Deconstructing a TV Script – What’s the story?

In order to figure out what the main A, B & C and runner stories in a script are, I need to read through and name each sequence , who’s in it and give some basic description of the  begining, middle end and the meaning. I can  then step back and figure out which stories dominate. A sequence refers to any natural grouping of scenes that belong to a story line.
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Here’s what I do:

1. Open an empty Story Template here.

2. Fill in the name of the sequence.
When I start I put the first thing I think of for the name, I will go back by the first act and rename some of them because I can see by reading on that the earlier sequence is part of the same story. These names will become A story, B Story, C story etc.
Sequences are a handy way to group scenes into a narrative unit. For instance sequence 2 is where  Don goes to his mistress, Midge  but I don’t call it the ‘Midge’ story. It’s mostly him talking  about his upcoming presentation so it’s the smoking story  even though it introduces Midge and tells us more about Don. It’s not a science, I’m just grouping them in any way I think will help me pull out the main stories running through the script.
Some scenes are not really part of a story in themselves but may tie several together or be part of a broader story that goes over several episodes. I could name a sequence actively e.g. ‘Pete sabotages Don’ instead of ‘Steel’ which could be helpful but I try not to do too much analyzing at first.

3. Note the important individuals in the sequence

4. Put a description of what happened or what the sequence means if that is important. ‘The scene is not about what the scene is about’ – you know that adage so the meaning can be more important than what’s going on.  In the sequence ‘Have a Baby’ in the Episode ‘The wheel’ of Mad Men, one of scenes shows Pete relenting to having sex without a condom. The meaning here is that part of his motivation is to get approval from his Father-in-law by trying to have a baby (‘I know you’ll tell your mother’)  to get his business and thus get ahead at Sterling Cooper.

Now I can do a simple sort and see what the main stories are and who’s in them.

Out of the result below I can tell which are the main stories in the script:
A Story – Smoking

B Story – New Girl

C Story – Don vs. Pete

D Story – Rachel’s Store

E Story – Pete’s Party

There is also the beginning of another story which ends the New Girl Story when Pete sleeps with Peggy at the end.
Even though there are more sequences for New Girl, Smoking is the A story because it involves Don,  opens the episode and has the highest stakes. I need to weave in 4-5 stories into my script based on what I deduced above. If you notice that there are 6-7 stories or just 1 or 2 then this tells you to take a close look at the structure of the episode to check for literary devices or conceits such as in the ‘Wheel’ episode.
I can also see that there are two client stories in the episode – so I’ll need more than one when writing my script.
I’m not including runners for now. I know they’re there but am more interested in quickly getting to the heart of the story. Also note that the table doesn’t have Acts. You can break down your script into 4 acts for your drama or whatever number runs in your show. I go back and mark the act break later as this is handy for identifying how the act ends and what I have to do to match it.

Seq Title Who’s Key? What’s it about?
1 Smoking Don Don in a bar asking bar hop about his smoking habits
2 Smoking Don, Midge Don with his mistress 
3 New Girl Peggy, fellas Peggy arrives at the office on her first day
4 Pete’s Party Pete, fellas Pete’s office mates are planning a bachelor party
5 New Girl Peggy, Joan Joan shows Peggy the ropes
6 Rachel’s Store Roger, Don Roger reminds Don about Menken and the pitch to Lucky Strike
7 New Girl Peggy, Pete, Don Pete undresses pegy verbally 
8 Don vs. Pete Don, Pete Don tells Pete his behaviour with peggy is out of line
9 New Girl Peggy, Doctor Peggy at the doctor getting contraceptives
10 Rachel’s Store Don, Rachel, Roger Don and Peggy hit it off – badly
11 Don vs. Pete Don, Pete Don rejects Pete’s friendly advance
12 New Girl Peggy, Joan, Others Peggy meets the receptionists
13 Smoking Don, Sal, Gretchen Sal and then Grethcen come up short on ideas
14 Smoking Don, Roger, Pete, Gues Big meeting, nearly fails but Don saves the day
15 Pete’s Party Pete, fellas The fellas get ready to head out
16 Pete vs Don Pete, Don Don tells Pete off for going through his trash
17 New Girl Peggy, Don Peggy puts her hand on Don and is rejected
18 Rachel’s Store Don, Rachel  Don apologies to rachel and they share a moment of honesty
19 Peggy and Pete Peggy, pete, others Pete goes to Peggy’s house and sleeps with her
20 Home Sweet Home Don, Betty, Kids Don returns to his suburban idyll and beautiful wife

A simple sort on this table in Excel and I can see which is the A, B & C story as well as what is the beginning, middle and end of each

Seq Title Who’s Key? What’s it about?
8 Don vs. Pete Don, Pete Don tells Pete his behaviour with peggy is out of line
11 Don vs. Pete Don, Pete Don rejects Pete’s friendly advance
16 Don vs. Pete Pete, Don Don tells Pete off for going through his trash
20 Home Sweet Home Don, Betty, Kids Don returns to his suburban idyll and beautiful wife
3 New Girl Peggy, fellas Peggy arrives at the office on her first day
5 New Girl Peggy, Joan Joan shows Peggy the ropes
7 New Girl Peggy, Pete, Don Pete undresses Peggy verbally 
9 New Girl Peggy, Doctor Peggy at the doctor getting contraceptives
12 New Girl Peggy, Joan, Others Peggy meets the receptionists
17 New Girl Peggy, Don Peggy puts her hand on Don and is rejected
19 Peggy and Pete Peggy, pete, others Pete goes to Peggy’s house and sleeps with her
4 Pete’s Party Pete, fellas Pete’s office mates are planning a bachelor party
15 Pete’s Party Pete, fellas The fellas get ready to head out
6 Rachel’s Store Roger, Don Roger reminds Don about Menken and the pitch to Lucky Strike
10 Rachel’s Store Don, Rachel, Roger Don and Peggy hit it off – badly
18 Rachel’s Store Don, Rachel  Don apologies to Rachel and they share a moment of honesty
1 Smoking Don Don in a bar asking bar hop about his smoking habits
2 Smoking Don, Midge Don with his mistress 
13 Smoking Don, Sal, Gretchen Sal and then Gretchen come up short on ideas
14 Smoking Don, Roger, Pete, Gues Big meeting, nearly fails but Don saves the day
       

