Today on the show we bring back author and Story Maps guru Daniel Calvisi. His last episode was one of the most popular in the history of the podcast. The concept of story mapping has been a huge help to so many screenwriters. This is why I wanted to bring him back to discuss how to use his story mapping technique on the television/streaming script. This is based on his best selling book STORY MAPS: TV Drama: The Structure of the One-Hour Television Pilot.
Daniel Calvisi brings his Story Maps screenwriting method to television as he breaks down the structure of the TV drama pilot, citing case studies from the most popular, ground-breaking series of recent years, including THE WALKING DEAD, GAME OF THRONES, HOUSE OF CARDS, TRUE DETECTIVE, BREAKING BAD, MR. ROBOT, SCANDAL, and MAD MEN.
Story Maps: TV Drama offers the first beat sheet for television screenwriters (“Save the Cat” for TV). This is the structural template that aspiring and professional TV writers have been looking for. A clear, practical, step-by-step method for writing a pilot that adheres to Hollywood standards.
How to write a TV pilot has never been easier. Writing a pilot begins here.
This book first introduces you to the key formats, genres, and terminology of modern TV shows then details the major signpost beats of a teleplay and the crucial characteristics that must be present in each act, using specific examples from our new “Golden Age of Television.”
Enjoy my conversation with Daniel Calvisi.
Right-click here to download the MP3
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Alex Ferrari 0:47
I'd like to welcome back to the show returning champion, Daniel Calvisi How you doing my friend?
Daniel Calvisi 3:04
Good, good. How are you doing?
Alex Ferrari 3:06
I'm good. Well, you know, just hanging in there in this crazy upside down world. It's, I keep telling people, I feel like we're back to the future too. And we're on the the other timeline, we are just now living in a alternate universe that I didn't sign up for.
Daniel Calvisi 3:23
I know, it doesn't feel quite real. It's like everything's kind of on hold.
Alex Ferrari 3:27
Everything is just a weird place to be. But but as they say, in the business, the show must go on in one way shape, or form. And, and the creative process has not stopped. writers are writing and creators are creating. And we're here to help as much as we can. So the first time I had you on the show, your episode was very, very well received and has been downloaded 1000s and 1000s of times. So I wanted to kind of bring you back on to discuss your amazing concept of story mapping. But specifically for television, because television is the and when I say television, everybody I mean streaming. I mean, traditional television will just say television for lack of a better term. But that includes Netflix and Hulu and all the other places we're talking about. But I want to kind of focus on that because a lot of people are starting to write more and more for that. I think there's much more opportunity in television now than there ever was that there there is right now in film and independent film. If you're a screenwriter you more likely will get a job in television than you will you know writing up a blockbuster. Is that a fair statement?
Daniel Calvisi 4:40
Yeah, definitely. Yep. There's a lot more opportunities there's a lot more jobs. They're just I mean, writers are getting hired off Twitter in some cases, for to staff on shows, you know, how
Alex Ferrari 4:53
does that work
Daniel Calvisi 4:54
with with studio features?
Alex Ferrari 4:56
How does that work? Is that a specific story you know, of it? It's
Daniel Calvisi 5:00
Yeah. Well, I mean, they're the biggest story was Rob Delaney, who was kind of already kind of a famous comedian. But he had a big Twitter presence. And he was noticed by Sharon Horgan, who was well known for TV and in the UK, and they ended up co creating that show catastrophe. And so he's really big. That was a really big show for Amazon. Yeah, he's really big now. And it was mostly because he was just hilarious on Twitter, you know, but there's many other instances, mostly in comedy, because people can just kill on Twitter. And then they get noticed, and somebody emails them and says, Hey, you know, do you have a pilot?
Alex Ferrari 5:42
such as such a crazy ridiculous story. But yes, it makes all the sense in the world because, and I say ridiculous, because it's, it's kind of ridiculous. Like, how is that? I know, a lot of people listening to the like, I've been busting my ball, and all I have to do is do a good Twitter account. I'm like,
Daniel Calvisi 6:00
it. I think the key the key with any social media is consistency. Like if you do it every single day, you're gonna get noticed, you know, like, it used to be YouTube stars. Now it's Tick Tock stars,
Alex Ferrari 6:13
Daniel Calvisi 6:14
Instagram, they put out something every single day, which is, which I could never do. I don't have. I don't have the patience. And you know, I was telling you offline that I need deadlines and stuff. But people would do that. They prove that they have a work ethic. And then they back it up with talent. So
Alex Ferrari 6:32
it is a weird world we live in my friend how weird worse not. It's not 1982 anymore. that's for damn sure.
Daniel Calvisi 6:39
So I wanted it occurred to me the other day. I'm like, it's not 1982. It's
Alex Ferrari 6:44
not good. though. I actually saw something on on on Facebook or Twitter that was an image is like, there was a highway and there was a turn off. And it's like 2020 straight ahead. 1980 turn off if you want to go back the car, the car was taken off? I don't know. hard, right? I don't know. I might, I might I might if I could go back with what I have in my head. Obviously, right away. Let's go back to 1980. It was simpler times. It's simpler times simpler times. So first and foremost, how do you story map an idea for television? Well, you
Daniel Calvisi 7:18
start with what I call the basic story map, which is things like your protagonist, your theme, your compelling crisis, your compelling crisis is really the core concept of the core conflict of your concept. It's essentially like your logline basically, and it has to be an engine that can continuously go and continuously generate stories. So let me give you a few examples here. So Breaking Bad, and this will this will kind of sound like a logline, but it's really the engine for the whole show. a mild mannered high school teacher becomes a drug lord under the nose of his brother in law, a DEA agent. So that's like the core of it. And you can imagine, okay, that could generate six seasons, you know, and it did. Sons of Anarchy was Hamlet and a biker gang. Okay, it was stepfather and son like to keep a gun running biker gang together. And it's corruption, betrayals and escalating violence, the Americans to Russian sleeper agents in the 1980s pose as the perfect suburban couple by day as they run missions by night which ironically, bring them closer as real lovers. So if you can get that engine, you're off to a great start.
