Monday, August 6, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 1: Finding the concept

For years, I've toyed with posting one of my scripts on this site and using it to explain my process of breaking a script. In all cases, I ran into the same problems: I couldn't use something that I was still sending around as a sample with my own name on it, and anything older I was no longer using as a sample was probably such a sub-par example of my work that it seemed foolish to put it out there publicly. Every now and then I thought of writing one of those "gimmick" specs, like the infamous FRIENDS spec where they all get AIDS, but was often confronted by a lack of either time or inspiration.

A couple months back, after season two of 13 Reasons Why had dropped, but before it had been renewed, I saw a lot of speculation about where season three would go. On Twitter, I made a joke that season three should be a tribute to the short-lived NBC series Awake (which also featured 13 Reasons Why's lead Dylan Minnette) and have Clay suddenly finding himself moving between two worlds - the one we've lived in for two seasons and another one where Hannah survived her suicide attempt.

For those not in the know, Awake was about a police detective whose reality fractured after a car crash. In one reality, his son died and wife survived. In the other, the reverse happened. Each time he goes to sleep, he wakes up in the other world and he doesn't want to figure out which one is real, as the experience lets him maintain contact with both his wife and son. The series was cancelled before any kind of story resolution was reached, and honestly, that might have been for the best because it's hard to imagine the explanation that would be as satisfying as the concept itself.

It was a stupid joke, but I also happened to make it at a point where the show I'm working on had sent all the writers off to script and I had days with very little to do. The idea kept buzzing in the back of my brain as I saw the potential in a story about Clay getting a second chance with Hannah, a Hannah still being treated for her suicidal depression. I had a particular image in my head, figuring that Clay's first encounter with Hannah could happen in his room, just as his first scene with the imagined Hannah in season 2. She'd reach out to touch him, he'd instinctively grab her forearm and get a double shock... she's solid... and she still bears the deep wrist scars of her suicide attempt.

If that visual hadn't popped into my head, it's unlikely you'd be reading this post. But pop it did. And it lingered.

Every now and then I'd ponder what would make this alternate world different from the one we spent two seasons in. I went so far as to make a list of all the characters on a piece of paper, then divided it in half for "Prime" and "Alternate" so that I could figure out the contrasts. I also wanted to make sure that we wouldn't always be dealing with the exact same central cast in both realities. It seemed wise to make it as easy as possible for a hypothetical viewer to orient themselves as the show jumped back and forth.

For instance, in the Prime timeline, I knew that Tony and Tyler would be on the run (separately) following the near shooting the prior season. That meant that their presence in the Alternate timeline would help underline the disparity between the two. Similarly, Mr. Porter was fired last season, so he wouldn't appear in the Prime timeline, but he could still have his job in the world where Hannah's alive.

In other cases, I sought out the most drastic differences between two versions of characters. This led me to an important question - how much do people in the Alternate timeline know about what was on Hannah's tapes? Did the tapes get out? Or because Hannah was saved, did one of the recipients keep or destroy the tapes? Did Tony recover them? I went back and forth on this. On one hand, it would have been very interesting to have Hannah have to deal with the fact that everyone she called out would be pissed at her AND that they knew everyone else's secrets. There's a wealth of fallout that could be drawn from that, and it would be great drama to force Hannah to have to confront her own actions and the consequences.

But then I thought more about how this concept has to play out. If there is to be any ambiguity at all about which world is real, this season would have an important restriction - Clay had to be in every scene. The instant there were privileged scenes with other characters in either reality, the conceit that one of these is taking place entirely in Clay's head is compromised.

In a story where I could follow Hannah home and develop her in non-Clay subplots, making her deal with the fallout of the tapes would have been a great arc. When everything has to be filtered through Clay, though, what wins the day is what makes HIS story more interesting. Thus, I realized it was better if Clay knew the whole story, with almost everyone else utterly unaware.

This meant I had to account for what happens to the tapes after Hannah mailed them to Justin. I decided he would have received them the next day and heard them immediately, then passed them to Jess who also devoured them. At that point, Tony could intercept them when they reach Alex, meaning no one after Jess knows the whole story of Hannah's suicide and that Hannah has reason to expect that Clay is in the dark too.

I saw a lot of potential in Clay having information that others think is safe, as well as how it could make things awkward if Hannah has second thoughts about telling him the whole story. She might push him away just to sort it out in her head and Clay, thinking he's helping, can tell her, "I know about all of it." Instead of easing the burden, it adds to her shame about her most vulnerable moment.

I decided a moment like that should happen in the first episode - both to up the stakes for Clay and to demonstrate we're not dealing with exactly the same Hannah who Clay fell in love with.

With a lot of brainstorming along these lines complete, I turned my attention to figuring out the basics of Clay's arc, and that's where we'll pick up tomorrow.

We'll be exploring the entire process of writing this spec over the next two weeks. Download the completed script here.

A few words about this script - it's a first draft. As this was something I wrote largely as part of this exercise, I didn't have this one as thoroughly vetted as I do other "real scripts" intended as professional samples.

I'll probably go into this at greater length once I reach this stage of the process, but typically, once I get a first draft I'm happy with, I send it to four trusted readers. I gather their feedback and do whatever rewrites are appropriate, then I send the results of that rewrite to four other trusted readers and use that feedback to guide the next round of rewrites.

This time I only sent the script to two people. The results were largely positive, but neither of these were people from my usual council of readers. I'd recently imposed on all of those people with both a spec episode and a pilot, I didn't want to take advantage of even more of their time.

I doubt this script has any kind of life beyond its application for these blog posts, but if I end up getting some really useful feedback, maybe I'll do a rewrite and detail that as part of the process in a follow-up series.

Again, you can download the script here. Or you can wait to read it until after we've gone through the whole process.


  1. Read it and, as a fan of the show, really enjoyed it. You nailed* the main character voices; Clay, Hannah, and especially Tony sound authentic and true to canon. I suppose it's the nature of drama that Hannah and Clay can't be a happy couple even in the ALT timeline (at least E1). Not surprised that you made a callback to the Spring Fling moment since that was so impactful both in the series and for you personally. But dirty pool between that and then flashing back to a previously unseen moment of Clay first hearing of Hannah's suicide. I could see it play vividly in my mind and did you really have to take us there in a spec/episode one of season?

    The alternate timeline is an interesting concept (I haven't seen Awake but you've made it sound intriguing) and I think you've set it up well. Even if you are locked into Clay's POV, there are plenty of interesting story angles arising from Clay's superior knowledge of Hannah's tapes compared to the other ALT characters who haven't heard them but whose actions were exposed therein. Also, a series could be a lot worse off than leaning heavily on a character played by Dylan Minnette.

    I thought you did everything you needed to do, setting up some plotlines, establishing the switching mechanic, conveying that real-world information could be accurately communicated from the ALT, and the ending felt exactly right for the first episode of a season. Nicely done.

    Thanks for dong this. Looking forward to the rest of the series about how you got there.

    - jay

    *Tiny nitpick: I don't think inexplicable is a Clay word.

    1. Jay, this is an incredibly kind comment and I think you'll enjoy reading some of my commentary about a couple of the scenes you mentioned here.

      I said this on twitter, but I'm impressed ANYONE read this script in the first day. If a friend had given me a script to read, it would have taken me at least a couple days to get to it.

      This is also an incredibly kind and flattering review. Thank you for your thoughts and I hope others weigh in as they read it.