It’s important to do this exercise for a few scripts because that is when you will see a pattern.
Let’s take another example – Look at “New Amsterdam” EP 104

Seq Title Who’s Key? What’s it about?
4 Don & Rachel Don, Rachel Don bumps into Rachel at the office
23 Don and Roger Don, Roger Roger tells Don not to compete with Pete
6 Helen Bishop Betty, Dan Dan tries to get into Betty’s home she won’t let him
7 Helen Bishop Betty, Helen Helen comes over to explain.
11 Helen Bishop Betty, Helen Betty goes to babysit at Helen’s house
14 Helen Bishop Betty,Glen Glen walks in on Betty in the toilet, she gives him a lock of hair
16 Helen Bishop Betty, Helen Helen comes home
5 Home Sweet Home Betty, Kids Betty is reading  a fairy tale to Sally. 
1 New Apt Pete, Ken, Harry & Paul The fellas are listening to Bob NewHart when Trudy  arrives
2 New Apt Pete, Trudy, Harry Trudy tells Harry he can give his wife a baby, takes Pete out of office
3 New Apt Pete, Trudy, Harry Trudy shows Pete a new apartment
8 New Apt Pete, his dad andrew Pete’s dad turns down pete’s request for $
9 New Apt Pete, Trudy  Pete pretends he didn’t ask his father due to ill health
12 New Apt Pete, Trudy, Trudy’s parents Trudy’s dad offers financial help with the apt, Pete grudgingly relents
13 New Apt Pete, Trudy Pete not happy with taking money 
24 New Apt Pete, Trudy, Trudy’s parents They have bought the apt. Pete seems as if he has sold out.
20 Shrink betty, dr. Wayne Betty tells the dr. about her impressions of Helen’s life  in a condescending manner.
10 Steel Don, Pete, Sal, Walter Presentation scuppered by Pete
15 Steel Pete, Walter Pete suggests copy to Walter at a bar
17 Steel Don, Pete, Walter, Sal Pete’s idea undermines Don
18 Steel Don, Pete Don fires Pete
19 Steel Don, Roget Don tells Roger he fired Pete
22 Steel Don, Roger, Pete Roger covers for Pete saying he gave him a second chance
21 Steel  Don, Roger, Coper Cooper tells Don he can’t fire Pete

So for this episode we have

A Story – New Apartment

B  Story – Steel

C Story – Helen Bishop

Why does Pete get the A story? It opens with him, ends with him and he gets the most scene mileage. However the B story seems to have more drama. The tale of Pete undermining Don has a whiff of intrigue and yet lets us see it from Pete’s point of view. Still I think New Apartment is the A story. It doesn’t matter much – it’s all about Pete.

My earlier assumption – that I need to put together 4 or 5 stories together for an ep is not true. There are 2  main stories a smaller C story plus a couple of threads.

Then there are Story Threads – such as ‘Don & Rachel’ and ‘Shrink’ which are stories that will play out over another episode or number of episodes.There is a scene with Don and Roger where they discuss what happened with Pete undermining him twice in a roundabout way. I could have lumped it under Steel but decided not to because it’s a revelation scene that ties in with a number of issues in Don’s life -mainly his unease.

The episode, however,  is mostly about Pete.Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart He undermines Don in ‘Steel’  and is undermined himself in ‘New Apartment’. He nearly loses his job.  Pete really gets ‘buttoned down’  in this episode  nicely indicated in the playing of the Bob Newhart album that opens the ep. That opening, by the way, is a good example of the sophistication of the show. It rarely shows cultural or technological ‘bits’ without leveraging them as metaphor’s in the story. e This was done to great effect in the Kodak Carousel ep.

But there is the one oddball in these stories – the C Story doesn’t have a resolution. The ‘event’ of that story is Betty giving a lock of hair to young Glen though you wouldn’t know it until Helen confronts Betty about it in another episode. For n know a bit about  Betty and gives her an idea of what it would be like to be alone – if she left Don. Helen Bishop’s life is an alternative realit Somewhere inside she knows Don has left her out in the cold.

Don is still serviced in this episode as the story establishes Pete as a true antagonist of his and gives us a direct combat story which Don loses. The one story in common with the Pilot is ‘Steel’ .  That first ep focused on Peggy so now it’s Pete’s turn. The difference is that Peggy is a mirror of Don and Pete is an enemy of Don so the tension between them is of a different nature.

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2 responses to “Deconstructing a TV Script – What’s the story?

  1. I loved the pilot episode – It thrust us straight into the series. I am also writing a spec for Mad and refer to your site regularly. Thanks!

  2. A favor: could you update the “Story Template” link? It is outdated and I can’t donwload the excel file. Great article, VERY useful!

    Thank you very much!

    Kim, Montreal

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