Alex Ferrari 8:36
So like so a logline? So those all those log lines, you have to kind of think as a writer, you're like, Okay, I just I love the term story engine. Because it's like, you know, when you when you throw something like the Breaking Bad logline in it, it just writes itself, almost like oh, yeah, you can, there's so many stories you can put out there, but like, oh boy meets girl and boy loses girl and girl. And then they get back together. That's not much of a story engine.
Daniel Calvisi 9:05
Yeah, and it's and that not only is it not specific, and you want to get as specific as possible, but that suggests a closed ending. And with TV you don't want closed endings like you do with feature films to keep going
Alex Ferrari 9:18
right so Breaking Bad, arguably could have gone for another three, four seasons. I think
Daniel Calvisi 9:23
Yeah. competently keep evading the law basically.
Alex Ferrari 9:26
And it But at a certain point it wears it's it's wears out it's welcome. You know like I mean any of these any of these cop shows like Hawaii Five o I think just went nine to 10 seasons and they just they just stopped it. But those kind of those kind of shows are like SWAT and I, you know, no TV shows are not really in vogue right now. But our police a police TV shows Yeah, procedurals are not really in vogue right now. But, or like a show like bones, which ran for 12 seasons, I think it was it was
Daniel Calvisi 9:55
Yeah, something like that.
Alex Ferrari 9:56
It just keeps it's just you will never end It could never end it's up only basically when the audience just says, you know, we're good.
Daniel Calvisi 10:05
Yeah, that's what they call the case of the week, you know, or like on X Files and a monster of the week or the alien of the week, you know, something like that. But so
Alex Ferrari 10:14
there's there's so on those procedural shows, well, on those kind of shows, like X Files is a great example. There is the week, the monster of the week, but then there's also the underlining season story and then the underlining story engine of the entire series. So the entire series is the truth is out there. molder is trying to get the truth. So that's Yeah, the engine. But the that year, it's like, whatever, like I was caught Cancer man, I think he was
Daniel Calvisi 10:42
Alex Ferrari 10:43
Yes. So there's a whole season on discovering who that guy is, basically. And then after that, then there's the next big. So there's this underlying story that kind of keeps going into kind of dabble on to it, even when they're dealing with the monster of the week. And they kind of go back to it.
Daniel Calvisi 10:56
Is that true? Yeah. Yeah. So in that case, you would call that a hybrid, a scripted and procedural hybrid. So not only is there the procedural case of the week, but there's ongoing arcs below it like, like with Mulder, it was related to the disappearance of his sister, and he believed that his sister was abducted by aliens. And I'm not sure I don't think that lasted the whole, you know, 10 seasons, maybe that was like the first three or four or something. But that pushed it, that was the arc behind it. So it would come up every few episodes. And then as it went on, as it kind of got into the more modern era of television, it became more of a narrative scripted series, where there would less of the monster the week type of thing, right, I was just watching happens when just the audience gets sucked in, and they want they want more character work
Alex Ferrari 11:50
is more about the characters, right? As opposed to just like the monster of the week, kind of kind of deal. So like, like, I, my wife, and I watched all of bones, you know, cuz we were just catching up on all the shows. Were in quarantine. And there was always that one thing I forgot, I think it was that the for for the main character, the the female, she bones herself. It was the father or something like that. And she could never find the bones or something along the something that kept her going for a long time. With castle, it was the same thing for Beckett, the character, the main character, her father was killed and she could never discover who it was. And that kept going for like four or five seasons, that show went on for like 10 seasons as well. But then you're right after like three or four seasons, it kind of either, you know, they can't keep that going for 10 years. They'll they'll go for three or four years, and then they'll pick something else up. And and and take that and kind of keep driving the show. Correct?
Daniel Calvisi 12:49
Yeah. Yeah. Like I think it was the blacklist on NBC. And I don't know if they four or five seasons, then finally they just said Yes, he's her father. Yeah. Then they went on with it from there. You know, it wasn't as much of a mystery anymore.
Alex Ferrari 13:06
Yes, spoiler alert by anyone who has not seen the blacklist I just finished I just finished watching the blacklist. So I completely understand. Oh, yeah, it was like that whole, that whole thing? Like Is he the father is the the Father, we all kind of knew it was that but then then there was the other thing like, well, when What's his what's a secret? And, and what a sheet and now she's turning badly. She's gone into this whole breaking bad thing in that series, like she's gone.
