What does straight-to-Netflix programming mean for screenwriting?
Online streaming services have moved the goalposts of TV and film, and with Netflix announcing that it will double its Originals commissions in 2016, how does this affect screenwriters? Netflix is constantly available, offering an almost endless choice, and is accessible in an instant on our phones and tablets. We can pause it, put it down and come back later — so what is it that keeps us watching a particular series? Charlotte Sabin explores.
The way we watch TV programmes has changed: what is notable is the absence of a TV set. The future of broadcasting is mobile, flexible and accessible. For writers, this means the shows have to be as well. Dialogue has to be stronger to hold the attention of an audience in demand. We watch a month’s worth of shows in a day, a day’s worth of shows on the move on our mobiles, and the community of online discussion of these TV shows is almost as big as the audience for the episodes themselves. As writers, we shouldn’t be wary of this: word-of-mouth has now moved to digital, and the audience that are watching Netflix shows are all on social media, often talking about them as they’re watching them.
Hollywood movie stars are popping up in Netflix programming left, right and centre, blurring the lines of casting between big and small screen. As household names pull in bigger audiences, this is exciting for screenwriters. Shows are released in bulk, no longer in weekly episodes, leaving no space for steady promotion, advertising and reviews to bring in new audiences. Getting an audience past the pilot and addicted to a series is now all down to the strength of the show itself.
Netflix Originals have claimed their stake in the market firmly with award-winning shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and a thriving relationship with Marvel resulting in Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
The format is different; more episodes, ad-free. We have to write in a different way, with storylines that can develop over a longer period, complex relationships between supporting characters and dynamic protagonists. Although Netflix offers new challenges for screenwriters, learning how to craft effective stories is something all writers need to learn, regardless of format. John Yorke, author of bestselling screenwriting book, Into the Woods describes why structure is integral to story in his recent article in The Atlantic:
“Storytelling has a shape. It dominates the way all stories are told and can be traced back not just to the Renaissance, but to the very beginnings of the recorded word. It’s a structure that we absorb avidly whether in art-house or airport form and it’s a shape that may be — though we must be careful — a universal archetype.”
As writers of fiction have to read everything they can get their hands on, screenwriters have to watch. Here is what Netflix offers to writers: 14,000 movies and TV shows available in 190 countries. Once you learn to analysing the patterns that occur in how the story is revealed to us episode by episode, you can then apply this to your own writing. Each character action and decision will move the plot forward and further complicate their story arc. Each time a protagonist is stopped in their tracks by an obstacle, conflict is created and they have to find a way to overcome the obstacle, or retreat to the start. Whether it’s writing for screen or for business, it is the story that your audiences will invest in.
A story is a ‘map’, a series of paths, of trip-wires and oases. As Netflix offers a platform for more detailed ‘maps’ than anywhere else, it also offers inspiration for screenwriters. From themes to inciting incidents and fantastic dialogue, Netflix is a hub of screenwriting achievements (and failures) for you, as a writer, to learn from.
The increase in commissions from Netflix Originals means more new writing across a range of genres, with casts featuring both new acting talent and Hollywood names. The risk is less and the audiences greater, with online TV easy to access and the experience flexible for our technology filled lives. The scope for screenwriting in the age of online streaming is vast, and these flourishing platforms present an ever-evolving range of opportunities for writers.
Charlotte Sabin is a writer and editor based in Cornwall. She blogs at Vexatious Den, following trends in digital publishing and the arts. She has written for The Bookseller’s FutureBook, Field Notes and on storytelling and digital technology for Gadgette. This year, Charlotte has worked in research, content writing and author liaison for Port Eliot and North Cornwall Book Festival. She also worked as an associate producer for BritCrime and has recently completed an MA in Professional Writing.
John Yorke is author of the bestselling book Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. He has collaborated with online learning specialists the Professional Writing Academy to turn the philosophy of the book into a practical online course.
Discover his courses here.