How To Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck

This week, I had planned to write a blog about my favourite TV spin-offs; ‘5 Spin-Offs That Are Actually Worth Watching’, or something to that effect. I don’t know exactly what I would have called it. The whole idea was blown out the water when I realised I couldn’t think of many spin-off shows I actually liked; certainly nothing that I liked enough to devote several hundred words to raving about. A painstaking trawl through Wikipedia’s ever popular list of television spin-offs did nothing to inspire me. It only confirmed what I had already begun to suspect: most spin-offs suck.

‘Why is this so?!’ I hear you cry.

Good question. Difficult to answer in broad-sweeping general terms, but I think I’ve managed to identify a few pitfalls that a great many spin-offs fall into that makes them suck. Avoid these when writing your spin-off and you might stand a chance of coming up with something that doesn’t make me want to tear my eyeballs out or (worse yet) yawn loudly and start playing with my phone.

Pitfall #1: The Surprising Shift in Genre

In spite of what I said earlier, as a Trekkie I love both Star Trek: The Original Series and most of the subsequent spin-off shows and movies. One of the reasons for this is because you know where you are with a Star Trek show. Whether it’s the Original Series, The Next Generation or Voyager, you know you’re getting a reasonably family friendly sci-fi/drama. The main setting is nearly always a starship (except for Deep Space Nine where it was a space-station, but close enough). There’s always a captain, a first officer, an engineer, a doctor and so forth. There is continuity with the original show, and that appeals to the most important audience you should be targeting with your spin-off: fans of the original.

But believe it or not, there really have been other Star Trek spin-offs on the cards which were mercifully never produced; spin-offs which broke this rule. For example, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator) did have short-lived plans for one Star Trek spin-off which was to be a sitcom about Lwaxanna Troi (the mother of one of the regular characters in The Next Generation). No seeking out new life, no starship, no boldly going… just extravagant dresses and canned laughter (in Star Trek, if you please).

Need I say more?

Pitfall #2: The Surprising Shift in Age Appropriateness 

I’m looking at you, Torchwood, Class, The Sarah Jane Adventures, K-9 and whatever other Doctor Who spin-offs there might ever be. If you’re going to do a spin-off of a successful show, the chances are your main audience is going to be people who already watch the original. Remember, knowing your target audience can make or break any kind of story, so if your original story is a dark psychological thriller about an axe-murderer, don’t make the spin-off a children’s show about the exciting adventures of the axe-murderer’s 12 year old nephew. Your new audience won’t be familiar with the backstory and the old audience is unlikely to be interested

And for the love of bacon, don’t do it the other way around either. You’ll only end up getting letters from angry parents.

Pitfall #3: The Protagonist is a Supporting Character from the Original Show

Now before I go any further, I want to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with supporting characters in one show becoming the protagonist of another. It can work very well. For instance, in spite of what I said earlier about the Doctor Who spin-offs, I do think Jack Harkness was just as good a protagonist in Torchwood as he was as a supporting character in Doctor Who. After all, characters are people. People make good protagonists. But if you want a supporting character to have the leading role in your spin-off, they need to evolve beyond that minor role and become full-blown protagonists in their own right.

If the original story has a well developed cast of characters, this might be quite easy to do. Torchwood worked because Jack Harkness was already such a rich character in his own right whether the Doctor is present or not, and so he made the transition to protagonist easily. But let’s pretend we were going to write a new Doctor Who spin-off… let’s call it… I don’t know… Roses Are (Presumed) Dead (see what I did there?); a spin-off about the Doctor’s companion Rose, after she got trapped in a parallel universe and was declared dead. In theory it could work quite well, but you would need to develop that character beyond what she is to begin with. Now living in the parallel universe without the Doctor, she needs to have motivations and goals of her own that the viewer can relate to and care about.

Pitfall #4: Writing a New but Inferior Protagonist to the Original

In some ways, writing a brand new character to be the protagonist is probably far easier to do well, since you’re just creating a brand new protagonist from scratch instead of trying to augment a supporting character

However, you must make sure that your new protagonist lives up to the vibrancy of the original one. Remember, your original audience are the main folk you should try to appeal to. Sorry to keep banging on about Doctor Who spin-offs (there’s just so many of them), but one of the many things I hated about Class was that the protagonist(s?) was so rubbish. Boring, often annoying and quite forgettable. Nothing compared to the Doctor, Jack Harkness or even K-9 in my opinion! The best thing about Class was when the Doctor appeared in the first episode (I don’t know if it was any good after that; I couldn’t bring myself to watch another episode), and for ten marvellous minutes, we had a protagonist worth watching.

