First off, all hail Sarah Schneider in “Full Benefits” over at CollegeHumor — why oh why could I not find this writer/actress first? Is there some sort of self-flagellation club I could join? Or, I don’t know, if I have to settle, a fan club?
Been watching web series ’til my eyes bleed (and yes, I just dab the blood with a Kleenex and keep going — kind of like seeing Stephen King for therapy). I’ve followed a couple before, like “Full Benefits” and “Black Box TV” — but I really wanted to get a sense of what a continuing storyline could feel like, and what the difference is, structurally, between a web series and TV. (Besides the obvious, “Hey, noobiot, 7 minutes long is pushing it!”)
A sampling of my recent intake (all episodes, all seasons):
“Full Benefits” by Sarah Schneider and David Young @ CollegeHumor
“The Fuplers” by Matt Koval
“8 Dates” by Matt Koval
“Black Box TV” by Various Writers
“Anyone But Me” by Susan Miller & Tina Cesa Ward
“Wainy Days” by David Wain
“Psycho Girlfriend” by Lindsey Reckis @ Reckless Tortuga
“One Title I Won’t Write Down Here ‘Cause It Was Excruciatingly Boring And I’m Not In The Habit Of Publicly Bagging On Fellow Writers” by Fellow Writer I Won’t Publicly Bag On
A couple things I’ve picked up so far:
1) Writing is everything. EVERYTHING. EV-ER-Y-THING. With so little time to get a mini-arc across, every line has to shove the story forward. Hard. Yet without feeling forced. Walking that tightrope is a thing I think very few writers can do. In TV, you have 44 minutes to breathe, to establish a tone, to set up the episode’s arc within the larger story of the show. Doing that in a webisode — not to mention resolving the webisode’s mini-arc — in less than 7 minutes? Nothing short of fucking miraculous.
2) The corollary to 1): Don’t drag out the story. Get in, get out, let the audience check their Twitter feeds. When people are in the habit of thinking in 140 characters or less, don’t make them wait ’til the 20th episode before Jane and John (or Jane and Jane, or John and John) realize they’re in love. Start them in love, then fuck it all up before putting it right. Or start them by wanting to be in love, then fuck it all up before putting it right. Mostly, the largest chunk of storytelling is about fucking everything up before putting it right. Or not putting it right, as the case may be — whatever your characters want to do. If you’ve been writing as long as I have, you’ll know that sometimes your characters will do shit you don’t expect, or shit you don’t want them to — but if you want the story to be authentic, you have to follow their lead. Making them do what you want them to do isn’t writing. It’s architecture.
3) Complexity is good, but don’t waste your time explaining. In “Wainy Days,” for example, David Wain has a habit of walking down the street and shoving people to the ground. Why? No idea. Explained? Not even close. Entertaining? Abso-fuckin-lutely. Especially when he takes out women with baby carriages. (But that may just be me.)
4) Recognizable guest stars will get people to tune in. Of course, considering they’re guest stars, you should probably realize that you gotta have something else goin’ for ya, so your audience will keep tuning in. See 1).
5) Comedy seems to work best in this medium (though horror may run a close second — hence Black Box TV). This is probably because comedy has a rhythm to it — a fast rhythm — what we TV-zombos call the 3-laughs-a-page theory. However, this does not mean you can leave out the heart — the emotional investment an audience has in the characters and the story. No heart = no heartbeat = dead series. On TV or on the web. “Full Benefits” is the best example I can find of writers doing both of these things (comedy & heart) at once. We actually care whether Sarah and David end up together, despite laughing our asses off.
6) Fantasy is easier to accept on the web. A network or cable TV show has approximately 18 layers of oversight by Suits whose principal story note always has been and continues to be: “I just don’t buy it.” (How that qualifies under the rubric of constructive criticism, I haven’t quite figured out yet.) Suits like things to make sense — and not in a 1+1=2 way, though they demand that, as well –which isn’t always a bad thing — but in a I-can’t-wrap-my-brain-around-travelling-to-Iceland-on-a-flying-alpaca way: a mentality in which the web specializes.
Before its inevitable destruction by Huge-O-Gigantamous-Multi-Conglomerates (or as I call ’em, HOGM’s), the web as we know it is still an unEstablishment medium where the most outrageous and ridiculous things can reach people who find these things appealing (#keyboardcat). Thus flying to Iceland on an alpaca makes a certain sort of sense on the web. A Sensible Nonsense. Which makes its own kind of sense, because if you’re going to willingly submit to a suspension-of-disbelief on solid, traditional TV — even on so-called “reality” shows — then the lawless Wild West of audience-produced content should leave even more room for flights of fancy.
And sometimes those flights take place on alpacas, to places that have no vowels in their names.
More to come, the more series I see.