In the age of binge-watching, what makes a compelling drama that demands viewers watch the next episode immediately? DQ speaks to a host of writers to find out how they keep audiences hooked to the very end.
By now, the effects of the television streaming revolution are well known: there are more shows than ever, in more genres – and without the confines of a weekly schedule, viewers can and do binge multiple episodes in one sitting.
But what has been the effect of this changing landscape on writers in the business? Have they changed their approach to storytelling accordingly, knowing viewers may watch weekly or binge an entire season at once?
One of the best recent examples of a drama series that unashamedly draws viewers in with a plot full of twists and turns and demands watching more than a single episode in one go is Safe, the eight-part Netflix series starring Dexter’s Michael C Hall as a father searching for his missing daughter. During the course of the story, Hall’s Tom discovers revelations that turn the local community upside down as the truth behind a decades-old scandal is uncovered.
It’s exactly the kind of show you would expect from creator Harlan Coben, the bestselling US novelist known for writing fast-paced, gripping thrillers. He has since applied the same formula to the small screen, first in Sky1 drama The Five and more recently with Safe, which landed on Netflix in May.
On both series, Coben has worked alongside British writer Danny Brocklehurst and Red Production Company to craft the closed-ended stories, with Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Come Home) then leading the scriptwriting process.
“For me, it’s always about the human angle. That’s the only thing I can ever really connect with,” Brocklehurst says when asked what makes compelling drama. “Whatever I’m doing, I always try to make my stuff have an emotional core. Even with the stuff I do with Harlan, although it’s quite fast-paced and hooky and we’re looking for those twists all the time, I do try to get the audience invested in the characters.
“There can be a really good mystery at the heart of something, there can be a whodunnit or whatever that keeps people watching, but in the end, what people really like are the characters and the world, and that’s what you have to spend quite a lot of time thinking about up front.”
A show like Safe is markedly different from Come Home, an emotional, character-led three-parter that explores the impact of a mother’s decision to leave her family. From the outset, Safe was designed to be binge-watched, the TV equivalent of one of Coben’s novels.
“The only problem with that is people expect that pace all the time,” Brocklehurst admits. “For example, in another series you might think about whether an episode could be a little slower or you might go off on a tangent for a bit, but what you’ve got to do is keep moving forward and servicing the plot. You want people to invest in the characters, but once you’ve set yourself up as a thriller that will have lots of twists and is going to keep surprising and wrong-footing the audience, you’ve got to keep that going as well.
“It’s like running a very elaborate relay race – you just keep passing the baton from episode to episode, hoping that people are compelled by the mystery, like the characters and want to get to the end.”
Like Coben, Deutschland 83 creator Anna Winger also comes from a book-writing background and she agrees that propulsive storytelling – the ‘bingeability’ factor – is very novelistic. “Harlan’s books are definitely like that and I think we aim for that with this kind of television,” Winger says. “It is a different way to write. You’re not writing something that’s going to end easily. You need to load the gun at the beginning of a series – you get into the mindset of really pushing it and it’s exciting.”
Winger, who is putting the finishing touches to Cold War drama Deutschland 83’s sequel Deutschland 86 ahead of its debut this autumn, says some of her favourite shows, such as The Wire and Friday Night Lights, blend soap opera elements with societal themes and issues. “That multi-layered storytelling is what I’m most interested in. Friday Night Lights is officially about American football but it’s about everything in society, from race and class to health insurance,” she explains. “That’s something I try to do in Deutschland – to give it two levels at the same time. For people who are interested in history and politics, it’s all there but it’s also just a great adventure story about these characters.
“Then there are shows like Doctor Foster that take place out of time and place. It had no location. It strips away all of that – no history, no politics, no location. It’s all about the intense experience of this character, and it’s so propulsive. I watched the whole thing at once.”
Daragh Carville, the writer of forthcoming ITV crime drama The Bay, shares Winger’s affinity for shows that mix genre and family drama. “Something like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos where it’s both a crime drama and a family drama, that’s the sweet spot I really respond to,” he says. “It needs to have a narrative drive that comes from a combination of character and genre. Tone is really important. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of the impact of tonality where something is terrifying and funny at the same time. Something can be edge-of-your-seat exhilarating but also deeper, emotional and truthful.”
A show like Danish/Swedish crime drama Broen/Bron (The Bridge) epitomises the fine balance between character and plot, presenting characters that viewers want to watch and a storyline that compels them to get to the end of each of its four seasons.
“It’s important that the characters are affected by what’s happening around them, that you can draw in personal stories sometimes,” explains Camilla Ahlgren, head writer of the Scandinavian hit. “I also think The Bridge is like a whodunnit: we have red herrings and the audience has to work out who the murderer is and you’re trying to surprise them. It’s a balance you have to work with. In the fourth season there were such strong personal stories for [lead characters] Saga and Henrik, so we could spend a little more time with them and not only the case.”
Except in the case of shows specifically made for bingeing, like Safe, Ahlgren says writers never consider whether viewers will watch episodes weekly or in one go. “We don’t even think the whole world is going to watch,” she jokes. “We try to find stories we like and find interesting. The Bridge is sometimes over the top or larger than life as well, so we try to do things we haven’t seen before or try to surprise the audience – in a good way.
