Thursday, August 16, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite

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
Part 8: Act Four Scenes

Yesterday I talked a little bit about a moment where Hannah gave me a line of dialogue I didn't anticipate and the implications of that line changed everything about the scene and what I thought I knew about her state of mind.

Today we're going to pick up with the scene that starts on p. 41 of the script.

Download the first draft script here.

EXT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL - AFTERNOON - After a tense parting with Hannah, Clay sees her at the end of the school day with Zach. This is one of those moments I knew had to be in the script in some form. Given their history, we need to see Zach reaching out to Hannah upon her return to school. But it was also the kind of scene that felt too convenient every time I tried to make Clay a witness to it. There were only so many opportunities to play that card and my gut told me I'd already used them all.

The next best thing was for Clay to see them at a distance and maddeningly not know the nature of their conversation. In the two-part segment I wrote earlier this year about the Zach/Hannah retcon in Season 2, I think I was pretty clear about my feelings on this development. But it's part of the show canon and it would be dereliction of duty to ignore that. I feel it can be dangerous to call back to that plot, given the inconsistencies it raises. It can be a little like picking a scab best left benignly alone, but there is a way it could pay dividends.

Remember that the Zach/Hannah relationship isn't on the tape. That means that even though Hannah knows Clay has heard the tapes, she still has no reason to think her history with Zach is known to him. That alone is another bomb waiting to drop at some point in the season. It would be interesting if Clay and Hannah were getting closer together and it bothered Clay that she was going to keep this part of her history secret.

Clay is also in the unique position of possibly losing his virginity twice, technically. Let's say he sleeps with Sheri in the Prime timeline during midseason. If the possibility of a hook-up with Hananh presents itself again, once Hannah lays her cards on the table about her history, Clay has two options:

1) lie and say he's a virgin. Which is true in this alternate timeline but not for Clay.
2) tell the truth and then have a real dilemma. It would be a lie to tell Hannah he lost his virginity to Sheri because Clay didn't sleep with the Sheri who Hannah knows. But it would also be dishonest if he decides to claim it was some random girl Hannah didn't know. And we know Clay isn't a good enough liar to pull off any of these lies.

There are a lot of ways to get to this complication, and most of them involve building off the Zach/Hannah past. For both reasons of plot and character, there should be acknowledgement of that here.

With that out of the way, let's get onto:

INT. MONET'S CAFE - NIGHT - I was pretty sure I knew how this scene was going to play in the story break. It was the last time Hannah and Clay interacted in this episode and from the beginning, I wanted him to be able to tell her that he'd spent the last year "thinking about" how horrible it would have been if she succeeded in suicide. He was going to pour his heart out about what she meant to him, all the ways he wished he'd been better to her and everything he was going to do differently now.

It was Clay's big moment. Figure for a year he's imagined what he would say to her, much like his imagined conversation with her in the room that night, the one where Hannah's haunting reply was "Why didn't you say this to me when I was alive?"

So in some ways I wanted to pay that off. I wanted a catharsis for Clay. It was his chance to let go of anything he was holding inside and in doing that, I figured it would bond him even tighter to this reality. It all flowed from a character perspective. It also meant this scene was all about Clay. And there's nothing wrong with that - he's the core of the show and this story.

But when I approached this scene as a follow-up to Hannah's "I ruined you," it changed EVERYTHING. It forced an approach that had HANNAH pouring her heart out, explaining what she had been through in the last year. It let Hannah speak for herself, filling in some gaps from both before her suicide attempt and explaining some of her distance and behavior since then.

For most of this scene, I felt like I was transcribing more than I was writing. Hannah took over, decided the scene was about her and dictated everything while my typing fingers raced to keep up. This scene was part of the day where I turned around 12 pages in 5 hours because I just felt very keyed into what Hannah was going to say and how Clay was going to have to react to that.

It didn't matter that it changed two scenes that I had been sure were going to mean something else. When you hit a point where the characters start doing their own thing, run with it as far as possible. On the off chance that you go down a wrong path, you can always rewrite later.

So this was Hannah, expressing concern that her medication hadn't just taken away the intensity of how she felt towards Clay last year, but also pondering that maybe she hadn't really been in love with him in the first place - that she'd convinced herself of that because he was "safe." He was a life preserver she needed, and that's why she freaked out that night - her mind was telling her body that it was wrong for her to use Clay like this.

Is Hannah right? I don't know. But this is what she believes right now. It changed what I thought was going to happen with regard to Clay embracing this timeline. I thought this scene would represent Clay committing himself to this reality, not this reality seemingly rejecting him. But when the dust settled, I realized this was more compelling. Hannah's accessible, but just out of his reach. It forces him to strain to get her.

It gives Clay a challenge instead of a win. That feels like better drama. For some of the audience, it might even raise enough doubt about the desirability of this world that the ending is more of a shock when Clay decides not to tell his therapist about his experience, meaning that if it is a delusion, he's actively not seeking help for it.

Hopefully this was a good example of how you draw on older stories to find fertile ground for new conflicts, and also how sometimes your characters know better what they bring to the table than you do.

(This scene also has a pretty big goof on my part. The dance that Hannah refers to and that Clay says he's thought about for a year and a half isn't the Spring Fling. It was the Winter Formal.)

We'll wrap all this up tomorrow with a look at the final act of the script.

Part 10: Act Five Scenes

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