Thursday, April 21, 2011

Start late, get out early - Law & Order: LA

I'm going to give you a little bit of homework here. There's a fundamental rule of screenwriting that says "start a scene as late as possible; get out as early as possible." Or to put it in layman's terms...


*whew!* That actually felt good. Maybe it was just venting that, maybe it was that effigy of bad spec scripts I just burned, but I genuinely feel better.

Anyway, though pretty much every good movie or TV show should stand as an object lesson of this, there are probably few shows on TV that better demonstrate this than Law & Order. It's pretty much pure procedural, which means every scene is driving the story. The show is more plot-driven than character-driven, so that makes the series a perfect teaching tool for noting how little we actually need to see in order to follow the story. The plots are so dense that every scene has to cut right to the point, while still managing smooth transitions.

Unfortunately, the original Law & Order is no longer in production, but since its retooling, Law & Order: LA has been almost as good and this weeks episode "East Pasadena" can stand with the best of the classic series. Even better, this episode not only has one of the series strongest plots, but it manages a pretty good character-driven subplot for Detective Morales (Alfred Molina.)

If you have some free-time and keep track of how short the individual scenes are and how much information is conveyed in them.


  1. Funny, since I hadn't seen this since the first few eps (totally missed Skeet punching a ticket) and happened to catch this very episode by chance and completely agree (I even facebooked it) it was pretty top notch and very much in spirit of the original flagship, a show I loved and should not have been cancelled.

    I'll probably keep watching if they can keep this up ... one thing I loved about the original is that they took real life headlines and made them stories, as this episode did (inspired by the town that was overpaying it's mayor, etc).

    And it moved, very fast, too fast even to really get ahead of it, which is important.

  2. Get to the point. Agreed.

    I remember once upon a time being an 11-year-old kid writing stories in my free time and starting every scene at exactly the starting point. Sally had to open the door into the house, go up stairs, put down her book bag before finally, the damn point of the scene came out.

    And I was bored writing it. I didn't get it then till I realized, why not just start with Sally in her room already talking to her friend on the phone?

    Excellent choice with Law & Order. That show moves fast, every scene is important, and there's no wasted moment.

  3. Yes, this show epitomizes "in late, out early" philosophy. That being said, this was one of the worst episodes of L&O I've ever seen. What the fuck was it about? Almost nothing about the actual case was explored, and the entire episode hung on a very boring cross-examination of Morales! Granted, Ive been watching a lot of SVU lately, which is a very different show.

    That being said, I'm going to go back to LA ep. 1 and see if I can get into it.

    I am curious, though, if anyone else had a problem with the structure of the episode.