Story Maps: TV Drama – An Interview with Daniel Calvisi

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

It’s hard to overstate the opportunities that have arisen for writers in the world of televised storytelling in recent years. Many who have spent years learning how to craft stories for the feature film market have begun to consider moving their stories into half-hour or one-hour serialized storytelling. But, as many are finding out, writing for television can be a different sort of challenge than they have ever encountered before. Story analyst, Daniel Calvisi sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to discuss this process and his new book, Story Maps: TV Drama.

John: Tell me a little bit about how the book came to be. What was your career trajectory before writing it?
Dan: After NYU Film School, I basically started to work as a reader. I was working in New York as a story analyst, and I worked my way up to be senior story analyst for Miramax. I worked for Fox and Jonathan Demme and New Line and some different companies, so that really got me started with story analysis. I was writing my own screenplays, so then I started to teach, and then I started to consult. Now, I’ve been in LA for many years. I primarily work as a consultant and a teacher of screenwriting.
While on the job and then as a screenwriter, I developed my own structural method called story maps. I had previously only applied that to feature films, so it was all about helping my writers with the structure of their feature scripts. A few years ago I kept getting the question from clients saying, “Hey, do you have a story map for TV?” “Do you have a beat sheet for one hour or a half-hour TV show?” Because they couldn’t find anything like that out there. I said, “No.” But I found that I was watching so much TV, and really watching more TV than movies, which is true of most the people that I know these days.
So I decided to set out and analyze a bunch of great pilots. I read any pilot scripts I could get my hands on. I broke them down in beat sheets and I realized that they did in fact share a lot of structural commonality. As you might know, most one hour dramas are structured in either the teaser plus four acts or teaser plus five acts structure. If you look at them, as I’ve laid out in my book, they do have a lot of similar progression of beats. That was awesome to find and it was kind of like adapting my method towards TV, but I wasn’t forcing it on the one hour TV drama structure, I was letting that structure speak to me and reveal its own structural commonalities and templates.
John: Can you talk a little bit about similarities and differences to some of the structures of “the hero’s journey”?
Dan: The main thing with a pilot is, it can’t be a completely closed story like a feature film. You have to leave threads open because you want this thing to last for a hundred episodes. You want people to invest in your story for the long term. It really is a different animal. My own story maps method beat sheet for features was similar in many ways to the hero’s journey. I mean it is essentially an interpretation of the hero’s journey, but what was unique about my method was there wasn’t any mixing and matching of beats that I’d seen in other methods. To get a little bit off topic on features, the hero’s journey based on Joseph Campbell has been applied to a lot of movies. A benchmark movie that it was applied to was Star Wars. But if you look at a beat sheet for Star Wars, the beats are actually not in the exact order of the hero’s journey.
I set out to make up a beat sheet that would be in the same order no matter what the genre, no matter what type of script you were writing or movie you were writing.

I applied this to TV so that these beats always go in the same order with a few small exceptions, so you can get a template really for any genre. In the book I break down The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Mr. Robot. These are totally different shows, different genres, different audiences, different content, settings, but they do share a lot of the same beats and the beat sheet. I mean, they basically all have the same number of beats. In a few instances there are differences, like there might be the beat that I call the “first trial, first casualty” — it might happen in Act 2 in one and then in Act 3 in another. But they actually fall — and this is similar to other beat sheets for features — they fall the same percentage into the script.

For example, if I’m breaking down a pilot that’s 62 pages, or 62 minutes, the “first trial, first casualty” beat will occur two fifths of the way through. It will occur on whatever page is two fifths of the way of 62. Then you might have a pilot that’s 51 pages long or 51 minutes of screen time, or if it’s a network show 48 minutes of screen time. That “first trial, first casualty” is going to fall minute-wise and page-wise a lot earlier, but it still will be about two fifths of the way in.
It still lines up, which is amazing because for so many years we’ve talked about how in feature screenplays, you have this same basic structure, the four act structure — Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, Act 3 — but no one ever really talked about it for TV. I really wanted to set out and try to do that.
John: Are there any television shows that we might not be as familiar with that writers really owe it to themselves to take a look at?
Dan: I’m a big fan of Dexter. I would definitely recommend that people stream that. Currently, there’s a lot of half-hour shows that are really great, like Casual on Hulu is really good. It was developed by Jason Reitman. It really has that quality of a good, convincing indie dramedy that you might go see, and it has really good performances and good writing, so I’d recommend that. Transparent is great. Bloodline on Netflix is one of my favorites.
John: Is there anywhere else people can follow your work, if they’re wanting to learn more about you?
Dan: I have a pretty active Facebook page for Story Maps at facebook.com/storymaps. I’m on Twitter @StoryMapsDan. I have a lot of stuff there. I have an Amazon book page. Then my particular website is called actfourscreenplays.com.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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