Monday, October 26, 2015

How to Write a Cable TV Miniseries

My apologies:  yesterday I traveled from NYC to Lynchburg, VA on a seven hour train ride, carrying no laptop. I actually thought it possible to create a blog mostly of pictures, alla those my mates have been posting of late, using my iPad. I have failed to make that happen. What I am hoping is that I can post one of my favorite ones from the past. 

You will learn more of this mini vacation next week. In the meantime I send this rerun. 

The following instructions are based on a study of these successful series: Rome, The Tudors, The Borgias, The Game of Thrones.

First, choose your setting
Historical settings work well, especially if they involve costumes of opulent fabrics, stately architecture and colorful interior decoration, and if they take place at a time when the countryside is open and beautiful and entirely free of suburban sprawl.  Mythical places are also acceptable even if they mean drab costumes and plain buildings, in which case the use of magic is recommended.

The most important aspect of the setting is that story absolutely MUST take place at a time where position in society has more to do with birthright than with morals or intellect and where combat—both between individuals and armies—involves hacking.  This last point is essential.  The weapons of combat MUST not only draw blood, but easily remove digits, hands, feet, arms, legs, heads, and by the end of Episode One of Season Two, the splitting of at least one body at the waist.

Two powerful factions:  One is led by an older man (Mr. BIG) who is in danger of losing his position.  The other is led by a person of almost equal power (Mr. Just-Shy-of Big) or by the person whom Mr. BIG deposed in the not too distant past (Mr. Used-to-be Big). There need not be an ultimate prize for which the factions are competing, except for dominance over one another.  There must be no obvious good guys and bad guys.  The series will end, if it ends, when one of the leaders dies. Alternatively, there can be one dominant faction led by an aging but still virile king/chief/Caesar/capo (Mr. BIG) and two or three contending factions—led by younger men (Messers Wanna-be BIG 1, 2, etc.) whose strength is on the rise, but who must also compete with one another in their pursuit of the throne of Mr. BIG.

From time to time, as the story and/or the ratings threaten to lag, one of the characters who seems essential and/or who is actually attractive to the audience will suffer a seemingly life-threatening injury or illness.  Scenes in this regard can be slotted in wherever necessary.

Each faction is led by a powerful, charismatic leader, consumed with greed for dominance, entirely devoid of conscience, and possessing an insatiable sexual appetite (regardless of his age).  His weakness: he has a child on whom he dotes—if a son, the young man is weak of will, if a daughter, she beautiful and scheming, not to be trusted.  These can be identical for both factions, or Mr. Just-Shy-of BIG might have a scheming son and a weak willed daughter.  Her weakness must then be for hunky men who are not loyal to her father.

The main warriors are all hunky men capable of hacking all day and ravishing women all night.  Rarely, one of them may, however flawed he is, be capable of truly heroic deeds and posses a humane sense of honor.  At least one successful series (Rome) has had such a character (Titus Pullo), played by a hunk who can also act.  In such cases, he will become beloved by at least one female fan (Me).

The young women are all beautiful and hardly short of nymphomanaical.  Unless they are frigid.  Those past their childbearing years are either faded beauties (Lady Sexual Predator) or evil to the core (Duchess Wrinkled-Mother-of-Mr. Wanna-be BIG).

Children younger than ten are there to be used as props—to create tension if they are in physical danger or audience responses of shame/titillation/anxiety if they are witnesses to illicit sex.

The Script
Season One – Episode One
Scene One-Mr. BIG discusses the precarious nature of his grip on the throne with his trusted advisors, including an incredibly sexy clergyman or woman who has taken a vow of celibacy. (This is true even if the oversexed Mr. BIG is himself a clergyman who has taken a vow of celibacy.)   The scheming and immoral nature of BIG’s rise to power is made evident.  One of his trusted advisors comes across as less than trustworthy.  His son’s weakness is revealed.

Scene Two – Mr. Dodgy Trusted Advisor has sex with BIG’s wife/daughter/sister.  Close-up of female waist-up nudity.

Scene Three – this takes place in a sunny bucolic setting, next to a glistening stream in springtime.  Hand-to-hand combat between the son/step-son/nephew of BIG and a kinsman of Mr. Just-Shy-of BIG’s family. Blood is shed.  No body parts are removed.  Mr. JSB’s family member makes it back to his own camp before he dies.

Scene Four – Dodgy Trusted Advisor informs BIG of the fight and the death of the enemy chief’s kinsman, which leads to a shouting match between BIG and the son/step-son/nephew who had jeopardized the uneasy peace between the factions.  The young relative leaves the room.  BIG and the others see that they must gird themselves for war.

Scene Five – BIG’s offending young relative goes for solace to his mother/aunt/sister/female first cousin.  She is extremely sympathetic.  In words, the two are straightforward, but in attitude, they are quite seductive toward each other.  No actual sex incestual sex takes place.  A small child enters just as the scene ends.

Scene Six – JSB’s camp is in an uproar over the death of their precious kinsman.  Various strategies are suggested for dealing with this affront.  Many hotheads call for blood.  A supposedly celibate clergyman in JSB’s court advises a more moderate response but is loudly rebuffed.  JSB questions the clergyman’s loyalty, and the priest is driven from the room in shame.

