Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Fifteen working writers name the TV spec episodes that helped start their careers

Completing my series last week on "How to write a spec episode" made me nostalgic for a Twitter thread I got going about six months ago. Lately, the practice of writing spec episodes has fallen out of favor. For the most part, they're only used for programs like the Disney ABC Writing Program and the Warner Bros Television Workshop, as more and more showrunners want to see original pilots from prospective staff writers.

It wasn't always that way. Up until recently, writers would write spec episodes for a series similar to the one they were submitting for. You never submit your spec episode to the show you've spec'd - for two basic reasons. First, they know their show WAY better than you do, so they'll be far more harsh on things that feel wrong for the show, whether it's getting a character's voice slightly wrong, getting something minute wrong about their house style or episode format, or just telling the kinds of story they have reasons for not telling. The second reason is perhaps even more obvious - if they never read a spec of their own show, they can't be accused of stealing it should the show do something similar to this spec episode.

What this means is there are several generations of TV writers who came up by writing spec episodes, perhaps of shows vastly different from the ones they are famous for. With that in mind, I tweeted out a call for writers to tell us the specs that got them hired or repped. The result was one of the more amusing threads I've been a part of.

I'm sure this'll provoke a unanimous chorus of "Nah Bitter, we're good" but if any of the writers in this post - or any other working writers for that matter - are interested in putting their spec episodes out there for people to read, I'll gladly host them. Just email me at the address you can find on the side of this webpage.

Joe Henderson (Lucifer, 11.22.63, White Collar, Almost Human)

Taylor Elmore (Blood & Treasure, Limitless, Justified)

Justin Marks (THE JUNGLE BOOK, Counterpart)

Mike Royce (One Day at a Time, Men of a Certain Age, Enlisted)

Amy Berg (Counterpart, Da Vinci's Demons, Caper, Person of Interest, Eureka)

Jordon Nardino (Star Trek: Discovery, Quantico, Smash, Desperate Housewives)

Benjamin Raab (Arrow, Scream, The Flash, Beauty & The Beast)

Bo Yeon Kim (Star Trek: Discovery, Reign)

Robert Hewitt Wolfe, (Elementary, Andromeda, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) who probably made enemies of several people in this thread with this disclosure.

Bryan Q. Miller (Shadowhunters, Sleepy Hollow, Defiance, Smallville)

Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Containment, Legacies)

Who else wants to read a Buffy spec from the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries?

Chris Luccy (Undateable, Melissa & Joey, Better With You)

Dan Steele (Faking It, Hart of Dixie, Gossip Girl)

Lynn Renee Maxcy (The Handmaid's Tale, Covert Affairs)

Daniel Thomsen (Westworld, Time After Time, Once Upon a Time,

Jorge A. Reyes (Kevin Hill, Queen of the South)

Quite an interesting mix of writers and shows, no?

Related posts:
Writing a spec episode - a 10 part series.
Anatomy of a TV spec - Don't Trust the B---- In Apartment 23

Monday, August 20, 2018

Judd Apatow's MasterClass is a decent program, if less ambitious than other entries

(Note: this post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after using one of my links.)

There's a point in Judd Apatow's MasterClass where he tells the student's there's never been an easier time for them to find out what makes their idols tick. Says Apatow, "Just go to YouTube, type in the person's name and 'interview.'" And he's right.

Unfortunately, that same advice is what makes Apatow's Masterclass less of an obvious recommend for me than the earlier courses offered by Ron Howard, Shonda Rhimes, and Aaron Sorkin. Those three not only offered the benefit of their experience, they also went above and beyond to add value to their class so it wasn't just a series of lectures. Shonda did a deep dive on the development of two of her pilots, Sorkin assembled a class of writing students to serve as a mock writer's room to break an episode of The West Wing, and Howard went above and beyond. He took us to set as he blocked, rehearsed and shot a scene, then staged and shot it two more ways in different styles.

A lot of these classes are meant for people who have less practical experience than I do. At times, that means some early lectures may come off as basic, but they're useful for laying groundwork on the fundamentals. The segments where the participants get creative usually end up being the ones that justify the $90 cost I essentially am recommending. This is where Apatow's class puts me in a bind.

This is the second class I've watched that's 100% lectures. David Mamet also did not venture out of his chair, but I concluded that the style and the content of that was professorial enough that it met the level of a decent introductory or intermediate screenwriting class. On a personal level, I enjoyed Judd's class more. He was less pompous, very relatable, and comes across as a genial guy who just wants to give you the benefit of his experience through a lot of really great stories that span his career.

But I keep coming back to the fact that there are hundreds of Apatow interviews out there that cover a lot of the same ground. He has annotated screenplays that also contain a great deal of the information in these lectures and in the scripts offered as bonus materials. If you're interested in those, they include:

The 40 Year-Old Virgin Brainstorm
The 40 Year-Old Virgin Script
The 40 Year-Old Virgin Beat Sheet
Knocked Up Script
Knocked Up table read draft with notes
148 page vomit draft of FUNNY PEOPLE with handwritten notes on them
LOVE season map

It's a decent collection of extras, and Judd's lectures cover a varied range of topics - everything from how you can mine your own life to develop a story to how you set goals to turn out a rough draft. There's some great advice in there about casting and how he uses improv to engage the actor's creativity. It's one of those missed opportunities that Apatow only lectures about this instead of getting a couple acting students and actually workshopping this lesson with them. With a whole series of videos here directed at actors, it could have been valuable for both aspiring comedy directors and actors to see Judd in action.

This is not to say that his advice isn't solid. For as many times as Apatow brings up improv, he also impresses upon his audience the importance of strong story. He posits an exercise where the writer takes all the jokes out of their script, saying "The stories should work just as well without jokes." Considering he popularized, if not pioneered, a style of comedy where some scenes linger a little too long on extended riffs, it's good to see advice like this reinforced.

But so much of what Apatow discusses is available in those free resources he advocated earlier. He talks about how when he started out there was nothing like the internet, or podcasts on comedy. He had to go to the library to look up microfiche on Lenny Bruce. His comedy academy was interviewing comedians for his school paper. That's actually a great story and a good story to get students thinking about ways to research beyond using a Google search bar.

In a world where there weren't a hundred Apatow interviews and commentaries readily available, it would be extremely easy for me to say, "Buy this." But that fact and the comparison to other MasterClass productions makes this a more complicated sell. I think I enjoyed this more than David Mamet's class, which was also entirely lectures and also would be best received by those in an early point in their writing ventures. Apatow's advice is relatable, practical and no bullshit. Mamet is knowledgeable, but reminds you of the professor who talks just to hear himself. Apatow comes off as the kind of instructor who would engage his students and know how to focus their passion.

So here's what my recommendation is going to come down to: with MasterClass you can either purchase a la carte, each class for $90, or you can get an All-Access Pass for $180/year. That means that for the cost of TWO classes you can get everything. Look at that list below. If there are two classes that look interesting, get All-Access Pass and then put Apatow on your Watch list.

For my money, Ron Howard's class is essential, and there's a wealth to be gotten out of either Shonda Rhimes, Aaron Sorkin's or both. I have no problem recommending any of those three at the $90 pricetag. If it won't break your budget and you just have to check them out then maybe Judd's course can be an extra incentive to amoritize.

You can purchase Judd Apatow's MasterClass here for $90.

If the All-Access Pass for $180/year is more your speed, go here.

