Creative Story Development 3 : The Television Serial/TV Movie

This blog is part of a series of development frameworks for narrative screenworks from mobile and short films to long running TV series.  The aim of the series is to look at the very first stage of development, when an idea has not been developed into a narrative or full blown concept yet.  This is the stage where many options are possible and by using these frameworks many simple mistakes can be avoided very early on in the development of work.

This blog reviews the essential starting points of the TV movie and the serial, the one-off narratives in television which have the closest affinity to feature films.

The TV Movie

Many of the essential question which can be posed for a feature film apply to the TV movie. These include the nature of the central character/s problem/s; the need for two strong storylines to hold the plot together, the question of which genre is it working in and what is the overall dramtic structure?  All these have been explored in the previous ‘Short and Feature Film’ in this blog I will concentrate on the differences.

The Differences

The most obvious is the question of scale.  A TV movie lacks the finance and scale of screen to fully exploit the action and spectacle of major feature films e.g. Harry Potter series, Iron Man etc,. Though these are often now watched on small screens their overall impact is not the same, and TV budgets do not allow for this level of production.

Length is also a major difference, as a TV Movie have to fit schedules which are tighter than cinema screenings, with most TV movies being between 65-90 minutes long. This tends to limit the number of central characters. While in cinema there are several films with up to seven major characters, which last two or more hours, the restricted length of TV means these one-off narratives tend to be limited to two to three central characters e.g Five Minutes of Heaven. However, the growth  in cable/satellite production has seen some larger cast success e.g. High School Musical

Contemporary Stories

The other major focus is the contemporary nature of most TV movies, which arises from the ability to respond quickly to society issues, major news stories, and contemporary events. This is one major advantage of TV Movie with their lower budgets and scale they are able to  focus on a more domestic rather than international audience. Thus if looking to develop a contemporary story with a small cast then TV is a natural home.

No Cuts MarchThe major limitation on this approach is of course the various levels of censorship which are applied to broadcasting at certain times of the day, and to certain audiences.  However, with streaming, mobile devices, and internet access making control of this screen space more difficult it is likely to be less of a restriction in the future.

So if you have  a contemporary narrative, which can focus on limited locations, with a small cast and addresses key public concerns then the TV movie is still a major space in which to develop an idea.

The TV Serial

This is the most expansive version of the one-off narrative. Even though theatrical films are tending to become serials e.g Harry Potter, Batman, and The Hunger Games television still has the ability to provide the longest and most expansive screen space for long one-off narratives.

These are the big epic narratives, e.g. Hiemat, (w E Reitz & P Steinbach) which stretch over several hours of television and works with much the same scope a some epic feature films. For this reasons the framework is essentially the same as the feature film but with some crucial differences.

If your idea requires the development of several characters rather than one over an extended period of time it will almost certainly need the scope of the television serial as opposed to the one-off feature film.


This option then raises some different structural issues, can the plotlines be broken down into clear episodes, and what length will they ideally be? Are each of the characters’ stories sufficiently developed to sustain the length of narrative? There have been many film ideas, which have been stretched to serial length, and failed because the characters and their plotlines were not developed enough to fill the new expanded narrative time frame. Equally important – What are the dramatic developments that will sustain climaxes at the end of each episode? In this context, do we need more characters to sustain the length of each episode?

Another major issue for serials is the question of the second theme. In feature films only one theme underlines any one narrative but in television serials, the use of s second theme is essential once the narrative has moved above three hours in order to sustain emotional engagement, and character developments.

Given the cost of production involved and the lack of spaces for this scale of television production there is a pressing need at this early stage of development to see what broadcast opportunities exist to see the idea realised.  This points to the obvious current outcome, the dominance of adaptations, and in particular historical/period dramas, as the main focus for serial productions e.g. War and Peace.

Tintisfeild Int 1 jpeg

Developing an original serial for contemporary television is very difficult owing to the lack of  perceived audience, which books, etc. bring; or historical events, which provide a hook, and the cost involved.  Therefore, if thinking of developing a contemporary serial it is important to address the distribution, and production issues very early on in development.

However, one question which may move you from the serial into series options is – do the main characters undergo any major changes, or their circumstances radically alter from the beginning of the narrative to the end? If they do not then it is possible your idea is closer to a series idea than a serial idea.

More on this in the next Creative Story development blog

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