Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 7: Act Three scenes

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes

Today we're going scene-by-scene through Act 3 as I give you a sense of what the break/scripting process was for these scenes. Hopefully it'll serve as a good example of the kinds of things you need to consider when breaking a story and when translating your outline into actual scenes.

Download the script here and start on p. 22.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE, BEDROOM - MORNING - Let's talk a little bit about the function of a scene. This is the scene where Clay wakes up in bed and realizes due to the fact that Sheri is next to him that he's in the Prime timeline again. There are two ways to play that: "Whoa! Was that just a strange dream?" or "I'm moving between realities, somehow!" These moments are always a bit tricky to write because in a sense, the audience is already ahead of the character in getting what's going on and accepting it. They know the story they signed on for and now they have to wait for the character to be all in.

(In a comedy, this point in the story is a little more fun to write because the protagonist is allowed to be humorously bewildered and frustrated. Think about the first trip through the time loop for Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, or when Jim Carrey discovers in Liar, Liar that he's incapable of telling a falsehood. In a drama, it's easier for this beat to feel perfunctory.)

There was a little bit of this dilemma the first time Clay shifted, but there I was able to use the big shock of Hannah being alive to provoke Clay's shock at what happened and blow past any question of HOW it happened. But now that Clay's back in "his" world, you need to have him react. I decided that since he experienced a full day and actually physically interacted with the world, he would be satisfied it was "real." I didn't want to waste a beat on, "Am I dreaming?" It's schmuck bait because the audience knows he's not dreaming.

And if Clay was losing his mind, and the "Hannah lives" world is just an vivid delusion, would he likely have the presence of mind to wonder if he was crazy? In the interests of pacing I just decided, "He accepts what's going on. His concern now is the 'rules' of moving between the two worlds." That's at how I arrived at his acceptance that "I'm living each day twice." And then once we saw he understood that, I wanted to end the scene as fast as possible.

That's why his mother bursts in when she does. It's less about the gag of Clay being caught in bed with a girl and more about getting out of the scene before Sheri has to react to Clay's behavior.

By the way, I'm sure that some writers would have made a meal out of Clay wondering if he's going crazy this early. It just wasn't to my taste, at least not at this point in the arc.

EXT. BAKER' S DRUG STORE - This scene is pretty self-explanatory. Clay and Sheri find Mrs. Baker at the drug store, which has finally found a buyer. Hopefully the first time through, most readers are satisfied that the only reason she's in town is to finalize the sale. As we learn later, her visit has another purpose.

I originally thought I might have Clay passing a message from Hannah to her mother (or vice-versa). Some moment of connection between mother and daughter where either Mrs. Baker gets one last interaction with Hannah, or Hannah better understands her mother now that Olivia has lived out the worst case scenario.

I actually still like that idea, but there was no place to execute it here. It felt more like something an entire episode would be built around.

INT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL, HALLWAY - I didn't have many opportunities to write for Jess and I found I like the dynamic of her alternately supporting and teasing Clay. This is another scene that exists to show the difference in the Prime and Alternate versions of people. It's also where we see Clay putting together a lot of little things to realize there's tension between Justin and Jess... something that seems different from their prior tension. (And also, if the audience somehow didn't see the prior season or missed all the little clues, having Clay make the observation helps them catch up.)

Thirdly, it's a small showcase for the brotherly dynamic between Clay and Justin.

INT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL  - LUNCH TABLES - I'll use this to point out the transition. The last scene ended with Clay wondering about something he witnessed, now this scene goes straight to him acting on it.

I went back and forth on if it was fair play to go into Jessica's mind to see her flashbacks here. Technically it's a cheat because everything's been from Clay's point of view. On the other hand, it's a flashback to a scene the audience has already seen, so nothing new is revealed they didn't already know. It's there as a reminder.

You'll also note that while Jess and Alex have their moment together, I made sure it happened somewhere where Clay could witness it. Clay is supposed to be our eyes and ears. The story can't go somewhere he doesn't.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM - We meet Detective Diamond in a scene designed to help bridge the five-month gap between last season's finale and now. I didn't want Tyler's near-shooting at the school to be the focal point of this episode, but I couldn't ignore it either. I also couldn't see how Clay would have ended up in too much trouble even thought he had the gun when police showed up. That's the kind of thing he either talks his way out of and nothing happens, or he doesn't and you're stuck with a storyline about Clay clearing himself of something we already know he didn't do.

So that's how I landed on Clay being regarded as a witness, with there being a manhunt for Tyler and his presumed accomplice Tony. It seemed right to put Clay in an ethical dilemma where he's caught between his desire to help Tony and the possibility he'll have to break the law. It also allows for a slower burn where maybe in doing so, he ends up doing something that can land him in jail. My original concept was that the Act Three ending would be Tyler being arrested, with that raising the stakes for Clay, who'd kept some secrets for several months.

That was when I thought I wanted to end the episode with Clay getting arrested and put in lockup awaiting bail. When I realized that was accelerating things too much, I turned my focus to just laying pipe that could feel like it was setting the state for a much bigger consequence a few episodes down the line.

I also think there's a good chance Detective Diamond is being a little manipulative here, giving Clay some information so he can see what he does with it.

It makes for a softer Act-Out than I liked, but there's enough of a sinister tone, especially with Clay's concern that if Tyler is caught, his life is over.

General thoughts: You'll notice the thrust of Act Three is often about the absence of people who Clay can see in the other world. Here, Clay wakes to a different girl in his bed. His encounter with Olivia is another reminder of the loss of Hannah. At school, he doesn't have Tony to lean on and the end of the act reminds us of where Tyler and Tony are and what they're probably facing if they're ever caught.

If I was going to do a rewrite, I might try to hit that subtext a little harder than I did in this draft. This part of the script feels a little soft... though that's not out of the ordinary for a Netflix show. They're more willing to slow things down for a character beat in the middle of the story and not be as wedded to the idea that every scene MUST advance the plot.

Part 8: Act Four Scenes
Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite
Part 10: Act Five Scenes

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