Chernobyl: How to Write a Miniseries
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Today, we’ll be talking about Chernobyl created by Craig Mazin. If you haven’t seen this new miniseries, you definitely want to check it out. For the most part, I will avoid any major spoilers.
What we’ll be talking about is writing miniseries. We get so many questions from students who want to write a miniseries, or who wonder whether their project would be better suited as a miniseries.
There are amazing things happening right now in the world of miniseries and Chernobyl is one of them.
So, we’re going to talk about how to know if your project is a miniseries and how to think about miniseries, as well as some of the commercial challenges of selling a miniseries to help you make the best decisions when writing your own script.
We’ll do that by talking about Chernobyl and looking at how this miniseries on HBO functions and what made it so effective and essential.
Before we get into talking about miniseries, I’ll share a warning. Most emerging writers working on miniseries are working on them for the wrong reasons.
They are doing so because they don’t yet have the muscle – the physical, technical skills as a writer – to tell their story efficiently.
Many writers end up thinking they need to write a miniseries because they don’t actually know how to zoom in close on the part that represents the whole. They don’t know how to narrow their screenwriting down to the essence of the story that needs to be told, how to find their hook, or craft their character’s journey in an effective way.
What happens for a lot of newer writers is their projects bloat. It seems like, “Wow, I could never fit this into a 100-page script or a 60-page series episode.” It seems so big because you simply haven’t learned the tools of efficiency yet.
So, the first thing you want to do if you’re writing a miniseries is to make sure you’re writing it for the right reasons. You should be writing a project that really needs to be told as a miniseries.
The other thing to be aware of when thinking about writing a miniseries is that it is harder to write a miniseries than it is to write a series. It is harder to write a miniseries than it is to write a feature. It is certainly harder to write a miniseries than it is to write a pilot.
A miniseries, such as Chernobyl, is a huge investment.
Unlike a series that can grow an audience over time or many years, with a miniseries you really just have that one shot to get it right. It’s a huge investment of capital, it’s a huge investment of time, and, as a writer, it is a huge investment of your time and energy in the writing. These things are hard to write and they are big.
So, the first question you want to ask yourself is, “Does this need to be a miniseries?” If it does, then you better do the work and figure out how to do it, because you’ve got to tell the story in the form it wants to be in.
But if you’re a writer early in your career, if your craft isn’t all the way there yet, you might want to ask yourself, “Is there a way to tell this story as a feature? Is there a way to tell this story as a series pilot or as a traditional television or web series? Is there a way to do it where I don’t have to wrestle this giant beast?”
Before you write a miniseries, you want to make sure you can write a scene. You want to make sure you can write an act. You want to make sure you can write a movie. You want to make sure you can write a hook.
Because if you look at the structure of a miniseries like Chernobyl or True Detective or any other fabulous miniseries, it’s like making two and a half, maybe three, movies worth of content that all need to tie together into this giant, epic script. Even though you’re doing one-hour episodes, those episodes work a lot more differently than a one-hour episode of a TV show.
In a TV show, you’re replicating an engine over and over, a subject I discuss in many podcasts, such as my recent episode on Succession. In a TV series, what you’re doing is establishing an engine in the pilot and then replicating that same engine again and again and again.
When you write a miniseries like Chernobyl, you’re not just replicating an engine; you’re building a gigantic script. A lot of people think, “Chernobyl is what, 300 pages? If I’ve got 300 pages, I can move a little more slowly. I can take my time.” But no, it’s actually the opposite.
To write a story that big, that needs to be a miniseries, it also needs to be worthy of being a miniseries. It needs to meet the demands of the investment a miniseries requires from a network, a star, a director, producers, financial capital, time capital, and just the sheer size of the shoot.
To be worth it, the first thing a miniseries needs is epic scope. When you’re writing a miniseries like Chernobyl, you want to make sure the scope of your script is huge.
In general, at least in today’s market, a miniseries is not the place to create the quiet, character-driven story of you and your brother. This doesn’t mean a miniseries couldn’t be built like that. It’s just exceptionally challenging to do so. This is because in order to make the investment, people are usually looking for epic scope.
