Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

[Development Diary] Outbreak #1


Like the majority of writers, I find my most simple pleasure in life comes from adding text to a work in progress. To ironing out the wrinkles and tweaking the story. So this morning, whilst submitting it as an in-progress work (and back-up to my usual spec, Holland Park) to another potential agent, I decided it was time to knuckle down and finally get my first draft of the Outbreak pilot finished.

Outbreak is a sci-fi/event television concept for which I’m writing a ‘premise pilot’ – it’s a concept I’ve talked about before and one that John August brilliantly deconstructs (and, in fact, denounces) here. In this first episode, we meet our hero/heroine combination for the first time: Newly-promoted (the inciting incident) NYPD homicide detective JIMMY O’BRIEN and his super-genius high school senior girlfriend, ROBYN CAMPOS. We also meet a cast of supporting characters; LAUREN and MARILYN are Jimmy and Robyn’s mothers, respectively; JOHANNES VAN ZYL, Jimmy’s partner; MICK HARPER, Jimmy’s new boss in homicide; BARESI, the grizzled veteran of the homicide department; DR. STETLER, the department’s ageing forensic expert; PADDY O’MALLEY, owner of the cops’ favourite local bar; ASYA, AUSTIN and BRIONY, Robyn’s school friends and TRAVIS WILSON, Robyn’s history teacher.

Whilst almost every screenwriting guru in the world will be screaming “THAT’S TOO MANY CHARACTERS!” at me now, it’s perhaps worth noting that I consider them ‘supporting’ characters. This is very much Jimmy and Robyn’s story, but giving them a large group of people around them gives me scope as I move forward; one of my pet hates with television is when someone introduces a new friend. colleague or family member that we’ve never seen before, but they’re supposed to be ‘best buddies’ with. The Simpsons subverts this brilliantly. So the mothers may not appear in every episode. Baresi may not appear. Professor Wilson may not appear. I may only use one of Robyn’s friends at times, if any. O’Malley and Stetler would only appear when needed, too. Each character serves a specific function in the show; in the pilot, I introduce snapshots of them to the audience, but not so much that it would take away from the overall story.

The premise of the show if, for me, what made the project so interesting. We pick up our story on April 7th, 2031, eighteen-and-a-half years after a Smallpox outbreak decimated the global population, reducing it from the 7 billion(ish) it is now to just 100 million. While that may sound implausible as a premise, it’s worth noting that this is perceived, by government agencies around the world, as being a potentially very real threat. Even the CDC considers this a strong enough possibility to have an emergency plan in the event of such an outbreak. I’ve talked about this before, but my first challenge was how to convey this strange new world to an audience. In my first draft, I combined narration and pictures, a 5-page ‘history’ lesson that looked like this:

FADE IN:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY - DAY

TITLE: NEW YORK CITY - OCTOBER 2012

An elevated view over Central Park and the Manhattan skyline
captures the hustle and bustle of the world’s busiest city.

ROBYN (V.O.)
It was just a normal day in New
York City--

EXT. WALL STREET - DAY

Wall Street is full of business-types walking around in suits
talking loudly into cell phones. You couldn’t squeeze a
cigarette paper between the traders on the crowded sidewalk.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Wall Street was still packed, the
bankers were still trading--

EXT. BROADWAY - DAY

Broadway, a mix of tourists and arty types crowd the streets.
Names of shows in bright lights hang on theatres, scalpers
openly sell tickets on the streets.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Broadway sparkled with the bright
lights and promises of star names
in grandiose musical extravaganzas--

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - DAY

Times Square, as always, is alive with activity. Tourists are
everywhere and so are their natural by-product - souvenir
vendors.

ROBYN (V.O.)
That’s when it happened. The even
that everyone - the government, the
people, the experts - had feared
for over three decades--

INT. ENTRANCE OF 42ND STREET STATION - DAY

New York’s busiest subway station. At rush hour. There are
people everywhere, commuters from every borough, even from
outside the city. Thousands of people headed in every
direction imaginable. In there, somewhere, a man is dropping
a test tube.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Thousands of potential witnesses
missed the biggest crime against
humanity in human history; the
defining terrorist act of all-time.
If you’d seen it, you probably
wouldn’t even have noticed it--

INT. 42ND STREET STATION - DAY

Somewhere in the crowd from earlier, a man - his face unseen -
walks through the crowd. He’s dressed for business - a suit
and tie, a briefcase, a copy of the Wall Street Journal
tucked neatly under one arm. He’s knocked from side to side
by those passing by as they force their way through the
crowd.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Even if you had witnessed it, you
almost certainly wouldn’t have
survived. Hardly anybody did.