Daniel Calvisi 13:29
I haven't seen it. You know, I haven't seen it recently. I kind of just watched the first season. So it gets it gets
Alex Ferrari 13:35
better, it gets a lot better, it gets a lot better than the first season. So you should you have time, might as well pick it up again. Now, how do you create a compelling character that can carry a series? Because a lot of times, you know, I watch a series and it's starting out, and it's just the characters, the character himself or herself is not strong enough to hold the weight of a whole series, it might hold the weight of a movie might hold the weight of a few episodes, maybe a season, but not for the entire night for a run of 5678 seasons. What What do you do to kind of create that compelling character? Well, I
Daniel Calvisi 14:12
think they have to have a compelling backstory or what you might call their ghost, like Don Draper on Mad Men, he had this backstory where Don Draper wasn't his real name, he assumed the identity of a guy that he was serving in Korea with. And this this officer in Korea, they were in a battle together. The officer whose name was Don Draper died, and they confuse the two. And they thought he was Don Draper. And they thought the guy who died was dick Whitman. And so he just assumed the guy's identity and totally rebooted his life. He came to New York, and ended up becoming an ad advertising executive. So he has this whole backstory which essentially is is a federal crime, right? So he's kind of he's kind of evading the law, like he doesn't want people to know his secrets. And it's all about this duality that he's pretending to be another person really the whole time, which matches up with and kind of parallels the his occupation, which is advertising, you know, advertising is pretending this glamour, you know, this glamorous world to sell baked beans or whatever it is. So that's an example. But in my story map, I say there's four things that you want to define for protagonists. So this is right off the back before we even start, or even start writing the pilot. This is just your initial outline. So I go with defining characteristic scale misbehavior and Achilles heel or flaw. So the defining characteristic could be their occupation, or it could be just something that could be something they're good at, it could be just some way to capture them. Okay. The skill is something that they're really good at. So like Walter White, his skill was obviously chemistry, you know, so he was good at that. So he was able to make that the misbehavior is a quirk or trait that consistently generates conflict. So maybe they have no filter, and they're always talking out, maybe they're making funny asides. Maybe they're a snob, you know, something. And then the Achilles heel or flaw, which may relate to their ghost, is that thing that can destroy them, you know, so like, in in, I would say, probably in madman, Don Draper's Achilles heel, heel or flaw is that he's actually dick Whitman. He actually is not the person that he's saying he is, you know,
Alex Ferrari 16:42
so like, I'm Tony Soprano, like Tony Soprano's ghost or secret is you can't if anybody in his crew found out that he was going to a therapist, it'd be
Daniel Calvisi 16:51
Yeah, it'd be done. Yeah, I would say his therapist. Initially, I was there was a lot with his mother, right? Like, he kind of had a big mother complex, right? So she was almost kind of his Achilles heel as well. But his defining characteristic, I would say, he's kind of impatient, or he's, I don't know, the frustrated leader, maybe like he kind of doesn't want to be the leader. In some ways, you know? And then his skill is he he is a pretty, he's a pretty good leader. And his misbehavior, maybe is that he's, he's violent, you know, he has those violent, he has a temper, temper. Right now he'll go off the handle. So those are characteristics that go into him. And that you could use to write him, you know,
Alex Ferrari 17:41
so those kind of so those four elements really do help to set up a compelling character and sex that could hold the series for a while.
Daniel Calvisi 17:49
Yeah, yeah. So I think that's like the minimum that you would need.
Alex Ferrari 17:52
Now. I mean, I'm sure you found this, a lot of times when the shows start, you know, as they say, jumped the shark to refer to happy days back in the day, when I show jumps the shark A lot of times, either that story engine has run out of gas, or the character it's himself or herself has kind of either caught they, whatever was interesting about them before is either been weighing it's watered down, it's been resolved, and they haven't been able to pick up another thing to keep that character going. Because obviously, I have not seen madmen, believe it or not, so I'm not sure somewhere in the series that did they find out his secret? And, you know, yeah,
Daniel Calvisi 18:32
certain people along the way. Well, yeah.
Alex Ferrari 18:35
But is it like an explosion, meaning like a story explosion that like everybody, the cops come in? he's arrested? Like,
Daniel Calvisi 18:41
is there a moment like that? There never really is no. Okay. So I kept that. The first Yeah, the end of the first season, there's a big confrontation, his nemesis tries to turn him into the boss. And the boss says, Who cares? It's kind of funny. So he ends up winning. That's right.
Alex Ferrari 19:00
All right. But so a lot of times if you're not able to keep that, that thing going, the show just dies, because it's not interesting. And I found that it's a lot of times when I like I was watching, I watched I think six seasons of The Walking Dead. And it just got to a point where I was just like, I can't anymore. It's Yeah, it just kind of Yeah, just I mean, it was great at the beginning and it was awesome, but it's just at a certain point you just like
Daniel Calvisi 19:28
again and you think it was that you it was just the devices kept being repetitive or that you didn't care about the characters anymore?
