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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Alias 1x01 - Truth Be Told

Okay, this one took a while to get through.  Seriously, it's more like a freaking novella than a script.  It's not bad by any means... but holy crap, man.

Anyways, lets get to it, shall we?

What we have here is a 71-page First Draft (download here), dated January 5, 2001 and written by one Mr. J.J. Abrams... you may have heard of him.

To his credit -- and this does deserve noting -- he's actually released this script, said first draft, for public consumption with the heading 'FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY'.  Kudos to you, good sir!  There's a lot to take in here.

What I found most interesting about this pilot was the way it was structured -- he started with a healthy dose of in medias res, showing our heroine, Sydney Bristow, already in deep doo doo.  In fact, the first shot of the whole pilot reveals that she's in the middle of being forcibly drowned by the enemy.  Who said 'enemy' is, why they're drowning her or why her hair is such a brilliant shade of red... those are all questions that pop into mind -- and, really, that is pretty much the running theme of this pilot.

Questions.  Layers and layers of questions.  Everything, every new reveal, every new piece of information evokes far more questions than it answers.  Right down to the structure of the show itself.

It's a brilliant, sometimes frustrating, way to do things.

And yet, if there's one complaint I have about this script it's quite simply the length.  Pages and pages, walls of text.  It's all brilliantly written, informative stuff... but yowza... its almost too dense for its own good.

Educationally speaking -- and I know this because I used to write like this, giving SO MUCH stage direction -- I almost wish there was some proviso for new writers who'd stumble across this script and think that it's a 'finished' representation of the show.  It's not.  This is a classic case of 'overwriting-like-crazy-and-then-trimming/revising-for-draft-number-two'.  It reads well, reads fantastically well... but I'm pretty sure you'd never try and shoot something like this.

Getting back to how he's structured this thing -- in medias res is a popular way to tell a story if you want to get people interested fast, get them asking questions and, more importantly, lock them in past that always-essential first commercial break.  It's a trick that you'll see used pretty often in TV because it just works so darned well.  In fact, one of my favourite episodes of Firefly ("Out Of Gas") used this to great effect.

Now, the first rule of a great pilot is to always make sure that your audience is asking questions -- not because they're confused, but because they're intrigued.  Lead them deeper into the well, hook them in the face, then drag them into the abys--

-- oh... oh, wait... that -- that was a different thing...



This is a dense, dense script but because he writes so much (and so well), he does a great job of ensuring that we really care about our lead character.

Though he does cheat a bit in one noticeable way -- it's a great cheat though, and once you notice it, you'll see it pop up from time to time, so take note:

In the pilot he has Sydney's boyfriend propose to her.  Now, remember, we've known them for all of 10 minutes or so at this point, but in that time we learn that she's got a boyfriend... and he proposes to her.  Better yet, later in the pilot he gets murdered by the forces that Sydney will ultimately realize that she's working against.  (This also sounds somewhat similar to the Fringe pilot... hrmmm)

It's a great emotional trick -- you already know bad things are going to happen to her, heck the first thing you see is that she's getting tortured... and then WHAM! O.M.F.G!! You're engaged?! To this sweet young boy who belted out 'Build Me Up Buttercup' to her in the park while down on one knee?!

Yeah.  It's all a well-crafted ploy to score some quick emotional connection points with the audience.

But it works.

Basically, educationally speaking, it doesn't hurt to kill off a loved one or two in your pilot -- just make sure they get a chance to hit that one, essential note that will make them memorable/miss-able when the time comes.  So we'll feel like your character's steely-eyed vengeance is well-deserved.

Technically speaking, he likes to bring music into the scene where ever he can -- not always specific songs, most often it's the general feel of the music that should be playing.

This can work if you have a really strong idea of the scene in your mind.  The trap that newbie writers can fall into is where they start dictating EVERY SONG in every scene.  This is more likely to happen in Film scripts than TV scripts, but I've come across it a few times in some of the spec pilots I've read.  It's a good way to get your script tossed into the trash.

(Seriously, can you imagine the cost of getting the rights to even one of these songs?  Let alone somehow getting the rights for the pilot and then having to re-get them for the eventual DVD/Internet release?! Yikes.  Folks, this is why you'll never see a proper release of The Wonder Years on DVD *sad face*)

But I digress.

All-in-all, this is a splendid First Draft (again, this is most likely a 'First Draft' in the sense that it was the one that got dropped on the Network's desk, probably draft 9 or 10 in real life)... if all my First Drafts were this good... I'd probably be working right now, actually.

But I'm still slugging away at it.

This is definitely worth a read and it's educational as all hell, if you come at it from the right angle.  Don't think this is what a 'finished' script looks like, however, or you'll be setting yourself (and your friends/ eventual readers) up for one hell of a headache.

Tomorrow I'll be tackling Flight Of The Conchords 1x03 - Mugged.  I've seen exactly 1/2 of one episode of this show... and I can't remember much about it.  I know some people lost their shit over it though... so I'll give it looksee once things settle down a tad.

*YES! In before midnight... that was a close one*


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