“Often when I enjoy something, it’s the characters I’m looking for. I like Happy Valley very much; there are strong characters and it’s realistic. Shows like Killing Eve are something new, showing a different way of telling a story, with strong women and humour in it. I like the characters. That’s important for me.”
David Nicholls, the author and screenwriter behind Sky Atlantic drama Patrick Melrose, says all of the really compelling TV dramas come down to difficult characters – “characters who are complicated and not always likeable and are often quite wicked, insensitive, immoral and unpleasant,” he says. “I think I find that much more compelling than a hero’s recurring adventures. I like things to be gritty, tricky and painful.”
Nicholls confesses he’s “not a big binge-watcher,” and says he has rarely completed a series that runs to as many as seven seasons. “To me, often it’s like not finishing a novel,” he explains. “You get a little bit bored towards the end, episodes seem repetitive and you know the ending’s going to be anti-climactic and disappointing, so I’m constantly bailing on TV shows. The ones I’ve stuck with often have tricky characters with virtuoso performances at their centre.”
The one exception, Nicholls admits, is Breaking Bad, which did grip him like a great novel. “So many other long-running series I’ve just bailed quite quickly because they get repetitive. But Breaking Bad I didn’t really feel that, I just sucked it up. Game of Thrones is my other great vice. Those are the two that keep me occupied.”
For Chris Lang, creator and writer of ITV historic crime drama Unforgotten (pictured top), the key to a compelling drama can be found at a more emotional level. “Truthfulness is what I seek in TV,” he says. “I’m looking for a truthfulness, honesty and insight into the human condition that surprises you. I’m also looking for believability, but not always. I want to be transported and heightened.”
Lang picks out the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of a series that is “constantly surprising and absolutely compelling.” He also highlights Billions, which he describes as “heightened but with brilliant dialogue and challenging,” while Happy Valley and Broken are both populated with “superb characters, all characterised by honesty.”
Echoing Lang, Keeping Faith creator and writer Matthew Hall believes compelling drama comes down to the emotional conflict inside the central characters. The more lead characters can be pulled in different directions and the more impossible choices they are confronted with, the more interesting they are, he says, adding: “That’s just a fundamental rule of drama.”
Hall says his two favourite drama series are Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, which he describes as “domestic dramas about people who ultimately just want their family to be happy and provided for. But life has conspired to make them do outrageous and impossible things to maintain that domestic stability. All the most successful TV dramas are about family in one way or another because that’s our universal experience.
“We love each other and hate each other with extreme passion, often at the same time. That’s what I wanted to inject into Keeping Faith, so Faith [who is searching for her missing husband and played by Eve Myles] married into this extended family and they both love her and hate her. The process of dramatisation is your central characters all have to have something huge at stake in the central narrative.”
Plot is also key, of course. Each season of Unforgotten opens with the discovery of a body and two detectives tasked with bringing the culprits to book. There are also a handful of seemingly unrelated characters who, through the course of the story, are each revealed to have been connected with the victim, with Lang expertly building the tension until the reveal at the season’s end.
“The plot is the device to open the story, and you have to get it right,” the writer says. “It’s one of the things that pulls people through. But I don’t use it to hang the characters on. Instead, I use it to explore interesting dynamics within families. There are endlessly interesting stories to tell in a dysfunctional family.”
Describing the process of piecing together a story as “Darwinian,” Lang continues: “It’s a to and fro relationship between character and narrative – it evolves, it’s not created. The characters and the plot emerge slowly. You go back to one or the other and keep doing that until you’re working through the episodes.”
Hall, meanwhile, compares the construction of a story to chiselling out a statue. “There’s a finished work in there somewhere, you’ve just got to discover it,” he says.
There remains a debate, however, over the extent to which a drama should rely on plot devices like cliffhangers or red herrings to keep audiences gripped as the show carries them along to its conclusion. “If you’re making something for Netflix or Amazon, the ‘bingeability’ factor is significant,” Winger says. “In the past there were cliffhangers that made you come back the next week, but it’s not quite the same as that. It’s almost as if you have the luxury to write a whole story, a really long movie, because you know your audience will keep watching it, while we didn’t have that opportunity before.”
Carville says cliffhangers are needed but stresses that an “organic” structure is key to any successful drama. “Really what we want is to tell human stories and explore character,” he says. “They way you do that is through structure and a kind of narrative that has forward dynamics to it. Cliffhangers are really just turning points in the story and they always have to be emotional.”
Plot devices are “absolutely invaluable,” according to Hall, “but the point is they’re of secondary significance. If you just manufacture them, they’re not powerful, but if they’re motivated through the story, they work and become powerful.”
Brocklehurst, however, warns against the use of endings that cheat viewers in some way. “You’re always trying to play fair with the story you’re telling and not just suddenly creating a massive cheating hook just because you need something to make people watch the next one,” he notes.
Ultimately, the trick for writers is to “write something you want to watch,” Winger sums up. “The most important thing as a writer is that you want to write the next episode. You want to know what happens next and to just go down a rabbit hole with these stories.”
And if the writer wants to know what happens next, there’s a good chance viewers will too. How they watch it, however, is up to them.