Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 8: Act Four 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
Part 7: Act Three Scenes

Download the first draft script here.

Today we're gonna get to discuss one of my favorite things that can happen when you write a script. But we'll get to that soon enough...

Act Four basically starts on p. 32 of the script, with Clay shifting back to the alternate timeline. I don't have much to say about the first couple scenes. They're mostly narrative shoe leather, but I wanted to have a little bit of a build-up to Tony's appearance. I was hoping that would have some impact coming on the heels of learning a bit more about what happened to him.

EXT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL - MORNING - Clay catches Tony up on his predicament off-screen. I originally had a little more dialogue here where they both debated if Clay was crazy and this was a figment of his imagination. Tony said, "Look, I know you're not imagining me," to which Clay replied, "that's just what a figment of my imagination would say." It was a little too jokey, and though I wrote it hoping it would let us acknowledge that Clay can either second-guess everything OR he can move forward. Weirdly, as soon as I raised the issue it seemed to make that concern even more of an elephant in the room. This is why the scene starts with a little disbelief from Tony and moves immediately to Clay hitting him with information he shouldn't know (at least from Tony's POV.)

One of the functions of this scene is to fill in some blanks about what happened in this timeline after Hannah didn't die. I was worried about this because it was an infodump, but once I started writing, I realized what a gift Tony is when you need exposition. He has a real point of view, and an emotional one at that - he's concerned for Clay. He's keeping secrets for Hannah, now Clay shows up, tells a crazy story and is pushing Tony for info that might be damaging to share. Clay's function in this scene is to get information. He's got a valid motivation for it, but it's Tony's stake as Hannah's confidant that gives this scene some juice.

This was one scene that changed drastically when I got to writing it. I went into this scene with the notion that Tony would give us a flashback that explained how Hannah didn't die in this timeline. We'd hear about how her mother arrived home sooner, due to a small chain of events that happened differently here. (It would have been something like a customer at the Baker's drug store would have accidentally spilled something on Olivia's clothes, leading her to go home earlier to change on a break, leading her to find Hannah soon enough that she'd survive.

I hadn't worked out the details, but it would have been a butterfly effect kind of thing, where one tiny difference ended up putting Olivia at home sooner. But when I got there, I didn't have much interest in writing that flashback and I realized any scene I wrote would be competing with (and might even compromise the memory and impact of) the scene where Olivia finds Hannah dead. There are some moments that shouldn't be trampled on, some callbacks that that can throw you right out of a story.

In the moment, I decided maybe it shouldn't be about Clay asking how Hannah survived, but that Tony might wonder how Clay found out Hannah died. It was a line that just grew organically out of Tony's concern for Clay, but as soon as I wrote it I realized the show had never even alluded to the moment Clay learned of Hannah's suicide.

I knew right away I wanted it to be a moment without any of the expected TV melodrama. I didn't want someone telling Clay in a sad voice, "You'd better sit down." I also didn't want a moment where Clay gets the bad news at home and breaks into tears as his parents try to comfort him. I thought about Clay and how this was going to be a moment burned into his memory forever. I wanted to find the worst possible surroundings for such a moment.

INT. CRESTMONT THEATER - BATHROOM - NIGHT - FLASHBACK - Isolating Clay from anyone else felt like the right way to go. We saw in season one that group texts circulated a lot of info. It made sense Hannah's suicide would have lit that up right away. It justified Clay having no one to lean on when he gets the worst news of his life.

Plunging a toilet also felt like one of the least dignified things a person could be doing when they get bad news like that. Clay already feels pretty low for having to clean this up, and then he gets sucker punched with the news about Hannah and it's just too much for him to bear. He shuts down and can't even cry.

When we returned to the present, I wanted Tony to transition us to a Clay/Hannah scene and so it seemed to set up some tension by having him say, basically, "Things have changed. She's changed."

INT. LIBRARY - The first chance Clay and Hannah have to talk since his earlier mistake. I wanted to have Hannah be over her earlier reaction by now. It felt like once she had a chance to calm down, she'd realize she doesn't want to hold Clay in contempt for a while. She doesn't WANT to be mad at him and that gives him some slack.

And yes, I'm starting with them reconciling just so I can really divide them by the end of this scene. Having Hannah immediately absolve Clay keeps this scene from feeling like a 180 on top of a 180.

Bryce's arrival here is probably a little flimsy. The problem is that it's tricky to set that up in earlier scenes without telegraphing what's probably going to happen here. For this draft, I allowed myself the coincidence, but it's flagged as something I'd like to improve.

Because we've seen Bryce shrug off a punch from Clay before, they only way Clay would lay him out is if it was a total sucker punch. Gravity does most of the work here anyway, once Clay throws him off balance. My hope is that most of the audience is so thrilled to see Clay actually trip that smirking punk that they don't even think about how much this whole thing would rightly upset Hannah.

INT. HALLWAY - First, just to deal with a bit at the end of the scene, Alex is here for two reasons - I needed someone to tell Clay, "Let her have her space." I also realized that we hadn't seen his non-impaired counterpart yet and I was low on options for where to feature him.

It's SO Clay to think he was helping Hannah by beating up her rapist, and also to not get that it isn't JUST being in the same room with Bryce that upset her. I really think Clay meant well and he's had the experience of seeing Bryce get a slap on the wrist, which was possibly even more enraging than when he wasn't even going to be charged.

When Clay catches up to Hannah, he thinks she's just upset about seeing Bryce again. Funny thing about that - that's what I thought she was mad about... until I went to write that particular line of dialogue. I was trying to figure out how to express her turmoil at seeing Bryce again when I heard Hannah's voice in my head and she said, "I ruined you."

Shit. That's where she's taking this scene? I thought.

This was the first - but not the last - time that one of the characters I was writing just took a look at what I was about to put in their mouth and said, "I think I'll speak for myself, thanks."

When this happens, GO WITH IT. When the characters are talking to you, let them speak because often what they have to say is WAY more interesting than what you were going to have them do.

The context: In season one, when Clay finally gets to his tape, we learn that on the night of Jess's party he and Hannah started to hook up. As things got physical, Hannah was triggered with PTSD from virtually every other sexual contact she's had. She freaks out, tells Clay to get off of her and then throws him out of the room. Clay, not sure what just happened but also fearing he did something wrong, goes.

When Hannah recounts this story on her tape, she tells Clay part of the reason she reacted this way was, "you aren't every other guy. You're different. You're good and kind and decent. And I didn't deserve to be with someone like you. I never would. I would have ruined you. It wasn't you. It was me. And everything that's happened to me."

One of her biggest fears was ruining Clay. And I didn't quite realize until Hannah told me herself that if Hannah saw everything her tapes did to Clay, she might see her horrible fear realized.

That was FAR more interesting than just any PTSD from Bryce because it's a conflict that challenges the very core of season one - the love story between Clay and Hannah. It shows a consequence to Hannah's actions that she now has to deal with and it provides Clay with something to deal with in that just having Hannah alive doesn't make everything wonderful and happy.

Listen to your characters. And that's something I'll talk about more tomorrow.

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

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