How to Write a Sci-Fi Web Series with Dan Williams, Creator of Asylum on Hulu

Posted on: by Michael Tringe

Science fiction series are just fun. And because of that, sci-fi has truly become…

Meet Dan!

one of our all-time favorite, if not our most beloved genre. So what’s your sci-fi web series about, and how will you make it for the web so it will be seen by sci-fi fans? And what makes sci-fi on the web with series like Asylum or Black Box TV different from sci-fi on TV like Babylon 5 and movies like Star Wars and The Matrix? How do you write characters by utilizing efficient storytelling methods and online storytelling to keep audiences engaged in new and exciting ways that competes with the mainstream content now sometimes located on the same platforms like Hulu or even your phone? When was the last time that happened in our media history (never). But digital storytelling still relies on the art of telling a story. Dan Williams, the creator of one of the top sci-fi web series on the web Asylum now on Hulu, which takes place at St. Dympna Hospital for the Criminally Insane, joins us for our upcoming collaborative writing lab via Google Hangout. Dan will dive into the nitty gritty of writing sci-fi for the web and online storytelling – drawing from his full script writing course.

In the FREE Lab, Dan covers:

  1. How to develop your idea into a story for the web.
  2. How to structure your story for the web.
  3. How to write characters & plot lines that keep web audiences engaged.

 

Watch the Recorded Broadcast Lab Recap!

    Watch Dan’s Full Course on Writing a Sci-Fi Web Series

There are some unique trends happening in the way people are watching content online, which raises some important points for this lab. Since audiences are watching on screens competing with the attention of everything else online (social media, etc.) they can just quit and stop watching. But well written shows that incorporate effective online storytelling get watched over and over again, and shared and broadcast to friends of friends by fans. On the other hand, while audiences can stop watching at any moment, audiences also can now have the chance to watch the entire series all at once and “binge” once a project is fully released, as has been recently talked about as a growing trend around Netflix audiences. Rabid fans do this, and sci-fi fans can be rabid. And where the fans go, the studios go. Studios are starting to outsource these sci-fi web series with digital storytelling as marketing campaigns for their own projects to independent creators and media companies, and this is just the beginning of more independently created web series projects that utilize online storytelling. The next one could be yours, so let’s brainstorm how to best write it!

Lab Q & A Recap!

Kevin:  Can you strucutre Sci-Fi web series as a feature that’s broken up?
Dan:  Yes – What’s the story you want to tell? No rules.  What is the audience you’re going after used to watching?  Consider:
Halo and H+ – Feature Broken Up feature style
Pioneer One – 6 episodes, run about 40Min
Booth at the End 22 Min Episodes
RCVR – 6 eps, 10 Min each
Black Box TV – Anthology / Twilight Zone – each ep tells its own Story

Will:  How far should you go with FX practically speaking to fulfill the world of your sci-fi?
Dan:  Focus on storytelling and make sure the FX support it, practically speaking write within the confines of your production constraints?  To make a world, exteriors work really well:  Focus on an outdoor setting that gives you scale

Jeris:  How do you find the emotional balance in Dramedy?? What are some effective strategies for heightening emotion and then breaking tension?
Dan:  Keep people invested, and still wanting to watch at the same time by planting seeds and clues along the way to keep everyone excited and involved to see what happens next.  Create world that operates by different rules, communicate those new sets of rules, but not overwhelm them.   Who are the characters, what are their histories, doesn’t need to be a formal show bible, all of the history.  Communicate the rules of the road enough so that we know what know the stakes.  For “In Time,” we know that if the thing on their arm and it ticks down to zero, you’re dead.  As an example.   In “Looper,” you know what the stakes are right away.

John:  How do you make a low budget web series idea feel like an international / supernatural man hunt adventure on a low budget?
Dan:  Take a look at Pioneer One: — Does a nice job of creating international scope on a low budget.  Had access to establishing shots.   Homeland on Showtime, they have some big set pieces, but sometimes not.  Have a lot of interrogation scenes with people from other countries, you can build that international sense of tension.  People want to experiment with the medium itself — are people Skyping or doing a Google Hangout.

John:  What are the best ways to attract an audience outside the Facebook audience?
Dan:  When focusing on the web, ask why the web.  Embrace the technology of it all — this is something I can only do on the web.  Consider links to second screens as an example.

Matt:  What is your experience making Asylum, and how did you get Hulu to put it up?
Dan:  For Asylum, we did that first.  Getting it on Hulu, came with our relationship with IndieFlix, distributing them online.  They have a relationship with Hulu, and they’re the ones that helped us get it up.  The guys at Indieflix were great to work with. The timeline  for Asylum:  We got together, shot it all on our own six episodes, premiered at New York Television Festival in 2011, posted the eps online at Blip and Dailymotion to start.  Great partners, loved the Blip player, Dailymotion gave us same great promotional services.  Was there for a year, we were approached by Indiefilix, a paid site.  And then Hulu two months ago 2013.

