What is Your Script Really About?

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by Lew Ritter

When I first started writing, I decided to concentrate on writing spec scripts for existing TV shows over feature films. I was a big fan of shows of 80’s shows such as Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. The shows tended to be detective shows or police procedurals. This was the type of show that I felt most comfortable writing. I knew that sit-coms or heavy dramatic series were not my forte.

I had been part of a writers group in NYC for several years. Back in the early 90’s, my writing partner and I developed a treatment for an existing show called MANCUSO FBI. It starred Robert Loggia, as the stalwart FBI agent, defending the constitution against the bad guys. It intrigued us because the show dealt with important social issues. We developed a lengthy treatment and actually pitched it to a writer from a Canadian cop show called NIGHT HEAT. He liked the story and gave us valuable notes for improving the treatment.

I managed to contact a Production Assistant from the show. I was able to send him the treatment. As fate would have it, the writers liked the treatment, but the show was not renewed by NBC for a second season.

The rule in Hollywood is that no one reads a script from a show once it is off the air. One of the reasons that I had stopped writing TV specs was that the shows would be cancelled faster than I could write them. It takes a lot of analyzing episodes to get down the rhythm of the shows. Who are the main characters, what do they do every week, are there any catch phrases that the characters used etc? I decided to turn to writing unsuccessful feature scripts for the next decade or so.

In 2011, my revised spec script for MAGNUM P.I. won second place in the WILDSOUND FILM FESTIVAL- CLASSIC TV CONTEST. Inspired by this success, I decided to try my hand writing another “spec” for a show. It had to be not only something that I liked, but also a show likely to remain on the air for several more seasons.

At that time, my choice was the new HAWAII 5-0. I thought the cast was great and I loved the interplay between the main leads Danny Williams and Steve McGarrett. Danny and McGarrett argued and bickered, but it humanized them as well as gave dimensions to their characters. Some of the interplay is hilarious, and it allowed the producers to create a solid” B” plot for the week.

The old show had been a long running hit, but struck me as a one note show. It featured the great Jack Lord and a cast of minor players. All of the other actors seemed to be bit players revolving around Jack Lord. The new version is more of an ensemble effort and had improved over its six year run. It gave supporting cast members bigger roles in the show, and offered comedy relief by adding new cast members such as Jorge Garcia of LOST.

Having selected HAWAII FIVE – O as my spec, I did my research and recorded the show. I watched and analyzed the plot lines. I sat down and wrote copious outlines. I realized that the Danny-McGarrett interplay was the key to making the show distinct. I recorded the dialogue and listened to it over and over to get the cadence down.

In each show, Danny and McGarrett argued in their car on the way to the crime scene. It also featured a scene with an interrogation of one of the baddies in a dark prison cell. Danny was the sarcastic cop from New Jersey. McGarrett was the hard- nosed former Seal officer turned top cop.

My initial story idea about a crooked financial company didn’t work. I got as far as the first act and stumbled into writers block. It was predictable, and not very interesting. I decided that it was not going to be work as the main story for the script. Reading the papers, I found another story about a Special Forces soldier accused of war crimes in Afghanistan.

Rules of Engagement is a real term for how American soldiers could conduct themselves in the heat of battle. It tried to minimize civilian casualties, and had been the source of much controversy. As soon as I read it, I realized that I had a great potential story for my script. It would also be a more compelling read. That is often the key to a successful script. If the idea doesn’t grab you, it probably would not impress Hollywood Gatekeepers.

Roughly after writing the first two acts, the script ran out of steam. I worked with a veteran writer and had sent him the rough pages. He had been enthusiastic about my concept. Soon, I ran into the dreaded writers block. I was stuck. I didn’t know where to take the story line. Over the phone, we talked about the story. He uttered the following words of advice, “Lay it Out and Play it Out.”

At first, I was not sure what his advice meant. It had been a spontaneous conversation. His was the voice of someone who had been writing and analyzing scripts for many years. He gave me the roadmap to writing a better script. Those cryptic words were the key to writing any good script. It means laying out the main characters and plot in the first or second act and let them take their course. In short, let them play out the situation instead of coming up with endless new characters or plot twists.

Many times, writers will try and introduce new characters or fantastic plot twists to get their story on track. This made the story more convoluted and probably drove itself into the proverbial writer’s block ditch. I discovered, that if the opening act were set up properly, the story with some prodding, wrote itself.

My story had all the essential interesting characters and story that I needed. All I had to do was see where they took the story. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, or introduce some new character or plot device in Act Three or Four to make the story work. I just watched where the wheel took me. I followed his advice and was soon back on track. I was able to finish the script in a short period of time.

It still takes a lot of thought and effort to complete. However, occasionally, I felt that the story existed and that all I had to do was simply transcribe it. Rules of Engagement proved to be a joy to work on, and proved to be very satisfying spec script for my portfolio. Now, the hard part of trying to sell it, or get work based on it begins.

On a final note, it seems the latest trend in spec scripts to break into the business are writing an original pilot. Here you have the pleasure of creating the “world” and its characters and story arcs. It has positive and negative aspects to it as well. However, I think the advice about laying out the story in the first acts are still relevant, regardless of which type of script that you actually write.