Typing Faster

May 28, 2009

Breaking It Down: Know your show

Filed under: Craft, Pilot School, Specs — petertypingfaster @ 11:29 am

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to spec, the next step is figuring out what makes the show tick. What its rules are. How it works structurally. How many stories it tells per episode. Doing a proper breakdown takes a long time, but I guarantee that you’ll learn a heck of a lot, and it’ll make your spec that much better.

So, without further ado, here are the things to consider when breaking down a series.

Series Overview
What’s the shows logline? You can learn a lot from a logline.
Is it episodic or serialized?
Network or cable?

Genre
Going beyond the obvious drama vs comedy divide to what KIND of drama or comedy is it. Is it a work place soap? A mystery? An action-adventure show? Try to be as specific as you can.

Themes
What themes does the show regularly explore? What is the consistent message underlying all the shows episodes? What is the show “about”? You could argue that Lost is primarily about family, and getting along with those around us. A sentiment that’s reflected in one of the show’s recurring catch phrases of “Live together, die alone.”

Settings
Not so much where the show is set, but what are the show’s standing sets. A standing set is a set that the show will use in (practically) every episode. If you know what the show’s standing sets are, then you know you better include that location in your spec.

Originality
What sets this show apart from everything else on TV? What makes it unique? What makes it special? A classic example would be Baywatch, which was all over the place until they wrote an episode about rescuing people trapped in an armored truck that had crashed into the ocean. It was a story you couldn’t tell anywhere else.

Characters
Who are your regular characters (in every episode)? Who are your recurring characters (in a lot, but not every, episode)? What kind of stories does each character get involved with? What makes each character tick? Who’s comic relief? What’s each characters narrative role?

I’d recommend writing short (one or two paragraph) summation / description of each character to get a feel for them.

Character Development
Do the characters change? How do they change? What kind of character arcs does the show like to use? You probably don’t want to have any dramatic changes in your spec, but understanding how the show operates will let you know what direction they’re moving the characters in.

Longevity
Is the show sustainable? Why is the show sustainable? Not necessarily important when you’re writing your spec, but as a student of television something that’s definitely worth knowing.

Visual Style
What does the show look like? What color palette does it use? The visual style of the show will inform how you write the scene descriptions in your spec. Is it like CSI where the world at large is dark and gritty, while the lab is sterile and anti-septic? Those visual differences will have a huge impact in how you write your spec.

And lastly you have the most important part of your break down:

Episode Structure
How many acts does an episode have? Does it have a teaser? A tag? Do certain things always happen at certain times? How long are the acts? How many plots does an episode have? Does it have any runners? What plot does the show usually go out on? What plot does it come in on?

How do you figure all this out? Easy! You watch a bunch of episodes of whatever show you’re breaking down. As you’re watching it, pause after every scene. Time how long the scene was. Figure out which plot it belonged to. Write a brief description of what happened in the scene.

Once you’ve finished the episode, then you go back and tally up the number of beats each plot line had. How much time was devoted to each plot. How each plots beats are dispersed throughout the episode (ie. are they balanced? Or do they clump together?).

When you finish watching one episode, then it’s time to watch another. I’d recommend breaking down at least three episodes of the show you’re trying to spec. They should be from the most recent season, and typically you want to avoid the first and last episode of the season, because they tend to be atypical.

Don’t be afraid to apply these breakdowns to your original material as well. Pretty much all the questions you’re going to have to ask yourself as you develop an original show are the questions you’re asking when you break down an existing show.

Tomorrow I’ll post a sample breakdown I wrote for House.

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