He nonchalantly puts his hand into his pocket and pulls out a
test tube. Without stopping, without even slowing down, he
throws it on the ground. It smashes immediately - the
beginning of the outbreak.

ROBYN (V.O.)
They’d been predicting these events
for years, right out in the open.
It was public knowledge that the
next big terrorist attack was going
to be biological. As simple as
dropping that one test tube of
Smallpox in the middle of a major
metropolis.

He carries on walking, unchallenged, unquestioned, everyone
was too busy to notice anything. The smashed glass on the
floor just regarded an inconvenience, as litter.

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - DAY

His face still unseen, the man emerges into Time Square,
amongst the thousands of people, all those tourists with
hotels to go back to and nations across the globe to return
to.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Years later, forensic experts
figured out that it started in New
York, probably in a tourist hot
spot, just by retracing the steps
of the first to die--

He stops among the gawping tourists that have stopped to
stare at the Jumbotron at One Times Square and again, reaches
into his pocket and drops another test tube before calmly
walking away, into the throng of people and disappearing into
the crowd.

INT. A NEW YORK HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM - DAY

Patients arriving in A&E. Some sign in, some are already
awaiting triage, most are coughing and spluttering.

ROBYN (V.O.)
At first the hospitals just assumed
that flu season had started a
little early--

INT. AN EXAM ROOM - DAY

A DOCTOR is examining a YOUNG GIRL, who clutches a worn-out
teddy bear as her MOTHER stands by, worried.

DOCTOR
Can you say ‘ahh’ for me, sweetie?
She does and he checks out the inside of her mouth, a
standard exam to check on a sore throat.

DOCTOR (CONT’D)
How long ago did you start feeling
sick?

YOUNG GIRL
Just yesterday and today.

MOTHER
She’s got a rash on her stomach,
too.

DOCTOR
Can I see it?

The girl lifts her t-shirt to show him her rash.

DOCTOR (CONT’D)
Looks like she’s got chickenpox.
It’s unlucky to get a cold at the
same time, but she’ll be okay.

MOTHER
Chickenpox? That’s not possible,
she’s had it before.

INT. A NEW YORK HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM - DAY

More patients, almost all coughing, all spluttering as
doctors run around attempting to triage them.

ROBYN (V.O.)
It was two weeks before anyone even
suggested smallpox. By that time,
thousands were already dead.
Emergency rooms across the world
were packed to capacity.

INT. NEWS STUDIO - NIGHT

A YOUNG NEWSREADER sits at a desk awaiting her cue as make-up
people and tech crew run around ready to go live. She’s
visibly extremely nervous and definitely too young to be in
the anchor’s chair under ordinary circumstances.

ROBYN (V.O.)
By the time the public became aware
of the outbreak, almost a million
deaths had been confirmed in the US
alone.

The chaos calms and the lights come up on the studio. She’s
live.

YOUNG NEWSREADER
Good evening. Breaking news as the
CDC confirms that the global
epidemic that has so far claimed
the lives of around a million
Americans is Smallpox.

INT. A BAR - NIGHT

A busy bar. Everyone is glued to the television as the news
breaks.

YOUNG NEWSREADER
The White House is urging people
not to panic and has announced that
it has deployed military personnel
to oversee the administration of
vaccines across the country.

EXT. A CHICAGO STREET - NIGHT

Chaos everywhere are the streets are lit only by the fires
that have engulfed various buildings. People are rioting,
looting, fighting in the streets as the police struggle to
contain them.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Eventually the people learned that
there simply wasn’t enough vaccine
for everybody. This led to
panicking, riots, looting.

EXT. LOS ANGELES CITY HALL - DAY

More rioting, with cars set ablaze as fire crews and police
desperately try to get the situation under control. A rioter
throws a Molotov cocktail trough one of the windows of city
hall. Others soon follow suit.

ROBYN (V.O.)
It would’ve been a nightmare under
normal circumstances, but with a
highly-contagious and deadly virus
already spreading like wild-fire,
the people turned their cities into
giant petri dishes, allowing the
disease to spread at a faster rate
than ever before.

EXT. A LABORATORY - DAY

A scientist in a biochem lab raids the stores of viols of
medicines. Finding the one he wants, he inserts a needle into
it, loads it up and injects it into his arm before grabbing
more viols and some spare needles.

ROBYN (V.O.)
The people with access to the
vaccines took care of themselves
and their families first. By the
time any got released to the
public, there was barely enough to
vaccinate more than a few million
people.

