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

No comments:

Post a Comment