is a great TV show to study for suspense, twists, setups/payoffs
and mystery puzzle stories. In this article the
above episode will be broken down into a narrative structural map
beneath the visual story. By deconstructing films or TV shows you
like, you will learn how to better construct similar stories yourself.
All of the techniques covered in this deconstruction are explained
in the new workshop “Writing A
Great Script Fast,” featuring a step-by-step guide to
creating emotionally deep and engaging stories, with sophisticated
nail biting plot structures. The book “Developing
Digital Short Films” (2004 New Riders/Peachpit/Pearson)
by Sherri Sheridan is another good resource to understand how all
of these story techniques work together in layers.
Once you start to understand story structure, you will see it popping
up beneath each film you watch. You will also be able to predict
what will happen next based on the patterns. And when you get really
good at sensing the structure beneath the story, you will also be
thinking of how to use the coolest ideas in your own projects –
while watching the film viewing all the different layers of information.
Writing a visual novel, or a script, without understanding these
various types of story techniques, will usually produce a film that
wanders and feels off track.
Modern audiences like their stories to feel like a string of emotional
fireworks going off across each scene. Knowing which firecracker
to use when and where, will help you to construct beautiful film
stories that move and pop with tension and excitement, while riding
a suspense wave of energy building towards a final riveting climax
Hook: The first shoot
is of CSI Nick Stokes driving his shinny new gold metallic GMC truck
(symbolic car/product placement) down the Las Vegas strip at night.
He is singing along with a country song containing the lyrics “Christmas
In Las Vegas,” about different characters trying their luck
in the background casino buildings (symbolic sound). He drives off
the bright strip onto a dark back road with a fresh crime scene
to investigate a call (symbolic light change). The first few shoots
of any film are critical to establish the look and feel of the story,
and get the audience to like and identify with the main character.
Trained CSI viewers immediately start to worry about what is going
to happen to Nick next, since the first scene in this TV show usually
shows a murder setup for the crime team to solve (suspense - audience
Character Identification – Likable,
Similar Desires/Opinions, Introduce Main Character ASAP:
From these opening shots we get that Nick is a happy, redneck, cowboy,
C.S.I. (Crime Scene Investigator) and all American guy. Almost everyone
watching immediately relates to him since we have all known people
like Nick. You may not like cowboys, or country music, but you get
who he is as a character and he seems likeable. Nick is also the
first character you see and the main character or focus of the plot
in this episode. First you must get the audience to care about your
character before placing them in danger. Grave Danger.
Setup: Nick arrives
at the crime scene alone and finds a pile of fresh bloody intestines
left in parking lot. A beat cop is already on the scene explaining
that an anonymous caller reported the guts (foreshadowing a trap).
Apparently, the smell is very bad and the cop wants to know how
long he has to stand guard over the guts (setup for trap). Nick
tells him it may be awhile and the cop asks if can get some fresh
air. We watch him walk away towards his police car then throw up
in the background as Nick starts to investigate. Nick even offers
the policeman a piece of gum, to help with the smell, as he eats
one himself (character identification – helps others, admirable).
Nick does not mind the bad smell since he is a PRO CSI (character
identification – good at what he does).
Theme - CSI Show:
A crime scene is usually shown in the opening shots of a CSI (Crime
Scene Investigation) episode, then we watch as the team works on
solving it by “following the evidence” and tracking
down the clues scientifically. Follow the evidence is the prevailing
theme of CSI, meaning that scientific results will solve the crime,
where ordinary detective work would come up short. This show has
lots of investigation plot points in it’s basic underlying
solve a mystery plot structure reflecting the prevailing theme too.
These two special episodes have their own little sub theme as we
will soon see.
As Nick is investigating the guts he starts wandering further and
further from the cop in the background who is suppose to be watching
him, but has asked to get some air (setup - leaves Nick vulnerable).
Nick finds a few clues that he photographs.
Introduce Antagonist (POV)/Suspense:
As Nick is looking at clues, the camera cuts to a reverse POV of
someone watching him hiding behind something. The camera shakes
like a person moving behind objects watching Nick. This feels very
creepy and makes us worry about Nick, who we just got to like more
watching him sing in his truck and offer the policeman gum. The
sound of the policeman throwing up in the background is heard (narrative
sound design). This lets us know that the cop is still not watching
Inciting Incident / Plot Twist:
Nick is looking at a puzzling clue in the form of a paper cup, in
a sealed plastic CSI evidence bag left to find at the crime scene
(setup/ foreshadowing/ future symbolic plot goal motivation for
antagonist) on the ground and says “That’s peculiar.”
