writerI’ve decided to do a series of posts that will cover the entire span of making a web series. A lot of this advice will go a long way in helping you create an independent film as well, so, enjoy and hopefully it’s helpful!

Today’s topic: The Script.

The web series, much like a film or TV show, starts with a story idea.

THE STORY

The story idea has to be many things. It has to be interesting, it has to be sellable and it should be easily said in one sentence.

Interesting: Always ask yourself — okay, but why would someone watch that? Not would you personally watch it (though that’s important too) — but would others? Would your target audience like it (again, think of the target audience as someone other than you)?

For example: a story idea about a guy who’s in love with a girl and then he like, can’t get her, so then he like, sends her letters and tries and then stuff happens. Okay. But why do we care? Because (this is a freebie, you can all take this one), the girl is an alien and holds inside her the key to the universe (her ovaries). See? Easy. I also find that adding minorities helps.

Sellable: Internet video is like a wildly disorganized pile of 3rd grade arts and crafts projects. Somewhere in the stack, a few creepy genius kids have created brilliance — but you’ve really got to sort through the other work. And there’s a lot of other work. And it’s just so, so bad. How do you make yours stand out? Look at what you’re trying to do and find professional high-caliber shows. What do they do? How do they stand apart? Think like an agency or a marketing team. It’s really, really hard to market a show about someone who kills puppies with hammers unless you’ve got Will Smith starring, and even then, it’s risky. What makes your fruit shinier than the others?

One Sentence Description: If you can’t describe it in one sentence, it’s probably too complicated. “A boy goes back in time to save his friend.” Good. “A boy goes back in time to save his friend because his friend just invented a time machine but then gets shot and so now the boy has to use the time machine to help his friend but it accidentally sends him further back than he intended and he has to figure out a way to return. It’s really really good, please watch it.” Bad.

THE OUTLINE

My brother and I tend to structure a season like we’d structure a film script — into three acts. In fact, the three act structure can and should be applied to everything: a scene, an act (three acts in an act, baby!), a full episode, a full season.

Using Break a Leg as an example, we originally intended it to be 22 episodes (hiiigh hopes, we had, hiiiigh hopes). Episodes 1-7 were going to be Act I: where David Penn attempts to make his show despite a thousand setbacks. Episodes 8-16 were going to be Act II: David Penn making his sitcom and dealing with fame. Episodes 17-22 were Act III: The plot introduced in Episode 1 — with David Penn going to die — is brought back, with the last few episodes dealing with all the things related to his death.

We never did Act II and III — but Act I is basically Break a Leg, Season 1.

Aside from structuring your season, get to know your characters. Write out a description of your leads, figure out where their lives start in Episode 1 and where they end up in the finale. Remember, every character (like every episode and every season) should have an arc. They should not be the same from Point A to Point B unless they’re boring or their stagnation is on purpose.

THE SCRIPT

I’ll try to keep this short.

A three-act structure works like this:

The Central Question: You have a central question that asks a yes or no answer — this is the entire idea of your show/screenplay/whatever. Will the boy be able to come back from the past (Back to the Future)? Will Will Smith & Co. stop the alien invasion (Independence Day)? Will sporty Asian people successfully drift (Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift)?

The central question is key to your script. Everything in your script should be about solving that question, or leading us closer to the answer. It’s what your show/film is about and it should be something you should always keep in mind as you write.

The Beginning: In a screenplay, it’s the first 10-pages. In a 30-minute show, it’s the first 3-5, in a 5 minute webshow? I don’t know. The first 30 seconds. The beginning of a script needs to do a few things: set-up the world, introduce the characters and immediately hook us into the show. Often, the first frame of a film will be an iconic image, other times it’ll be starting right in the action. Whatever it is, your first frame is a little microcosm of your entire film.

Act I: In a film script, Act I is usually page 1-35 or 45 (depending on how long your screenplay is — brevity, however, is the soul of wit. So, you know. Be witty.) In a TV script, it varies (some TV scripts are only two-acts, some are three), in a web series.. I guess the first 2 pages? (If you think about it in percentages, Act I is 30%, Act II is 50%, Act III is 20%, as far as length goes).

Act I has to set up your characters, set up your world further, set up the scenario and end with a turning point.

Act I Turning Point: The Act I turning point happens at the end of Act I and does a few things: reiterates the problem in the central question, changes the action in a different direction, raises the stakes for the character.

Act II: Now that Act I is over and has raised your delicious stakes, Act II is the journey. It’s the development of the main problem, it’s the journey to Mordor, the getting back to the future, the main part of your story. This is also why it’s the longest act.

Act II ends with…

Act II Turning Point: The Act II turning point usually comes in two beats. First, the complete failure of your heroes quest. It’s the moment when all seems lost until… until… the second beat. The last ditch effort. Maybe this will work… It also does the same thing as the Act I turning point — raises the stakes, reminds us of the central question, changes the action into a different direction and sends us flying into Act III.

Act III: The big showdown. The climax. Our heroes going to Mordor and then fighting off the evil flaming eye to finally throw the ring into the lava pit (oh why, oh why didn’t the giant bird just fly them there in the beginning?!) The third act is big, it’s punchy and it’s where you can easily win or lose your audience.

Conclusion: Unless you’re writing Lord of the Rings or AI, you only have one conclusion — the last few pages. Where you tie it all together and leave your characters either happy, sad, or dead.

And that — in a longer blog post — is how you write a script.

Feel free to ask me any questions about this. I was a screenplay reader for 2 years and this was generally my job. If I amass a few questions, I’ll write a blog post answering them, so, comment and ask away! And happy writing!