Hank Isaac: Underfunded Overachievers #5


The Crafting of “Lilac” – Writing a Ten-Minute Episode with a Dozen Subplots
by Hank Isaac

Speaking with a few writers and directors on the topic of “writing short,” I learned that writing TV commercials and promos is a great way to hone one’s writing skills. Face it: 10 seconds to a minute – not a whole lot of time to get a point across, is it?

Okay, so I don’t write commercials. But WEB series episodes (not counting the hour-long House of Cards) are necessarily short. Maybe not half a minute, but definitely not full TV episode running times.

“Lilac” has ten characters in its ensemble cast. Each has his own life, story, problems, etc. One season is thirteen episodes of roughly ten minutes each (the Pilot Episode plays for 15 minutes). So each season is essentially a feature film. But it’s broken up into ten-minute segments. Something has to “happen” in each episode.

And each one needs to begin with a promise and end with some sort of cliffhanger.

In some cases, “story” needs to be conveyed in an image bite or a sound bite. For example, in its simplest form, let’s say Lilac is on the street and one of the other characters – we’ll say Peter Littlejohn – hurries past in the distance. Neither character acknowledges the other. Perhaps Peter didn’t even notice Lilac. Or he did and chose to pretend he didn’t. Even if this whole encounter takes only three seconds, we have a story element. Where is Peter going in such a hurry? Where did he come from? What direction is he heading in? How is he dressed. Why doesn’t he notice Lilac? Why doesn’t Lilac shout to him? Does he encounter another character? If so, who?

And then that moment is over and perhaps Lilac encounters another character or has to do something. The point is: Peter’s three-second bit of action can move the story forward and also reveal a bit of his character. Each of the above questions can be answered with images or sound. They can be payoffs and/or setups.

Even a look or just one word spoken by one character can spin the story. The thing to try to master is some sort of balanced expression. Every story element and story beat can’t last just three seconds. It would get pretty boring, pretty quick.

Note: I tend to fall asleep during long action sequences. What always keeps me awake are great reversals – even if the reversal occurs when two characters calmly talk to each other.

And if we’re talking about talking, there’s a old TV technique referred to often as the “foreground-background” shot. This is where two or more characters appear in the same frame, each facing the camera, but at varying distances from it. And they all are engaged in a conversation with each other, but face the camera, not each other. This technique was developed for speed and economy. No cutting to capture each character’s dialogue and body language. No worrying about “crossing the line.” No moving the camera and relighting the set for each actor. A shot like this can accomplish a huge amount in a very short time.

It does, however, depend on the Director and the actors “delivering.” There’s no cutting away to another shot if things go south.

Done well, this “old style” shot can bring a lot to a WEB series episode, but in the modern era, a shot like this needs to be clever to avoid its obvious cliché.

We’re exploring ways to include more shots like that as “Lilac” continues for the very reasons they were developed – speed and economy. One of the essentials, however, is that the layout of the shot needs to be “motivated” by the characters and their story and not simply staged for its own purpose.

Lilac is here: https://vimeo.com/110297552

Next time: Writing for an audience demographic.