If you think about Chernobyl, the epic scope is clear. This is not simply a story of a nuclear disaster; this is the story of the Soviet Union at that time. This is a story about the nature of lies in politics. This is a story about the world brought to the brink of extinction without even realizing it’s happening, and it’s based on a true story.
There is political scope, there is a dramatic scope, and there is visual scope, right? This isn’t a little indie film; this is a miniseries of grand, filmic proportions.
So, the first thing you want to think about is scope. One of the ways to determine if your piece is likely to work as a miniseries is to ask yourself what most producers ask themselves when they make a miniseries. They’re looking for a topic people feel like they’ve heard about before, but maybe don’t know a lot about.
Chernobyl is the perfect topic for a miniseries. Everybody remembers Chernobyl. If you’re younger, maybe you’ve heard of it but don’t know what it is. If you lived through it, you remember it, but you don’t necessarily remember exactly what happened; you do know it was big.
Those worlds are ripe territory for a miniseries. This doesn’t mean you can only write those kinds of projects. True Detective is also a miniseries. Although they’ve tried to replicate it as a series in the following seasons with a little less success, the first season of True Detective is really built as a miniseries.
You can see that, again, True Detective has epic scope. It takes all those episodes to solve the mystery. And yet, the true mystery isn’t the murder. The mystery is, how did Matthew McConaughey go from being the guy you met at the beginning of the miniseries to being the guy giving the interview in the present day?
There are many ways to get that scope, but generally, especially if you’re a newer writer, one way to think about it is, “Is this something that has obvious epic scope? Is it something people feel they’ve heard of before and maybe remember? Does the world you’re building it in have some name recognition?” It isn’t required, but it will make it a lot easier.
So, the first piece is epic scope. If it doesn’t feel epic, the chances are it’s not big enough to sustain five hours, six hours, or eight hours; it isn’t big enough to sustain that many hours of storytelling.
The next important element in a miniseries is the question, “Why today?” Why are we telling the story today? This is especially important if you’re telling a historical story as a miniseries, like Chernobyl.
Part of what gives a feeling of epic scope is that we’re not just looking back at an interesting time in history; we’re looking back at that time in a way that matters to our world and has relevance today.
What’s interesting about the construction of Chernobyl is that it isn’t a miniseries about Chernobyl. Chernobyl is a miniseries about lies.
In many ways, Chernobyl is a miniseries about global warming, about that thing you can’t see and nobody wants to tell the truth about.
It’s about that thing you can’t see that could actually bring mankind to the brink of death and is literally happening right now. It’s about the power of lies and the power of denial. It’s about the oppressive misuse of power and fake news to create that monster and then to hide it, to enable it, empower it, and build it to the point where it may not be possible to put the genie back in the bottle.
The reason you tell the Chernobyl story today isn’t because this interesting event happened at Chernobyl. The reason you tell the Chernobyl story today is because this interesting event called global warming is happening.
Even though the words “global warming” are never used in the series, everything about Chernobyl is built around this idea. In fact, the very first line of Chernobyl is this, “What is the cost of lies?”
“It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories.”
This is the real question Chernobyl is examining. It’s not a question for 1986; it’s a question for 2019. What is the cost of lies? What is the cost of the lies we are currently living and how does the failure to confront these lies, the power of the ego, the desire for power, and the power of denial actually threaten our survival?
So, first you want epic scope. Second, you want to make sure you have a “Why today?” question that matters. It doesn’t mean every miniseries has to be political like Chernobyl, but it does mean it has to be relevant to today to give it the weight the miniseries needs.
The next element you need is visual scope. To sell a miniseries, you’re going to need a tremendous trailer. It’s got to feel big; it’s got to look big. It needs to look worthy of six hours. It can’t visually feel like a rom-com or a movie that could have been told in an hour and a half. It needs to have that visual beauty to it.
This is the easy part for you to provide because that’s just work, That’s learning the process of seeing, hearing, feeling, and capturing those images on the page in the most visceral way possible.
If you think about the construction of Chernobyl, you’ll see the movie is actually shot like a horror movie and uses many of the concepts of horror.