EXT. NEW YORK CITY STREETS - DAY

TITLE: SIX MONTHS AFTER THE OUTBREAK

The streets are almost deserted - at least by living human
beings. There are bodies laying in the street, some being fed
on by once-domesticated dogs who now roam freely.

ROBYN (V.O)
Within six months, the global
population had been reduced to less
than one-hundred million people.

INT. A HOSPITAL DELIVERY ROOM - DAY

A delivery room in an under-equipped and understaffed
hospital. On the bed, YOUNG MARILYN (mid-late 20s) is pouring
sweat as she gives birth. A MIDWIFE holds her hand as a
single doctor (DOCTOR #2) tends to her.

MIDWIFE
It’s okay, you’re doing fine.

DOCTOR #2
Okay, Mrs Campos, one last push
when I say.

Marilyn begins to hyperventilate - she wants this baby out
now.

MIDWIFE
Control your breathing.

She does as she’s told. Over this:

ROBYN (V.O.)
Of course, that’s the story as I
heard it. I wasn’t actually alive
when the outbreak started.

The midwife mops Marilyn’s brow.

DOCTOR #2
Now, push!

Marilyn gives an almighty push and we can hear the sound of a
baby crying.

DOCTOR #2 (CONT’D)
Congratulations, Mrs. Campos. It’s
a girl.

He hands her the baby and Marilyn looks into her daughter’s
eyes for the first time.

MIDWIFE
What are you going to call her?

MARILYN
Robyn. After her father.

Now, whilst those five pages explain the entire back story of the show and how the environment, the New York the characters live in, came to be that way, it also kills an element of the mystery of the show, takes up five pages and, frankly, is boring as hell.

So instead, I decided to use a more visual way into the environment. When time stands still, as we see in Cuba to this day, everything falls into disrepair. The image of New York, one of the world’s most glamorous cities, in such post-apocalyptic disarray is striking enough – even in disrepair, New York would still very distinctly be New York – but I wanted one more layer to the visual image to really set the tone:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY (MET MUSEUM) - DAY 1

TITLE: NEW YORK CITY - APRIL 7TH, 2031

A busy New York street, so run-down that it could be the
Bronx, Queens, Havana... or Sarajevo. The street bustles with
life as decades of old posters peel from the wall.

Despite the obvious signs of urban decay, there’s not one
single homeless person on this street, no street vendors.
Yes, it could be Cuba, but this ain’t Havana. This is the
Upper East Side.

The striking image is complete with the mention of a decaying Upper East Side; for most New Yorkers, the idea that Manhattan’s most affluent district could fall into disrepair seems almost unfathomable; it would be akin to tearing some of the heart and soul from the city. And that is what I wanted to get across.

With this change in my opening scene, the focus of that scene also had to change. I effectively had three choices: the montage (which I used for Holland Park), the walk-and-talk (a technique adapted from literature, whereby you introduce two characters in conversation with each other right from the start) or an action sequence. Sci-fi convention dictates that an action sequence is usually the way to go and, with a police officer as a lead character, the opening scene became obvious.

In the scene, which I’ve printed in full in a previous post (if you do a category or tag search on Outbreak you should find it), Jimmy witnesses a mugging whilst buying coffee, chasing the mugger around the Met and into Central Park, which is in an equal state of disarray, before apprehending him on the softball field. Introducing our hero, Jimmy O’Brien, with an act of heroism. But by closing the scene with the deliberately clichéd cop show line (“You’re under arrest, dirtbag” ), I also have an opening to introduce Robyn as a Deadpan Snarker (“Book him, Danno”) with a heart of gold; she ‘just happens’ to be in the park with a group of young kids she’s looking after right where Jimmy is making his arrest. Contrived? Definitely, but it lets me establish the relationship between my leads right off the bat.

Interestingly, it’s the middle of this scene where I choose to throw yet another, almost unnoticeable nugget of the mystery out to the reader and (hopefully) eventual viewer. Van Zyl arrives as back-up, taking charge of the arrest so Jimmy can spend a few moments with Robyn (the Bro Code demands it) but as he does, we learn that there’s something unusual about him: He’s South African.

Obviously, under normal circumstances, there’s nothing unusual about being South African. However, you do have to be a US citizen to serve with the NYPD. (You can be a foreign-born, naturalized US citizen, but this is dramatic license being used.) The other unusual thing in the scene, one that I’ll openly admit was inspired by Joss Whedon’s wonderful series Firefly, is one that’ll become a recurring theme: he talks to the mugger in Afrikaans. Later on in the pilot, I’ll introduce both the idea (and the reason) that everyone under the age of 25 speaks Afrikaans as well as English. Why? Well, I can’t spoil everything for you.