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Directing (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing

Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting

Christina Aguilera's MasterClass 
deadmau5's MasterClass 
Herbie Hancock teaches Jazz
Hans Zimmer teaches Film Scoring
Reba McEntire teaches Country Music
Usher teaches Performance

Stephen Curry teaches Basketball
Serena Williams teaches Tennis
Garry Kasparov teaches Chess

Wolfgang Puck teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking.
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking

Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography

Friday, August 17, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 10: Act Five Scenes

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes
Part 7: Act Three Scenes
Part 8: Act Four Scenes
Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite

Download the first draft script here.

We start here at the bottom of p. 46.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE - BEDROOM - MORNING - This scene has a simple purpose - remind the audience that Justin and Clay are living under the same roof, with Justin being Clay's adopted brother in this timeline.

SERIES OF SHOTS and EXT. TONY'S NEIGHBORHOOD - This is a lot of narrative shoe leather and connective tissue. I needed to honor the reality that Clay would have gone to school that day, but I didn't have any story I wanted those scenes for, so I skipped through it. After that, the scene in Tony's neighborhood is just there to allow Clay to connect some dots.

INT. BAKER'S DRUG STORE - Another scene that's pretty self-explanatory. It made sense to me that Tony would have sought out help from Olivia, and it made equal sense she'd do what she could by giving him a place to crash in New York.

I'll admit that with some of the plotlines, I tried to project a trajectory for them across 13 episodes, just because it forced me to think of this one episode in a larger context. When it came to Tony's plot, I didn't come up with much beyond the notion he'd probably be back in town within a few episodes.

When it comes to the rest of Clay and Olivia's interactions, though, I did have a few ideas. I think that at some later point in the season, Clay would have tried to use his connection to the other Hannah as a way of bringing some peace to his Olivia. I hadn't worked out what that was. Maybe Clay would eventually tell Hannah what he's experiencing and tell her that his Olivia needs some peace of mind. Perhaps Alternate-Olivia has reacted badly to Hannah's suicide attempt, either becoming over-protective, or maybe she's furious with her, or humiliated, or she's overwhelmed with guilt and in trying to deny it.

However it came out, Alternate-Olivia would have been in a bad place, but through his connection to the other Olivia, Clay would be able to provide Hannah with what she needed. That's a bit abstract, but it's the start of an idea.

There's an important moment here where Clay knows something he learned in the alternate timeline and it turns out to be something true in the "real" timeline. This lends some credence to the idea that both worlds are equally real. Clay certainly seems to think that's the case, as the odds of his dream inventing something that's actually true are pretty long. But it's hardly conclusive and there's room to assume Clay might have heard something about Aunt Laura before, and his subconscious brought it out in the dream.

It's early in the season, so I couldn't give Clay a clue that was TOO definitive, just one that seemed very suggestive, while being explained away with a little effort.

INT. DR. LIZ DUFFIELD'S OFFICE - There's one big objective here - show Clay passing on the chance to treat the Alternate Timeline like a delusion he needs serious treatment for. We know he's pondered that he might be crazy. Now he's in the room with a trained professional and he won't tell her the truth. Maybe some would read this scene as him not wanting to sound crazy, but I was going for the subtext that he doesn't want to be cured of his delusion.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE - BEDROOM - I initially thought I'd go out on the scene with Clay talking to his therapist, smashing to black as we reveal he's embracing the alternate timeline. But I had trouble landing that beat in a succinct line that would provoke a smash-cut to black. So I added this scene of Clay preparing for another timeline shift. It also is a subtle echo of the end of the pilot, which concludes with Clay finishing one tape and then putting on the second side.

Usually when I finish a first draft script, I blast it out to five friends. I mostly use people who've read a lot of my stuff before (and who's own work I've read) and so by now, I'm familiar enough with each of their style of notes that I'm able to decipher what the "note behind the note" is.

"Note behind the note" is an acknowledgement that what people say isn't necessarily what needs to be fixed. Their viewpoint is valid but their diagnosis could be wrong. And by now, I know that there might be certain readers who get particular buttons pushed by something.

My point is - I give it to five people I know and trust. That's enough to get a sense of consensus. I don't always go by majority rules, though. If four of them LOVE something and the fifth picks something apart but does so in a constructive way that makes me realize, "Fuck. I can't ignore THAT observation," I'll probably take that lone reader's advice. On the other hand, if one reader thinks the mystery was too obvious and the other four totally fell for my red herrings, I'll be relieved that a majority took it the way they were meant to.

Then after those five sets of notes come back, I do a rewrite and then blast it out to another four or five people. This is important because it gives you a fresh read on the changes. Go back to the same five people and subconsciously they might still remember the old version. This means they'd have to intellectualize about if the changes really work. Give it to new readers and they don't know what changed, so they're more accepting of everything as a whole.

If I do a rewrite off of these notes, I might send it to a couple people in the first group, hoping that the longer time between them and the more massive changes will make this different enough that it's almost fresh for them. Otherwise, I just suck it up and accept I won't get a totally fresh read.

Eventually, a draft emerges that I'm happy with.

This has been a fun blogging journey over the last two weeks. I hope you guys have gotten something out of it, and I've enjoyed all the comments and tweets from people who enjoyed the script. Feel free to comment further on the script. For now I think I'm done with this, but should inspiration hit and I do any substantial rewrites, I'll detail the process here.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes
Part 7: Act Three Scenes
Part 8: Act Four Scenes

Yesterday I talked a little bit about a moment where Hannah gave me a line of dialogue I didn't anticipate and the implications of that line changed everything about the scene and what I thought I knew about her state of mind.

Today we're going to pick up with the scene that starts on p. 41 of the script.

Download the first draft script here.

EXT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL - AFTERNOON - After a tense parting with Hannah, Clay sees her at the end of the school day with Zach. This is one of those moments I knew had to be in the script in some form. Given their history, we need to see Zach reaching out to Hannah upon her return to school. But it was also the kind of scene that felt too convenient every time I tried to make Clay a witness to it. There were only so many opportunities to play that card and my gut told me I'd already used them all.

The next best thing was for Clay to see them at a distance and maddeningly not know the nature of their conversation. In the two-part segment I wrote earlier this year about the Zach/Hannah retcon in Season 2, I think I was pretty clear about my feelings on this development. But it's part of the show canon and it would be dereliction of duty to ignore that. I feel it can be dangerous to call back to that plot, given the inconsistencies it raises. It can be a little like picking a scab best left benignly alone, but there is a way it could pay dividends.

Remember that the Zach/Hannah relationship isn't on the tape. That means that even though Hannah knows Clay has heard the tapes, she still has no reason to think her history with Zach is known to him. That alone is another bomb waiting to drop at some point in the season. It would be interesting if Clay and Hannah were getting closer together and it bothered Clay that she was going to keep this part of her history secret.

Clay is also in the unique position of possibly losing his virginity twice, technically. Let's say he sleeps with Sheri in the Prime timeline during midseason. If the possibility of a hook-up with Hananh presents itself again, once Hannah lays her cards on the table about her history, Clay has two options:

1) lie and say he's a virgin. Which is true in this alternate timeline but not for Clay.
2) tell the truth and then have a real dilemma. It would be a lie to tell Hannah he lost his virginity to Sheri because Clay didn't sleep with the Sheri who Hannah knows. But it would also be dishonest if he decides to claim it was some random girl Hannah didn't know. And we know Clay isn't a good enough liar to pull off any of these lies.

There are a lot of ways to get to this complication, and most of them involve building off the Zach/Hannah past. For both reasons of plot and character, there should be acknowledgement of that here.