Suddenly a big black dressed man from head to toe pops up and grabs
him from behind. This is unexpected since the CSI people are usually
not targets. The antagonist is shown only in shadows not revealing
his face, which adds to the suspense too.
Supporting Characters /Plot Goal Established:
The other CSI people show up 25 minutes later to look for Nick,
which becomes the new main plot goal for this double episode season
Investigation/Theme Clue Symbol:
Clue #1 is a single white fiber that smells like alcohol found on
Nick’s vest left at the crime scene. Gil the lead CSI then
finds the cup in the bag and says, “Maybe it’s a message.”
Cup in an evidence bag is a theme symbol for “follow the evidence.”
Big TV Show Commercial Break
#2/Unique Genre Color/ Visual Scene Reversal:
Two hot blond twins sit tied together in chairs with their backs
to each other looking terrified. A man walks over and shoots them
in the head causing a spatter pattern of blood against the wall.
Match Cut On Image/Sound:
Gil fires a gun through two dummies in the lab to test spatter patterns
and finds a match with the photos from the crime scene shown before
with the blond twins.
TV Show Plot Structure:
TV shows tend to have a fresh scene hook after each commercial break
to rope the audience back into the show fast. You will also notice
that they leave the story or characters hanging as much as possible
before each break, causing gaps in time for what happens next. A
character may find something at the end of a scene before a break,
but we do not see what they do with it until later as a surprise
twist of some kind.
CSI usually has some clever play on dialogue right before the first
commercial break where the investigators say something that sums
up the scene in an interesting way. Gil says about the cup in the
plastic CSI bag “Maybe it’s a message.”
“Earlier that day” appears on the screen to let us know
that the events we are looking at occurred before Nick was taken.
But we do not know where we are in time for a moment watching the
blond twins get shot and Gil in the lab. If this story were told
in linear time it would not be as interesting.
Repeating Cowboy Symbols/Visual Motif:
Sarah walks into Gil’s office at CSI headquarters and picks
up a photo of Trigger on the desk, Roy Rogers’ horse. Gil
explains how anyone can own a piece of Trigger by writing Roy’s
foundation. Cowboys are traditionally a symbol of the Wild West,
gambling and life and death gun fights in saloons. Nick is a modern
day CSI cowboy in the wild west of Las Vegas. The country song Christmas
In Las Vegas and several cowboy references are repeated throughout
this double part episode as a series of related story symbols called
a visual motif.
Cowboy/Redneck Country Symbol:
Cut to a scene of two lab techs playing a Dukes Of Hazard redneck
board game explaining how the game works by jumping cars over things.
Nick is talking to Warrick in the locker room changing getting ready
to start their shifts that day. Warrick tells a story about deciding
that he always needs to carry his gun, since he got confronted the
night before without one. This scene establishes that Nick and Warrick
are good buddies on the job.
Visual Key Decision Making Process:
Two calls come in and they flip for who get which one, the stripper
assault (good fun) or the trash guts (yuck smelly gross). A coin
is tossed and Nick loses, then tosses the coin to Warrick saying
it is bad luck (foreshadowing dialogue and theme coin symbol).
Exile (Time Jump Back To Present/ Suspense): Cut
to Nick’s face waking up from being knocked out, tied up in
the back of a dark truck at night with a red car taillight tint
across the screen (symbolic light source red = danger). Nick looks
around carefully then gets ready to kick out the back window in
the truck. A black-gloved hand reaches around from the front seat
and covers his mouth with a white cloth as he tries to struggle
with his tied up hands. This scene lets us know that Nick is still
alive and adds suspense, since we get to start worrying about what
is going to happen to him next. Nick is being taken into the unknown
of Act 2 full of danger, conflict, death moments and obstacles.
Antagonist Tip: We
still have not seen who the antagonist is yet which makes him more
spooky. Nick has not seen the antagonist’s face either (character
identification – eyes of the audience – we see things
when he does), which helps us worry more and relate to what he is
feeling emotionally. This technique is good to use to let your audience’s
imaginations fill in the blanks. If you are doing a complicated
3D monster type antagonist, not showing them until the middle or
end of the story will save you lots of production time too. Focus
on showing the other characters scary reactions to the antagonist.