Alex Ferrari 19:35
No, the specific group, I can tell you exactly the moment when Deegan showed up. When diggin the arch, which is supposed to be the biggest baddest, bad guy, nega nega sorry neguin the biggest bad guy in The Walking Dead universe, according to the comic shows up and everybody was so excited when he showed up and everything. His bat his antagonist was so brutal In the point where the, the good guys could not get a lickin, so it was too overpowering. It's kind of like when the when the villain is too strong, and the May and all the other characters, nothing they did that he just constantly beat them and beat them and beat them. So even in a fight, even in a rocky fight, you know, Drago beats him up in Rocky four and is beating them and you're like, oh, but rocky gets in a lick and cuts them. And then you're like, oh, wait a minute, there's a chance. So it's just like, you know, it's like, the rock going after a five year old, like, there's nothing to five year olds gonna do that's gonna physically match up. And at that point, it gets boring. And then also, I've also built up a love for the characters. And I don't want to see my characters constantly get just abused again, once in a while, but it was just constant. And I just like, both my wife and I just said, you know what we can't, I can't, I can't say and it was a season of this. And even at the end of the season, it was really no, the guys still there. gotta win. They didn't Not really. And if they did, I didn't remember it. It wasn't it wasn't. It wasn't appeasing enough for me. So I just, I just, I just walked away. And now I'm hearing that, you know, what's his name is coming back. And after he left the show, and I'm like, Oh, that's interesting. But I think I can't I goes negative Oh, and he can still run. I don't want to I don't, I can't. And like if they would have killed him in the NFL season, that would have probably kept going over the first time he showed up, but he just keeps coming back. So that was my feeling. That's
Daniel Calvisi 21:31
Yeah, there are shows that are just too dark and you get sick of it, you get sick of your characters losing, right? You want them to have a when they need to have a win every now and then, you know, and you need to root for them to have a win. But if you know they're just gonna lose, and it's just gonna be a complete downer. Right? then yeah, you might fail out of a show.
Alex Ferrari 21:51
Brian, that's a lot of times when people bail out of their sports teams, because they just keep getting beat up all the time. And you're like, well, there's the only reason you watch a sporting event or you watch a movie or a show is because you hope that whoever you're rooting for has a chance. So like the Avengers, perfect example. Thanos was fairly an unstoppable object, I mean, and they said they established him so beautifully in Infinity Infinity War, where within the first 10 minutes, he literally wipes the floor with the whole, which is arguably the biggest, baddest guy in the Marvel side of things. And everyone just said, Oh, man, so even Thanos who has this power that is just so overpowering, and he won. But yet you felt that there was hope. And they did get a couple licks and and there was a way to do it. And it was gonna take the entire Marvel Universe against this guy to beat them. But there was still hope there. What if that'll just kept beating on everybody? And it was it's boring. It's boring.
Daniel Calvisi 22:55
Yeah. And you notice the only real movie with a dark ending was Infinity War, which is,
Alex Ferrari 23:01
which is basically the Empire Strikes Back at the end. It's like the middle part. It's the middle part. Yeah. To partner. Yeah.
Daniel Calvisi 23:06
But if so if every Avengers movie, or every Marvel movie had a dark ending, yeah, that audience would have been turned off a long time ago, I think, and also an ad successful.
Alex Ferrari 23:16
And you also knew that endgame was coming. A few months later, however, it like everyone knew like, okay, we're not waiting two more years for this, like, it's coming next year, it's coming next summer or something like that. And we know they're coming back. Good. But with something like walking dead, they didn't. They just, it was just this constant pounding. So that's something that everyone listening, make sure whoever your protagonist is, give them a win. Even if they have a very powerful foot, which you need. You need a powerful foe to make this thing go, right.
Daniel Calvisi 23:51
Yeah, you need to go to antagonists, you need to get nemesis. But yeah, I would say by the it can still like your pilot can still end on a dark moment. Yeah, sure. It has to end on a trigger that triggers the first season's engine. So whatever the main conflict is going to be for that first season, it has to be generated, at least by the end of the pilot, you know, and that has to be compelling. And that has to be something that you can see generating a lot of episodes now. It could be a loss, I guess, but it's probably a little bit better if it's a win. But really, the way I would characterize it is usually pulling the carpet out from under the protagonists like something you didn't see coming, they didn't see coming, they never thought it would get this bad. This, whatever, maybe they're going through a gateway, maybe a door slammed in their face, some kind of opportunity, but the rug has been pulled out from under them. And it's like the oshit moment, basically, at the end of every pilot, which then triggers the first season you know, so like in scandal You find out during the pilot that she had a affair with the president, President of the United States. And he has hired her, because he's been accused by an intern of, of having an affair, right. And she doesn't want to believe it at first. Well, by the end of the episode, she knows it was true. And so the trigger at the end is she starts representing the intern, the accuser of the President. So now she's diametrically opposed to the President, as opposed to being his former mistress and trying to help him. So that really gives you that like, Oh, crap moment. So now Oh, this first season, she's going to be taking on the president, in addition to new cases coming in during the week,
Alex Ferrari 25:46
and if you just finished watching, how I got it, How to Get Away with Murder, which is also another shot of that, is that good? It's, it's amazing, especially that first season, where I mean, in the pilot, it's about Whoa, who killed this dude. And like, the whole seasons about who killed this person. And what's done so beautifully in that show is at the beginning of every episode, you're taking, there's a flash forward to, or excuse me a flashback to the night of the murder. And they just little by little, every episode gives you just a little bit more information, a little bit more information until you finally get to the answer. And it's not at the end of the season, generally, you get to the answer, by the middle of the season. And then the rest of the season. They're figuring out how to get away with it.
Daniel Calvisi 26:40
So it's okay.
