Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mad Men Speccing

I finished my Mad Men spec's beat sheet, and sent it out to my writing group. Mad Men is an interesting creature, and deconstructing the show and writing the plots was very different from my Heroes spec experience.

Mad Men does use 5 acts, but they don't work like true acts. I was confused when I got the scripts (unfortunately only from the 1st season); in the scripts there are no act breaks yet it's written for networks that have commercial breaks. I wrote my beat sheet with the act breaks but I'll just take them out when I put it to script. However, even though there are acts, they aren't typical. There are no cliffhangers, and the tension is compounded very subtly (totally different from Heroes, which has a very physical, obvious ratcheting up of stakes). Not to say there isn't drama - there's lots, but the drama here is often internal, in what people aren't saying or doing. Sounds boring when you say it like that, but it really isn't. Mad Men is written more like a film than a TV show; though it's written as five distinct pieces each episode needs to be viewed as a whole.

And going along with the theory that there are no true act breaks, I've even found that AMC and CTV in Canada use slightly different spots to insert commercials. And though I mapped out the plots of several different shows, there seems to be no clear pattern of scene order or length. I found this to be the same case with Dexter, where I know that the writers make a conscious decision to place the scenes where they belong best in each story, without much regard for any "structure".

However, I did discover that the plots themselves follow a structure (in length). There are typically about 24 scenes in an episode. The A plot is always about Don, and the tragedy of his life. This plot is always the longest, let's say 12 scenes. The B plot is less, maybe 8 scenes, and the C plot is usually about 4 scenes. Then there are runners which I don't think are particularly necessary as they usually deal with season archs.

For simplicity, I am only writing A, B and C. My A plot is about Don & Betty, my B plot is based around Peggy and the "ad of the week" and my C plot is about Salvatore exploring his... options.

I've structured it like so (which will probably change):
Act 1: A/B/B/A/A
Act 2: C/C/B/A/A
Act 3: B/B/A/C/A
Act 4: A/B/A/A/B
Act 5: B/B/A/A/C/A

Thinking up plots for Mad Men was fun. First I did extensive research on the 1960s in general, 1960s advertising, Madison Avenue, race relations, gay culture, and the changing morality of the times. Then I tried to think of what would be the most interesting, visceral thing to happen to the characters of the show within this period. I tried to keep with the show and have it be more about internal conflict than external, though there is still plenty of both. After thinking up various different plots, I had to ensure all the plots and the "ad of the week" were tied into themes that resonate with each other as well as society today.

Mad Men is a period piece but it's like good science fiction - it's showing our society through a prism. It may look very different at first glance but it's supposed to be showing us, and the themes and plots for a spec of the show have to reflect that.

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