The Art of the Cliffhanger: “Broadchurch” Creator Breaks Down Britain’s Most Tweeted Thriller

Chris Chibnall talks about the influence of Law & Order, X-Files and majestic cliffs on the creation of his acclaimed show, Broadchurch, the most Tweeted TV drama in British history (and now showing in America).

Two mismatched detectives spend one entire TV season trying to figure out who killed an innocent child. Again. But unlike recently expired cult favorite The Killing, BBC America’s brilliant new thriller Broadchurch sets its tragedy in a quaint seaside village. Broadhurch, which premieres here on August 7, pries into a small town’s dark secrets over the course of eight episodes as squabbling detectives (David Tenant and Olivia Colman) try to figure out how 11-year old Danny wound up dead at the foot of the resort town’s magnificent cliffs.


In England, the mystery’s hot leads, dead ends, and sexy misbehavior made Broadchurch the most tweeted drama in British history and sparked surges in the nation’s power grid during each commercial break, when TV watchers raced to make a cup of tea before the next segment began.

Series creator Chris Chibnall, citing The X-Files, Doctor Who, and Law & Order as influences, spoke to Co.Create about red herrings, 12-minute attention spans, and the art of the cliff-hanger.


Chibnall, who lives in Dorset, England, got the idea for Broadchurch while taking a stroll along the shore. “The beach in the show is one mile from my house where I’ve lived for nearly 10 years. One day I was out walking thinking, God, it’s so beautiful here. It’s amazing this has never been filmed! Somebody should shoot something here. And I sort of literally stopped walking and thought, You idiot, you should write something that’s set here. So Broadchurch started with an image of those cliffs, and how extraordinary they are and how unique in the world, and then I guess the dissonance of a (dead) body beneath those cliffs”



Broadchurch offers up a steady stream of suspects who earn distrust the hard way: by harboring dark secrets. Chibnall notes, “Detective Hardy has a line–‘People are unknowable’–and that’s baked into the series. We all have personae that we project to other people, but we all keep things to ourselves of lesser or greater relevance. In a small community, that’s magnified and intensified.”


After Chibnall sketched out the “big plan” for his eight-episode mystery, he experienced a change of heart. “I knew where I wanted the story to end, and I knew vaguely the identity of who I thought the killer was, although that changed. Three days after I’d written a very rough first draft, I snapped bolt upright in bed one morning and went, ‘Oh no, it’s not that person; it’s going to be this ending.’ I’ve never had that lightbulb moment before, but apparently my subconscious was working on the ending. And we never shifted off that.”


Chibnall traces his obsession with nail-biting cliff-hangers to his childhood, when he watched Doctor Who every Saturday night. He aims for a similar effect with Broachurch. “It’s important to embrace the form of television storytelling, which in the U.K. is 12-minute chunks and then an act break,” he says. “You make sure you have cliff-hangers for every act break that are genuinely exciting. And then you hopefully do the biggest cliff-hanger at the end of the hour to make people go “I need to see the next episode now!”



Plot mechanics and character arcs interlock with extraordinary precision in Broadchurch. When American writer-producers Rockne O’Bannon (Revolution) and Richard Manning (Farscape) developed a pilot with Chibnall in 2005, they taught him to diagram story twists with Hollywood-style whiteboards. “Broadchurch is very rigorous in its narrative structure, and in that sense it’s very American,” Chibnall says. “There’s myself and our script executive Sam Hoyle in a room with a lot of tea and some colored pens and huge six-foot-by-four-foot whiteboards. We put all the big moves for the whole series up on one board. We might have another board with all the characters and their journeys. And then we have an episodic board where we break down one episode into four acts. Once you see those beats, you can really visualize the movement of the story and move pieces around.”


Chibnall oversaw the launch of Law &Order UK and wrote scores of scenes detailing the impact of a crime on the victim’s family. “Every week we needed the relative of the murder victim to identify the body or talk to the corpse and say ‘Oh he was my son, my father, he was a great guy, this has destroyed my life.’ I started thinking, Where does that person go after they’ve been in this one scene? When they walk out of the morgue or office, how do they live their lives? And I realized, That’s a show!” In that sense, Broadchurch is that one scene from Law & Order extrapolated into a strand that explores a family’s grief and how they try to keep going.”


There’s not a weak link among Broadchurch’s unusually large ensemble cast. Though largely unknown in the U.S., many of the show’s 14 key players have starred in their own British TV series, Chibnall says. “We are blessed in the U.K. with great actors. They’re very well trained, because most of them start off in theater so there’s a real skill set. None of the actors shied away from the complexity and darkness and discord of their characters.”



Broadchurch stars David Tenant as cynical Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Olivia Colman, who plays the cheerful, perpetually out-of-synch Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller. Chibnall modeled his odd couple in part on the iconic investigators of The X Files. “Mulder and Scully are one of the great partnerships in television, where you’ve got two characters who are very equal and very polar in their approaches,” he says. “There’s little bit of them in Miller and Hardy. Ellie is the local girl who knows everyone in Broadchurch, and she’s never seen a murder before. What I needed was the opposite of that in Alec Hardy, somebody who’s seen it all before. So it’s really experience versus innocence.”



On the page and in the performance, Chibnall stresses the importance of characters worth knowing. “It’s a tightrope walk between the mischief of plot twists and the emotional authenticity of your characters. All the cliffhangers in the world don’t mean anything if you don’t care about the people they’re happening to.”

[Photos Courtesy of BBC AMERICA]


About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.


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