CREATING THE ‘HIT CONCEPT’ FOR TV DRAMA BY FINDING EMOTIONS
Learn how to develop an idea
A hit series depends on many things: budget, casting, production values, time slot. But at the concept stage, it all comes down to your story and script. How do we ensure that is going to be as good as it can possibly be?
It is important to know well and to have the tools to discover how to come up with an idea and develop it so it stands up the test of time and gets on the air. That’s why we bring you some advice directly from a TV professional; Morgan Gendel (Co-Executive Producer The 100, Law & Order, Star Trek: The Next Generation).
He will deliver us some tips about how to create the hit concept for a TV drama and how to write a viable episode. The following text is an extract of the online course “Storytelling for TV Drama” by Erich Pommer Institute that you’ll find at our TRAINING section and access now with a 30% OFF discount code.
I’ve written or produced more than 250 episodes of TV drama, and I feel I have two that really stand out. Two! That might not sound like a lot, but it is very hard to have a single episode of TV that are remembered after more than two decades. One is the “Star Trek: Next Generation” episode, “The Inner Light”. The other was an episode of “Law and Order”. But what do these episodes have in common? Emotions! They both move people to tears. And in both it was highly unusual because they weren’t really warm and fuzzy series. That means for you as a screenwriter that your story is going to be more memorable if you ratchet up the emotional impact. How are we going to do that? Let’s have a short insight into the stories of the “Star Trek: Next Generation” episode, titled “The Inner Light” and the “Law and Order” episode I have (co)written.
During the “Star Trek” episode in question, Captain Picard is on the Enterprise. Suddenly a probe floating around in space zaps him with this beam, and he falls down unconscious. He wakes up in a room somewhere on a planet, he is wearing just ordinary kind of clothes. And there is a woman and he says “Who are you?”. She says “I’m your wife!” And he is shocked. “My wife! I don’t have a wife!” He tries to contact the Enterprise but he is not wearing his communicator. “Where am I?” he asks, and she says “You are on the planet Kataan. You are my husband Kamin and you’ve had a fever. You’ve been unconscious for days now and you were dreaming. You were mumbling something about a starship. I don’t know what you were talking about.” At this moment he is made to believe that his life as a captain on the Enterprise was all a dream and that this is his reality. He spends like fifty years on this planet, becoming a member of their society and playing the flute as a hobby. By the way, he’s not very good on this flute at first but gets better over the years.
Now, while that’s happening, every once in a while we cut back to the Enterprise, and Captain Picard is still lying there on the floor. And when they try and detach this beam coming from the probe, it’s going to kill him. So they have to let it run its course.
Finally in his other life, as an old man, he finds out the truth, which is that this civilization was dying. They knew their sun was going nova, it would wipe out everybody on this planet. They didn’t have enough space technology to rescue people on their planet. They had just enough to send out this probe that was going to look for one man good and true who could carry on their memory inside of him.
In the end, Captain Picard wakes up on the Enterprise. He feels he has lived the whole life on this other planet. He asks Riker “How long?” and Riker says “Twenty-five minutes.” Then his team finds a flute and brings it to Captain Picard. He asks to be alone in his room. Now, remember: this was his family, this was real. His brain was changed, imbedded with these permanent memories in a life that seemed to last 50 years or so. And everyone he knew in that life is gone. His friends, his family, this whole civilization are all dead! He is alone in his room and starts playing this flute perfectly. Perfectly. That is the end of the episode. And it’s very, very sad. People have told me that they just cry at the end of it.
The second episode I want to talk about was an episode of “Law and Order” I co-wrote with an excellent writer, Ed Zuckerman. On this series we took great pride in doing things we said were ‘ripped from the headlines’, meaning based on real-life stories. I came across the story of a woman named Katherine Ann Power, who had been a student radical, and involved with some other students and some activities that ended up killing someone. They arrested everybody but her. She went on the run, ended up in Seattle, changed her name, got married, had a family and was living a life under another name. I based my episode on that story.
I wrote in this episode that the police find in the contents recovered from a robbed safe deposit box, a bag of money and a gun, which they trace back to the incident twenty years ago. That connects them to this woman, Susan Forrest, who is the one co-conspirator from the incident 20 years ago who is still missing. Finally, the police think they have somebody who is the paymaster, who has been giving money to some of the other radicals until they were arrested. That is why they go out to this guy’s house and are questioning him “What do you know about this?” He says “What are you talking about?” The guy doesn’t know what is happening as well as his child who is also there.
Then the door opens and this woman comes in with grocery bags, saying “Who wants pasta?” It is the wife, the mother, coming home to make dinner. Her husband says “Rita, these cops are here asking something about a car crash twenty years ago!” Her face falls and she knows why they are there. And one of the cops says “Susan Forrest?” And her husband says “Susan Forrest? No! It’s my wife, Rita Levitan!” She doesn’t say anything and the husband is saying “Tell them who you are!” The police cuff her, and they start walking out, and the little boy is saying “Mom!” The dad is saying “Tell them who you are!” And she turns around and says “My name is Susan Forrest.” And they take her away. At that moment, this is another heartbreaking moment, she hasn’t said her own name in twenty years. She couldn’t tell her own parents she was still alive. She has been lying to everybody. She is so flooded with emotions because she is mainly relieved to finally get this out.
Emotions. That is what these episodes have in common. They both move people to tears. That leads me to a piece of advice for writers and producers: “Don’t worry as much about the motions of your characters onscreen as you do the movement of your viewers.” You have to move them. You have to take this passive activity of sitting in front of a television (or laptop or phone) and make it an active thing that moves people and moves them emotionally
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