With that out of the way, let's get onto:

INT. MONET'S CAFE - NIGHT - I was pretty sure I knew how this scene was going to play in the story break. It was the last time Hannah and Clay interacted in this episode and from the beginning, I wanted him to be able to tell her that he'd spent the last year "thinking about" how horrible it would have been if she succeeded in suicide. He was going to pour his heart out about what she meant to him, all the ways he wished he'd been better to her and everything he was going to do differently now.

It was Clay's big moment. Figure for a year he's imagined what he would say to her, much like his imagined conversation with her in the room that night, the one where Hannah's haunting reply was "Why didn't you say this to me when I was alive?"

So in some ways I wanted to pay that off. I wanted a catharsis for Clay. It was his chance to let go of anything he was holding inside and in doing that, I figured it would bond him even tighter to this reality. It all flowed from a character perspective. It also meant this scene was all about Clay. And there's nothing wrong with that - he's the core of the show and this story.

But when I approached this scene as a follow-up to Hannah's "I ruined you," it changed EVERYTHING. It forced an approach that had HANNAH pouring her heart out, explaining what she had been through in the last year. It let Hannah speak for herself, filling in some gaps from both before her suicide attempt and explaining some of her distance and behavior since then.

For most of this scene, I felt like I was transcribing more than I was writing. Hannah took over, decided the scene was about her and dictated everything while my typing fingers raced to keep up. This scene was part of the day where I turned around 12 pages in 5 hours because I just felt very keyed into what Hannah was going to say and how Clay was going to have to react to that.

It didn't matter that it changed two scenes that I had been sure were going to mean something else. When you hit a point where the characters start doing their own thing, run with it as far as possible. On the off chance that you go down a wrong path, you can always rewrite later.

So this was Hannah, expressing concern that her medication hadn't just taken away the intensity of how she felt towards Clay last year, but also pondering that maybe she hadn't really been in love with him in the first place - that she'd convinced herself of that because he was "safe." He was a life preserver she needed, and that's why she freaked out that night - her mind was telling her body that it was wrong for her to use Clay like this.

Is Hannah right? I don't know. But this is what she believes right now. It changed what I thought was going to happen with regard to Clay embracing this timeline. I thought this scene would represent Clay committing himself to this reality, not this reality seemingly rejecting him. But when the dust settled, I realized this was more compelling. Hannah's accessible, but just out of his reach. It forces him to strain to get her.

It gives Clay a challenge instead of a win. That feels like better drama. For some of the audience, it might even raise enough doubt about the desirability of this world that the ending is more of a shock when Clay decides not to tell his therapist about his experience, meaning that if it is a delusion, he's actively not seeking help for it.

Hopefully this was a good example of how you draw on older stories to find fertile ground for new conflicts, and also how sometimes your characters know better what they bring to the table than you do.

(This scene also has a pretty big goof on my part. The dance that Hannah refers to and that Clay says he's thought about for a year and a half isn't the Spring Fling. It was the Winter Formal.)

We'll wrap all this up tomorrow with a look at the final act of the script.

Part 10: Act Five Scenes

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 8: Act Four Scenes

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes
Part 7: Act Three Scenes

Download the first draft script here.

Today we're gonna get to discuss one of my favorite things that can happen when you write a script. But we'll get to that soon enough...

Act Four basically starts on p. 32 of the script, with Clay shifting back to the alternate timeline. I don't have much to say about the first couple scenes. They're mostly narrative shoe leather, but I wanted to have a little bit of a build-up to Tony's appearance. I was hoping that would have some impact coming on the heels of learning a bit more about what happened to him.

EXT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL - MORNING - Clay catches Tony up on his predicament off-screen. I originally had a little more dialogue here where they both debated if Clay was crazy and this was a figment of his imagination. Tony said, "Look, I know you're not imagining me," to which Clay replied, "that's just what a figment of my imagination would say." It was a little too jokey, and though I wrote it hoping it would let us acknowledge that Clay can either second-guess everything OR he can move forward. Weirdly, as soon as I raised the issue it seemed to make that concern even more of an elephant in the room. This is why the scene starts with a little disbelief from Tony and moves immediately to Clay hitting him with information he shouldn't know (at least from Tony's POV.)

One of the functions of this scene is to fill in some blanks about what happened in this timeline after Hannah didn't die. I was worried about this because it was an infodump, but once I started writing, I realized what a gift Tony is when you need exposition. He has a real point of view, and an emotional one at that - he's concerned for Clay. He's keeping secrets for Hannah, now Clay shows up, tells a crazy story and is pushing Tony for info that might be damaging to share. Clay's function in this scene is to get information. He's got a valid motivation for it, but it's Tony's stake as Hannah's confidant that gives this scene some juice.

This was one scene that changed drastically when I got to writing it. I went into this scene with the notion that Tony would give us a flashback that explained how Hannah didn't die in this timeline. We'd hear about how her mother arrived home sooner, due to a small chain of events that happened differently here. (It would have been something like a customer at the Baker's drug store would have accidentally spilled something on Olivia's clothes, leading her to go home earlier to change on a break, leading her to find Hannah soon enough that she'd survive.

I hadn't worked out the details, but it would have been a butterfly effect kind of thing, where one tiny difference ended up putting Olivia at home sooner. But when I got there, I didn't have much interest in writing that flashback and I realized any scene I wrote would be competing with (and might even compromise the memory and impact of) the scene where Olivia finds Hannah dead. There are some moments that shouldn't be trampled on, some callbacks that that can throw you right out of a story.

In the moment, I decided maybe it shouldn't be about Clay asking how Hannah survived, but that Tony might wonder how Clay found out Hannah died. It was a line that just grew organically out of Tony's concern for Clay, but as soon as I wrote it I realized the show had never even alluded to the moment Clay learned of Hannah's suicide.

I knew right away I wanted it to be a moment without any of the expected TV melodrama. I didn't want someone telling Clay in a sad voice, "You'd better sit down." I also didn't want a moment where Clay gets the bad news at home and breaks into tears as his parents try to comfort him. I thought about Clay and how this was going to be a moment burned into his memory forever. I wanted to find the worst possible surroundings for such a moment.

INT. CRESTMONT THEATER - BATHROOM - NIGHT - FLASHBACK - Isolating Clay from anyone else felt like the right way to go. We saw in season one that group texts circulated a lot of info. It made sense Hannah's suicide would have lit that up right away. It justified Clay having no one to lean on when he gets the worst news of his life.

Plunging a toilet also felt like one of the least dignified things a person could be doing when they get bad news like that. Clay already feels pretty low for having to clean this up, and then he gets sucker punched with the news about Hannah and it's just too much for him to bear. He shuts down and can't even cry.

When we returned to the present, I wanted Tony to transition us to a Clay/Hannah scene and so it seemed to set up some tension by having him say, basically, "Things have changed. She's changed."

INT. LIBRARY - The first chance Clay and Hannah have to talk since his earlier mistake. I wanted to have Hannah be over her earlier reaction by now. It felt like once she had a chance to calm down, she'd realize she doesn't want to hold Clay in contempt for a while. She doesn't WANT to be mad at him and that gives him some slack.

And yes, I'm starting with them reconciling just so I can really divide them by the end of this scene. Having Hannah immediately absolve Clay keeps this scene from feeling like a 180 on top of a 180.

Bryce's arrival here is probably a little flimsy. The problem is that it's tricky to set that up in earlier scenes without telegraphing what's probably going to happen here. For this draft, I allowed myself the coincidence, but it's flagged as something I'd like to improve.