Scott:  An ex-marine is ordered to go on a top secret rescue mission to extract a group of POW’s stranded on a distant planet.  How do do this practically?
Dan:  Play with Point of View of your characters, consider switching it up to build the world out and grow it, even though each episode may not take place in more than a few locations.  Feels bigger because you have two different people in two different place.

Tanya:  How to make a web series show bible?
Dan:  Think of the scroll before Star Wars, how do you get into the world, who is the most engaging character, may not be the main character – whose experience will help us gain access to the world.  What are the reveals of new episodes.  Don’t overwhelm your audience.

Tanya:  How do you develop a character, what is your technique?
Dan:  Imagine the character as real people first, plugging in people that you know, or real characters from history as a jumping off point — and then I basically mess around with those base lines.  Give them some flaws, give them some mistakes, makes them more relatable, and gives them obstacles along the way.  What is their worldview?  Pessimistic? Optimistic?  How do they talk?  What are their speech patterns?  Drawing on people that you meet and moments from real life.

Tanya:  How far back to go in your show bible?
Dan: Know all of the events that led up in this person’s life to this point.  Think about the basics:  their family situation, socio-economic status, unique traits.

Carlos: What was the reasoning behind the 6 episode season?
Dan:   TV Pilot turned into six episodes — enough time to build character arcs.  How far do you want your characters to go.  What are your character objectives, and will they reach them, and how will that change them?

Carlos:  Why choose 8 Minute episodes?
Dan:  Each pair of episodes had a part one and part two, so it just worked out that way.  Around 5 minutes felt like a comfortable time frame, audiences growing more comfortable with longer time frames.   Hulu took the episodes as is.
Jeris:  People’s habits are changing because they are watching more long form on TV.

Carlos:  When time for filming came, how did you approach production… on an episode-by-episode basis (like narrative television shows) or did you film continuously (like a feature), based on actor & location availability?
Dan:  Approached it like a feature and did a 6 day shoot.  Shooting an entire season at one time allows you to do a lot more.  Saves time and money, but depends on structure.  Black Box TV shoots on a bi-weekly schedule for bi-weekly releases.

Carlos:  Is there an ideal number of characters to focus on for a series that has episode run-times of 8 minutes with a 5-10 episode season? Or does it depend entirely on the storyline?
Dan:  No formula, depends on story, you don’t want to overwhelm the audience — if it’s a completely foreign character – you may want to spend a bit more time introducing them.

Kevin:  How did you finance your project?
Dan:  Private investors like an independent feature idea.  Kickstarter campaigns work, but our director came from comedy, was Dan’s first time writing for the web – but if you’re established online making content, maybe that makes sense.  Consider looking at actors that have a YouTube presence.  Pioneer One did part Kickstarter, part Bit Torrent, and they have it all on their website.

Thanks to everyone for joining our lab – and thanks to Dan for all the amazing sci-fi knowledge!  Can’t wait to see everyone’s projects when they’re made, and hope to see you all next time!

Feel Free to ASK YOUR OWN QUESTIONS and OFFER ADVICE in the COMMENTS BELOW 

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Written by Michael Tringe

Mike Tringe earned his MFA in Film Production from USC and has worked at Creative Artists Agency Film Sales (Paranormal Activity, Black Swan), Vuguru, Michael Eisner's multi-platform studio, (The Booth at the End (Hulu), Don't Ask, Don't Tell (Snag), Little Women Big Cars (AOL), and Blip Networks (300 million monthly views, Smosh, Annoying Orange, Nostalgia Critic).

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  • http://creatorup.com/ Mike Tringe

    Thanks to everyone for joining — we learned a lot and love hearing about your awesome sci-fi ideas! And thanks to Dan for an incredible lab, sharing all your wicked wizard sci-fi knowledge.

  • http://twitter.com/TheCarlosTovar Carlos M. Tovar

    Dan, I am enjoying ‘Asylum’ on Hulu! Looking forward to the presentation.
    Mike, big fan of Vuguru and Booth at the End! Looking forward to being a part of more webinars.

    My series, “More Than Human”, just wrapped principal photography on the first set of 5 8-minute episodes about 3 weeks ago. We are slated to film in May/June for Episodes 6-10. This would complete Season 1 of the series.

    “More Than Human” is an action/drama/sci-fi web series centered around 5 teenagers who gain special abilities after drinking a mysterious serum. This act brings them into conflict with a government scientist and beings from an alternate dimension. “More Than Human” could be pitched as “Heroes” for the teen set.

