Monday, April 7, 2008

Writing NBC's "Fear Itself"

I was recently hired by Industry/Lionsgate/NBC to write an original episode of NBC's upcoming series "Fear Itself." The director I'm working with is Rob Bowman (Reign of Fire, X-files). The episode is a story I've been dieing to tell for years, and I'm glad that all the players involved responded to it. You can read more about "Fear Itself" on Brad Miska’s website Bloody Disgusting.

The biggest challenge for me turns out to be the format. I’m a feature writer and I’m used to telling stories in three unbroken acts over 110 minutes. Even the Masters of Horror episode that I wrote, Sick Girl, was an unbroken 60 minutes. The format for an NBC one-hour episode is 42 minutes, broken into five acts and a teaser. Each act can be no shorter than six pages/minutes and no longer than nine. Of course, between each act will be a story-stopping three minutes of commercials. With each 6-9 minute act, I have to win the audience over again and hold them in their seats through the next break.

This is hard enough to do with a regular series episode where the audience is familiar with the characters and premise, but it is even more challenging in an anthology show where your characters have to be introduced, undergo a life-changing crisis and resolve it, all in a series of 6-9 minute nuggets.

So, I’m thinking of it this way: I’m writing six sequential (or you could say serialized) short films. Each short film has to set and reset the tone, each has to have a beginning, middle and end. Each has to have a kind of independence so that the audience, fresh from a commercial break or tuning in halfway through, will be drawn in.

It’s a tough assignment but I’m eager for the challenge.


Poetic Justice Productions said...

Ugh, formatting, formatting,'s what makes writing work not just play. None the less, it seems some type of logical form must be maintained in the story line without destroying the artistic side. It's a delicate balance that you have obviously achieved. Congrats and I look forward to following your story of success!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an excellent solution, mate. Good luck!

Neale Sourna said...

Don't worry about the format. It's there to keep you focused, it should cause you to distill, distill, and distill some more to the most seminal (now there's a fertile word) scenes of setting, action, and dialog. It keeps the abstract word lovers, who need thousands of words about things no one gets, out of the park. Only those who can show and form speeches of pure emotion need apply. Good going, keep going. Invite me to the party, dude.--Neale Sourna

Unknown said...

Totally understand this, Sean. One of the first and hardest things to learn when I was running SMACKDOWN was how to break the story of the show. When I used to hear the term "breaking story" bandied around, I thought it meant figuring out the beats.

It was only when I was having to time the show out - 86 minutes, 11 breaks of 3:00 or 3:30 - that I realized what breaking really was. Of course, it's much easier in wrestling than in drama, but finding five "must return" moments an hour can be daunting. Cliffhangers, man. Always leave them hanging on a cliff.