Because we've seen Bryce shrug off a punch from Clay before, they only way Clay would lay him out is if it was a total sucker punch. Gravity does most of the work here anyway, once Clay throws him off balance. My hope is that most of the audience is so thrilled to see Clay actually trip that smirking punk that they don't even think about how much this whole thing would rightly upset Hannah.

INT. HALLWAY - First, just to deal with a bit at the end of the scene, Alex is here for two reasons - I needed someone to tell Clay, "Let her have her space." I also realized that we hadn't seen his non-impaired counterpart yet and I was low on options for where to feature him.

It's SO Clay to think he was helping Hannah by beating up her rapist, and also to not get that it isn't JUST being in the same room with Bryce that upset her. I really think Clay meant well and he's had the experience of seeing Bryce get a slap on the wrist, which was possibly even more enraging than when he wasn't even going to be charged.

When Clay catches up to Hannah, he thinks she's just upset about seeing Bryce again. Funny thing about that - that's what I thought she was mad about... until I went to write that particular line of dialogue. I was trying to figure out how to express her turmoil at seeing Bryce again when I heard Hannah's voice in my head and she said, "I ruined you."

Shit. That's where she's taking this scene? I thought.

This was the first - but not the last - time that one of the characters I was writing just took a look at what I was about to put in their mouth and said, "I think I'll speak for myself, thanks."

When this happens, GO WITH IT. When the characters are talking to you, let them speak because often what they have to say is WAY more interesting than what you were going to have them do.

The context: In season one, when Clay finally gets to his tape, we learn that on the night of Jess's party he and Hannah started to hook up. As things got physical, Hannah was triggered with PTSD from virtually every other sexual contact she's had. She freaks out, tells Clay to get off of her and then throws him out of the room. Clay, not sure what just happened but also fearing he did something wrong, goes.

When Hannah recounts this story on her tape, she tells Clay part of the reason she reacted this way was, "you aren't every other guy. You're different. You're good and kind and decent. And I didn't deserve to be with someone like you. I never would. I would have ruined you. It wasn't you. It was me. And everything that's happened to me."

One of her biggest fears was ruining Clay. And I didn't quite realize until Hannah told me herself that if Hannah saw everything her tapes did to Clay, she might see her horrible fear realized.

That was FAR more interesting than just any PTSD from Bryce because it's a conflict that challenges the very core of season one - the love story between Clay and Hannah. It shows a consequence to Hannah's actions that she now has to deal with and it provides Clay with something to deal with in that just having Hannah alive doesn't make everything wonderful and happy.

Listen to your characters. And that's something I'll talk about more tomorrow.

Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite
Part 10: Act Five Scenes

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 7: Act Three scenes

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes

Today we're going scene-by-scene through Act 3 as I give you a sense of what the break/scripting process was for these scenes. Hopefully it'll serve as a good example of the kinds of things you need to consider when breaking a story and when translating your outline into actual scenes.

Download the script here and start on p. 22.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE, BEDROOM - MORNING - Let's talk a little bit about the function of a scene. This is the scene where Clay wakes up in bed and realizes due to the fact that Sheri is next to him that he's in the Prime timeline again. There are two ways to play that: "Whoa! Was that just a strange dream?" or "I'm moving between realities, somehow!" These moments are always a bit tricky to write because in a sense, the audience is already ahead of the character in getting what's going on and accepting it. They know the story they signed on for and now they have to wait for the character to be all in.

(In a comedy, this point in the story is a little more fun to write because the protagonist is allowed to be humorously bewildered and frustrated. Think about the first trip through the time loop for Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, or when Jim Carrey discovers in Liar, Liar that he's incapable of telling a falsehood. In a drama, it's easier for this beat to feel perfunctory.)

There was a little bit of this dilemma the first time Clay shifted, but there I was able to use the big shock of Hannah being alive to provoke Clay's shock at what happened and blow past any question of HOW it happened. But now that Clay's back in "his" world, you need to have him react. I decided that since he experienced a full day and actually physically interacted with the world, he would be satisfied it was "real." I didn't want to waste a beat on, "Am I dreaming?" It's schmuck bait because the audience knows he's not dreaming.

And if Clay was losing his mind, and the "Hannah lives" world is just an vivid delusion, would he likely have the presence of mind to wonder if he was crazy? In the interests of pacing I just decided, "He accepts what's going on. His concern now is the 'rules' of moving between the two worlds." That's at how I arrived at his acceptance that "I'm living each day twice." And then once we saw he understood that, I wanted to end the scene as fast as possible.

That's why his mother bursts in when she does. It's less about the gag of Clay being caught in bed with a girl and more about getting out of the scene before Sheri has to react to Clay's behavior.

By the way, I'm sure that some writers would have made a meal out of Clay wondering if he's going crazy this early. It just wasn't to my taste, at least not at this point in the arc.

EXT. BAKER' S DRUG STORE - This scene is pretty self-explanatory. Clay and Sheri find Mrs. Baker at the drug store, which has finally found a buyer. Hopefully the first time through, most readers are satisfied that the only reason she's in town is to finalize the sale. As we learn later, her visit has another purpose.

I originally thought I might have Clay passing a message from Hannah to her mother (or vice-versa). Some moment of connection between mother and daughter where either Mrs. Baker gets one last interaction with Hannah, or Hannah better understands her mother now that Olivia has lived out the worst case scenario.

I actually still like that idea, but there was no place to execute it here. It felt more like something an entire episode would be built around.

INT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL, HALLWAY - I didn't have many opportunities to write for Jess and I found I like the dynamic of her alternately supporting and teasing Clay. This is another scene that exists to show the difference in the Prime and Alternate versions of people. It's also where we see Clay putting together a lot of little things to realize there's tension between Justin and Jess... something that seems different from their prior tension. (And also, if the audience somehow didn't see the prior season or missed all the little clues, having Clay make the observation helps them catch up.)

Thirdly, it's a small showcase for the brotherly dynamic between Clay and Justin.

INT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL  - LUNCH TABLES - I'll use this to point out the transition. The last scene ended with Clay wondering about something he witnessed, now this scene goes straight to him acting on it.

I went back and forth on if it was fair play to go into Jessica's mind to see her flashbacks here. Technically it's a cheat because everything's been from Clay's point of view. On the other hand, it's a flashback to a scene the audience has already seen, so nothing new is revealed they didn't already know. It's there as a reminder.

You'll also note that while Jess and Alex have their moment together, I made sure it happened somewhere where Clay could witness it. Clay is supposed to be our eyes and ears. The story can't go somewhere he doesn't.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM - We meet Detective Diamond in a scene designed to help bridge the five-month gap between last season's finale and now. I didn't want Tyler's near-shooting at the school to be the focal point of this episode, but I couldn't ignore it either. I also couldn't see how Clay would have ended up in too much trouble even thought he had the gun when police showed up. That's the kind of thing he either talks his way out of and nothing happens, or he doesn't and you're stuck with a storyline about Clay clearing himself of something we already know he didn't do.

So that's how I landed on Clay being regarded as a witness, with there being a manhunt for Tyler and his presumed accomplice Tony. It seemed right to put Clay in an ethical dilemma where he's caught between his desire to help Tony and the possibility he'll have to break the law. It also allows for a slower burn where maybe in doing so, he ends up doing something that can land him in jail. My original concept was that the Act Three ending would be Tyler being arrested, with that raising the stakes for Clay, who'd kept some secrets for several months.

That was when I thought I wanted to end the episode with Clay getting arrested and put in lockup awaiting bail. When I realized that was accelerating things too much, I turned my focus to just laying pipe that could feel like it was setting the state for a much bigger consequence a few episodes down the line.

