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

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