Web Series vs Mystery Novel Writing — Collaboration and Craft

Sherry Harris in sunny Northern Virginia

Kathryn_O_headshotI met Kathryn O’Sullivan the day I went to my first Chesapeake Chapter meeting of Sisters in Crime. Kathryn’s most recent book, Murder on the Hoof, came out last week. Thanks so much for joining us today, Kathryn!

Thanks, Sherry Harris, for inviting me to do a guest blog! Since I write THURSTON, a Western web series, and the Colleen McCabe mystery series, Sherry thought it might be fun for me to compare writing a web series with writing novels.  I quickly realized that I could write an entire chapter!  However, I finally settled on two areas – collaboration and craft.

Writing a web series (think online television with shorter episodes) and writing a novel both involve collaboration, and this collaboration influences my writing.  The script for a web series is the beginning of the creation of the final product (the episode that airs) – it is not the final product.  My script for an episode is not fully realized until actors, directors,costumers, designers, editors, etc. have brought their unique creative talents to the story.  When I see an actor do something interesting with a character while working with the director, I make a note to incorporate that into future scripts.  In the editing room, lines or scenes are cut because they’re no longer necessary or serve the story.  A score can add tension or lighten the mood.  The story evolves as each person contributes to the process.  When writing a web series, you shouldn’t expect your script to turn out exactly as you wrote it.  You must be willing to give up the idea of controlling everything.  If you’re open to collaboration, you’ll discover that your story often ends up better than you had initially written.

Kathryn with the cast and crew of Thurston.
Kathryn with the cast and crew of Thurston.

Writing a novel also involves collaboration.  For my web series it is script first, collaboration second.  For my novel it is collaboration first, book second.  The book sitting on the shelf is the final product. Whether it’s your writing group, a close friend, your husband or a neighbor you begged to read early drafts, when you invite people to give you feedback on your work they are collaborating.  Add your editor’s, agent’s, and copyeditor’s input and you quickly appreciate how many collaborators you have.  Yes, I’m still the one writing the book; but many people along the way influenced how it turned out.  They may not be collaborators as obvious as actors and directors but they are just as crucial to my final product.

Murder_on_the_Hoof_-_final_coverNow let’s talk about the technical aspects of writing.  Both the web series and books let me tell an ongoing story that allows my characters to evolve and change; both force me to think visually in terms of how I describe the action; and both should have tight dialogue that reveals something about character or moves the plot forward.
So what’s different?  One of the things I can’t do when writing a web series script is write a character’s thoughts – anything “in the head.”  Why?  Because an audience can’t see a thought while watching the show.  If I want an audience to know what a character is thinking or feeling I need to reveal that by describing what the character does (an action/behavior) or says (dialogue).

Another difference is the verb tense.  Screenplays are written in the present tense.  I write the action as if it is happening right now.  Most books, however, are written in past tense. This was a definite adjustment for me.  The length of sentences is also different.  Screenplays tend to have terse sentences.  It helps them “read” faster.  I was so used to writing short sentences that my book editor had to tell me to vary my sentence length and structure!  Also, with the THURSTON scripts, I’m appealing to two senses – sight and sound – since that’s how an audience will experience the show (unless, of course, they have a scratch-n-sniff card).  When writing fiction I can also explore smell, touch, and taste.  The final difference is the consideration of cost.  Most writers don’t have to think about this but, because I’m also a producer of THURSTON, when I’m writing I’m always thinking about the budget.  If I write a horse into a scene, that costs money.  If I write a lot of locations or additional characters or effects, that costs money.  But with a novel, I have incredible freedom.  I can have a house explode, car chases, and as many characters – and horses – as I want, and they’re all free!

The bottom line is whether you’re writing a web series, novel, short story, screenplay or play, storytelling is storytelling.  No matter the form or genre, we’re all interested in stories that have a main character we can root for as she or he struggles to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in pursuit of a goal.  We writers do this with collaboration, an understanding of the craft, and so much more.  Happy reading and writing!