I also think there's a good chance Detective Diamond is being a little manipulative here, giving Clay some information so he can see what he does with it.

It makes for a softer Act-Out than I liked, but there's enough of a sinister tone, especially with Clay's concern that if Tyler is caught, his life is over.

General thoughts: You'll notice the thrust of Act Three is often about the absence of people who Clay can see in the other world. Here, Clay wakes to a different girl in his bed. His encounter with Olivia is another reminder of the loss of Hannah. At school, he doesn't have Tony to lean on and the end of the act reminds us of where Tyler and Tony are and what they're probably facing if they're ever caught.

If I was going to do a rewrite, I might try to hit that subtext a little harder than I did in this draft. This part of the script feels a little soft... though that's not out of the ordinary for a Netflix show. They're more willing to slow things down for a character beat in the middle of the story and not be as wedded to the idea that every scene MUST advance the plot.

Part 8: Act Four Scenes
Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite
Part 10: Act Five Scenes

Monday, August 13, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 6: Act Two scenes

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes

I continue with my "writer's commentary" as we go into Act Two. If you want to follow along, Download the script here and start on p. 12.

EXT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL - ALTERNATE TIMELINE - We've already thrown a living Hannah at the audience, so now it's time to send Clay to school and have him keep encountering reminders that things are very different here. Sheri, of course, had to be the first one he encountered. It was here I realized that the distinction between the hardened Sheri and the sweet one largely comes down to how the actress carries herself differently. There are nuances of dialogue too, but they come out in specific situations. Hardened Sheri is a bit wearier and a bit more likely to speak her mind rather than be a people pleaser. The trick here is that Clay quickly brings up what Sheri thinks is a secret, so she immediately has to get confrontational.

This scene also reveals a big detail to Clay and the audience - somehow Hannah's tapes weren't circulated in this timeline. That means Sheri's secret remains a secret, she never turned herself in, and that the suppression of the tapes probably resulted in a Butterfly Effect series of different consequences.

INT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL, HALLWAY - ALTERNATE TIMELINE - Another landmark difference exposed right off the bat - here, Bryce is a member of the Hall of Fame and got a full ride to Stanford instead of having a rape conviction, losing a year of his credits and being reassigned to another school.

Tony is also still in school in this timeline. This goes back to something I've discussed before - I wanted a few ways for the audience to know immediately which timeline we were in, at least until they got used to the flip-flopping. Hannah's presence is one such tell and it's also why here Tony is only featured in this timeline. Later, it led to me taking Mrs. Baker out of an alternate timeline sequence because I was already using her in the Prime timeline.

I knew it was safe to assume that Tony would have heard all of the tapes, and so that rationalizes his closeness with Clay. This Tony might not have gone through everything with Clay that we saw in season 1, but he'd still be sympathetic to the kid, particularly where Hannah's concerned.

With Clay/Hannah's part of the scene, I just wanted to plant the thought that "If they woke up together, they definitely went to sleep together and there was probably at least a conversation that led to that.

Tyler's purpose here is pretty self-explanatory and I decided Justin's appearance would have more impact if he first showed up as his cleaner, bro-ier self as opposed to the kinder heroin addict who's been adopted as Clay's brother.

INT. SCHOOL CAFETERIA - ALTERNATE TIMELINE - This is another bit that I think is self-explanatory. Jess is more like the Season 1 incarnation, with the difference here that she was never motivated to speak up about her rape. She mentions Hannah's tapes, and the reason for that is that it felt to me like the more interesting contrast was if she heard the tapes and assumed Hannah was lying AND that she'd done all of this for attention at the expense of the people she named. I liked the idea of Hannah having to deal with some fallout from what she did and it was easy to rationalize the tapes made it to Jess before Tony recovered them.

I also decided I DIDN'T want Tyler to know he'd been fingered as a "reason why," so that left the only wild card being if Alex heard the tapes or not. I had to think a while about what made for the more interesting story. Alex was one of the few people who felt guilty about how he treated Hannah once he heard the tapes. It ate at him so much he attempted suicide. I didn't want this Alex to go that far, largely since we've already seen that and it would put him on too close a path to his counterpart. (Yes, I suppose that since Hannah didn't die, Alex would have substantially less guilt in this timeline.)

It soon became clear the option with the most potential was that only Justin and Jess got the tapes. It denies most of them the context that would make Jess's personality shift more alarming. This also puts this Jess and Alex at more of a distance from each other, another solid contrast from their Prime selves.

By the way, I kinda like writing bitchy Jess. She's TERRIBLE to Hannah, but that conflict usually makes for charged scenes.

INT. BAKER'S DRUG STORE - ALTERNATE TIMELINE - I needed a good act-out and one that threatened the Clay/Hannah relationship seemed to be right on the money. I didn't think it was too much of a stretch that Clay would blunder into upsetting her by bringing up the tapes. Cluelessly, he thinks she's finding it too hard to tell him something she wants to share. He thinks he's helping by saying, "Yeah, I already know everything."

Remember, his last truly significant conversation with Hannah was the night she freaked out. He KNOWS that on the day she tried to kill herself, she told Mr. Porter, "Clay Jensen hates me." In his mind, he failed her that night at the party, both by triggering her and then by not staying and finding a way for her to explain what was going on. He's had a year to think, "I want that night back. I want her to know I understand. I want her to know I care about her and I want to help her."

So that explains his eagerness to deal with the subject, and once he learns she's had a hard time talking about it, his solution is "Let's just get past it. I'll save you the trouble." It's exactly the wrong thing to say. She clearly rethought putting the whole story out there and probably had a lot of relief about not having to deal with everyone hear her pour her heart out.

For me, this feels like what you want in a character conflict - the points of view are established firmly enough that you can understand each side's reactions and the personalities are consistent enough that you understand what motivates them. Here you can see the disconnect in how Clay's brain works and how sometimes he has a blindspot when it comes to understanding Hannah's perspective.

He says the wrong thing in a well-meaning way, she tells him to leave. She's trying to diffuse, he's trying to explain, and in a very Clay-like way, says something else that comes out badly.

For me, this was a scene with pretty clear objectives and it wrote pretty easily. Sometimes the best scenes come from putting characters you know well into a scenario that lands them at cross purposes.

And with that, we've reached the end of Act Two. Tomorrow, Act Three!

Part 7: Act Three Scenes
Part 8: Act Four Scenes
Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite
Part 10: Act Five Scenes

Friday, August 10, 2018

Writing a Spec Episode - Part 5: Act One Scenes

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break

Next up in this utterly exhaustive look at my process, I thought I might go scene by scene, so that I can illuminate the purpose of each scene and discuss what went into fleshing out my story break.

Download the first draft script here and follow along.

We begin with voiceover from Clay. I landed on this as an opening after wanting to find as many ways as possible to make this feel like a true episode of the show. I've already blown up the format, which has the consequence of making everything from Clay's point of view. That's a pretty serious shift from how earlier seasons, especially the immediately preceding season, were structured. Both season 1 and 2 begin with voiceovers of a sort - first Hannah's then Tyler's. Having Clay speak to the audience while ostensibly speaking to another character felt like a subtle way to connect this opening to the show's roots.

Clay guides us through a series of flashbacks that occurred in the crucial first season episodes 9 through 11. Those shows are where all the dominoes fell that really broke Hannah: Her first hookup with Clay triggered sexual abuse PTSD, resulting in trauma and her alienating a boy she really likes. She witnessed Jessica's rape and was powerless to act, and after that she was in a car accident that set the stage for a later, fatal accident that killed another student. It's the one night that changed everything for everybody - everything goes back to that night at Jess's party.

