Tuesday, 26 August 2008

This thing I'm writing... what the hell is it, exactly?

I'm glad to end the radio silence of the last week or two; there was a good reason for it - I was hard at work on my series pilot, which I'm planning to enter into the Red Planet competition. In fact, I don't know why I'm being so coy about it: it's called Life Support, it's a 6 x 60 minute contemporary drama TV series and it's one of those thingummy types of one that there isn't a proper term for, or at least not one I know.

I recently met up with a bunch of writers and bloggers for a few drinks in that London. I canvassed opinions then, and no one there could think of a convincing moniker either. This is my personal view on how the categories break down:

Soap (Coronation Street, Eastenders, Emmerdale) - in it's purest form a soap opera has a group of characters, each of whom will take the protagonist role in a running plot line, several of which will be running at one time, overlapping, and they'll never all end at the same time. Programme runs till it gets canned (and if they see it coming far enough in advance there might be closure, like Brookside or Eldorado managed). There are no guest protagonists coming in for one or more episodes. Corrie occasionally doles out guest roles for multiple episodes (e.g. Ian McKellan's stint) but they won't be protagonist of a plot in the same way as the guest(s) of the week in a Casualty episode.

Precinct drama (Holby City, Casualty, The Bill in most of its incarnations) - has running soap plots for its main cast ongoing, but also has guest protagonists coming in for an episode or more. These guest plots might well reflect on or complicate a main character's ongoing soap plot. Can be running all year round, or can run in series with breaks, like Heartbeat for example.

Drama series (Bonekickers, Ashes to Ashes, Doctor Who) - do often tell one loose story over a series, or one story over all their series, but each episode stands on its own merit, more or less. Might have guest protagonists, but will definitely have one or more regular main characters. Obviously it's a broad spectrum - some series' episodes will be more self-contained than others.

Series where one year's run equals a serial (The Wire, 24) - special case of the above, quite popular nowadays. Each episode of a series can't be taken on it's own, but there's closure for some plots every year, and something of a jumping on point at the beginning of any new series. Some UK drama series are experimenting with this form for their latest runs (Torchwood, Spooks).

Anthology Series (Tales of the Unexpected, The Twilight Zone) - Diametrically opposite to a soap, I suppose. No running protagonist, new guest plot every week. Not that fashionable on British television at the moment. Unless I've forgotten a really obvious example, which I might well have done. I'll kick msyelf, I'm telling you...

Drama serials (Criminal Justice, Burn Up). One off multi-episode dramas. Could be multi-protagonist, but is the most likely of any of these to be single protagonist, as they are generally shorter and more focused.

Telenovella (the original Ugly Betty) - a long serial with soap style plots for its protagonists, but it eventually will come to a definite end.

But what I'm writing isn't exactly any of these. It's another type of beast, something like The Street, currently, or historically Boys from The Blackstuff as well as many others. It's a series of linked, sole protagonist episodes, based around a connected group of people, one of whom is centre-stage each week. The leads of other episodes might be in the other stories, substantially, or as walk-ons, or not there at all (in Life Support, I've taken the decision that they will all appear in every episode, the continuation of their individual plots still hinted at in the background.)

So, what I'm writing isn't totally unprecedented (phew! I'd be worried if it were) but what's it called? Is there an industry or academic standard term? The best the London Meet could come up with is Character Anthology, but that doesn't encapsulate the connectedness of the protagonists. And does it really matter? Suggestions to the usual address.


Adaddinsane said...

I like your categories.

If you refine your "Anthology Series" definition to make the point that episodes are linked by some factor - genre, theme, (not very) surprising endings, same author, the same length - then that would make yours an Anthology Series linked by common characters.

But it sounds good anyway (damn you).

Piers said...

I hate portmanteau words with a burning passion, so may Great Cthulhu eat me last for this, but:


Helen Smith said...

Love the family photo.

That thing you're writing - it's a script, isn't it?

Is there a prize for answering correctly?

Stuart Perry said...

Adaddin - a very good point, my definition of anthology is a bit lacking. But I still don't think that category fully encapsulates the linkiness of an overarching plot and characters. And I've just remebered a modern example of anthologies that has been popular: those updated takes on Shakespeare, Chaucer and Fairy Tales! Bah! I knew I'd kick myself.

Piers - I rather like that, to my eternal damnation.

Helen - You win a Displacement Activites No Prize. For saying nice things about a photo with me in it. You lose on the other question. The correct answer was: I'm writing a screenplay.

Helen Smith said...

Cripes. There's a difference? Show business is so complicated.