At the point in the script’s development that I’m at as I write this, I’ve introduced all of the above characters as organically as possible. The mothers are standard meddling mothers and best friends; Van Zyl is both Jimmy’s partner and a charming womanizer; Harper, Baresi and Stetler are involved in solving the case of the week; by virtue of Professor Wilson’s lessons, we learn small pieces about the history of the outbreak, etc. We’ve got our case-of-the-week and we’re in the process of solving it – red herrings, dead ends and werewolves, oh my! – and we’re leading up to two things: a solved case and another piece of the show’s myth arc being revealed.

What ‘experts’ may find interesting is that I’m not a ‘planner’ – I don’t plan act-for-act, scene-for-scene breakdowns for my scripts before I write them. I have an idea of what the story is or the episode. I know, in my mind, roughly how I intend to get there. Then I write it and re-write it until I not only have the story I wanted t write, but also so that it makes the most sense as an episode of a television show. Every screenwriting book you will ever read says my methodology s wrong. Ignore them; I find my method works better than their does for me. You may find that intricately planning things is the way forward for you. Nothing I write on this blog is intended as gospel, just a new perspective.

Fly by the seat of your pants. Live a little. And failing all else, keep writing… which is what I’m going to do now.

Until next time, vaya con Dios, mi amigos.

Kriss x

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May 15, 2011 - Posted by | Development Diaries, lessons, Outbreak, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. I don’t think it’s too many characters, and the premise is good, but (you knew there would be one) – your premise plot puts the events in an order best served in the form of a feature film, where it works to show a resultant future that must be explained in flashbacks because of running time constraints

    If you want this to grab viewers as a TV series, shouldn’t you begin chronologically WITH the outbreak, instead of having to play catch-up through backstory? Use that CDC material as justification, and start out with a bang by killing off millions! You’ll have more time to fully create audience empathy for what your protagonists have gone through to survive.

    Comment by Invisible Mikey | May 16, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Mikey, thanks for reading!

      I thought about doing it as a feature, but it’s not a my strongest suit. I also looked at shows like Dark Angel and Veronica Mars, where some of the inciting incidents (‘The Pulse’ in DA’s case or, in VM’s, both the rape of Veronica and the murder of Lilly Kane) had already happened before we joined the show. Alias is also (when the writing staff pulled in the same direction) another good example of what I’m aiming for: they had their case-of-the week, but it always brought them one step closer to solving the Rambaldi mystery.

      The other option, of course, is to write a later-season flashback episode, seen through the eyes of the moms and the other survivors in the show, and use that to fully show what they went through.

      I may try it all of those ways in he end – after all, that’s the best way to see what works best, isn’t it?

      Thanks for the suggestions, though, mate – really appreciate them.

      K

      Comment by Kriss Sprules | May 16, 2011 | Reply

  2. Kriss,

    Good luck with this.

    Still need to get “Battle/Step Off” to you. I think we’ve got a better way than sending the wrong kind of DVD over the pond 🙂

    I’ll be in touch soon.

    -Martin

    Comment by Martin K | May 17, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks Martin, I appreciate that.

      I had an idea for a better way, too – maybe we’re on the same page here: If you have a digital copy, you could torrent it to me, surely? Convert it to an AVI, create the torrent in BitTorrent, e-mail me the torrent file and *boom* semi-instantaneous transfer…

      Actually, for those reading whom this conversation means nothing to, allow me to explain. The genius above, Mr. Martin L. Kelley, is the writer-producer of the movie Step Off, which is available (if I remember correctly – feel free to correct me, Martin) on DVD and via Netflix in the USA & Canada right now.

      Among the stars of Step Off is exceptional actor and former Hill Street Blues star Taurean Blacque (who, random trivia, also played Apollo Creed’s lawyer in Rocky II), almost everybody who ever appeared in Lifetime’s Army Wives, and a whole cast of awesomely talented up-and comers.

      I can’t find a synopsis anywhere but, if you get a chance, check it out. Martin is a stand-up guy (one of comparatively few you’ll find in the business) and I’m exceptionally excited to see it and, hopefully, get it distributed in the UK on his behalf.

      Once I’ve watched it, I promise I’ll blog about it in full. But, by then, you’ll all have watched it on Netflix, right?

      Comment by Kriss Sprules | May 17, 2011 | Reply


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