It felt right to me to set this "season premiere" one year after that party, at the end of summer just before school starts. That not only gave him something to talk about with his therapist - dealing with the anniversary of such a loaded event, the first one that will set off a series of anniversary reminders of Hannah's suicide - but it also gave me fodder for later scenes.

Clay's talking here about how much he's thought about how things could have gone differently that night, setting up the premise of him getting to experience an alternate timeline. There was one thing that concerned me - as I said, there were plenty of reasons to showcase the anniversary of the party, but would an audience be confused by an opening that was about "What if the party went differently" and then ten pages later, they're given an alternate timeline, but one not specifically borne of that scenario?

I didn't want the audience to be confused, thinking that Clay's opening speech is preparation for exactly how the Alternate Timeline saw events play out. On the other hand, if EXACTLY what Clay is obsessing over becomes the world he enters, that seems to make a stronger statement that the alternate world is a figment of his imagination.

In the end, I liked the therapist pushing him to confront that first anniversary, so I decided to ride that horse. I figure if too many readers report being confused on this point, I can always pull back on the flashbacks.

(Oh, and I'm not going to call out EVERY inside joke, but Dr. Liz Duffield is named for two writers I know via Twitter who also happen to be 13 Reasons Why fans - Liz Hannah (THE POST) and Brian Duffield (the upcoming SPONTANEOUS, which happens to star Katherine Langford.) I couldn't resist the inside joke.)

Therapy scenes can often be an easy way of getting characters to talk about their feelings. It's also a trap where things can come out too on the nose. I decided Clay would be in a place where he accepts he needs help and that he'd even be able to share the things he expects he'd have to. But I also feel like Clay might be saying things in there he wants to believe more than he actually believes them. We saw last season he went a little overboard on research when he tried to help Skye. I didn't see any reason he wouldn't do the same for himself, and figured he might even try to convince himself of a catharsis even if he hadn't arrived at that emotional place yet.

Clay saying the anniversary of the party is going to be hard is true, but it's not what he's really at therapy for. He's there to work through why it's hard and everything he feels about that night that isn't obvious. At this point, he's only willing to go so far. He's guarded but he THINKS he's being forthcoming. There's a meta-awareness of how this conversation is supposed to go, and to an extend, Clay's following that script, probably on a subconscious level. I wanted the therapist to call him out on that a little bit, and I decided that was probably as far as she should get in this first scene.

INT. CLAY'S BEDROOM - I wanted a transition between the therapy session and Clay going to see Jessica. So there was a turn here, I decided that Clay would be leaning towards not going to Jess, avoiding memories of the party, and then have him swayed by something. Eventually I landed on a small moment - Clay seeing a memento from the Spring Fling, where all the kids really supported each other.

In season one, Clay was pretty much an outsider among his peers. Season two started chipping away at that, finally reaching a point in the final third where most of the kids on the tapes show up at Jess's in a show of solidarity and support before she testifies. That moment is the first real moment where the audience senses, "These kids have a bond," and that feeling is reinforced several times in the season two finale. Calling back to that seemed like a good way to get the audience in the right emotional headspace.

EXT./INT. JESSICA'S HOUSE  - Since half the script was going to take place in an alternate timeline where these kids aren't all close, I really wanted to use this first act to showcase their friendly relationships. Ergo, Clay arrives to find everyone else had the same idea about supporting Jess on this difficult anniversary.

This also presented opportunities to establish things about these characters that will be contrasted by their alternate versions. That drove some of this, such as:

- Alex showing off his cane trick is something I conceived just so there'd be a memorable reminder of his physical state here. His alternate doppelganger never attempted suicide, so he'll still be fully mobile and unimpaired.

- Alex and Jess are a couple in the Prime timeline, but won't be together in the other one. I wanted to make sure that was something that stood out.

- Courtney is a member of the group in this timeline, but in the other one, she's a shallow phony. Alternate Courtney is like a more terrible version of Buffy's Cordelia. I was bummed I couldn't find a way to make that play more here, but was less upset when I realized I didn't really have a place for a "bitchy Courtney" scene later in the script.

- Sheri is a bit more hardened and reserved due to her time in juvie.

So I wanted to show as many of those interactions as I could and I wanted this "party" scene to feel different from Jess's last party. No beer, no loud music, no loud crowds. It was going to be a more intimate setting where they just did silly things and had fun. That's why I have them playing "Mafia" and not beer pong.

I briefly had them doing karaoke too, but that became a tool in procrastination as I tried to figure out the perfect song for each of them to sing. (The winning idea probably would have been Jess and Sheri dueting on "What is this Feeling?" from Wicked, but I shelved the gag when I worried I was getting too indulgent.)

I want to talk about this sequence as a whole because it went through several permutations. I went into the writing of this thinking it was my big chance to show I could write the whole ensemble and I was determined to give everyone their moment there. Aside from the aforementioned karaoke scene, I had other things like Zach and Ryan competing against each other in Charades; a Sheri/Courtney moment where Courtney's trying hard to be friendly to Sheri, but Sheri's defenses are up and she all but flat-out says she doesn't trust Courtney isn't still the conniving two-face she was in season one; and I kept trying to squeeze in a conversation between Clay and Alex.

Very few of these pages survived long before I realized none of it was particularly working. I felt like I was trying to force fun into the scenes instead of the scenes themselves emerging as fun, to say nothing of the fact it was too long. Way too long. Thus, I did what I usually do when I feel like I'm forcing pages - I took a long walk and by the time I was done, I figured out what I needed to do.

The scenes were trying to do much. Once I freed myself of trying to give everyone their moment, I was able to refocus on what the scenes needed to accomplish. Clay was getting lost while everyone else was taking over. So I started pruning away scenes that mattered the least. Courtney/Sheri's moment became Clay/Sheri's scene together, where I could still showcase her attitude while keeping Clay's story in mind. Zach and Ryan became casualties as I realized I had very little for their alternate counterparts to do that would contrast with this.

And once I did that, the stuff with Alex and Jess worked better - especially since I realized I should have Clay start picking up on every little hint of the Alex/Jess/Justin triangle. That made it part of something bigger - Clay noticing the pieces - rather than just playing the discord without anyone noticing.

I'll be honest, I'm still not satisfied with this sequence at Jess's house. There are moments I like, but I can't help but feel there's a better version of all of this that comes closer to giving everyone their due. This isn't quite there yet. I feel like it's better than the "Here's the bad version" sequence, but it's not as flawless as it needs to be.

INT. JESSICA'S HOUSE, KITCHEN - This scene is here to reinforces the Sheri/Clay connection we've seen throughout the first two seasons. I wanted someone to acknowledge that this was a pretty shitty night for Sheri too and also call back again to what she lost in the past year. Obviously this could work to set up a Sheri/Clay/Hannah triangle down the line too. Beyond that, Sheri's one of my favorite of the second-tier cast and I wanted to play with her a little.

INT. JESSICA'S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM - This scene's here because I again wanted to push the Clay/Jess friendship. I like the idea that these two would be looking out for each other in the coming weeks (maybe because it's easier for them to worry about the other one than worry about themselves.) Also, it's a way of getting out in front of the audience that Tony's MIA.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE, BEDROOM - Note that I use Clay's last line in the prior scene, about Sheri, as a way of transitioning to this scene, which starts with Sheri's arrival. Always look for transitions. They certainly help the read. A friend of mine once pointed out that a lot of my scenes in a particular script ended with questions, and the next scene would always have a connection to that question, even if it wasn't obvious at the time. In more subtle cases, you can use the question ending one scene to direct the audience's perception of the next scene.