Scene Seven – The possibly disloyal clergyman brings his hurt ego to JSB’s wife/sister/daughter.  Soft core porn scene ensues, involving views of female full frontal nudity and the clergyman’s very attractive naked butt.

Just before the roll credits….
Warriors in both camps sharpen their hacking tools.  A rider receives a message from the hands of JSB and speeds through the night toward BIG’s castle/fortress.

Season One – Episode Two
Scene One – WAR!!  Hacking left and right.  Many spear carriers and archers die while loosing limbs.  One horse is killed with an arrow in his eye.   An essential warrior in BIG’s army is very badly wounded.  JSD’s General looses an arm.  No decapitations, however.  JSD’s army comes out ahead.  Nothing is really decided.

Scene Two – BIG, who is roaring drunk and fully clothed, debauches his wife’s blond lady-in-waiting.  The scene ends with her stealing down a dim corridor, her dress in tatters, her beautiful bare chest heaving.  She meets a child in the hallway.

And so it goes…  You should be able to take it from here by using the following guidelines.

Plot-Thickening Scenes: three in each episode, two from one side, one from the other.  Choose from the following:
Small group discussions by sub-factions plotting against their lord or against someone he loves but who is disloyal.
Large group arguments where many advisors try to sway BIG or JSB.  In such a scene, it is impossible to tell for sure who is sincerely for or against their lord.  Ambiguity leads to a longer rather than shorter run in any series.
One-to-one meetings conspirators in dark corridors or stables where plots are hatched between traitors.
The mysterious death—NOT by hacking—of a character the audience might have actually liked.

Hacking Scenes: War in ever third episode.  One or two other hacking scenes in every episode in which there is not a war.  Chose from:

Large group melees
One-to-one duels, ending in the death of one participant, or both
Stabbings in the back
Hacking rules:
At least two decapitations by the end of Episode Four
Women may be killed, but they are not hacked apart if they are blond and/or blue-eyed

Sex Scenes: At least one long one or two short ones in each episode, given in the following order.  The amount of nudity and the time the camera lingers on the body parts increases over the life of the series:
Illicit sex involving betrayal of BIG or JSB
Illicit sex viewed accidently by a member of the clergy
A man ravaging a woman dear to this wife
Sex between a clergyman and a person married to someone else.
A man raping his wife
Illicit sex viewed accidently by a child who is likely to report it.
Seduction of a virgin by a member of the clergy
Sodomy.  The sex of the participants is irrelevant.
            Multigenerational group sex

Okay, folks, there you have it.   If you use this and become rich and/or famous, you must share with me 15% of your earnings and invite me as your date for the both the Emmy and the Golden Globe Awards.

Annamaria - Monday


  1. Annamaria, with all your references to BIG I thought for sure you'd mention the seminal source for all those shows: "Sex in the City-state."

    1. You can think that if you Chus, Jeff, but don't get Carrie-d away.

  2. I hope you are applying this wonderful formula to your next Africa book!

    1. Couldn't do it. Not describing all that hacking. I can write sex scenes, but only if they are consensual. Otherwise, how could I put my heart in any of it.

  3. Thanks, Annamaria. I've never seen ANY of these series and now I don't have to!

    1. You are a wise man to have skipped the whole thing. But then I knew you were.

  4. Great show, Annamaria! Will we see your name soon on the masthead of one of the blockbusters coming from London, Rome or Paris? TStraw in Manhattan

    1. Don't hold your breath, Thelma. As I have said above I could never bring myself to get anywhere near such a story except satirically.

  5. Ah, sex, violence and melodrama, how can you POSSIBLY go wrong. Perhaps we should rename these shows as "Coming and Going" shows (sex and death, for those subtlety-challenged amongst us. Jeff.)

    And you're my guaranteed date to the Golden Globes, Annamaria. My wife won't mind. I'll let you know as soon as I get my tickets.

    1. I await the news of you nomination with bated breath.

  6. Wonderful job. I think I'd rather read a book :)

    1. Thank you, Lil. So would I. I can highly recommend those of six writers who write international mysteries!

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  8. Let’s talk about sex: You neglected to include sex between a powerful person and a member of an oppressed class, e.g., a centurion ravishing a wretched farm girl in the Campania. A storm trooper...well, you get the idea.

    I want to write a sequel to The Tudors and call it The Four-Doors.

    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

    1. You are so right, Peter. No truly sleazy series ignores the opportunities of dominating poor,powerless women. I have omitted that?

  9. Replies
    1. Making you laugh, Lisa, warms my heart. More even than laughing while making all this up!

  10. This column is even better in rerun than it was in prime time. Hack-hack. (Not sure if that's the elderly Mr. Big or the youthful warrior, it works either way...)

    1. Thank you, EvKa. Quite a few hacks seem to be at work on these sorts if stories.

  11. Brilliant! We'll ALL be fabulously wealthy and owe it all to you! Reality is I don't think I have that much ambition left to actually pull it off, although I could probably withstand the public humiliation. Thanks for the laughs!

    1. I am so happy you're amused, Jono. I think the genre cries out for in depth analysis. ;)