Alex Ferrari 26:42
It's really wonderful. It was a very unique structure of how they were able to do it. And we were hooked from, from the moment you watched the first episode, you're just like, okay, I heard this is good. Let's watch it. And you're just like, I gotta know who killed them. And the way they set it all up, and then like, and then that she's a teacher, she's a lawyer, who's teaching people how, you know, how you would get away with murder? How you would defend that person who got away with murder? It's just it's, it's wonderful to see. And
Daniel Calvisi 27:10
does she take the case at the midpoint of the season? Does she end up defending the murderer, or they're just kind of all she's out? She's,
Alex Ferrari 27:19
she's kind of involved. But she doesn't actually, she actually never kills it. But she's always in the hurricane. She's always inside. And it's very close. So I mean, I'm not giving anything away, they kill her husband. So and you know, it's her husband. So you wondering, did she do it? Did her students do it? The the sister do it like and you're just like this, who done it. But she's a really amazing attorney. And she you know, and, and she's like a force of nature. So then she has to defend herself because she's accused, and there's all sorts of it just constantly, you don't know. And that's the one thing I love about that show specifically. And I think if if you could do this, as a writer in today's world, you you have a job, if you can come up with something that has not been seen before or not not seen before. If you can write the story in a way that I can't tell what's going to happen next. Because Yeah,
Daniel Calvisi 28:18
you and I are be surprises, surprising turns. Yeah, you
Alex Ferrari 28:21
and I are both fairly educated in the story spectrum, I've seen hundreds of 1000s of hours. And most people have seen that even if we're not in the business of constructing story. We've just seen enough to know, oh, that's the bad guys gonna do this. Oh, she's gonna do that. I love this, show them like I have, I'll turn to my wife. And I'll just go, I have no idea what's happening. I have no idea where this is going.
Daniel Calvisi 28:48
And that's a good example that you said it was the Hutt, her husband who was killed. It has to be a consequential person, if you're gonna hang a whole season on on a murder case, it has to be consequential or even just any engine. So like in scandal, she's not just she didn't just have an affair with like some lawyer or some CEO, she had the affair with the President of the United States. It's How to Get Away with Murder. It wasn't just some random person that was killed. It was her husband, you know? So think about that. When you write your concepts, you know, that's what makes it high concept and that maybe the better term is high drama, you know, high consequences.
Alex Ferrari 29:31
And it's funny enough that that first season, that story engine, the ghost of that even after it's resolved, it kept coming back. And they kept coming back because they got because they because you got away with it. That's the name of the show. You got away with murder, but it's always lingering. Is that secret like a madman? It's like that thing. And there's multiple people involved is anybody going to talk is and then sometimes they do and sometimes they don't and what's going to happen and who's dead now and oh my god. And it just constantly kept that engine going in. It did finish I think we it was season. This was the last season. They did six seasons of it. But it could have kept going. But at a certain point he started like, how many times a week? How many times can this person away with murder? Like how many times can you do this? But it for the run? It was fantastic. It really, really was. Now you see, I don't know if we've spoken about this specifically, but the compelling crisis. Can you talk a little bit about the compelling crisis?
Daniel Calvisi 30:31
Yeah, so it's the it's the core conflict? Excuse me, sorry. It's really the core conflict. It's the core engine. I mean, we basically touched on this at the beginning. It's that engine that's going to push the story. It's that dramatic construct, right? It has to be interesting. It has to be compelling. So this is basically your elevator pitch. So if you're telling someone the story, like the this is a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker, you know what it has to be fascinating in its construction. And that's tough to do. Because obviously, if it wasn't tough to do, everybody would come up with a great high concept every single week, you know, but it's tough to do
Alex Ferrari 31:19
it. Can we can we just discuss what a horrible pitch Breaking Bad is? Just like on paper money. The
Daniel Calvisi 31:28
they called it? It's funny, I've seen it referred to as the greatest pitch of all time. Yeah. Because the the initial tagline the initial pitch was he goes from Mr. Chips to Scarface, right. So that right there, you're like, Okay, well, that's at least five seasons, you know, maybe more. Here's this mild mannered guy who's gonna become this huge drug lord, you know, just absolutely ruthless guy. So that in itself, was considered to be a great pitch. Now, the the kind of the logline that I gave at the beginning is more of the specifics, you know, his, his brother in law's a DEA agent on his tail. And he Well, he's the chemistry teacher, who then is good at cooking math. And eventually, he gets kind of more and more power, little more more brutal. Well,
Alex Ferrari 32:16
the way we're presenting it, and the way you just presented, it sounds fantastic. But when I've seen interviews with Vince Gilligan, and he's like, on paper, you're like, Oh, yeah, she his wife has cancer. And then he's a, he's a chemistry teacher who starts selling meth on the side to pay for the or no, he has cancer. He has cancer and, and like, on paper, it just didn't. Nobody
Daniel Calvisi 32:38
Alex Ferrari 32:38
It sounds depressing. Like, why he's got cancer. He's a chemistry teacher. He's gonna sell math. What should what network is going to run this like, and he got and it was turned down by almost everybody. Except for AMC who just said, Hey, we'll take a shot. And even then, they were like, the hatchet was just hanging over their heads for the first season. Just any moment now. And it took a minute before it got it got up and running. Yeah, yeah. Before people started, it took
Daniel Calvisi 33:06
a little bit. There was a whole kind of class of shows that came out of the writer strike. Yeah. And yeah, was that Oh, wait. Yeah, it kind of cut the season in half. Yeah. And a lot of the network's found out that they didn't have enough content. And so they took a chance on a number of shows like last Mad Men Breaking Bad, and a lot of these great shows came out of that period. And it's probably because they took a chance on creators who weren't super established like JJ Abrams. And last, he was established more in features. Not in TV. He was kind of a newcomer, well, actually, he done little, he done Felicity,
Alex Ferrari 33:43
it needed to deal with it. And he did alias. Yeah.