The only trouble is, the Doctor isn’t supposed to be the protagonist of this show! Don’t just rely on your popular fictional universe to make your story good. Characters, especially the protagonist, are the beating heart of a good story every single time.

Pitfall #5 – The Protagonist is the Same Protagonist as in the Original Show

Once again, there’s nothing really wrong with this. It can work. Just ask yourself, if the protagonist’s story is finished, why are you still writing about him? It can be tempting to drag out a story beyond it’s natural lifespan, especially if it’s been popular, but if your protagonist has done all he needs to do, just let him live happily ever after. If, on the other hand, the protagonist’s story is not finished, why does it need a brand new spin-off? Why not do another series of the original?

A spin-off must require a brand new premise to truly stand on its own, especially if it has the same protagonist as the original. The British sitcom Porridge and its spin-off Going Straight both feature the same protagonist, but it works because the protagonist, who was originally a prisoner of HMP Slade in Porridge, has now been released in Going Straight and is trying to live a crime-free life. Same character; different premise. It’s a brand new story with the potential to be interesting in its own right. That’s what you’re going for with a spin-off, no matter what format it takes. Something that’s both new enough to be stand alone and familiar enough to draw in your original fans.

3 Types of Distinctive Characters

Just about every story has characters. They are the beating heart of any story that’s worth reading. All my favourite stories, whether they be books, films, TV shows, comics, computer games, or any other kind of story you care to mention, feature compelling characters. Characters who are not just believable people (though that is vitally important), but who are intriguing, unusual, captivating and – most importantly – unique. Their distinctive qualities makes them memorable, interesting and appealing (even if they are the most sinister villains) and they don’t slot too neatly into cliched archetypes – damsels in distress, moustache twirling villains, reluctant heroes or any other such thing.

It is, therefore, naturally quite difficult to capture the formula for creating such a character. After all, any examples I can highlight (and I’ve highlighted a couple of my favourites) would only serve to be examples of unique characters who have already been written. You, dear writer, need to think of something new! But I have tried, as best I can, to sort them into three more general categories of the kind of thing you can use to add that distinctive sparkle to your character. Here they are, in no particular order:

1- Man or Woman of Mystery

For me, there’s nothing like a character who doesn’t show you his whole hand. You know there’s more to him than meets the eye because the things he does and says are peculiar. There seems to be method to his madness but you just don’t know what it is. In the opening chapters of The Vagrant by Peter Newman (arguably my favourite fantasy novel of 2015), we are introduced to a nameless and speechless protagonist, journeying to through a hellish fantasy world with a baby, a living sword and a goat.

Who is he? Where does he come from? What does he want? Why does he want it? Who does the baby belong to? Why can’t he speak (or does he simply  choose not to?)? What’s the deal with the funky sword? And where did he get that goat? So many questions!

Of course, the only danger with this approach is that you might make your story boring if the audience feels like they don’t understand anything that’s going on for too long. Fortunately, in The Vagrant Newman manages to keep that compelling spark of mystery alive by tossing us only tiny scraps of disjointed information, little by little. Just enough to keep us interested, but it is only as the story nears its end that we begin to really learn who this Vagrant is, where he comes from and why he’s doing what he’s doing. That’s the trick to making this kind of character work: a steady diet of gleanings of revelation. Each chapter should tell us something, but not everything.

2- Not Your Average Pirate/Priest/Cowboy/Wizard/Secret Agent/Space Cadet/etc…

This type of character is especially useful if you’re trying to create a lighthearted story, though it can be used in all kinds of fiction. Basically, you think of all the typical attributes you might expect your character to have and you reverse them. For instance, the Monkey Island saga is a series of games which follow the adventures of ‘mighty pirate’, Guybrush Threepwood: a slim, blond, mild-mannered, goofy young man who is, nevertheless, a bona fide (even legendary) pirate who sails the Caribbean vanquishing sword-masters, searching for treasure and battling hellspawned demon pirates. Of all the pirates to appear in fiction throughout the years – Jack Sparrow, Captain Hook, Long John Silver and anyone else you care to name – Guybrush Threepwood stands out as unique because he is so not your average pirate. His utter unsuitability to be a pirate is what makes him and his story so unique.

