Last week there was an old video posted by Filmmaker IQ that showed part of a lecture by legendary writing professor, Robert McKee (author of Story). In it, McKee talks about how setting up a world with rules sets up “creative limitations.” That is what the writer wants, not freedom, he argues. “The desire to be free is one of the most suicidal notions an artist can have.”
This isn’t exactly a new idea, but an important one. When confined (McKee uses a straightjacket as a metaphor), you have to think your way out of the problem, based on the rules you have set up in your story world. In old computer programming, you only had so much memory. In microbudget filmmaking, you only have so much money. It’s the same idea with writing.
I’ve been kicking around a writing model in my head lately that uses the same limitation idea, but applies it to format, as well as context. In film school, I spend two semesters penning a web series called Charles Strange and the Future Men, a twelve-part story of ten page (or ten minute) episodes, with a cliffhanger at the end of each one. Compared to the feature project I tried to write later, I had a much easier time writing the web series. Why? I think it had everything to do with the limitations of the format.
The series arc was much the same as a feature arc and had a three-act structure. The first two episodes were act one (the same as the first twenty minutes in a feature), episodes 3-9 were act two and episodes 10-12 were the final act. The midpoint of the story (complete with revelatory event) was episode six.
I knew I had to have a cliffhanger (after all, this was a noir story with sci-fi elements) at the end of each episode. That made for eleven cliffhangers. I picked some doozies and spread them out along the episodes. I knew that as each episode progressed, I had to get to that cliffhanger somehow. This made me feel like I only had to be concerned with a ten minute story instead of a much more daunting 120 minute one.
I do like the web series model, but I think that you can do a lot more with a feature. Netflix, peer-to-peer, YouTube streaming, single DVD marketing and even four-walling in a movie theater give you a lot more options than a one-shot on the web. So how can understanding the web series format help us get that feature written?
You’ve probably guessed this already, but collapsing the series into a feature is easy, just get rid of the episode transitions. This may give you a fast pace, but cliffhangers don’t always have to be explosions or heroines tied to railroad tracks. They can be dramatic reveals or shocking events of the heart. If you’re writing a genre story (like I intend to), the potential quick pace may serve you well.
I’m excited about trying this. I’m aiming for an 80 minute first feature, which means I need to write an eight episode web series. I only need seven cliffhangers and a midpoint reveal. I’ll have a twenty minute first act, a forty minute second act and a twenty minute third act. I think this straightjacket will be a good fit.