Daniel Calvisi 33:47
But they took a chance on Damon Lindelof, who was a newer showrunner as well there. And just the concept was crazy. He's like, Oh, yeah, there's 18 main characters, and they're gonna stay on this island for the whole run of the show, you know? So I think it It turned out well, and it really affected kind of the history of TV because they really took a chance, you know, something like, True Detective was really taking a chance as well, one director for the whole run of the season. One writer, he didn't have much experience in TV at all, I think he'd been like a staff writer on one show nic pizzolatto. So you know, when you take chances it can pay off. Of course, the landscapes also littered with canceled shows where it didn't pay off, you know, right. But write something that you want to see, right, something that does take some chances, and that's how you're gonna stand out. You know, it's your unique voice that's gonna make you stand out.
Alex Ferrari 34:44
So is there a difference in structure regarding and just story mapping ideas in general with sitcoms and maybe a 30 minute dramedy as opposed to the one hour drama?
Daniel Calvisi 34:55
There is Yeah, if you really want to get technical, and the story map breaks this down into Beat sheet. So a one hour pilots, that structure is going to be either teaser plus four or teaser plus five. So basically, that's if you're considering the teaser as an act, that's five or six X total. And then with a 30 minute, either sitcom or drama T, it's usually going to be cold open slash teaser. Sometimes they call a cold open, plus three x or plus four x. Your average sitcom, let's say one that I've mapped would be the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, that was teaser plus three. And then dramas like Atlanta on FX that was teaser plus for maybe you would say, okay, drama, these have a little bit more complex storytelling, that could be the case. As far as the actual pilot script themselves, this is the pilot that you're going to submit to an agent, manager, student, network, executive producer, whatever, your one hour pilot script is going to be, like 54 to 60 pages, I recommend you don't go over 60 pages if you're a newbie, and then a half hour script, whether sitcom or drama, it is going to be more in like the 32 to 38 page range. And people ask, okay, well, if I'm writing a network sitcom, with commercials, the sitcom actually only ends up being 23 minutes, you know, so should I write a 23? Page script? The answer is no. You should still write a 32 to 38 page script, maybe 30. Because they're going to end up cutting some material because the actors are going to deliberate faster. I mean, comedy is all about pacing. So that just is the industry standard that you're going to write in that range. Now if you're a newcomer, I wouldn't say 38 pages, I'd say keep it 32 to 35, something like that,
Alex Ferrari 36:54
you know? And do you um, and all the all the same idea as far as a compelling character, the story engine, because sitcoms are different, like the sitcom, The logline just has to kind of like, you know, all in the family. I mean, it's basically that blog like Golden Girls, you know, I'm going old school, sorry. Or Big Bang Theory, you know, bunch of nerds trying to figure out life with, you know, a hot girl cross it Hall, essentially. And how that works out. That means that I mean, I don't know if that's even the logline. I don't even know how but the logline of a show like that is,
Daniel Calvisi 37:28
but be very is are the are the elements the same. They're basically the same. I mean, you do have a protagonist who probably has a quirk or a misbehavior. And they may have Achilles heel, but the stakes aren't as high, you know, obviously, it's not going to be life or death, if it's a sitcom. But one thing that and then there is a compelling crisis, there's an urgent crisis for that particular pilot episode, okay. So they may be the same, they may not so like the compelling crisis of let's say, Big Bang Theory may be these guys trying to negotiate the real world, even though they're the biggest nerds on the planet and kind of get along with girls. Okay, you know, as frontline by their neighbor, but the urgent crisis of the pilot is that particular story that week, that particular challenge that they have to deal with, and I don't, I don't know, I don't remember the pilot. But one thing, if you talk about the 30 minute drama t, which is the hottest format today, in which you see a lot more shows, using that format, a lot more shows on Netflix, using the 30 minute drama ad format, a lot more on Amazon shows like dead to me on Netflix, love on Netflix, and Atlanta, like I mentioned, Master of None, and different networks. So they really focus on a subculture and the subculture of the drama, it is really important in those cases. So you really want to drill down into a world that we haven't seen before. Okay, transparent, for example, it was examining the impact of a parent who is transitioning to another gender and the impact on his adult children. Okay, and that was something we hadn't seen before. You know, it really kind of changed the Zeitgeist. And it's a really unique, interesting show. And there and transparent there really was more drama than comedy, although, there were some really funny moments. But it was really more like kind of 70% Drama 30% comedy if you if you had to,
Alex Ferrari 39:38
you know, so Master, so like a show like master of none. What is the subculture there? Because I haven't seen the show in a bit, but I'm trying to remember good question. I
Daniel Calvisi 39:46
would say it's the Indian American, right man who and his family because we do touch on his parents and there are flashbacks to his parents in India coming to America. So it's Indian American man. Trying to struggle as an actor. Okay. And then we get into there's other characters there's the Lena wave character who's a gay black woman. And her family also is examined. There was a great episode which I may have won the Emmy called three Thanksgivings. And three or four Thanksgivings. And it goes back in time, kind of showing her coming out of the closet, with each Thanksgiving when she was younger with her family. So we examined her family, you know. So his family dynamics, it was a struggling actor, it was a young guy, trying to find a partner, you know, trying to find a woman and settle down, his friends are settling down. And he's still the single guy in the city. Kind of trying to grow up, basically, you know, Rami on Hulu is also about a guy trying to grow up in the modern world and become an adult, as he lives at home with his family. But the subculture there is Muslim America. So he's, he's a Muslim. And really, I haven't seen any other show that really had a main character who was a Muslim that was kind of really broke out, you know, and Ramiz a great show to look at. That's a great drama it.
