An unholy blend between TV show and movie, the mini-series is a difficult beast to crack…
Have you ever looked at an idea of yours and can’t decide whether to make it into a feature film or try to stretch it into a continuing series? Unfortunately, sometimes neither is quite right and we find ourselves stuck in a kind limbo.
Fortunately, there is the beast known as the miniseries, which offers us a middle ground between both, however, it is a much more complicated animal than we’d like to think.
If you’re interested in mastering the art of writing a captivating miniseries — keep reading!
What is a miniseries?
A miniseries is a television show, usually in the 1-hour drama format, that has a self-contained story that only spans the scope of one short season, or possibly expanded to two or three, which is known as a limited series.
A miniseries can be thought of as a middle ground between a feature film and a television series, because there is an expansive story but the resolution usually isn’t enough to support multiple seasons of television.
One of the most popular examples of miniseries was Chernobyl, written by Craig Mazin, which kicked off a mega miniseries trend inspiring the release of many other mini and limited series.
There have been some great miniseries released over the last few years including, Maid (2021), WandaVision (2021), Unbelievable (2019), The Haunting of Hill House (2018), Beef (2023), The Dropout (2022), as well as many more.
A novel example of a mini or limited series would be Bridgerton on Netflix, which is based on a book series by Julia Quinn.
The reason I class Bridgerton as a limited series, and not a continuing series, is that every season focuses explicitly on one couple, whose particular adventure is resolved by the end of their season, with characters from the wider universe only making guest appearances.
Things to consider when developing your series…
Before you start writing, you need to ask yourself one important question… does this need to be a miniseries?
As in, why would you need to tell this story as a miniseries rather than a film or a continuing series? To work this out we need to establish the overall scope of the project, because one major thing a miniseries needs is a broad scope in order to warrant multiple episodes.
We should be fitting our format to the story, not manipulating the story to fit the format.
We can usually tell when a story can’t support a continuing series, which is why some might lean towards writing a miniseries. However, if your story is limited anyway what is preventing you from condensing your idea to fit a feature film?
What exactly is it about your story that it needs to have several episodes to tell it?
If you can’t answer that question, you might not be best served creating a miniseries at all. We’ve all seen bloated TV shows that try to stretch a story to fill an overlong episode order or a movie that tries to cram 10lbs of crap into a 2lbs bag.
You have to be absolutely sure that the story you want to tell works for the format you want to tell it in.
Miniseries are created not only because there is a story to tell, but because there is a wide world to explore, meaning it requires multiple episodes to fully appreciate and digest the expanse of it.
For example, many miniseries are based on historical events or have been adapted from books, where there are many important events to consider in the narrative. Often there is a wider context, such as the social dynamics at the time or a wide timeframe with many individual events, that would be lost through the limitations of film.
Sometimes this works in reverse, when you see a movie that would have benefitted from slower storytelling. For example, I feel the latest Hunger Games book, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, would have been better suited for a miniseries than it was a film.
The book is too long, but also doesn’t lend itself to multiple movies, meaning the filmmakers had to rush through all of the plot points, and unfortunately, the film suffers for it.
As mentioned, a miniseries is an unholy union between a feature film and a continuing series, which means it needs to consider both the in-episode storyline, the three Act structure, and the continuing storyline.
A feature film will be split into a classic three Act structure–beginning, middle & end–while television episodes use a 4 or 5-Act structure–Teaser, Acts 1-3 & Tag.
In terms of the three Act Structure, you will need to think of the story in its entirety and then consider which “beats” will constitute your story’s beginning, middle & end.
You will then need to divide that between the intended episodes, for example with a 3/6 episode arc you might decide to split each Act evenly between the episodes. However, for a 5/10 episode arc you might make the first 1–2 episodes Act One, episodes 4–8 Act Two, and then the final episodes would be Act Three.
You will also need to balance the continuing story element of your series, meaning plot lines and context will need to span between episodes, with a story that builds on itself until it reaches a resolution, much like a continuing series. However, in a continuing series, this storyline may extend across seasons.
Finally, as with any television episode, you will need to use the 4 or 5-Act Structure to tell a self-contained story within each episode. This means that a particular problem will need to be tackles in each episode, with some degree of resolution being achieved by the end of the episode.
This does not need to be a finite resolution, which can be achieved by the series end, but the incidentals of the episode must reach a reasonable stopping point. The story of the episode must feel like it had a purpose and wasn’t just a stop gap between the first episode and the final resolution.
This is important for both miniseries and continuing series, however, a continuing series the overarching story will not need to be resolved by the end of the season. Although, it is good practice to bring each season to a satisfying conclusion, especially since the is a possibility of being cancelled before the story reaches its natural conclusion.
If you find you do not have enough plot points for each episode to have its own self-contained arc and resolution, then you do not have enough scope for multiple episodes of a season. This is very important.
While the miniseries can be an amazing format to tell a complex story with a limited length, we must really consider if it is the right format for our ideas. Does your story need multiple episodes or would a feature film be more efficient?
Similarly, does our feature film idea have more scope than two hours allows for? Could this idea have continuing series potential?
Fit the format to your story, don’t fit your story to the format.
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