    Questions:
    1. At what point did Hulu become involved for distro? Did this impact the decision to go with approx. 8 minute episode run-times and/or the 6 episode season? Was there any decision to reduce or lengthen the individual episodes made based on Hulu’s involvement? if so, did those decisions happen during the development/script-writing stage or later on in production or editorial?

    2. What was the reasoning behind the 6 episode season? Is there a prevailing reason that certain web series’ (Asylum, The Booth at the End) have gone with when airing on Hulu?

    3. When time for filming came, how did you approach production… on an episode-by-episode basis (like narrative television shows) or did you film continuously (like a feature), based on actor & location availability?

    4. How would one go about constructing a “series bible?” Is there a format we should adhere to?

    5. Is there an ideal number of characters to focus on for a series that has episode run-times of 8 minutes with a 5-10 episode season? Or does it depend entirely on the storyline?

    • http://creatorup.com/ Mike Tringe

      Great questions Carlos — glad you were able to virtually join us! Here were Dan’s thoughts in response:

      Carlos: What was the reasoning behind the 6 episode season?
      Dan: TV Pilot turned into six episodes — enough time to build character arcs. How far do you want your characters to go. What are your character objectives, and will they reach them, and how will that change them?

      Carlos: Why choose 8 Minute episodes?
      Dan: Each pair of episodes had a part one and part two, so it just worked out that way. Around 5 minutes felt like a comfortable time frame, audiences growing more comfortable with longer time frames. Hulu took the episodes as is.
      Jeris: People’s habits are changing because they are watching more long form on TV.

      Carlos: When time for filming came, how did you approach production… on an episode-by-episode basis (like narrative television shows) or did you film continuously (like a feature), based on actor & location availability?
      Dan: Approached it like a feature and did a 6 day shoot. Shooting an entire season at one time allows you to do a lot more. Saves time and money, but depends on structure. Black Box TV shoots on a bi-weekly schedule for bi-weekly releases.

      Carlos: Is there an ideal number of characters to focus on for a series that has episode run-times of 8 minutes with a 5-10 episode season? Or does it depend entirely on the storyline?
      Dan: No formula, depends on story, you don’t want to overwhelm the audience — if it’s a completely foreign character – you may want to spend a bit more time introducing them.

      • http://twitter.com/TheCarlosTovar Carlos M. Tovar

        Thanks for the lab, Mike & Dan! Had a great time watching and am definitely looking forward to future material from CreatorUp!

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnjtague John Tague

    Hey Guy’s

    My Sci-Fi web-series idea is called Me & The Devil. The one liner is “A CIA analyst thought she was hunting down a war criminal until unexplained world events convinces her it’s the devil.”

    Questions:

    1. How do you make a low budget web-series idea feel like an international/supernatural man hunt adventure on a low budget?

    2. What are the best ways to attract an audience besides Facebook etc..

    Thanks,

    John

    • http://creatorup.com/ Mike Tringe

      Good questions John. Here was what Dan had to say:

      John: How do you make a low budget web series idea feel like an international / supernatural man hunt adventure on a low budget?
      Dan: Take a look at Pioneer One: — Does a nice job of creating international scope on a low budget. Had access to establishing shots. Homeland on Showtime, they have some big set pieces, but sometimes not. Have a lot of interrogation scenes with people from other countries, you can build that international sense of tension. People want to experiment with the medium itself — are people Skyping or doing a Google Hangout.

      John: What are the best ways to attract an audience outside the Facebook audience?
      Dan: When focusing on the web, ask why the web. Embrace the technology of it all — this is something I can only do on the web. Consider links to second screens as an example.

  • Jeris JC Miller

    My pitch:
    Browncoats Return! The Firefly TV Series & Serenity Film of Joss Whedon spawned a legion of fans still actively creating Fan Lit a decade later. My web series would extend the Browncoats legacy [it may be a parody].

    Questions:

    How do you find the emotional balance in Dramady?? What are some effective strategies for heightening emotion and then breaking tension?

    • http://creatorup.com/ Mike Tringe

      Good one Jeris. Dan had some great points:

      Dan: “Keep people invested, and still wanting to watch at the same time by planting seeds and clues along the way to keep everyone excited and involved to see what happens next. Create world that operates by different rules, communicate those new sets of rules, but not overwhelm them. Who are the characters, what are their histories, doesn’t need to be a formal show bible, all of the history. Communicate the rules of the road enough so that we know what know the stakes. For “In Time,” we know that if the thing on their arm and it ticks down to zero, you’re dead. As an example. In “Looper,” you know what the stakes are right away.”

  • Tanya Perez

    Here is my pitch: One woman is selected by lottery to procreate the new master race in a world that has not seen children in over 30 years.