Alex Ferrari 41:14
Now as a writer, do you if you're creating a pilot for any of these shows that 30 minute drama, a one hour drama? Do you need a story Bible? Well, it
Daniel Calvisi 41:25
depends if your Do you mean like a pitch Bible that you show to people?
Alex Ferrari 41:28
Yeah, I mean, yeah, like if you need to understand where the series can go, at least for the season, and then possibly for two or three, and then ideas for two or three seasons ahead of that?
Daniel Calvisi 41:39
Yeah, yeah, you do, you need to understand that. And I would say it would be good to have that written document. Today, you see a lot of pitch decks where there's a lot of visuals, you know, a lot of images. And they talk a lot about tone. And they show like pictures of actors who capture that the essence of that character. So there are a lot more visual, but you can do one that's purely text based. And yeah, you wanted to find the characters in more detail so that you know going forward, what their arcs are going to be and who they are really, so you can write them better. And the arcs going forward in season one, and then ideally, season two, season three, maybe beyond that. But you don't need to have like the entire first three seasons mapped out. But it is good to have a good idea of the major arcs.
Alex Ferrari 42:30
Now, can we discuss a little bit about theme within shows because theme is obviously a very powerful thing that in a lot of times gets lost in the writing process in television shows how like, Can you talk about certain shows and see what the theme underlining theme is of each show? And how important it might be to the success of a show?
Daniel Calvisi 42:54
Yeah, yeah. Well, basically theme is what is your show about? Like, why are you telling this story? What about it fascinates you and should fascinate the audience? What emotions and ideas do you plan to explore, and that can lend itself to inspiring what the characters will do their actions and the plot lines and the beats? theme to mention madman again, the theme would be the pursuit of happiness in an increasingly cynical and chaotic world. Now, that is pretty broad, but each character is is dealing with trying to be happy in this chaotic time of the 1960s in New York City. And it's really, the world is throwing things at them. And they're just trying to get along with their spouse or find a spouse or raise a family or balance the job and home life. There's a lot of dealing with sexism, there's a lot of dealing with racism. And in that case, it was really, it was really key that it was that subculture of Manhattan in the 1960s. But other shows, I would say Breaking Bad the theme of sacrifice comes into play time and time again. Walter White is put in these impossible situations. And the idea is, what is he willing to sacrifice to save his own skin? In some cases, it's literally his own skin, like he'll be tied up. And he he, you know, Jerry rigged a something to burn the, the, the ties on his wrist or something and he and he burns himself to do it, you know, like, is he willing to go through that much pain? Or is he willing the big overriding theme is he willing to sacrifice his family and that's the big thing. That's really his goal from the beginning, is to make enough money to support his family, if he dies from cancer, so after he dies, and the cancer element is taken out of it at a certain point It's when it's more about him being Scarface, you know, it's more about his power. But at a certain point late in the game, his wife does found find out that he is this meth cooker. And she gets in on the business and they run the carwash, which is their front. You know, that's how that's how they launder the money.
Alex Ferrari 45:19
It's literally a car wash, which is so beautiful. It was like they're literally wildly
Daniel Calvisi 45:24
Alex Ferrari 45:25
Oh, obviously, yeah, there's no, like, oh, we're gonna wash money at the car wash?
Daniel Calvisi 45:31
Yeah. It's, it's and the pilot, the end of the pilot is he's, he's washing and literally drying his money, he has cash in the dryer. Literally, like he's washing the money.
Alex Ferrari 45:45
Now, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see writers make when putting together a pilot?
Daniel Calvisi 45:52
Wow. Well, using too much of a closed ending, so that there isn't that season one trigger to trigger the rest of the show. The scenes are too long. And the acts the act breaks are not where they should be, you know, my beat sheet defines your X ray defines the signpost beats of your plot. And it also defines where they fall in the script. Okay, so I have I have a very specific page range paradigm that I've constructed, but it's based on produce shows, hit shows, and pilot professional pilots that I read. So like, for example, I have the teaser of a one hour drama should be two to 10 pages act, one should be 12 to 15 pages at two should be six to 10 pages, and it should end around page 30. And I continue through to act five. So if you read my book, story, maps, TV drama, then you'll see these breakdowns. And you'll know basically how long you have for each act. And it really is empowering. And it gives you kind of a deadline and a target, you know, and it is easier to write if you know, okay, I'm writing act two, and I only have 10 pages, and it should end around page 30. You know, it's actually liberating. Because then you don't write 35 pages, and it gives you some discipline to know that this is the industry standard structure. You know, I don't know if that answered your
Alex Ferrari 47:35
Well, no, it does. It does. It does not Are there any bad habits that screenwriters writing a show have that they should kind of rid themselves of like you've seen this again and again. And again. You're like, Oh, God, please stop this. Well, it's
Daniel Calvisi 47:49
funny, I heard, I had heard years ago that there was a huge flood of pilots that were just like Breaking Bad. Like that pilot, you know, as it was so popular at the time. But uh, yeah, like I said, the trigger, there isn't a trigger to trigger season one, there isn't that compelling crisis, really, it's it's a one off story, you know, so there's not that fascinating conflict that can keep repeating. Just the characters are not that interesting, there is a lack of conflict, they really have to generate conflict, and each scene has to have conflict, and ideally increasing stakes. There isn't a midpoint, like there should still be a midpoint and a pilot, just as there is a midpoint and a feature. And that should be really strong. And then there should be an all is lost moment that really hitting bottom moment that happens at the end of Act four. If you're talking about teaser, plus five x knows and all is lost in in the 30 minute structure as well.
