Creating The Series
Renaissance in Storytelling
Recent years have brought forth a great change to storytelling structure in films and television. It is little secret that one of the major changes has been the outflow of creative writing talent from films to television. But within the television industry there has also been revolutionary changes. While we watch the results of this change each day in the new so-called “golden age” of television, few are aware of the emerging structural changes in stories underlying this change. Learning about these changes is essential for those desiring to write these new series structured stories. And, learning about these changes might also tell us a good deal about broad cultural, psychological and historical trends in the modern world.
The grand Renaissance of is located by veteran television writer William Rabkin in the years between 2011 and 2017. This period of time is marked by two slim little books on television writing Rabkin wrote in these years. The first was Writing The Pilotin 2011. The second was Creating the Seriesin 2017. Both published by the small independent publisher Moon & Sun & Whiskey Press.
He didn’t realize it at the time but the time he wrote his Writing the Pilotmarked the end of an entire period of television writing. As Rabkin says, “it was the twilight of the classical network model of television.” Rabkin admits that during this period cable networks were establishing themselves as homes for great drama and he talks about them in Writing the Pilot. “But we were still living essentially in the era of the 22-episode season.” This was all to change in the shorter nine-episode seasons of streaming tv.
As Rabkin reflects back on his first book he adds, “I figured I’d managed to cram everything I had to say on the subject in that little 90-page package. But that was 2011, and in the years that have passed, a lot has changed about the television business. And when I say ‘a lot,’ I mean everything. The way series are bought. The way series are conceived. The way stories are told. The way series are consumed. The kinds of stories that can be told. The limitations on content at every level. The limitations on form at every level. And maybe most important of all: The restriction on who is allowed to sell a series.”
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Rabkin’s slim little book called Creating the Seriesexplains much in its few hundred pages. It is at the forefront of writing the new low-episode per season television streaming represented by series like Ozarkand Stranger Things. It doesn’t suggest all the answers to this new structure as it is in constant evolution but does attempt to draw some broad outlines of this new territory.
Two grand story forms compete for dominance today. One is the traditional screenplay form of film. The other is the short episodic form of Internet television. As we have suggested, the conflict is largely under the radar of today’s audience but some of the oppositions can be listed in Table A below.
Many of the above are noted in Rabkin’s book and some are added by me. It is not an exhaustive list and readers might come up with other differences. The opposition and change are little discussed by critics who prefer to focus on content rather than structure of the emerging new streaming series. This is not all that surprising since a huge Hollywood industry has been built around acceptance as the screenplay as leading Hollywood story form. It is the paradigm screenwriters have applied for years (almost unconsciously now) to create stories. It is also a form that has much invested in its continuation by the Hollywood cottage industry of screenwriting advice via numerous seminars, contests, books, websites, videos and podcasts. There are many whose incomes are based on continuation of the screenplay structure and new structure for writing series threatens this dominance.
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Even to someone in the middle of the tv series industry, the future is confusing. As Rabkin writes in the Introduction to Writing the Series, “What’s far more confusing about the future is that there are as many changes in the business models for ‘broadcasters’ out there, and no one knows which ones will prevail.” For instance, Rabkin notes the rather circular symbiotic relationship between delivery models and content.
As he observes, “Changes in the delivery model are actually affecting the way our viewers watch our shows – and that in turn is affecting the shows that are being bought and produced.” Viewers approach binge-worthy TV seasons differently than traditional series TV given out in weekly doses. But there are strange bedfellows in the new landscape of streaming television. As he notes, “the market for syndicated reruns on independent and cable channels is mostly dead, and the afterlife for almost every drama currently produced will be on a streaming service.”
This is only the beginning of the forces that are changing the way stories are told on television these days Rabkin observes. “Who could have guessed, for example, that a change in the way networks count their viewers would result in a huge acceleration in the pace of storytelling? Or that an overabundance of outlets would lead to a complete liberalization of the kinds of stories that would be allowed to serve as foundation for a series? TV drama storytelling has been changing constantly since the turn of the millennium, but the pace of that change seems to accelerate with every passing television season – except that there really isn’t any such thing as a television season anymore.”
In all of this Rabkin observes that series “are getting bigger and faster – and also slower and smaller.” As he says, a hit show from even five years ago can look hopelessly dated in this new world. And the only thing that’s certain is that everything is going to keep changing.”
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Towards the end of the Introduction to Writing The Series, Rabkin offers a type of pep-talk to those interested in writing for this developing new form. He notes that there is “a desperate hunger out there for a fresh, original vision, something that can cut through the clutter of all those hundreds of other shows out there.” But in order for that “voice to be yours, you’ve got to understand how TV writing has changed – and what it may be changing to. That’s why I’ve written this book.”
His latest book is about addressing “the changes that have overtaken the TV business – and more importantly, have overtaken TV storytelling.” In many ways, Rabkin notes, this is the greatest time in the history of our art form to be a TV writer. There are no limits to the stories you can tell or the ways you can tell them. But beneath what appears to be a market in chaos, there are still rules that guide our storytelling – and you can’t get into the game before you master them.” The rules that guide this new storytelling are still in an embryonic form but there are rules and new structures developing from this and Rabkin is out to track them down like few others have.
The small books Writing the Pilot (2011) and Creating the Series(2017) provide so much in so little space. Published (appropriately it seems to me) by the small independent Moon & Sun & Whiskey Press, the books are not meant to be grand works on the new era of writing series. Those who write these books are more often screenwriters with time on their hands or academics speculating about the industry. Few books on the new form come from the new show-runners of streaming series or insiders like Rabkin.
The New World of Streaming TV
With these two books, Rabkin, one of the television’s veteran writers, has condensed much knowledge into two little books not much larger than pamphlets. There are many hard-earned lessons to take away from them. Perhaps more than anything, they attempt to nudge the dominating paradigm of screenplays a little and to make writers aware that a new paradigm of storytelling might be in the process of birth.
(Stay tuned for more on William Rabkin’s Creating the Series. See our previous posts on Stranger Things, The Duffer Brothers (creators of Stranger Things), Ozark and The Power of Genrational Storytelling.