Choose a Medium

No, not someone to help you communicate with the dead. A medium, like one of the media. If you want a tl;dr: Here’s a chart

One of the first things you’re going to have to decide when writing creatively is which medium you’re going to work in. The first thing anyone wants to know about your story is what is it? What form does it come in. In other words, what medium

Here are a few

  • TV
  • Film
  • Cartoon
  • Animation
  • Novel
  • Radio play
  • Play

Note I am not specifying genre here – not yet.

Your medium is simply a description of how people are going to experience your story.

To be fair most of us probably start with an idea and then think “that would make a great idea for a TV show… film… novel… animated cartoon”. Let us assume that there is some germ of an idea there. But it doesn’t have to be, it could be a love for a particular media. Writing for your favourite media will give you an edge.

Some ideas start out as one medium then transfer to another (book to film for example). But the best adaptations of one medium to another are those that are firmly rooted in the audience experience. That link between medium as audience experience is what we’re covering here.

Defining the best medium for your idea

So. What medium is your story? The first question to ask is will it be (ultimately) read or experienced? I say ultimately because a script is a blueprint for a watching or listening experience.

If you mean it to be read, it’s a novel, or graphic novel, or short story. In short – prose. Your audience will read the very words you write.

If you mean it to be experienced, it’s TV or film or a play or animation. Your audience needs to hear and see the words brought to life and spoken by actors.

Prose – Words

If you have chosen something to be read, then you are very quickly on to length. Long – meaning sixty to eighty thousand words or more – you have a novel. Short – well it’s a novella or a short story (or poem but we’re not going to cover non-narrative poems here). The key is that you, as the author, are going to use dialogue and description in your prose to place ideas in your audience’s head and bring characters to life. You can go anywhere, do anything, tell them anything you want. The possibilities are literally endless. It will help then to begin considering genre right away. Where do I do that? Oh well here…

Scripts – Visual and Audio

If you have chosen something to be watched, then you have opted for something visual. In other words a script. Stories are moved forward by action and dialogue. People will say things to each other and do things to each other and we’re going to see and hear them saying and doing things. We’re going to only be able to guess at what they’re thinking and feeling. It is an important part of the skill here to be able to conjure emotions and thoughts visually. That is in the hands of the others we call actors. The main point is that all the conflict that creates drama and comedy need to play out mostly in a way we can experience them. In short, inner conflict of tortured characters can sustain an audience for a matter of seconds. The rest we need to see or hear.

The exact medium you aim for determines length (and is a bit defined by genre). If you have a single story you want to tell in one go, you have a film or a play – a film tends to be very visual with many locations, a play tends to be very verbal with few locations. If the play is a radio play most of the work is done by words and sounds for atmosphere. Length for a film is typically 90 minutes plus. A play can be any length, but you probably want to be offering at least an hour upwards.

If you still have one story but to be told in multiple sections, you have a serial of some kind. This lends itself to television, where returnable series or mini-series fit quite nicely. Often these are served in chunks of sixty minutes. Sixty minutes can actually translate as forty five to sixty to make room for ad-breaks. It matters less in the streaming world.

If you have multiple stories, or more specifically characters that lend themselves to multiple stories, then you have perhaps a procedural or a story-of-the-week television series. Here main characters persist but others come and go, bringing their own tales – again the forty-five to sixty minutes an episode. A version of this is the sit com where even the characters remain the same but always return to the same point week, meaning the stories are notably lower stakes. These tend to be shorter – at twenty-two to almost thirty minutes. Finally there is the soap where the setting is always the same, characters largely persist and stories overlap. Again these are shorter at fifteen to thirty minutes.

Finally you might have a set of stories with different characters and different stories, usually tied by some theme or genre – which is considered an anthology. These tend to come in ‘hour’ chunks.

So, if you have a sense of how you’d like your finished script to come out, you’re on to thinking about genre.

In Summary

  • Your medium determines how your audience will experience your story
  • Your medium determines the limitations of what you can convey and to some extent, budget
  • Prose directly gives your audience the words to visualise or empathise with, so can be entirely in a characters heads and has unlimited scope
  • Scripts must be seen or heard and may be further constrained by space and budget

Finally, if all this seems too long winded for you, here’s a simple flowchart

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