Streaming Screams: Modern Television and the Cinematic Style

We are in the Golden Age of television. There are more quality television shows running now than successful movies. Producers, directors, studios, and actors have noticed, shifting their creative focus to the glass box and away from the silver screen. Certainly, there are still great films being made, with a lot of the better films steering clear of the massive studio influence with smaller budgets and excellent storytelling. Call them independent, art-house, low-budget … it doesn’t matter. The stories reject the labels, proving as always, most people just want to be entertained.

Tony SopranoWhat does this mean for the publishing world, and for horror fiction specifically? A lot actually, but before you understand it, you have to know how we arrived at this point. While there have always been television series since the late 1930’s, to understand the modern age of television one only has turn the page back to the 1990’s. Shows like The X-Files, Friends, and The Sopranos, for example, changed the way we look at television series. With compelling character arcs and thoughtful storytelling, television made great strides in producing content viewers were starved for. Yes, there are tons of examples. The list goes on and on. These particular series show that viewers want to see more adult themes, stories dealing with complicated relationships, and deep character dives that are interesting yet relatable. Of these examples, The Sopranos proved that you could have a despicable main character, capable of extreme violence and a total disregard for relationships, yet nuanced and balanced in such a way it drove audiences crazy.

Flash forward to the 2000’s, and we find AMC, a basic cable movie channel, developing their own content. Nothing new there, right? They certainly weren’t the first network to branch out into series territory. Yet, by pushing the envelope of suitable cable content, they played against the odds and created Mad Men, followed by Breaking Bad. And they definitely pushed against the rules of cable television, scheduling their shows during the last hour of primetime, delivering characters we had never seen on regular television before.

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad, arguably one of the greatest television series of all time, stepped away from the grey area of characterization directly into the black. Walter White, cancer-stricken and desperate, begins a slow descent into the bowels of hell. He creates this at first by need, then by personal circumstances that spiral completely out of control. We see a good man slip over to the dark side.

How did this happen, and how does it affect writing and publishing fiction?

Good, old-fashioned storytelling is the number one answer. A deeper dive into the episodes casts a bright light on the fundamentals. Think of each episode as a chapter in a book. Or, even better, think of each episode as an issue of a comic book series. It’s not that huge of a leap, and if you keep it at that level, the story arcs begin to make a lot more sense. Breaking Bad, for the most part, was written like a comic book series. They worked from a script, and just like every other film project ever made, story-boarded that script. Artists took the scenes and drew them out, much like a comic book. This is nothing new, but why not take it a bit further. Comic books are written in such a way that when you find a series you like, you can’t wait for the next issue to come out. Every panel is carefully laid out on the page, forming a scene. Each page is designed to keep you turning the pages until the end, where they leave you hanging until the next issue. Breaking Bad followed this format very closely. And not just for the large story arc. There are many smaller arcs within the series, even little side character arcs, much like spin-offs written for other characters in a comic book series.

Story EngineeringAgain, there’s nothing original at all about this process. There are tons of books about writing in this cinematic style. Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a great book on the subject. The premise is that in every story, there are major points where certain things have to happen, and these points are measurable. Twenty minutes in any quality film or a television episode, we already have an enticing event and a major character decision that is going to drive the arc. Don’t believe it, just watch a good film or series and have your stopwatch ready. Diving down from the macro, these same principles can be applied to individual scenes. At the micro level, we see the union of character and action pushing the story along, seamless and practically invisible. When this happens, people enjoy the story that was specifically designed to have maximum satisfaction. When it’s all broken down bit by bit, the process does sound like writers need to follow some sort of formula, but if the end result is a well-told story, and these same techniques have been used over and over again to great success, who cares if it’s formulaic or not. Have you ever watched a film or series and felt something was off, that you love the idea, or the characters, but it just wasn’t working? That’s because the story foundation was weak. Not even the best cast and director can fix a weak story structure. Writers we all enjoy use this process in the books we love to read. Recent examples are Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay, Ararat by Christopher Golden, and In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson. If you’ve read these books and have ever felt as though you’re reading a film, it’s because these writers employ a cinematic style of writing fiction that has actually been in use for a long time. There are many more examples, the connection is right there in the pages.

So, if the cinematic style isn’t anything new, then why is the way television series are written so important? Publishers are in the entertainment business. Many are part of larger entertainment groups. Many of the groups use multiple methods of media to release their products; films, comics, books, magazine, television, podcasts. If all of this is interconnected, you can bet that the publishing branches of these groups know and understand the value of the cinematic writing style. They are actively seeking these works out, and writers stand a better chance of publication by understanding what this style of writing can do for them and their stories. Every time a television series becomes successful, analysts pick it apart to find out what makes it tick. Publishers invest in this kind of information, and use it wisely.

In a nutshell, when it comes to fiction, publishers are looking for the next Breaking Bad.

It doesn’t matter if you are writing a novel, short-story, novella, or even a screenplay, these basic story principles are present in the books we read, and the shows and films we watch. Many of our most popular writers today have been just as strongly influenced by film and television as they have by the written word. The connection is stronger than ever now, so it helps to know the structure. Most fiction writers have a fear of anything that makes writing feel structured or formulaic, and that’s completely understandable, especially for those who tend to work without an outline. Yet, even those authors who are successful write in a cinematic way without even knowing it. They’ve practiced writing the scenes directly from their imaginations, often rewriting the scene again and again to get it right, so putting all the pieces together for the best impact begins to come to them naturally. Formulaic or not, the structure works because it’s invisible unless you search for it. It holds the story together effortlessly. It is sound, as even the weakest story ideas can flourish with such a foundation. Cinematic writing doesn’t just deal with the visual. All of the senses are used to create the scenes, to bring the action to life. Just as sound is one of the most important aspects of the film-making process, it is just as, if not more important, in the realm of fiction writing. Touch and smell should be utilized whenever possible, as those two senses give fiction a distinct advantage over what film and television can accomplish.

Some say that the most important thing a new writer can work on is their ‘voice’. This takes years to master for most writers; very few hit it out of the park with their first stories, and if they do, it’s usually gimmicky and short-lived. Sure, ‘voice’ is important; it’s the tone of the piece. But that pretty voice won’t get you a book deal unless you’ve got an idea of how to write cinematically. Take some time to watch a good television series, preferably one you’ve seen before. Watch how each episode, while vastly different at first glance, follows the structure down the line, how they build the character arcs over the course of two to three episodes, how those three episodes form another arc, and so on to the season finale. Then they crank it all up again for the next season.

Just like a comic book.

Just like your favorite novel.

Publishers are in the entertainment business, and will use every means necessary to find and curate the next big thing. With speculative fiction, especially horror and science-fiction, on the rise, they’re going to be more willing to take bigger chances on new writers. As long you remember that the industry is more interconnected than before, you’ll be well equipped to bring your ‘A’ game to the table. Find your voice, and build that structure so that it appeals to the most important variable of the equation: the readers.



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