16 April 2012

How to write a cop Drama

Lately I've been watching a lot of cop dramas. TV is the only thing that Netflix Canada does well and once I finish the shows I'm interested in I'm planning to quit my subscription. Anyway while watching cop shows I noticed some similarities between and decided to write down my observation.

Using this as a guide you should be able to cobble together your own pitch to a network for your very own crappy cop drama/comedy/horror show.

Writing the premise:

Step 1: Your idea

Getting an idea is hard. It's much better if you can steal a popular idea that's already been done in any other country. American audiences won't (can't?) read subtitles so that means you can let british writers do all the heavy lifting and simply steal their idea. Then americanize it by plunking someone iconic and all-american like Harvey Keitel in the middle of it (Life on Mars).

Step 2: Where's your gimmick?

So you decided to come up with your own original idea? Well, it's your funeral I guess. Still you might have a chance if you get a good gimmick. Every good cop show needs a gimmick. That is, the advantage your hero has in solving crimes that will make the show interesting different and provide the needed plot devices.

Here are some common ones:

  • Solving crimes by reading lies in your face (Lie to Me)
  • Solving crimes with science-y montages (CSI)
  • Solving crimes by knowing about bones (Bones)
  • Solving crimes by having OCD (Monk)
  • Solving crimes by being a vampire (Angel)
  • Solving crimes by being from the future and stuck in the 1970's (Life on Mars)
  • Solving crimes by being MI-5 agents who always wear their seat belts (Spooks)
  • Solving crimes (sort of) by being a serial killer (Dexter)
  • Solving old crimes with new technology (Waking the Dead)
  • Solving crimes by seeing inside the mind of the killer (Millenium)
  • Solving crimes by becoming an enlightened buddhist cop after having served time wrongly-convicted for murder (Life)  Note: This is my favourite one

It should be noted that at no point in this blog will I mention the Wire. The Wire is to television as the mongols are to all of history. 

Writing Episodes

Most shows are broken into a 3-act structure. I'm assuming you know this already and I'm going to introduce the following steps that you can redistribute into your own three acts. Where you put each of these parts will give your show the flavour that will make or break it so choose wisely. For example, you could do each show Momento style and just reverse the parts each week. That might be a little too complicated for most audiences though.

Part 1: The Hook

The hook is the part of your story where the victim gets murdered. This is where you hire unkown actors at bargain basement prices to do things like scream and play corpses. Ending the hook with a scream and showing the bloody corpse is appropriate for a more serious show whereas a lighter show might have the main character come in and say something glib, and vaguely witty like "Looks like Mr. Reynold's piano brought the house down.... on him". Have them wink at the camera (or put on a pair of sunglasses dramatically, don't get too original here folks).

Part 2: Showing the crimescene

Your goo and makeup team can have a little fun here showing the corpse in weird and improbable positions, skewered by picket fences and mashed by trash compactors. You may have to do some research here. Given the number of cop dramas every week trying to outdo each other you might think that Americans have a 50% chance of dying in bizarre and horrible ways before their 30th birthday.

Part 3: Interviewing Struggling Actors

Part three is where you round up the usual suspects, played by struggling actors who are mostly so glad to have been promoted from the actors in part two that they will do whatever you ask of them. Most of that is sitting in interrogation rooms and crying while trying to convincingly deliver lines like "I swear, I didn't even know he was practicing his piano that night."

As far as writing it goes, always start with shedding light on a secret affair perpetrated either by the victim or their spouse. It is widely known that everyone suspected of murder is also an adulterer who can cry on command.

Part 4: The twist

Every episode needs a twist.  This is where the underpaid actors you played to be the original suspects have alibis that check out. The hunt is then on for the medium-salaried guest actors who play the real murderers.

By now the audience knows it's coming. They saw the opening credits that said "Guest Starring John M Famousson" so they know that he's the killer.  Also you're going to do a twist every single week in the second act.

It's tired and expected but you MUST do it because otherwise you're going to have to hire real writers to fill the last 20 minutes of the show with something non-formulaic. Non-formula is not our friend here. It's risky and expensive and won't give the audience that feeling of wearing your episode like their father's tired, comfortable-but-threadbare cardigan from 1975.

Part 5: The big finish

Never mind that the solved murder rate in the US is dropping to near 60% in recent years.  Not catching the bad guy will bum out your viewers. DON'T DO THAT.

There are only two scenarios in which your murderer is not caught so pay attention:

  1. A 2-parter: When your writers are so proud of the psychopath you've created that he deserves a two part episode with a cliffhanger "TO BE CONTINUED" in which he WILL be caught at the end of the second episode.
  2. Long Plot: When the killer was the one responsible for the murder of your hero's mother. In this case him getting away will actually add tension and convince your viewers to keep watching.

Ok so now you have the opportunity to get your ballistics SF team into the fray.  To catch your killer the heroes are going to need to unholster their prop guns and run down some dark hallways. Use tight shots so that the audience feels claustrophobic. After some lovely bits of running and dramatic gun waving they get to shout things like  "Mrs. Reynolds, there's nowhere to run! You have to face the music!!" and your moderately priced, guest spot actors can cry and say things like "I didn't mean to kill him".

Annnnnnnd SCENE!

Part 6: The resolution

After the perp is in custody your male and female partners will be out for drinks/coffee/yoga and gaze into each other's eyes only to look away, feeding your "will-they-or-won't-they" sub-gimmick. You might want to have family members in here too so that the detectives can let off steam and break down so that we can see they are human.

End with a hug if you want the family viewers. End with a shot of whiskey and a thousand-yard stare into the distance if not.

Part 6 1/2: Next Time on....

This scene is short and optional. The last shot could be a set up for the next episode or 10 seconds of plot to further the overarching story arc. For example you might want to show the supervillain for the season throwing darts at a picture of your protagonists. Or you may flash back to the crimescene and show your supervillain watching the scene carefully through binoculars before swaggering off into a steamy New York alley.

Season Structure


The pilot is where you blow 50% of your effects budget for the year. Go nuts here: Recreate New York City in 1890 for no apparent reason, splatter your heroes with gore and do lots of car chases. If that doesn't get their attention I guarantee you won't get to spend the rest of the money anyway.

Season Story Arc

Every episode needs to follow the method outlined above. No exceptions. You're not trying to win awards here. Remember, formulaic and amusing.

That being said, you need an overarching story to make people come back. The trick is to give them barely enough to satisfy their craving to know more. Who killed the detective's mother all those years ago? What happened between your investigator and her estranged husband that caused her to drink so heavily? What, in your cop's deep, dark past made him/her want to be a cop in the first place?

Good. Now in every third or fourth episode write a bit of that story in and don't answer any questions until either a season finale or the season opener after a two-part "To be continued" that leaves people (hopefully) in suspended agony about your unanswered questions for 4 months of hiatus while you drink heavily on a beach in Maui and write more episodes.

My Pitch

Ok. So now let's practice what we've learned.

Let me tell you about a show.  A show about a bunch of hardened cop friends that, after a gruesome crimscene involving the russian mob and a bus full of orphans, quit the force together to form a Beatles tribute band (ringo is played by a woman cop with an even more troubled past). On tour someone in their entourage gets murdered and they use their knowledge of beatles trivia and obscure, unplayable guitar chords to solve it. This leads to media attention and they return to the force to solve only rock'n'roll related murders.

That's it. Now give me money.

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