Who said period dramas have to feel as old as their subject matter?
Period dramas have pretty much always graced our television sets in part because, well, they’re timeless. (Yes, I see the pun — and I won’t respond to it.) But this current wave of shows set in different eras of our history is particularly exciting, because it can teach writers about staying fresh, staying relevant, and keeping audiences glued to the screen.
Let’s take a look at a few ways you can turn your period drama into something modern audiences would travel back in time to see!
Blending genres is not only something audiences have grown to love, they have also grown to expect it. So, before you set out to write the new hit period drama, see if you can blend it with another genre.
STRANGER THINGS is a thriller/sci-fi show with monsters, children with special powers, and an alternate dimension. It’s also set in the 1980s and there’s no shortage of cool retro cultural references.
OUTLANDER also plays with the sci-fi element of time travel by sending a WWII nurse and her husband back to the 1700s by way of magical standing stones, all while ramping up the action and romance along the way.
So, if you’re writing a Western script set in the American Frontier, why not throw in a bit of sci-fi or horror in there? A young blacksmith and Civil War vet happens upon a strange metal that glows and opens a portal to a hellish alien world — that’s all three right there!
Make It Scandalous
Even the period dramas that are more traditional in terms of genre still manage to keep it interesting by including plenty of shameful improprieties and discreditable behavior. Telling stories about crime, sex, real-life scandals, etc. is a great way to keep an audience engaged and on the edge of their seat.
THE CROWN built their entire fan base on our collective obsession with British royal family drama. BRIDGERTON feels like a Jane Austin-type story except we get to see all the sex Jane would never dare write about. Peaky Blinders is a fresh take on gangster stories and the making and distribution of illegal alcohol during prohibition. It was also based on a real-life family, so that’s another reason to watch.
Make The Characters Relatable
One thing all these shows have in common is the fact that at their core, they are dealing with very human themes and emotions, and that will always make for good drama. Whether you tune in because of your love of Dungeons and Dragons, the feeling of nostalgia, or to see a sexed-up version of a Jane Austen universe, you stick with the show because you not only care about the characters and their relationships but you also relate to the issues they face.
But how do you write great, relatable characters? Well, a good place to start is identifying their fears, wants, and needs, while establishing their emotional foundation.
Here’s an example of this: Your character’s biggest fear is failure, and all they want is to get that big promotion at their law firm but what they need is to reconnect with their kids before they lose them. Now, you may not work at a law firm or have kids, but you most likely do relate to the emotional pain of failure, being torn between two things you care about, as well as struggling to make unselfish choices.
Most stories about love, loss, power, money, and survival will always be universal and always compelling to a large audience because we deal with these things in our own lives — albeit in a much less compelling way, I’m sure.
Inspired to write your own TV pilot? Enter it in the WeScreenplay TV Pilot Screenwriting Competition!
Julia Camara is an award-winning Brazilian screenwriter/filmmaker. Julia won a Telly Award for the sci-fi found footage feature Occupants. Julia’s feature directorial debut In Transit, won Best Experimental Film at four different festivals. Julia’s other writing credits include Area Q and Open Road.