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

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