Sunday, October 7, 2007

Breaking Down Dexter

And now for something I'm sure you'll all be very excited about. As Juliana and I break the story for the Dexter spec that it's taken us far too long to get moving on, I'm gonna try to let you in on a bit of process. Yay! Fun!

A few weeks ago we watched several first season episodes and broke them down. We counted story threads (A-story, B-story, etc) and how many beats each of those stories received. We tried to find an act structure for the show, but so far haven't had much luck. Personally, I find that very difficult - there are lots of places where an act break theoretically could appear, and it's hard to judge. Maybe we're wasting our time, but it seemed an interesting exercise to attempt. If any of you have done this for Dexter, I'd love to hear what you've found.

Anyway. Today I'm going to give a little breakdown for episodes 107 and 108 that may only be of interest to me. These will very likely include plot spoilers just by their very nature, so if you haven't seen the first season of Dexter and want to remain pure...well, if you truly want to remain pure I wouldn't recommend ever watching Dexter, but I digress. The point is, read on at your own peril.

Episode 107 - Circle of Friends

Short description: This is the episode where Dexter discovers that a young killer he let go in an earlier episode is up to trouble again; also, a suspect is arrested for the Ice Truck Killer Murders.

Story threads: I found 5 separate story threads, not including the flashbacks to earlier episodes, which don't seem to tell their own story; instead they provide further information for the A- and B-stories. I also did not include what could be called a Doakes runner because it ties in closely with the A-story. Three of these are full stories, two feel more like runners.

A - Dexter must stop the young killer he let go
B - Deb/Batista catch the Ice Truck Killer
C - Rita deals with Paul returning home
D - Deb starts to fall for Rudy
E - LaGuerta and Matthews butt heads

The episode contains 50 scenes, according to the script, and divvies up the beats like so:
A, B, B, B, A, A/B, C, B, C, B, B/E, C, C, A, B, B, C, B, A, B, A, B, B, C, A, D, C, C, A/B, D, B, B, B, B, A, A, D, A, A, E, B.

What that amounts to is:

A - 11 beats
B - 19 beats
C - 8 beats
D - 3 beats
E - 2 beats
(the possible Doakes runner, in case you're wondering, would have 3 or 4 beats, all intertwined with other stories)

This is an interesting episode because technically A and B should probably switch places, as the overarching Ice Truck Killer story takes precedence over the of-the-week killer. However, that's the structure I've chosen, so...what-ev.

Episode 108 -Shrink Wrap

Short description: This is the episode where Dexter goes up against a psychologist who is convincing his patients to kill themselves.

Story threads: I found 6 separate story threads in this episode. Four feel like full-fledged stories and two are runners. I labeled them A thru F in decreasing importance, but since this is my opinion I'm sure there can be some debate over which truly is the A-, B-, C- or D-story.

A - Dexter vs. the psychologist
B - LaGuerta tries to prove Neil Perry is a fake
C - Deb and Rudy fall in love
D - Rita deals with how Paul's return affects her kids and her relationship with Dexter
E - Father flashback runner - Dexter remembers Harry almost killing him to teach him a lesson
F - Runner with Angel being served divorce papers and dealing with it

This episode contains 45 scenes, according to the script, and parses out the story beats like so:
A, A, C, C, D, A/C/F, A/B, A, A, E, B, A/B, F, A, C, D, A, A, E, E, B, C, F, F, A, D, D, C, C, B, A, E, A, D, B, D, B, A, A, C.

What that amounts to is:

A - 15 beats
B - 6 beats
C - 7 beats
D - 5 beats
E - 4 beats
F - 4 beats

It's also a bit interesting because often a single scene will include beats from more than one storyline. And the beats may not be completely accurate because of the way I counted them. For example, in the Angel runner there are two beats together that could be counted as one; the reverse happens in the Deb storyline, where I might have counted a single beat as two at the end. However, this is roughly the structure.


There are several constants I noticed in Dexter, and probably many more I didn't notice.
1) Every episode begins with a Dexter voiceover emphasizing his otherness from everyone around him.
2) Every episode has flashbacks. Most episodes have flashbacks involving Harry and young Dex, but even those episodes that do not, like 107, still incorporate some kind of flashback into the storyline.
3) Most episodes have a complicated plot structure with upwards of 5 concurrent stories.
4) Most episodes have an of-the-week killer, and if they do not, there is still some mystery element to solve, as in the episode where Dexter tries to figure out how his biological dad died.
5) Most scripts hover around 60 pages.

Well, that's it for now. Hope this was fun/useful to people. I'd love to hear what others have noticed about Dexter that I may have missed.


Amanda said...

Yowza, that's really cool. Makes me think I need to analyze shows a bit more. Or just keep writing pilots, haha.

My job is at a multipurpose agency. It's not one of the big five, but it's probably #8 or #9. Thanks for your words of support! :)

BooM said...

I was just getting ready to break down some Dexterage. Now I'm going to cheat off you. Well, not really. But, thanks for posting this, it's awesome.

For ease sake, I'm writing it in four acts and then I'll take the act breaks out. Hopefully it'll resemble a Dexter...

Good luck with yours!

Anonymous said...

The tricky thing about dexter is not the time spent analyzing the series but coming up with a workable and unique premise for the spec. How do you write an excellent spec out of such a highly serialized series?

Josh said...

Well, I'll let you know when I write one...which I hope I'm doing.

But I'd have to say you need to think about ways to put Dexter into situations (especially "emotional" or psychological situations) where the show hasn't taken him yet. Totally easy, right?

Oh, and avoid as much of the serialized plot as possible...though in the spec we're writing, the BHB is mentioned and everyone's still alive, so... Good idea or bad? I don't know. It's VERY CLEARLY meant to be an episode that takes place during season 2.

Anonymous said...

How many acts is Dexter? And how many beats per act?

Josh said...

Unless you're talking about for CBS, Dexter doesn't have any acts. At least not in the traditional TV sense. It just flows from scene to scene like a film script.

And if you are talking about CBS...(shrug) I dunno. I and everyone I know writing a Dexter spec is writing it as if it were going to be for Showtime.

Trevor Finn said...

I've been studying the 2nd season, and I've been trying to figure out where the acts go as well. It's definitely fluid like a film script, but a film script is still written with acts, so this must be as well. I've been playing with the idea that the acts are separated by the aerial shots of Miami, but that doesn't always seem to work. Has anyone seen any original Dexter scripts? I can't seem to find any.

Josh said...

I have several Dexter scripts, and there are at least no written act breaks. Obviously it follows the traditional three-act structure of all drama, but beyond that I don't know.

Maybe watching the CBS version IS a good idea if you're really looking to break down the structure further, but I don't know that the writers on the show have an actual system whereby they consider certain things as act breaks in a traditional TV sense.

sukhy said...

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Zach said...

This is a very interesting post. I hope good things came from all your hard work.

Any further insights to share, three years later? :)