In Monkey Island, this is used to comic effect, but a skilled writer can use it to create non-humorous characters too. In Pale Rider, the otherwise unnamed protagonist is a preacher who rides into town wearing a clerical collar – but this being a western movie with Clint Eastwood playing the role of the preacher, you can be sure he’s more prone towards solving that town’s problems with violence than your stereotypical man of the cloth. Of all the gun-toting ‘shoot-first-and-ask-them-if-they’re-feeling-lucky-later’ characters that Clint Eastwood has ever played, the Preacher stands out as unique because he defies the usual character profile of your average travelling preacher.

3- Me and My “Thing”

I don’t want to rabbit on about Things too much, since I’ve already blogged about it before, but some characters stand out as unique because of a particular Thing they have with them which serves as a kind of trademark. As I mentioned in the previous post, there are many books, films and TV shows out there which include time travellers who use time machines to travel back and forth through eternity, but only the Doctor from Doctor Who travels through time in a British police box. And so, the Doctor is instantly recognisable by the TARDIS (as it is called), which is his Thing. In fact, the Doctor is a prime example of the power of a Thing, because that character often changes both his physical appearance and personality (we’re currently on our thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor, assuming we count the War Doctor) and yet he is always recognisable as the Doctor so long as he is travelling through time and space in a police box shaped TARDIS. If he ever permanently ditches the TARDIS for a time machine shaped like anything else, he won’t be the Doctor anymore.

The one thing you do need to be careful of is that your character’s Thing doesn’t turn out to be nothing more than a cheap gimmick which adds nothing to the story. Remember, everything must help the story to progress. The TARDIS works just fine as a Thing, because it also serves a more primary function – as the Doctor’s only means to travelling from time to time. It doesn’t just add a distinctive trademark to the Doctor’s character; it also plays a vital role in making the story work.

Amazon Storywriter

If you’ve ever dreamed of writing scripts for TV and aren’t quite sure where that golden opportunity is going to come from, might I suggest you have a look at this tasty free app I discovered. The Amazon Storywriter (developed by the good people at Amazon Studios, naturally) is a very neat little app for script-writing which formats your script for you as you go and saves your work online for you to access from any computer in the world.

‘So what?’ I hear you cry, ‘There are dozens of online script-writing apps out there!’

True, but unlike most others, this script-writing app will send your completed script directly to Amazon Studios. If it is accepted, your script might well end up being the next TV show or movie to be produced by the same people who gave us Bosch, Mozart in the Jungle and The Man in the High Castle. Tell me, dear would-be screenwriter, that you’re not a little bit interested.

As far as I can tell from looking at their website, they are particularly interested in drama series, comedy series, children’s TV shows or movies, so you’re probably best restricting yourself to those genres (though don’t let me stand on your toes). I’ve not actually submitted anything yet (I’m getting there!) so I don’t have too much first hand knowledge about any issues that may or may not arise around creative royalties, contracts, copyright issues or anything else like that (therefore, I would strongly recommend doing your research before you submit anything – good advice any day of the week) but I can review it as a writing app.

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The interface is very simple. There are two tabs along the top: ‘Write’ and ‘Review’. The ‘Review’ tab is, unsurprisingly, where you go to review scripts that your friends have sent you. I’ll maybe talk about that another day, but right now I want to focus on Storywriter’s function as a script-writing app. So, let’s have a look under the ‘Write’ tab!

