic webisode series and, while Darken House has been a success, I’ve also had a chance to fumble. Here are some caveats to that previous, optimistic article…
While my experiences with Darken have gone well, as have those with another webisode series I’m developing, Dead City Blues, it has not been all happy endings. This summer I embarked on two humbling mini-journeys with projects that didn’t work out, but taught me something about the format.
The first was The New Home Games, whose basic premise was a faux-reality show where tenants are ranked by the viewers on their behaviour. They could leave at any time, but their eventual payout was determined by the audience’s votes, and they’d only learn how much they’d get once they’d already left. Thus, it would explore public and private faces, the idea of cultivating a ‘personality’ for reality TV, and manipulation of events by reality producers. It came from my desire to tell character stories, to explore some genre elements I’d never played with, and to practice in the format. The idea was a good one, and if I had the fire in my belly to get it right, it could have been pretty great. I might rename it and tackle it again some day.
And a month later, I pursued another project: Lifeblood a dystopian superhero project that I hadn’t seen much success with as a one-hour pilot. Frustrated I’d never had a chance to tell the story, I started rewriting it as a webisode series, plotting the original 60-page pilot into nine 6-10 page webisodes. I wrote two before, thanks to some critical reviews citing an inability to connect with the story, I was forced to explore exactly why I couldn’t get it to work.
In July, I told you to have a mythology. But you have to pace it right, and don’t dump it on the viewer. Sometimes, your concept just won’t work in webisodes because there is far too much ground to tell in order to kickstart the story adequately. Other times, you can, but it requires a lot of skill, grace, and an awarenesss of what you’re doing. In New Home Games, there was no room for the rules of the game alongside introducing the characters, so both suffered. Because the rules were ill-introduced, and the characters were vague sketches, both opening episodes were received with a shrug. I was trying to keep it below 6 pages to keep it short and snappy, and it simply required more forethought in planning than I had offered it.
Sometimes, though you have to remember that compelling characters allow the reader to forgive exposition. If they are desperate to know what happens next to the character, they will eat up the exposition you give them. When they love a character, then the only thing the mythology has to do is offer enough space for faith and they will give it. Not only will they watch when the exposition is still building, it will push them to work to figure it out, because they’re hooked in. In webisodes, this is key because you usually don’t have room for both a comprehensive mythology dump and engaging character introductions unless you are a brilliant writer, so you have to give yourself room to unspool things. If you have to choose between character and mythology early on, choose character. That will give you the fuel to explain things as you go. This is, after all, the main reason a series like Lost was able to go on for six seasons: it created compelling characters that gave viewers a reason to keep watching when the mythology was only slowly parceled out.
Lifeblood for example, was an interesting world, but the character introductions to my leads were not engaging enough to create space for enough faith needed. After a scant page of dialogue, the exposition devoured the scene and buried the characters, which destroyed any interest many readers had in moving forward. Even those engaged felt held at an arm’s length, because they weren’t walking alongside these characters, but merely watching them. Sometimes series deal with this with an Exposition Joe character who constantly has everything explained to him. Darken House used its lead, Travis, to fill this function. Other times, you’re able to seed enough information in the context of your opening scenes that exposition can slip into your characters’ conversations without feeling clunky.
Compelling characters need enough detail to seem real, as well as strong, unique voices and clear, definable journeys. You need to have all of these present in their opening scenes to hook your reader. In webisodes this is even more crucial, because you need to hook them enough to open a second file, whether that’s script or video.
You also need to make sure you have a clear narrative and vision from the pilot onwards. You need your lead and the opening of your story, but also the introduction of the implicit themes that are baked into the very heart of what you’re writing. Darken House, for example, explores characters who are searching for what kind of lives they really want to lead, with a constant overarching question of “how are they lost?” and “what are they looking for?”. So it’s only fitting that, in the opening webisode, a confused Travis wanders the hallways of Darken, not knowing where he is or where he’s going.
New Home Games gave us an example of three versions of public vs. private that it would be playing with, giving opening monologues to a character aware of the issue and pledging to just be herself, one aware of it and promising to use it to her advantage, and one seemingly completely unaware of the issue entirely. Its failures were in managing space and offering intriguing characters to go along with these themes.
Lifeblood, however, did not do an adequate job of offering its implicit themes of the danger in relying on power alone, and it only hazily touched on the ideas of being held back by focusing on the past. In neglecting these elements, it robbed the lead characters of any kind of momentum thematically, removing any richness from the story at hand. Which is why you must uncover and express the underlying themes of your story early on, because they will offer the story a much greater power, and something for the reader to connect to.
Ultimately, you have to be open to feedback even when you don’t understand it. It won’t always pinpoint exactly where you failed, which means you have to work at understanding it. Claims that a character is unengaging, which at the surface is a subjective opinion, might actually mean that your opening scene hasn’t developed your lead(s) as much as you’d thought, or that you’ve buried your themes. Claims that your scripts are boring may be a result of mismanaged exposition and mythology.
And even if you don’t nail it the first time around, don’t give up. You might have gold in your hands, waiting to be molded into something great.