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Writing for TV: Baby Reindeer Pilot

Baby Reindeer captivated audiences since it burst onto Netflix in Spring 2024. It’s a flavor we’re all too familiar with show-wise but utilizes a real story that elevates above anything we’ve seen in recent memory. As great as the story is, none would’ve been possible without its excellent writing, especially in the pilot.

If you’re reading this article, you’re likely familiar with the premise–Donny Dunn (played by writer Richard Gadd, based on his harrowing experience) is stalked by a socially awkward loner named Martha (Jessica Gunning). What begins as a dark dramedy about their unsettling dynamic gradually reveals deeper themes of empathy, the struggle against self-hatred, and the vulnerability inherent in the search for love.

Still from 'Baby Reindeer'. Photo credit: The Independent

Autobiographical Narration

Despite lacking big-name stars and being filled with dark and potentially triggering content, "Baby Reindeer" managed to captivate audiences, amassing millions of views and dialogue across the globe.

Something traumatic can result in a brighter future if harnessed to shift your perspective or impact others' lives. Richard Gadd exemplifies this transformation, successfully adapting his one-person show, "Baby Reindeer," into a hit limited series on Netflix.

This autobiographical narrative delves deep into the troubling experiences of Donny Dunn (portrayed by Richard Gadd), whose encounters with a stalker named Martha (Jessica Gunning) are unsettlingly real and intricately portrayed.

'Baby Reindeer' stands out for its raw and unfiltered portrayal of its characters. The show feels like a masterclass in storytelling about trauma, offering real depth to every character. It doesn’t shy away from presenting Martha’s flaws or Donny’s introspective admissions, making their struggles and decisions all the more real and relatable.

Autobiographical narrations are challenging for many reasons, with the primary issue being

few people can recall precise details of their early life; instead, they must rely on others' impressions.

The Set-Up - Creating A Foundation

Every great show or miniseries begins with a set-up–introductory episodes that set the tone, introduce the protagonists, and establish the show's initial conflicts and objectives. For example, in Baby Reindeer, we’re introduced to Donny Dunn early on, a struggling comedian working at a pub in Camden.

On the flip side, Martha appears to be down on her luck. In an act of kindness, he offers her a free Diet Coke. Soon, she starts spending every day at the pub, chatting incessantly during his shifts and fabricating obvious fantasies about her glamorous life.

It quickly becomes apparent that she is obsessed with him. Not long after, the emails begin–hundreds a day, filled with typos and misspellings, mostly about nothing but increasingly flirtatious.

He looks her up online and discovers she has a past conviction and imprisonment for stalking. However, Donny struggles to set healthy boundaries, and the situation quickly spirals out of control.

The show is set up nicely, so we don’t know where it’s going, but we are familiar with the genre and concept enough to want to know, which is critical to a great show. From a writing perspective, the show understands the value of someone’s time.

Examine every sentence you write and avoid fluff. Don't use filler sentences to lengthen your article or story. Keep sentences short when possible, and know how to write for the average person. Do your best to ensure each sentence in the script grabs the reader's attention.

Themes - Loneliness and Despair

The theme is what your story is fundamentally about. It resonates with your audience on a personal level, representing a universal truth that makes them connect with the story. However, the theme is not the plot.

It’s not the events that happen to your characters or the scenes in which they occur. It’s the meaning behind those events, both on and off the page. This is where the character becomes crucial, as the theme is ultimately conveyed by and through the characters.

Baby Reindeer brilliantly portrays the consequences of distorted or unstable love templates, both in how we perceive it for ourselves and expect it from others. The yearning for affirmation, affection, and attention can overpower our rationality, highlighting its central theme of loneliness.

Darker themes like this can be challenging to write because you don’t want to be too on the nose. For example, you may want to include vivid sensory descriptions that evoke loneliness, such as echoing sounds reverberating in silence or the musty smell that suggests long-term neglect. Stale air and stagnant water can further enhance this atmosphere of isolation.

Regardless, your theme doesn’t need to be obvious, but it shouldn't be so hidden beneath dialogue and exposition that it fails to resonate with the characters.

Your characters must grapple with your show's themes, which should naturally arise from who your characters are. In this way, character and theme are inseparable.

All elements of your show are essential, but none are as interconnected as character and theme. Consider these elements your starting point; everything else will develop naturally as you write your story.

Dark Storytelling

Baby Reindeer’s most significant success is its ability to tell a powerfully dark story and have a hit. A good example is focusing on the environment along with the character rather than one over the other. Describe how your character navigates, survives, and thrives within their environment. Dark storytelling isn't just a mood; reflect it through the character's surroundings.

The key to writing this style effectively is thorough research–look at how long it took Richard Gadd to develop this show. Reading just one guide authored by someone like me with their perspective on the subject matter isn't enough! Dive through it all.

Knowing How to End It

Baby Reindeer began with an ending in mind, which is different from many TV Shows. Many shows fixate on dragging the story along for as long as possible, whereas Baby Reindeer took the Miniseries approach with a point to make.

In miniseries, we experience complete character arcs and satisfying endings, while in standard TV shows, we often encounter inconsistent character development, cliffhangers, and messy storylines. Both have challenges, but regardless, it’s critical to have an ending in mind rather than doing everything you can to drag it along if you’re lucky enough.


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