Here we further unpack what the last year cost Sheri, how much of her life and innocence was destroyed as a result of the accident and from her secret getting out via the tapes. It's there for the contrast with Alternate Sheri. This is also why I had her open up to him about her sexual assault, so when Clay meets the other Sheri, he instantly understands just how much Sheri was punished for her mistake.

Also, because she has just opened up to him about sexual assault, I made sure that Clay was cautious in how he reacted. He's awkward about touching her not because he's awkward around girls, but more because he's thinking of how Hannah was triggered last year by their contact. His conflict here is balancing that concern with the very human urge to comfort someone in pain.

This is why Sheri makes the first move. Did she go there with the intent to get involved physically? Well, she snuck in a window after midnight, so I doubt the possibility of a hookup was entirely out of her mind.

I wanted this scene to end with him in bed with Sheri so that in the morning, he'd have to quickly hide his bed companion.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE, BEDROOM - MORNING - Clay falls asleep, wakes up, and has to hide the girl in his bed very quickly before his father sees. This is all in service of giving Alternate Hannah an entrance. She comes out from under the covers and Clay gets the shock of his life.

Here's an interesting thing - if we were doing this for a network show, this would be the commercial break. Where within the scene would you place the break?

1. After Hannah is first revealed
Pros: It's a big shock as we go into commercial. The audience doesn't have time for that to wear off before asking "What's next?"

Cons: We've seen Clay interact with versions of Hannah that aren't there before so going out on that beat might have a "been there, done that" feeling AND leave the audience with doubt that this really is Hannah.

2. After Clay notes the scars on Hannah's wrists
Pros: It's a big visual moment. It also communicates story - we see that she at least attempted suicide but somehow survived. That's a big thing to leave the audience pondering during the break.

Cons: Is it confusing to throw that much at the audience at once?

3. After Hannah leaves
Pros: It means we experience the Hannah/Clay reunion as one complete scene instead of building an artificial break for commercials.

Cons: Leaving after the scene has ended means that we don't have the most compelling hook as we go into commercial.

This is why I'd go with #2. It feels like the point where tension and shock are at their highest.

Beyond that, this scene doesn't establish much beyond "Hannah's alive" and "She's comfortable enough with Clay to at least stay over in his bed, fully clothed."

Next week, we'll cover the rest, starting with Act Two.

Part 6: Act Two Scenes
Part 7: Act Three Scenes
Part 8: Act Four Scenes
Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite
Part 10: Act Five Scenes

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 4: The Break

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development

When you're breaking a TV spec - be it a pilot or a spec episode, the first detail you should know is how many act breaks you have. Know the structure of the show you're specing. You can easily glean it just by watching that show itself and counting how many times they break for commercial. That short scene before the main titles? It's usually called a COLD OPEN and if the show returns immediately after the title, that segment is usually called TEASER and not ACT ONE. It's only after the first commercial break that you get into ACT ONE.

But not every show follows this pattern, so if possible, it's always best to find an actual script from the show, either online or at the WGA Library (if you happen to be in Los Angeles.)

13 Reasons Why is a Netflix show, which means there aren't any commercial breaks or traditional acts. That changes things a bit because the structure of television storytelling has always been dictated by those act breaks. Each act break must be a climax of some kind, a story turn. This is why you hear writers on some CW shows lament that they're essentially writing a seven-act show when back in the days of BUFFY, the writers only had to worry about four acts. It changes the momentum of the story and forces more twists into an episode. This is not always a good thing.

Having said that, I like the Act Breaks for the way they impose structure on your story and give you a skeleton to build upon. I wrote a 13 Reasons Why spec for the workshop and fellowship programs earlier this year and one of the first questions I had to confront was how to break the script. I had a copy of the pilot, which DID break everything into five acts, but that draft was from before the show was bought by Netflix. I learned from someone on the show that the scripts didn't have traditional act breaks (a fact I later verified by reading copies at the WGA Library) and that during story breaks, the writers wouldn't always break story around traditional act outs, though usually you could probably impose a typical structure onto an episode if you tried hard enough.

Because I was used to breaking in five acts, that was what I did to build the story on my last spec. It was nice knowing I had the freedom to allow some of those beats to be "softer" than they'd have to be as pre-commercial hooks on a network, but it also ensured I built a story that had a number of turns. I decided to take a similar approach to this spec, breaking it as if it had five acts.

As it turned out, I wrote it so Clay alternated worlds with each act. In other words, He starts Act One in the world we've known from the start of the series, with the climax of that Act being his arrival in the alternate timeline. He spends Act Two there, shifts back to the Prime timeline in Act Three, returns to the alternate one in Act Four and then is back home for Act Five. I got to work thinking of dramatic peaks that would accompany those shifts.

Reacting to Hannah being alive was an obvious end to the first act. I started there and began brainstorming everything else that should happen in this supposed season premiere.

I sent myself off to script from this stage. I want to stress that I skipped a part of the process here, both if this was me doing an original TV pilot or if you were part of a writers' room breaking a story on The Board. Usually you write a detailed outline first. My outlines for my own reference come out at 8-12 pages. If you're writing a one-hour outline for TV, figure 12-15 pages. Since I was playing with existing characters and I had a fair amount of notes already generated, I went to script once I finished my break. Yeah, I cut an important corner, but this script still is mostly an exercise, so it felt fair to do so.

When possible, I like to construct around my act breaks:

FIRST ACT BREAK - "Clay wakes up. Hannah's in bed with him. Alive." We've covered how I got to this beat.

SECOND ACT BREAK - I knew this had to be something big happening in the alternate world that Clay would have to figure out how to solve once he's sent back to "his" world. Conflict with Hannah was a natural way to go. He got her back, now he fucks it up somehow. It had to be a bomb, but not the biggest bomb he could drop. After some thought, the best way to have Clay screw himself over would be to tell Hannah he's heard the tapes. (In this timeline, she had them recovered early on and decided to keep her secrets, including how she poured her heart out to Clay.) It let me have Clay try to do what he thought was helpful while accidentally poking Hannah's insecurities and also building a turn around another big distinction between the worlds. It also felt like a great way to take one of the biggest unresolved issues between Clay and Hannah (how their near-hookup went so bad) and put the characters in a place where they'd have to deal with it to move forward.

THIRD ACT BREAK - You might have noticed my original Act Three act-out was "Tyler has been arrested." If you read the script, you'll see that's not what happened. My original notion was that Tyler had been on the run for five months, but his capture would spring that story to life. I'd imagined that after Clay disarmed him and Tony whisked Tyler away from the scene, Clay gave the cops a sanitized version of the encounter which left Clay in the clear and failed to implicate Tony. (Tony, not knowing any of this, would still have remained in hiding, trying to avoid his third strike.) If you look at Act Five on this chart, you'll see that I had Clay being arrested, and being confronted with school surveillance video of him stopping Tyler.

I was trying to build to a cliffhanger where Clay's life in the "Hannah's dead" reality was so bad that embracing the "Hannah's alive" reality would become more attractive. If you subscribe to the notion that the latter has to be a delusion, it would be quite an escalation of Clay's mental illness. As I worked my way through the script, I realized that things were moving a little too fast there. If I was going to treat this like the first chapter of 13, I could get away with slowboating Tyler's reappearance until a later part of the season when the stage has been set for it to do more damage.

