Saturday, April 12, 2008

Another perspective on writing Dexter

Another reader, Tommy, is also writing a Dexter and had a few different answers to the questions that Adam posed.

He points out, quite validly, that just because the show has no commercial breaks doesn't mean you can ignore structure entirely, and says he does use act breaks in his spec -- just not literally. Every 10 pages or so, where a normal act break would fall, he has a momentous scene that takes the story in a new direction. Smart. I believe our story does this as well organically, but he's not the first person I've heard from who actually plots these beats as act breaks just to make the structure easier when writing.

Unlike Adam and I, Tommy is setting his spec after season 2. It's a great choice if you can pull it off. Originally our spec was set at the beginning of season 2, but after the first two real season 2 episodes aired, we knew we were screwed and had to change the story and move it forward in time. So really what I'm saying to Tommy is...good luck with that :)

He also used flashbacks (seems flashbacks are still the way to go!), but warns against falling into the trap of having flashbacks just for the sake of having flashbacks. I wholeheartedly agree. It is vital that you tie them in thematically with the main story you're telling as this is what the show does. The purpose of the flashbacks is always to illuminate some aspect of Dexter's personality...and often Harry's as well.

And Tommy has a question:

"Dexter has a very complex structure. Most TV shows have an A, B, and C story, but Dexter often has as many as five stories per episode, including a season-long story (Ice Truck Killer, Bay Harbor Butcher), a single-episode long story, a story that may last a few episodes...

In any given episode, you might have a story about Dexter tracking and killing someone, a story about Dexter and his relationship with Rita, a story about Angel and/or Debra tracking a killer with Dexter's blood-analyzing help, a story about Dexter and Harry told through flashbacks (that may be self-contained, or serialized), a story from the season-long arc, stories from each characters personal lives, such as Doakes and his mom and sisters, or Angel and his wife... Every character is allowed personal and professional conflicts, and their role as supporting or lead is always changing. Also, oftentimes one individual scene can include multiple story threads.

It gets complicated.

Since we're all aiming to write a self-contained script, the season-long arc is automatically out. And since it's only one script, you can't include everything. How did you/do you plan on structuring yours?"

What I learned breaking down all those Dexter episodes is that the show varies quite a bit on the number of stories in a given episode. Whereas one may have 7 plot threads, another only contains 2 or 3. I think you kind of want to split the difference and just make sure A.) it feels like it could be a Dexter episode and B.) you're servicing the story you want to tell without just trying to cram stuff in there a la the flashback problem you mention.

And on the don't-take-my-word-for-it front, our Extension instructor basically said it is not necessary and often not good to match a show exactly if it often juggles 5, 6, 7 storylines and has bits for every single character. You should be fine streamlining this down to three or four stories and focusing on the main characters.

For example, while pretty much every episode necessitates Dexter, Deb and Harry, you could easily get away with having a storyline for Angel, but cutting LaGuerta out completely. Or vice versa. In my opinion, the same goes for Rita, though her impact on Dexter's life is often a good foil for his police work and extracurricular activities.

Until next time...


adam _______________________ said...

Found this post interesting. I have a couple comments:

I wasn't ever saying that Dexter doesn't use structure -- or act breaks. I would doubt that Josh ws either. Obviously the show works on CBS, it's just not as fun. And it's good storytelling, which means it has a solid, exciting structure. I was saying that they don't have a formula. The structure isn't cookie cutter and specific. Which most shows are for the most part, especially those on network TV.

I personally broke out my episode like a feature, nailing things the inciting incident, the break into Act II, the midpoint, the break into Act III, the climax, etc., etc. Which probably works to something like Tommy's 10 pages. I personally mapped out all my favorite Dexter episodes and charted where they had these moments. And they were all over the map, but I found my two or three favorites had enough similarities for me map out a plan.

As for placing your spec after Season 2, that's an interesting attempt. But it could make your spec useless come this summer. Jane Espenson has a lot of great posts about placing a spec in a specific time, and how she used "old" specs for years to get work. But, it could be very entertaining. My main concern would be that you're spending a lot of time creating a new direction for the show instead of staying in familiar territory and putting your energy into the meat of the character relationships. But it's anyone's guess, I suppose.

As for the plot threads, I agree with Josh. I'd also go as far as to say that Dexter very often disguises few plot threads as many more. Rita's apparent plot thread is often thematically linked to Dexter's A storyline. The season arc (ITK, BHB) is also often in this camp. And Dexter's really good about using smaller arcs (a LaGuerta C story, for example, that's nothing more than three scenes, a classic beginning, middle and end). I'm personally trying to dress up my smaller number of story lines with something like this and then a simple runner to add some humor.

Though I would disagree about Rita. I could be wrong, but I seem to recall her being in every single episode with a pretty important story line, even if slight, to comment on Dexter's A story line, or an extension of it. And I'd venture to say that she plays a pivotal role in how every -- or most -- Dexter episode are always bringing back Dexter's experiences and conflicts to his relationships, to what makes him a normal functioning human being that makes his concerns relevant to all of us who don't hack people up as our life's work.

Thanks for the continued blogging on Dexter, Josh. Much appreciated. I just finished my outline and will be getting some feedback on it this week. So this is all very much on my mind.

Continued well-wishes to you and Tommy on your scripts...

Josh said...

I've finished a Dexter spec and may enter it into a TV Writing Fellowship contest (ABC, CBS, NBC, etc).

Do you think they will find a Dexter spec too dark or edgy? Or are they looking for the best writers?