Notes from TV Drama Writers’ Festival. Part 4


Notes from BBC’s TV Drama Writers Festival held in Leeds 30.06-01.07, 2010. The festival was organised by BBC Writersroom.

Masterclass with John Yorke
What exactly is a series?

What do successful series have in common?

  • Compelling characters
  • A self-contained story (the whole and/or underpinning spine)
  • A clear and renewable “story engine” (emotional jeopardy) (such as ‘crime of the week’)
  • Rigorous point of view (clear rules)
  • ‘One day’ time scheme
  • They are “about” something (not just cops but, for example, cops in Thatcher’s Britain, the changes in demographics, etc.)
  • Limited change (drama is change, things must move but drama series rely on not changing – which is a paradox) Characters don’t change but characters’ knowledge does. They learn new things (that will help catch the criminal, for example)
  • Uplifting (people want to be entertained not depressed)
  • Self-sacrifice (there’s nothing more attractive or empathy-inducing)
  • Optimism
  • Unfamiliar made familiar
  • Private world or language made public
  • Defining sense of morality (hustle or otherwise, etc.)
  • Empathy
  • “Imitable” characters
  • You want to be there (on subconscious level)
  • Clearly defined hierarchy and status
  • The enemy is without (something threatens the security of the group)
  • Pressure from above (there’s always a boss…)
  • A gang (a group of people working/living together)
  • Precinct based
  • Precinct is “home” (it feels uncomfortable when the character is not in his workplace, it’s a natural, safe environment) The gang, the regulars are the ‘family’. Audience wants them to get along.
  • The importance of “Family”
  • Clear patriarchal/matriarchal structures
  • Disparate personalities = one person
  • Think “All Creatures Great and Small”
  • Clear format

Format shows

City central (Life on Mars)

Crime of the week within 10 minutes, reluctance, investigating, and when characters finally agree they catch the criminal. This evolved during development.

What makes a formatted show?

Drama formats can be broken down into three elements:

1) Whose story is it? (how the antagonist is introduced, etc. The Bill, Casualty, The Waltons, Luther, Columbo, Cracker. Changing the point of view would change the show.)

2) Superstructure

i) Narrative framing (Waltons: remembering the good old times)

ii) Motifs (something you see every week) (Star Trek: captain’s log – featured in all series, ray guns, beaming, battles, captain Pickard saying “Engage!”, Spock’s analysis of human emotions; Homicide: victims’ names on the blackboard in red and black)

Everything is built on familiarity and repetition.

3) Structure

Act structure (built around clearly defined act breaks, giving a very clear structural template)

A simply structured show will show the protagonist’s story in 3, 4 or 5 acts.

A/B stories in 3 or 4 acts.

The same applies to multi-protagonist shows:

A / B / C storylines and acts


I           B

II          I           C

III        II          I

IV        III        II

V         IV        III

Teasers, pre-credit sequences, gags, Act I hook – sometimes one of these used, sometimes all three, some use a different type of opening every week (Star Trek).


Tight Structure – when superstructure and structure are fused together and nothing ever deviates (Waltons, Star Trek)

Number of story strands never changes

Types of story strands never change (domestic/ Personal / Action / Precinct / Comic Relief )

Drama vs. Reality

“All television is storytelling”

Formatting / repetition is crucial

Dramatic structure (3 acts, inciting incident, etc.) is also applied to reality TV

Final fundamentals:

Dramatic basics are essential

Who is your audience?

What is your slot?

Whose morals are you affirming?

What changes?

Will they come to episode one?


See also:

Part 1: Whose Voice Is It Anyway?

Part 2:  Poacher Turned Gamekeeper. Showrunners

Part 3: Writer for Hire, Commissioners, In Conversation

Part 5: Adam Curtis – The Power of Storytelling



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