I'm going to delve more into my scene-by-scene process in a later post, using the actual script. This particular plot point is a good example of how I'll break story thinking something will really drive things forward, and then when I get there, I'll realize it's too soon or I can find a better dramatic beat that comes out of something I discovered on the way.

Note: When writing for yourself, you can call this audible. If a writers' room had broken this story, once I go off to outline or script, I CANNOT make these kinds of major changes without consulting the showrunner.

FOURTH ACT BREAK - This is an interesting one. You'll notice I held a blank spot at the end because in the break, I wasn't certain that the Clay/Hannah scene I describe would be enough of an act-out. I decided I'd figure it out when I got there and when I finally wrote the Clay/Hannah scene, not only was it just pouring out of me, but the emotion of that scene led me to a moment much more powerful than a plot-based act out. In the break, this was mostly a scene where Clay got to say to Hannah all the things that he spent a year wishing he'd said. In actually writing Act Four, I found that Hannah would have things of her own to say, and THAT was what the scene ended up being about.

END OF EPISODE - I had two beats that you'll notice don't appear in the story: "Clay gets arrested - video [from the school security cameras] shows him stop Tyler [from entering and shooting.]" My thought was that Clay would look like more of a conspirator and that the police would lean on him because they wanted to find out who helped Tyler get away and where he went. When I tossed out the "Tyler gets arrested" beat, I ended up re-conceiving the whole shooting/police end of the story on the fly. I'll talk about that when I do the actual script breakdown. I thought that throwing Clay in jail was an effective way to raise the stakes on the world we'd lived in for two seasons becoming a place that Clay would want to leave behind.

And that last beat - "Clay - Dream Hannah tells him he needs to let go of his former life." Yeah, that was a bullshit on-the-nose beat. I was looking for a way to dramatize Clay starting to reject his original reality. Adding a Dream Hannah TELLING him that would have been a cheap way to communicate that and I'm glad I tossed that out entirely. As it turned out, I found a better way to show that, one that would have allowed the actor a little more subtlety in portraying that shift.

The more important story goal was dramatize Clay embracing the "Hannah alive" reality as if it were real. I brainstormed what would be a good "first step" for that, and decided the best move would be to bookend the episode with another therapist visit. Clay could have the opportunity to tell his doctor that he's having what could be delusions of a better life, and instead, he keeps quiet because he doesn't want to take that experience away.

That felt like the right progression for the first episode - give Clay a taste, get him hooked. Presumably, the arc of the season will have him sink deeper and deeper into the alt timeline and divesting himself more from what we've known as the "correct" one.

Download the first draft spec here.

Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes
Part 7: Act Three Scenes
Part 8: Act Four Scenes
Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite
Part 10: Act Five Scenes

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 3: Story and Theme Development

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character

I decided that since this was a Chapter 1 of 13, I needed to treat certain plotlines as if they were seeding later developments. Even if I wasn't writing beyond this episode, I wanted to capture the feel of an episode that was addressing running subplots. Here's what I knew I had to address in the Prime world:

- What happened when the police arrived at school to find Clay with Tyler's gun?
- What happened to Tyler? To Tony?
- Is there a Jess/Alex/Justin love triangle following Jess's secret hook-up with Justin?
- Do I set up Bryce still being around town after being held back a year?
- Are all the "tape crew" still close after having been bonded by their experience last year?
- Do we deal with Chloe's pregnancy?

On top of that, I had a few stray story notions:

- Clay/Sheri? They have chemistry, should Clay be getting closer to her in the Prime timeline and have his relationship with Hannah in the alternate timeline mess with that? Vice versa?
- Sheri was assaulted in Juvenile Detention. Would she go to Clay's mom for help getting justice?
- Maybe the season starts a year after Jess's party that was the start of everything bad. Show the gang coming together to support Jess during this time.
- In alternate timeline, Hannah stayed out of school, is only just coming back now and repeating junior year. During recovery, she's kept people at a distance, allows us to play premiere as her reunion with many who haven't seen her or only barely saw her after her suicide attempt.
- In Prime timeline, Tony's on the run. We don't see him. He appears only in alternate timeline at first.
- The alternate timeline should be trying to get Clay to give up on the Prime timeline.
- Alternate Hannah is embarrassed by the tapes, feels shame over putting all that out there
- Alt Sheri is in juvie. Maybe Hannah's tapes went viral and she only recently was punished. [This note was obviously before I decided the tapes wouldn't have gotten out. I was figuring Sheri would be featured mostly in the Prime timeline and not in the alternate, as just another way of keeping the two distinct from each other.]
- Alt Courtney is still in the closet and even more hateable than she was in season one, contrast to Prime Courtney, who is somewhat redeemed and happy.
- Is Ryan a senior or did he graduate? If graduated, maybe he still hangs around in Prime timeline, off to college in the alt one.

I had a few more notes like this, but you get the picture. I tried to figure out the questions and I use that to identify the threads of most interest to me. Even better were the ideas that I like and that could be woven well into Clay's reactions to his situation.

But what is the story ABOUT?

There's a famous anecdote about the writers of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION presenting creator Gene Roddenberry with a story about how the omnipotent being Q fakes the loss of his powers just as tensions are rising between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The two superpowers are about to go to war when Q intercedes, having set up the whole scenario to be seen as a hero. Gene asks, "What's the story about?" The writers say, "Well, it's about war between Starfleet and the Klingons. It's action, it's--" Gene interrupts, "But what's the story ABOUT?"

This 13 RW spec wasn't ABOUT Clay living in an alternate timeline. It's about a young man trying to make peace with the most traumatic experiences of his life being presented with a place where he can escape all that. It's about the tempation of rejecting "acceptance" of that grief and embracing denial, wrapping oneself in a reality where none of that happened. Maybe it's in his head, maybe it's not, but Clay himself doesn't believe it's a fantasy (and note that doesn't mean he's NOT having a psychotic break.)

That mission statement works as a macro arc for the season, as Clay presumably would slide further and further into the alternate life over the course of 13 episodes. There also is a micro component to that arc, which is Clay experiences this world that can't be true and then doesn't reject it.

I kept reminding myself of something Katherine Langford said in interviews about what it was like shooting the first episodes of the show. The director, Tom McCarthy, reminded her that she had an entire season ahead of her, essentially saying that it was a marathon, not a sprint. Thus, it wasn't necessary - or even advisable - to make Hannah clearly suicidal from the start. Everyone watching the show knows that's the end point of her arc, but there's a long journey to get there.

That was something I kept in mind as I brainstormed the progression that would make this first episode a complete chapter while still serving an imagined full season. All I needed to find was a way to dramatize him not rejecting this experience as a fantasy or product of a struggling mind. However it played out, the final scene of this script had to be Clay saying, essentially, "I'm all in."

Since this was not the story of Clay fully rejecting one reality over the other, it also removed the obligation to make the original reality a total downer. I wanted to highlight things there he'd seek to escape from, but I felt it was important that a lot there was positive, like the relationships with his friends. It's easy to imagine things shifting over the course of a season, things that would make the Prime timeline less welcoming and the Alternate one more appealing, but it would be gradual. It felt right to imagine Clay possibly divesting himself of the Prime timeline being as incremental a process as Hannah's slide into suicidal depression.

And also, it's more interesting if the two worlds aren't so binary in their contrast - one being all positive and the other being all negative. The goal was to find sunshine and grey in both of them.

Read the first draft script here.

Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes
Part 7: Act Three Scenes
Part 8: Act Four Scenes
Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite
Part 10: Act Five Scenes