Kathryn O’Sullivan’s debut FOAL PLAY, a cozy set in North Carolina’s Outer Banks featuring feisty Fire Chief Colleen McCabe, won the 2012 Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition.  MURDER ON THE HOOF is the second book in the series.  She is a playwright, co-executive producer/creator/writer of the Western web series THURSTON, and a theatre professor at Northern Virginia Community College.  Kathryn lives in Virginia with her husband, an award-winning director and cinematographer, and their rescue cat, Oscar.

Websites:  www.kathrynosullivan.com, www.thurston-series.com

31 Thoughts

  1. I’ve read Foal Play and thought it was excellent! I’ve added Murder on the Hoof to my TBR & my Saturday to buy list (local independent bookstore -Murder By The Book in Houston). I’m actually happy to see it in hardback like the first!! And, guess I’m Alston checking out Thuston!

  2. I really enjoyed Foal Play and now Murder on the Hoof is on call at the library.

  3. How very interesting! I am noting the challenge of portraying a character’s thoughts–nothing “in the head.” And writing to a budget! Fascinating. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kathryn.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Ramona. Since I came from a dramatic writing background, it felt strange at first to write thoughts. Writing to a budget is an interesting challenge but sometimes it forces you to be more creative with how to write a scene so it can be fun, too.

  4. Thanks Kathryn for comparing the two. I see what you mean about conveying a thought.

    Dru Ann

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Dru Ann! I have screenwriting students who come from a fiction writing background and the thought restriction is sometimes their biggest challenge.

  5. Kathryn this is so interesting and probably all novel writers should think about not staying in their character’s head for too long. Thanks so much for joining us!

    1. I didn’t know about web series either until a few years ago, Edith. There is a whole world (literally) of online television shows – comedy, drama, talk show, how-to, animation, teen, soap, sci fi, etc. – and almost all of it is free. We have viewers from across the globe which is really fun. If you want to check out just one of the many networks stop by blip.tv and you’ll get an idea of how much is out there.

      1. Kathryn, if they are free, what’s your business model? That is, how do you (and the rest of the folks in that fabulous picture) make money from a web series? Just curious.

    2. Edith, your question gets at the heart of what is the biggest challenge for web creators right now – monetization. This has been a topic of much conversation at web festivals and at International Academy of Web Television meetings. A few shows are funded by the digital departments of studios like Fox and the CW (shows we’ve been nominated with) or receive some subsidies from their government (Canada) but most shows are independently funded. Many people use crowd funding like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Some get product placement. Some decide to only air on networks that are subscription based. Others, like us, receive a little (think VERY little) from having ads run before an episode on a network (like Blip, KoldCast TV, etc.) We’ve pieced together funding with grants and our own money but are hoping to line up a corporate sponsor so we can keep making the show. Whoever invents the platform (like iTunes) for viewing and monetizing web series is going to end up wealthy indeed!

  6. Welcome, Kathryn! What a great post, and I’m with Edith – I didn’t even know what a web series was. Thanks for enlightening us all 🙂

  7. Much of what you have said about web series (or TV series) vs. book I’ve heard before from other authors who write both. However, the sentence length/structure was a new one for me. It makes sense to me, but it is also something I found interesting.

    1. Thanks, Mark! The sentence length is also true of dialogue. It’s good to keep lines under twelve words. This is because actors have to say the lines and they need to take a breath. Periods and commas help them know where to do that and help them convey the meaning/intention behind the line. If we write really long lines of dialogue then they’ll find where they need to put pauses and those pauses could change the meaning or intention of your line.

    2. I do, Sherry. I think it’s also because I tend to read my dialogue out loud and that gives me a sense of its music and pacing. I don’t know if it matters in a novel but I think a lot of people read silently in their heads so they still “hear” it.

    1. It’s a brave new world out there, Maya! If you have trouble finding a show you like I could probably recommend a few in the areas that interest you. Have fun!

  8. Very happy to learn about this, Kathryn! I’ll have to see what I can find. I love westerns, so I already have a heads up on that.

    Sherry, glad you introduced us!

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