Alex Ferrari 48:50
Now how do you approach rewriting the rewriting process which is just brutal?
Daniel Calvisi 48:56
Are you not at not do well with rewrites?
Alex Ferrari 48:59
I mean, I don't mind rewrites Actually, I actually enjoy doing going back and rewriting because it's just honing what you've done before. But for for when I'm doing stories, specifically, nonfiction is a lot easier. But for fiction, you start killing those darlings. And it's hard. It's hard to kill the darlings. And that's one thing I know a lot of writers like I've read so many screenplays that are you know, you know, it shouldn't be 135 pages, you know, it really needs to be 92 you know, it's just because they just you just need to be 135 Yeah, really doesn't you know, um, you know, is this Braveheart? No, I don't know. It's so a certain point. It's hard to cut those out. So any suggestions or any advice?
Daniel Calvisi 49:43
Well, yeah, I would say you have the story map paradigm. You know, that comes from my book. And the worksheet if you your your listeners if you want to email me at Dan at act for screenplays.com. I will send you a worksheet for the one hour drive And 30 minute if you want. So you have that worksheet in that paradigm. So you can do better at hitting those page points in your, in your subsequent drafts. And then as you know, you want to give it to friends and get feedback from other people. And that's tough, because you do end up killing those darlings. You know, that favorite scene that you love someone you hit, give it to three friends, and two of them are like, you don't need that scene, you know, you should cut that scene. And that's when you that kind of separates the men from the boys. You know, that's the tough thing that you have to do, that professional writers have to do is be able to cut those scenes that just aren't working, aren't pushing the story forward, they don't have enough conflict. They're just not crucial, you know,
Alex Ferrari 50:46
right. And a lot of times, it's just like, there's a cool line in that scene, or there's a cool thing that happens in that scene. But it's not really moving the story forward, it's fluff, but it's really cool fluff and it's tough to cut those.
Daniel Calvisi 50:56
Yeah, and every scene should a move the story forward, be reveal crucial character, or see really explore the theme, you know, in a unique way that isn't explored in other scenes. Ideally, all three of those, but it should hit at least one of those. And it should, you know, the most important is moving the story forward.
Alex Ferrari 51:17
Now, I'm going to ask you a few questions. I ask all of my guests, sir. I mean, what are three television pilots every screenwriter should read?
Daniel Calvisi 51:28
Okay. I would say and I'll try to I'll try to deviate from just the ones in my book because I have seven in my book that I break down. I would say Breaking Bad Ozark. I really love Ozark these days. And wow, I would say to throw in a half an hour one I would say dead to me also on Netflix. Okay, so two to Netflix and an AMC.
Alex Ferrari 51:55
All right. Now, what advice would you give a screenwriter wanting to break into the business today?
Daniel Calvisi 52:01
Write a lot have more than one sample that is ready and polished. I mean, if you have the greatest script in the world, you only have one yes, that can launch your career. But you want to show a manager or an agent that you're not just a one trick pony. And that you do have more than one script. So I would say have a portfolio of two to three really strong pilots. And ideally secure a manager first before and then they can they can get you staffing jobs, but 99% of staffing jobs are in LA. So if you're going to be a TV writer, you do want to eventually I would say come to LA
Alex Ferrari 52:45
and where can people find you and the work you're doing.
Daniel Calvisi 52:49
You can find me at act for screenplays.com. That's AC t fo you are screenplays.com. I have a bunch of interviews around on the internet and like film courage and indie film, hustle and La screenwriter. I have books on Amazon. My most popular book is the one that is on the one hour film structure, which is called story maps, TV drama, the structure of the one hour TV pilot. And I have webinars also that you can get on my site at ACC for screenplays.com. There's a webinars tab, I have one called the screenwriting secrets of Netflix. And then I have some that detail the one hour beat sheet, the 30 minute beat sheet, and the 30 minute drama. So there's a whole wealth of of ways you can learn from my methods. Daniel, thank
Alex Ferrari 53:39
you so much for being on the show again, sir and and dropping those knowledge bombs on the tribe today. So I appreciate it, brother. You're welcome.
Daniel Calvisi 53:47
Well, thanks for having me. I always enjoy it.
Alex Ferrari 53:49
I want to thank Daniel for coming on the show and dropping those knowledge bombs on the bulletproof screenwriting tribe today. Thank you so much, Daniel. If you want to get links to anything we spoke about in this episode, including copies of his book, and other services that he provides, head over to the show notes at bulletproofscreenwriting.tv/086. And guys, if you haven't already checked out our new course at ifH Academy called the foundations of screenwriting story development, taught by Jeffrey Calhoun from the script summit. And in the course he talks about concept development, understanding theme, character development, character sheets, internal versus external conflict, sympathy versus empathy, and so much more. If you want to get access to it, just head over to bulletproofscreenwriting.tv/storycourse. Thank you so much for listening, guys. As always, keep on writing no matter what. Stay safe out there, and I'll talk to you soon.
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