WRITING: Outlining Dramatic Webseries Episodes

Outlining is a crucial part of writing, particularly for structured forms like television. Webseries are an odd beast; formats aren’t so set like they are in television and film, though there is general consensus on certain wisdoms, like ideal length. When outlining an episode that is likely only 1-2 scenes long, and as many minutes, it’s difficult to decide on what you’re looking to include and cut in a webisode. Comedic webisodes are much easier, because then you’re just going for the laugh; if television sitcoms don’t contain much in the way of plot, comedic webseries pull even further to that extreme. However, dramatic webisodes musy build drama and tension inside of a few minutes. How do you plan and outline a dramatic webisode? Here’s my method…

Scale It Down: A webseries can’t merely be an episode of a drama or a film, released scene-by-scene. Yes, there is a dramatic arc to every scene in an episode/film, but there’s more pressure on a webisode episode to service all elements of the story: push the plot and characters forward while remaining interesting for the audience. My best way of doing this is focusing on small stories with big meanings behind them, rather than small pieces of big stories. For example, in one series, a webisode I outlined was all about how two lovers saw their relationship and its flaws. It was four scenes total: a dialogue between Lover 1 and Lover 2’s sister, a dialogue between Lover 2 and a customer atthe lovers’ shop, a dialogue between Lover 1 and Lover 2, and a short sction scene in which Lover 2 unexpectedly cheats on Lover 1. The script clocks at 7 and a half pages; for most, you want to avoid that length, but I have generally gotten accustomed to a ‘less than 10’ rule, rather than the typical ‘less than five’. Inside of four scenes, the mini-story is told: we get to see both sides of the conflict, we get a climax (wherein the two argue about it), and we get a twist to pop us off into the next episode. In addition to the mini-story, we get a significant introduction scene (for Lover 2’s sister), exposition on the Lovers’ business and dynamic, and the episode plays its role in the season arc. And this was all achieved by telling a small story (a fight between the central Lovers) that is emblematic of bigger things (their fractured dynamic), rather than a big flashbang story sending it into huge conflict. Essentially, an hour-long episode pared down to the character elements and tension, minus what might have been a story-of-the-week.

Kick Ass Characters: You can’t do a really great series without strong characters. It’s the television issue, but even stronger, because these characters have to last longterm and grab the audience’s attention so intensely that they are hooked after only a few minutes. If you try to have a great series with a bland set of characters, you can try to patch up the holes with strong casting and crew, but the lethargy that often accompanies boring characters will inevitably infect your series, killing the viewership levels. You want to kick off your pilot with your characters doing stuff that sets them apart from the crowd immediately, then spend every episode thereafter building on that character so that they would be compelling even just sitting at the table eating toast. After all, with the proper subtext, in webseries that could be an episode. And a good writer could make it fantastic.

Simple Yet Complex: Every episode should be easy to follow, but with plenty of complexity within. When I outline an episode, there’s a checklist of beats or establishments/exposition that must come out, so that every episode accomplishes more than one thing; yet, you must be careful not to overstuff it. Subtlety and care have to be taken to make sure an episode has plenty going on without getting confusing or bogged down. Often, this related to choice of story: if you’re trying to establish two or three wildly different things in the same story, your episode will likely lurch gracelessly from moment to moment while you struggle to hit all the right beats. Considering how short webisodes are, you can even consider splitting the points you need to make into two or three episodes if it’s too ungainly to cram them together; just as long as there’s enough of interest to fill up additional episodes in terms of character establishment or plot momentum.

Act Breaks: For webseries, the act breaks are even more difficult than for television. In TV, all you need your audience to do is either sit through five minutes of commercials, fast forward through them, or come back after they are done. Depending on your schedule, you’re looking at a long wait (sometimes upwards of a few days) every 2-10 minutes, rather than every 20 or 50. That means a few minutes of webisode must have the metric force of a television show, and that often requires a kick-ass ending: a powerful character revelation or mystery that gets audiences talking, a strong point of action that changes everything, or a new plot element that spins the story into a new direction. Take the basic concept of act breaks from TV and take that to the extreme. After all, the people who are sold will come anyway, but the people you still need to sell will need a compelling reason to come back.

So, you’re thinking, outlining a dramatic webisode series must be ridiculously hard. And, yeah, it’s difficult: one reason why so few have tackled the medium, especialy during this time of experimentation. But if you think on it long enough, and plan it carefully enough, these suggestions can help you make something compelling and powerful, even with the format’s limitations.

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4 responses to “WRITING: Outlining Dramatic Webseries Episodes

  1. Pingback: Writing webisodes | Olpera

  2. Cal October 10, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    And that’s why dramatic webseries should never be called webisodes if they’re in the long form. My show is based on television’s half hour format but can be anywhere from 13 to 30 minutes each. Works better that way, we’ve been winning many awards because people are hungry for traditional narratives. They didn’t cut the cord or dish to watch 1 to 2 scenes disguised as “episodes”. 🙂

    • R. Lackie October 10, 2012 at 6:40 pm

      Is that a tone of anti-webisode elitism I hear, my friend? I disagree personally. After all, there are those who would look down on a 13-30 minute dramatic episode as paling in comparison to 45-60 minute dramas, so I remain unconvinced that you can’t have a great dramatic series in short form as you can with longer episodes, provided you have the skill and instincts to pull it off. That said, I applaud anyone who has the chutzpah to do dramatic webseries at all, as it’s so hard to gain traction since the medium’s so new. Feel free to drop a link; I’d love to check out your series, if you like.

  3. Pingback: MY WRITING: My Dramatic Webisode Pilots « The Diversionist

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