You’ll see the “Why today?” question threaded through every element, not hitting it on the nose but instead under the surface. Even the way the film is shot, Chernobyl is built and shot like a horror movie. It uses so many of the horror movie conventions.
In the first episode, there’s the moment where the man is inching up to look into the nuclear reactor core, and there’s that feeling of something lurking out there, something you can’t see.
Part of the reason it’s built this way is for the visual effect and the fear within it, to create that feeling of impending doom in the audience in the same way a horror movie does.
But that visual style actually grows out of the “Why today?” question throughout the script, the political message of the script. It’s to create the feeling that what you’re not looking at, what our government is lying about, can actually kill you.
It’s meant to build up the full danger of that thing you can’t see, that you want to believe isn’t there. To build the idea that no matter what, no matter what story you tell, you cannot avoid the truth. The truth is coming for you.
A lot of horror movies are built around a monster in the house and Chernobyl is built the same way, but in this case, the monster in the house isn’t a monster; it’s not even a nuclear reactor.
The monster in this house is the truth. It’s the truth nobody wants to look at because it’s politically inconvenient because looking at it would require change and shame and confronting what we’ve actually done.
Everything in the Chernobyl miniseries is built out of that “Why today?” question, from the visual sense to the thematic sense, to the opening image and the opening words.
The next thing you need is a sense of visual power; you need visual scope. So, you need epic scope, you need the “Why today?” question, and you need the visual scope of the movie.
Nobody wants to make a small miniseries. Miniseries need to feel big; they need to capture the weight so an audience will feel like they need to tune in for six episodes. It’s got to be that much story.
You want to be able to put together a beautiful trailer. You want it to be visually as epic as it is thematically. You want it to be visually stunning and this is the part you can do easily.
This is about learning to look, learning to write with your visual eye, learning to hypnotize your reader on the page, all things we teach in our Write Your Screenplay: Level 1 and 2 classes. It’s learning how to connect to that inner eye in you to make sure every image you write is beautiful.
So, we’ve got this idea of epic scope, we’ve got this idea of “Why today?”, and we’ve got this idea of visual beauty.
The fourth element is the story has got to be big enough. Enough needs to happen so that the story truly couldn’t be told as a 90-minute or two-hour film. Because if the story could be told in another form, eventually somebody is going to ask you, “Why don’t you just turn it into a movie and make it easy for me?”
One way to know if the story is big enough is to ask yourself, “Am I saving the best for first or am I saving the best for last?”
Too often when people write miniseries, they end up slowly, slowly, slowly pulling out their story. The idea is, “I’ve got so many pages, I get to work slowly.” But that’s not the truth.
The truth is, if your pilot, your first hour or two, depending on the structure of your miniseries, if that first episode doesn’t grab us, shake us, and knock our socks off, no one is ever going to stick around for episode four, five, six, or eight, or however many episodes your miniseries is.
You want to make sure you’ve smushed everything into your pilot, that you’ve gotten to the hook and the very best stuff as quickly as you can. That’s the first thing.
If you haven’t done that, there’s a good chance you don’t have a miniseries and instead have a feature film or TV series and are still building up the skills you need as a writer to tell your story effectively.
The next piece is to make sure your story isn’t really a TV series because a series is much easier to sell.
Now, this may not be true for everyone. If you have a connection to a producer or a network who makes miniseries – I actually spent many years in my early career making huge miniseries at Alliance Atlantis – then these rules may not apply to you.
I always believe the movie, the miniseries, or the series you should write should be based on what the story is that you’re dying to tell. Because even if you don’t sell that movie or that miniseries, it’s likely to be the attention-grabbing script that can actually get you noticed in this industry.
I don’t want to scare you. But it is harder to sell a miniseries for a very simple reason, which is that there are just fewer places making them. The places that are making them, the HBOs of the world, don’t make as many of them as they make series. I’d much rather you write a series unless it demands being a miniseries.
Let me tell you very quickly the difference between the two.
A miniseries is like a giant movie. It goes through all these movements and although the movements feel the same, they’re quite different.