Here we have a sidebar consisting of two fairly self-explanatory options: ‘Create a script’ and ‘Import a script’. ‘Create a script’, as you might guess, creates a brand new project which is automatically saved to the cloud. ‘Import a script’ allows you to import either text-based PDFs, FDX files or Fountain files (5MB or less) into Amazon Storywriter from your computer. Either way, what you’ll end up with is a very intuitive little writing environment: a page, already set up and ready for you to write (or continue, if you imported) your script.

amazon7If, like me, your skills in proper script formatting are a little rusty, the sidebar on the right (or ‘element menu’, as it is called) will help you to format your script as you go along without having to spend a lot of time faffing around with line-spacing, margins, alignments and all that sort of thing (though I would still strongly recommend learning how to format your script properly and proof-reading it to be certain anyway). Your work will save automatically as you type and whenever you close your project, but there is, nevertheless, a big handy-dandy ‘SAVE’ button on the top right hand corner of the screen, if you crave that reassurance that only manually saving your work can bring. You will also find a small drop-down menu at the top-right of the screen. This is where you can make (fairly limited) changes to the layout of the editor: you can hide the element menu and you can toggle ‘typewriter mode’, which causes the editor to scroll as you type.

amazon3Along the top-left of the screen there is a simple menu, most of which you will recognise from every other word processor you’ve ever used: undo, redo, bold, italics, etc. Clicking the ‘Amazon Storywriter’ logo will take you back to your home screen. There is also a single drop-down menu (which for some reason is labelled with the name of your project) which most closely resembles the sort of things you might find in a ‘file’ menu on most normal word processors, but there are some important differences. I’m not going to waste time explaining every option in the menu since most of them are self-explanatory but there are a few that are worth highlighting.

First, this menu includes all your options for letting other people (specifically, your friends and Amazon Studios) see your work. Clicking on ‘share’ lets you send your script to whoever you like: friends, neighbours, dentists, anyone. All you need is their e-mail address and they will receive a notification asking them to review your script (they must accept this). If, however, you feel your script is as good as it’s ever going to be, clicking on ‘Submit to Amazon Studios’ will begin the step-by-step process of submitting your work to Amazon for consideration, so don’t use it until you’re certain your script is ready.

Another useful feature in this menu is ‘Save a draft’, though it might not be exactly what you imagine it to be at first. Once you save a draft, it is saved as a read-only file that can not be edited. It can only be viewed, renamed, shared, exported, deleted completely or submitted to Amazon Studios. You can create as many drafts as you like (or at least, if there is a limit, I’ve not hit it yet) and you can continue to edit your script as before; only the draft files are read-only, allowing for easy redrafting without losing any previous drafts you might want to revisit. Every draft file can be found attached to your project on the home screen.

If, however, you want multiple editable scripts for the same project, choosing ‘Create a copy’ from the same menu will create a brand new project identical to the one you’re working on at the time. The only thing it won’t copy over is your read-only draft files. As before, this copied project will also be available from your home screen and will not have any effect on the original project and its associated drafts.

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There is only one major thing this app does lack: any kind of planning environment where you can write up character biographies, storyboards and the like. This app doesn’t really come into its own until all your planning is already done and you’re ready to actually write a draft.

Still, it’s a swish little app for would-be screenwriters, especially if you’re a beginner looking for an easy way of having your work reviewed by your peers and considered for production by a company who can (maybe, possibly, if you’re lucky) bring it to life for you. The app’s functionality may be a little basic in some respects (though there’s something to be said for that when writing, I find) but it’s certainly much easier to use than some more expensive apps and does the job well.

Also did I mention that it’s completely free to use?

 

6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you will perhaps remember that I have occasionally written posts featuring 6 six word stories (you can view previous ones here and here). Since I happen to think it’s a great way to put the imagination through its paces (not to mention test my skills in brevity), I thought it would be a good idea if I made such a post whenever the 6th of a month happens to fall on a Sunday, since I only ever post on Sundays.

And… I’ll just check the calendar here and… yep, that’s OK. If we do it this way, you should still only have to put up with one or two of these kinds of posts a year at most. So it’s all good!

You probably know the rules by now. I roll Thinkamingo’s Story Dice six times and I write a six word story for whatever image is displayed on each die starting from the top left. As ever, the following stories are entirely my own work.

Alea iacta est.

  1. My treasure? Buried by my ex.
  2. Took the bait. Snap! Hard cheese…
  3. Rolled the dice; wrote six stories.
  4. While others cooled, our house burned.
  5. Nine parachutes; ten passengers casting lots.
  6. Turned up volume: ‘…will self-destruct.’

Well, I’m sure you can all do a better job of coming up with six word stories for those stimuli than I can so why not give it a bash yourself and pop your responses in the comments section below? Then we can do it all over again on the 6th of August 2017!