A logical analysis of creative craft.
If you’ve read my twitter bio (or any pithy cover letter I’ve ever sent), you may be familiar with my extreme passion for spreadsheets. As a technical newbie in the television industry, data collection and analysis has been my stand-in education for the mechanics of writing for TV. Starting as a playwright, one of the most glaringly stark challenges in transitioning from medium to medium was simply, format. Plays are easy. I mean, not to write but to build. They’re usually two acts. Sometimes they’re one. Sometimes they’re three, if you really want to get crazy. Conceptually, you can build structure to fit your own dramatic need; 20 quick vignettes, one agonizingly long tete-a-tete- the start of any theatrical analysis can grow out of the author’s choices to pace the storyline.
When making the switch to television writing, rather than molding the structure to story, you mold the story to structure. Between commercial breaks and an near-exact run time to nail, the author’s creativity factors in very differently. When writing a spec script, the question comes to not only draft a unique, eye-catching story that will get you a job, but also an understanding of the pre-existing standard that the writer’s room has already assembled. Much unlike playwriting, this team-effort influence over a single writer crafting a buy-in to the table adds a different set of demands to the planning stage of a script.
Below, I talk about my first experience with creating an outline for a spec script and explain the beginnings of my analysis of TBS’s amazing new mystery-comedy-satire (GOD, I love a hyphenated genre), “Search Party”, detailing what both the average and outlying pieces of data have to say about the creativity of writing a script.
Author Note: This post is primarily about the act structure of the first season, but I’ve got approximately 25 pages of raw data about this show (not to mention “Louie” “Girls” and “Broad City) that I will 100% be doing a wikileaks-style dump of in the future. But I want to make charts first.
When I first finished “Search Party” (and I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible), one of the most significant take-aways for me was how well the writers were able to draw the audience into the mystery of Chantal so quickly, throughly, and seamlessly. As I started watching the show for patterns, I settled on three major benchmarks to observe this transition; the number of scenes per episode (shown above), the A-B-C-(sometimes even D) storylines that made up each week’s plot, and the frequency of which each character appeared in each scene.
Immediately, the clearest revelation of this season was the way in which plot structure factored into the evolution, and eventual devolution of Dory’s case. In the chart above, you can see that episodes 4, 5, 6, and 7 – the literal median episodes of the series, also serve as perfect averages of the typical act structure of the series. Every act falls within the margin of the series’ average and the episodes, in general, reflect the most procedural “lead-of-the-week” structure that a mystery show would follow. Episode 4 is the interrogation of Chantal’s ex, Ep 5 is seeking out Chantal’s former roommate, Ep 6 is the cult infiltration, and Episode 7, notably, features Dory and Keith searching for a thread to follow, which, when they turn up nearly empty-handed, derails the structure of 8, 9, and 10 as a result.
While the first three episodes build the veracity of Dory’s belief that Chantal is in trouble, the audience is lured into a stability that encourages us to expect clues to keep coming and leads to keep being uncovered. When Dory and Keith spend the 7th episode eagerly digging through trash after re-visting and old lead from the previous episode, the episode’s ending swerves drastically. Dory’s desperation to keep the mystery going results in a fervor when she and Keith stumble upon a check that might piece the whole puzzle together. Only after making some questionable choices (I’m trying to keep it spoiler free y’all, only so you’ll watch this awesome show), Dory has the rug pulled out from under her in a very new way. Instead of being left with a cliffhanger of which option to explore next, Keith dismisses the discovery they’ve made and Dory is left only to deal with guilt and indecision (again). And then, brilliantly whether conscious or unconscious, the next episode returns to a structure that almost exactly mirrors the pilot. Dory has quit the mystery, the episode abandons the 4-act structure in favor of an extended first and third act that allows for the slow build that, once again, reels Dory back into Chantal’s case.
The last two episodes are free-for-alls, which, in light of the plot’s shocker of an ending, makes a lot of sense. The frenetic energy of moving from a 1-scene 2nd act to a 9-scene 3rd act in the 9th episode- or those long, agonizing scenes in the 3rd and 4th act of the finale (you know what I’m talking about, in the house) – all reflect how the instability of the character’s control over the events spills over into the structure of storytelling.
Sure, all of these spreadsheets are awesome (omg thanks), but what tf does this mean for spec scripts? I was getting to that I swear. All of this analysis goes to help answer one simple question; “what episode do I write?” For a series like this, with only one season and an unpredictable (but insurable) second season, the most logical move forward is to place a new “spec script” episode somewhere between episodes 4, 5, and 6. Find the season’s median, and play to its strengths. The creative effects and unconventional arcs are difficult to imitate without a clear sense of where a series like this is going next, so show them what you know and take all of the information from those a-typical episodes to elevate your ability to lead in to that sort of chaos. Armed with the knowledge of how many scenes in each act, and how many acts in each episode, you can build your first skeleton outline and plan your unique story to any series’ mold. Mine looks a little something like this:
Writing spec scripts is really hard. You want to be creative, but you also want a job. For me, the best way to unleash your creativity is to get all of the planning out of the way so that you can learn all the rules and then write completely freely within a structure you uncover. And you learn so much when you do it! The best way to learn how to build something is to take it all apart, study the pieces, and then put it back together with your own special worldview. To quote my own twitter bio, they have the experience, I’ve got the excel sheets. And you can make them too. And if you do, please send them to me so I can print them out at the custom t-shirt place down the street and put them in my binder.