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

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