By Dr Ben Crisp
‘The audience has spoken: They want stories. They’re dying for them. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook… and God knows what else. All we have to do is give it to them.’ – Kevin Spacey, 2013 MacTaggart Lecture
It is no secret that the modern screen audience increasingly takes control of what they like to watch, how they want to watch it, and when they choose to watch it.
This trend has accompanied the rise in prominence of the digital distribution platforms (iview, Netflix, Stan, etc.), with the result that the ‘web-series’ has evolved from a novelty format, lurking in the shadow of broadcast television, into a dominant rival to traditional media. In fact, House Of Cards, one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed series of recent years and watched by millions on their Smart TVs, is technically a web-series.
So, with the increased availability of high-quality production equipment (e.g. high-definition smartphone cameras), it’s no wonder that scores of independent and emerging producers, directors, writers and actors are looking to create their own web-series.
But what makes a good web-series? Here are 5 tips to get you started.
1. Know your audience.
To paraphrase Uncle Ben’s legendary advice to Spiderman, ‘with great choice comes great specificity’. There is more content than ever for audiences to choose from, so it’s more important than ever to create unique content that audiences will connect with. This means specificity, which means knowing who you’re telling your story to. Who is your audience? How old are they? What does their daily life look like? What other series do they watch? Where do they hang out? What do they talk about? What websites do they look at? Where, and from whom, do they get their viewing suggestions from? I think it was James Joyce that said: “In the particular is the universal” – broad appeal can come from being specific, personal and unique.
2. Create what you can understand.
The glib old writer’s creed, ‘write what you know’, often gets misinterpreted as ‘write about yourself’. What it really means, is: write about the kinds of characters and emotions that you can understand. Sometimes your story might be about you. But, if your story is about an astronaut-warrioress voyaging across the universe to lead an alien army in battle, then you still need to explore what it might REALLY feel like: to leave your home and family without hope of return, to take on a mantle of responsibility that you don’t feel ready for, to be plunged into a foreign culture and forced to adapt. These are all accessible emotional situations, and even if you haven’t experienced them yourself you probably know someone who has, and who can tell you how it feels.
3. Tell a story.
Storytelling is an ancient art that transcends race, gender, culture and class: we are a social species that is genetically predisposed to empathise with other people’s desires, in direct proportion to (1) how readily we comprehend their desires and (2) how passionately they try to pursue their goals. Put simply, this means that a good story is about a compelling character who wants something badly, and how hard they try to overcome the obstacles in their way. Ask yourself: who is my character? What do they want? Why are we (the audience) invested in what they want? What is stopping my character from getting what they want? After these questions are answered sufficiently, the story is simply: how does my character try to get what they want? The answer to this could last one series of three five-minute webisodes, or ten seasons of twenty episodes of hour-long television.
4. Keep the audience hooked.
With all the competition out there, it’s hard enough to get people to watch even the first episode of your series: the real test is getting them to come back for more. The key to this is an over-arching storyline, one that will keep your audience invested in your characters. Each episode of your series should have its own internal story (What does my character want? Why do they want it? What’s stopping them from getting it? How do they try to overcome these obstacles?), but if you want your audience to come back for more, there must be a bigger story that is large enough to span multiple episodes.
5. End on a cliff-hanger.
You’ve crafted your episodes into bite-sized morsels. You’ve led your audience through a satisfying season, to a finale that wraps up everything perfectly, satisfying the breadcrumbs of plot and every dramatic twist and turn. Now, the final test is to keep your audience wanting more. Superficially, this means a cliff-hanger: after all the questions are answered, a new question is posed, bigger than everything that came before, and now your audience is left begging for more. But it must be justified: your audience is too smart to be thrown a curve-ball out of the blue, an after-thought geared towards a second season. As in all storytelling, every twist must feel thrillingly unexpected yet, in retrospect, inescapably inevitable.
About the author:
On 26 December 2016, ABC iview launched Goober, a short comedy series created and written by NIDA staff member, Dr Ben Crisp. The series follows Harry (Brendan Williams), an overly optimistic Uber driver on the autism spectrum, as he causes confusion, chaos and comedy for his passengers despite the advice of his ever-supportive father (Shane Jacobson), all while trying to woo Wendy (Ashton Malcolm), the sweet but unsuspecting girl of his dreams.
We recently caught up with Ben to talk about the show, how he managed to get on the free internet TV service, as well as the other projects he’s working on. You can read this interview here.
If you haven’t seen it yet, watch Goober on iview for free.