Think about Chernobyl. Chernobyl starts as a disaster movie. It has moments where it’s a character drama and by the end it’s a court room movie.
It goes through all these different phases following Jared Harris’ character Valery Legasov’s journey from beginning to end, going through a tremendous numbers of movements in order to create that change for the character. You want to make sure you have enough story and that it’s going through movements.
What you don’t want to do is a series like Breaking Bad where the same kind of thing happens in every episode, where Walter White is going to break a little worse, where he’s going to manipulate Jesse toward his addiction, where he’s going to hide a secret from his wife, and where he’s going to make a decision that corrupts him a little bit more.
We’re not creating the same kind of story with a miniseries. Instead, we’re taking the character on a journey where they change and do different kinds of things. This change needs to feel as epic as the scope of the miniseries. You want to make sure you have that quality.
The final element you need think about, once you have all these other elements in place and you know it has to be a miniseries, when you know it’s weighty enough to be a miniseries and you know you are writing it like a miniseries, is to remember that as big as miniseries are, they are actually quite small.
Chernobyl is not actually the story of Chernobyl; it’s a story of lies. But it’s also not actually the story of lies; it’s even more than that.
Because, like movies, miniseries are not built around events; they’re built around characters.
If you think about the structure of Chernobyl, you’ll see it’s built around just two characters. It’s built around Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina (Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård). And these two characters are on opposite sides of the theme.
You have Legasov, the scientist who is committed to truth, or at least believes he is, and you have Shcherbina, the lifelong politician.
What we’re going to watch over the course of this miniseries is two men from opposite sides of belief move toward a friendship that ends up saving the world. We’re going to see both of these men change in relation to their relationship with lies, and in their relationship with each other.
Every other scientist that exists in this story is going to be boiled down to one character. Emily Watson’s character, Ulana Khomyuk, is going to become the composite for all the other characters. Yes, she is going to affect Valery Legasov, Jared Harris’ character, but she is a B story threaded through his journey.
The real journey is just a story of two dudes. Your miniseries might be the story of two women.
The structure of Chernobyl is a story of these two guys with this third story threaded through it.
Yes, we have some B story like Lyudmilla, the character who is having a child and whose husband is the fireman. We’ve got the guard who has to kill the dogs.
We’ve got the workers who are trying to put out the fire and ultimately suffer the consequences of radiation poisoning.
We have that B story, that C story, and that D story. We have the E story of Anatoly Dyatlov, the Paul Ritter character, who just can’t accept the truth and ends up taking the fall for everyone.
We have all these subplots weaving through, and a miniseries must have them. You have to have these different levels of structure.
But it’s important to understand that miniseries, just like feature films, are simply built around a main character going on a journey. In this case, it’s Valery Legasov going on a journey in relation to an unlikely friend, Boris Shcherbina.
You want to make sure you have enough movement between those characters so this relationship can change in every episode in a big enough way to be worthy of the series. Otherwise, you’re going to run out of steam.
And even though there may be a period where you go a long time without seeing your main characters, as we do in the pilot, you want to make sure you’ve locked in those relationships by the time you get to end of episode 1.
Episode 1 of Chernobyl starts, and there’s a small spoiler here, with Valery Legasov and the question of lies. By the time we’re on page 2, we’ve seen him kill himself so we’re asking the question, “Why?”
Though we then go through 45 minutes or so of a disaster movie, we do return to Valery Legasov, our main character, and the start of his relationship with Boris. This begins when Stellan Skarsgård calls Jared Harris’ character and tells him you’ve been appointed to a panel with Gorbachev and the number 3.6 is being thrown about as to how bad the radiation is. Boris says 3.6 isn’t that bad and Valery replies that it would actually be quite bad, and we know it’s much worse than that.
From that moment, we are locked into the story of denial versus the story of truth that will power the journey of these two main characters in the face of destruction.
These are all the elements you want in a miniseries. You want a story with epic scope, ideally in a world we feel we know something about. You want a strong “Why today?” question. You want visual beauty. You want to make sure you’re saving the best for first and that you have enough story to get you through to the end. And you want a central character whose journey is so big and so powerful that it’s going to be enough to power the entire miniseries.