    I’m still working on the logline, but that gives you the general sense of the piece. The modern world unlike ours. Lab testing, nuclear fallout…stuff like that.

    Questions:
    This is really my first go at this genre and mine really has to do with developing logic and structure in this new world created.

    1) How to make a web series show bible?
    2)What are common mistakes made in story structure and what are examples of really cool webseries in Sci Fi outside of your show?
    3) What writing program do you like to use and how does it compare to other programs?
    4)How do you develop characters? What is your specific technique?

    • http://creatorup.com/ Mike Tringe

      Glad you’re getting started in sci-fi Tanya! Here were Dan’s responses:

      Tanya: How to make a web series show bible?
      Dan: Think of the scroll before Star Wars, how do you get into the world, who is the most engaging character, may not be the main character – whose experience will help us gain access to the world. What are the reveals of new episodes. Don’t overwhelm your audience.

      Tanya: How do you develop a character, what is your technique?
      Dan: Imagine the character as real people first, plugging in people that you know, or real characters from history as a jumping off point — and then I basically mess around with those base lines. Give them some flaws, give them some mistakes, makes them more relatable, and gives them obstacles along the way. What is their worldview? Pessimistic? Optimistic? How do they talk? What are their speech patterns? Drawing on people that you meet and moments from real life.

      Tanya: How far back to go in your show bible?
      Dan: Know all of the events that led up in this person’s life to this point. Think about the basics: their family situation, socio-economic status, unique traits.

  • ScottHarper

    1. An ex-marine is ordered to go on a top secret rescue mission to extract a group of POW’s stranded on a distant planet.

    2. How could this be structured differently than just writing a feature and breaking that up into 8 or 9 episodes?

    • http://creatorup.com/ Mike Tringe

      Good question Scott — a limited budget sometimes forces us to be even more creative. Here’s what Dan had to say:

      Dan: “Play with Point of View of your characters, consider switching it up to build the world out and grow it, even though each episode may not take place in more than a few locations. Feels bigger because you have two different people in two different place.”

  • William Wagner

    Dan,

    Thanks for the comments. I’ve had an instructor that has said something similar. He said to ‘Just write. Don’t worry amount money or if its practical to do something. Just write.’ But I had to ask anyway. It is good to get many different perspective on things you learn. Not that I didn’t believe him. Thanks.

    Wil

  • http://twitter.com/bydanwilliams Dan Williams

    Exciting pitches – eager to hear more on Sunday! Kevin– Some web series (The Bannen Way, Cybergeddon, Chosen) have tried the web series as broken up feature film approach, and that’s certainly one way to structure your project. (We can discuss other models, too.) William– Great questions. Establishing the rules of the world while preserving mystery for the audience is an important balance that we’ll talk about. As for effects, I think it’s a matter of what you can make look the best. Initially, keep your writer’s hat on and be as imaginative as you can – then you can put your producer’s hat on and figure out how to make it happen!

  • Kevin McMahon

    1. The pitch:

    Ben learns that in a past life thousands of years ago he hid something away that he now must find in order to save the world from total annihilation from an other worldly, very ancient force, but part of what he hid rests within a woman who he must find in this life and make her love him.

    2. Questions

    I have both web series and feature film aspirations for this idea. Have you ever thought about constructing a series in a way that can be reassembled as a feature film?

    Other than that I’m sure I’ll learn a great deal from everyone’s questions. Excited to learn more.

    • http://creatorup.com/ Mike Tringe

      Kevin — Dan’s thoughts on this question of a feature broken up are, sure why not?!
      Dan: “Yes – What’s the story you want to tell? No rules. What is the audience you’re going after used to watching? Consider:
      Halo and H+ – Feature Broken Up feature style
      Pioneer One – 6 episodes, run about 40Min
      Booth at the End 22 Min Episodes
      RCVR – 6 eps, 10 Min each
      Black Box TV – Anthology / Twilight Zone – each ep tells its own story

  • William Wagner

    Hi! My one line idea and questions are as follows:
    1> When you need to send the very Best…send Red Squad, Interstellar Marines.
    2> When creating a universe to play in, how in depth should you go?
    For Sci-fi, what is a good balance between practical and computer generated effects? Or should it matter for sci-fi?

    • http://creatorup.com/ Mike Tringe

      Good questions Will, Dan makes an important point about the story being the thing that will keep people really hooked — and using FX in the areas where the most powerfully link back to that story.
      Dan: “Focus on storytelling and make sure the FX support it, practically speaking write within the confines of your production constraints. To make a world, exteriors work really well: Focus on an outdoor setting that gives you scale.

  • http://creatorup.com/ Mike Tringe

    Hi all! Please tell us your sci-fi web series project idea as a one-liner pitch, and ask any questions you might have for Dan here :)

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