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Writing Drama for the Short Form

by on Feb.12, 2010, under Creators Blog, Writing

Bernie Su (center) answers questions on the RadNerd post show with hosts Flitz (right) and Damian Beurer

Thanks everyone that watched my guest spot on the RadNerd Show on Tuesday night. It was an amazing experience and the guys over there are awesome. I had a lot of fun just Nerding it up and big thanks out there to those of you who asked questions in the chat room.

One of the great questions I got asked on the show was “What was the biggest challenge of making a thriller in 3 minute chunks?” – I did answer the Q on the show, which you can watch here at about the 48 minute mark, but I’d like to center this post on my thought process on  how I approached writing an intense drama in the short format.

Note: I am not claiming that this is the “right way” to write drama in short format, these are just some of the choices I made. This is simply one of many ways to approach the craft. Like any web series, this show was in a way an experiment. Whether it worked or not is for the audience to judge.

Orson Welles once said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” This is one of my favorite creative quotes and I hope that all creative people heed by it. Personally this quote inspired me to set a few rules to follow in structuring and writing this series.

The Two Rules I set were.

1. No episode page count will be longer than 4 pages.
2. Each episode will cut between at least two different time periods and intertwine them together.

Page count: Why limit it? Well if you don’t you might end up with some 20 page epic, but really what this did was challenge me to write the dialogue and actions as lean as possible. When I pushed to a 5th page, I’d look at every line and action again and debate the relevance of it to try and contract it down. The intended result of this is that every line would have a purpose and hopefully serves multiple ones (both character and story).  — I tried to tell the biggest/richest story possible in the shortest amount of time.

The intertwining timelines: This is a story telling technique that I theorized would highlight what the series is truly about; and that is the ‘darkness in seemingly normal people.‘ This device allows us to show the juxtaposition of both sides of each lead character more seamlessly and yet still propel the events of the story forward.

For the sake of outlining, I am going to be using Episode 4 as an example (which you can watch below as a refresher)


Compulsions Episode 4: Solutions
Uploaded by compulsions. – Full seasons and entire episodes online.

Now here is the scene breakdown on ‘Episode 4: Solutions’ of the series.

1. Interrogation Room – Mark rips Sara’s blindfold off and asks her if she know why she’s here. She responds “no”, and Mark strikes her with a belt.
2.  Marks Office – Mark and Randy stand in front of Mark’s laptop who’s showing a blue screen. Randy suggests that Mark take the Laptop to IT.
3. Interrogation Room – (continues Scene 1) – Mark strikes Sara again and asks her Where “it” is? Sara says she doesn’t know, Mark determines she’s lying and strikes her again harder.
4. IT room – Mark meets Cassandra who’s already done a diagnosis on his laptop. Mark doesn’t like the estimate he hears, but Cassandra “is nice” and moves his laptop up to the front of the queue.
5. Interrogation Room - (Continuing Scene 3) Sara again denies that she knows anything relevant. Mark decides to “present a fresh perspective” and turns Sara around. Sara sees what appears to be a dead Adam. She freaks out and lunges forward, face planting into the ground.

Now you can see what the intertwining does for the episode. On the page this episode is 5 different scenes, but in reality it’s only 3. Scenes 1-3-5 are pretty much one continuous scene broken apart. Yet separation of the scene allows a 2nd story (or B Story) to be told and lets the episode play out as a bit of a roller coaster. You have 3 intense sections split with 2 calmer ones. So like any good roller coaster, what makes it fun is the rise and drops, and not just racing at one continuous speed.

You can also see in the breakdown how though there are two stories happening, they both are telling the same story relating to one central theme. “Solutions”.

Part 1 – Mark has a problem.
Story A – Mark needs to get the info from Sara.
Story B – Mark needs to fix his computer.

Part 2 – Mark’s usual tactics aren’t working.
Story A – Mark keeps whipping Sara, but she’s a tough cookie and sits strong.
Story B – Mark has tried rebooting, and “nothing changes”.

Part 3 – Mark solves his problems by “presenting a fresh perspective”  – Written into the Voice Over.
Story A – Mark turns and instead of causing Sara physical pain, shows her emotional suffering by presenting her a beaten Adam – Sara will soon crack and give him the info he seeks.
Story B – Mark gives his computer to IT expert Cassandra Morrissey – Cassandra will fix his computer ASAP.

So in 4 pages  and about 4 minutes of screen time, we’re able to tell two stories under one central them.

I hope this post gives you a good perspective of the story telling that went into this show. Again I did the best I could writing the most compelling and gripping show I could. So I leave it up to the audience to judge. Also, I really have to thank the crew and actors for executing what was on the page so effectively on the screen.

Next up I’ll address  some other questions that were asked on Tuesday night. I’ll be blogging about writing strong dramatic themes as well as addressing how I approached the use of Voice Overs.

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5 comments for this entry:

5 Responses to “Writing Drama for the Short Form”

  1. [...] you haven’t already, check out my previous blog post about writing drama for the short form video which really breaks down the structuring of Episode 4: Solutions  and how you can tell two [...]

  2. [...] and such, I wanted this blog to come right after my previous two writing blogs on Themes and Drama, but this month continues to be a whirlwind. None the less, let’s get right into [...]

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