Investigation/ Crime Scene:
Clue: Back at the crime scene with the guts Gil remarks that they
looked placed they are so perfectly arranged (visual story - nice
gore camera shot visually – beautifully composed guts on shinny
wet black pavement). This conclusion indicates a carefully planned
trap and adds suspense making us worry about what next is planned
for Nick. Clue: Bloodhounds sniff Nick’s vest left at the
scene to a dry spot on the pavement. It has recently rained and
the vehicle parked in the spot left a large square pattern that
the CSI’s measure saying it looks like a big truck or SUV.
Payoff/ Symbol/ Flashback Flash:
Warrick while measuring the dry square spot, finds the bad luck
quarter in his pocket (payoff from earlier coin flip with Nick),
and holds it in his hand looking at it like a crystal ball. This
triggers a flashback seeing Nick being thrown into the truck knocked
out. Is he putting together the evidence in his head, or using his
intuition to figure out what happened by touching the bad luck quarter
Nick gave him earlier?
Postmodern Time Jumps:
This is classic Tarantino story time jumping. Notice the way linear
time is being chopped up in this episode and we are not always sure
where in time we are until we put the puzzle pieces together in
our minds based on the timeline of previous events. Modern audiences
like to actively engage and interact in their stories to try and
figure out what is going on – especially with mystery shows
where they work with the characters to solve puzzles. There was
another one of these time jumps back a few scenes ago with the twin
blond girls being shot. These time jumps also make us want to pay
attention more to the show, since we do not want to get too lost
and need to pay careful attention to know what is happening.
People also think in time jumps while putting together crime scene
information (eyes of audience POV). We start to relate to what Warrick
is realizing happened to his friend Nick during the flashback (universal
situation- good friend placed in jeopardy, sympathy for his loss),
and how he feels guilty about winning the coin toss (similar beliefs,
admirable – good friend would feel bad about this situation).
Warrick is also thinking this could have easily been him instead
in Nick’s place. If Warrick seemed to think it was good thing
that his friend got kidnapped instead of him, we would not like
him as much or identify with him as a character. Warrick (Gary Dourdan)
has an amazingly electric screen presence, which adds visual appeal.
Audiences relate better to charismatic, sexy, hot looking characters
with strong visual appeal, then they do to ugly or unattractive
Emotional Air: Make
sure and include emotional character identification moments in each
main scene if possible in your scripts and films. “Warrick
stares at the bad luck quarter he finds in his pocket” gives
your script a chance to breath emotionally for a moment. The audience
gets to crawl into Warrick’s head and identify with what he
is feeling and thinking in this universal familiar situation of
worrying about a lost friend. If Warrick just measured the car dry
spot and said things like numbers and theories about what type of
vehicle it was, the scene would be flat emotionally and not as interesting.
Warrick starts to go on a mission to find Nick as soon as possible
after this scene.
Theme Coin Symbol:
The individual theme of this double episode starts to emerge at
this point and could be narrowed down into “luck” with
the toss coin being the main symbol. Christmas In Las Vegas is a
song about luck and gambling, playing in the opening shoots with
the Las Vegas strip casinos flashing by in the background. Nick
had bad luck in losing the coin toss and getting kidnapped in what
appears to be a trap for any CSI who responds. We then watch as
the CSI’s start getting lucky with their plot goal of finding
Nick, and finding clues in a variety of lucky ways. They will also
just save Nick’s life in nick of time. Luck is the
theme since it is controlling the plot events.
Unique Genre Element:
In the CSI Lab morgue they talk about the guts not having human
organs but dog ones. This is a disappointment since there is not
a dog DNA database they can trace the guts on. This is a set back
and a bit of a plot goal failure (find Nick ASAP) for their investigation,
which makes us worry more about Nick since this clue is useless
except to point to a well planned trap. This causes Gil the lead
CSI to tell his team to look at Nick’s enemies. Notice the
chain reaction and cause and event sequences happening between each
We watch as the examiner digs around in the guts with his hands
explaining things. Part of a CSI episode is to see how gross and
graphic the scenes can get with the dead bodies in new ways, which
is a unique genre element of the show. Tarantino loves doing bloody
gore porn shots too, so doing a CSI episode is a good match stylistically.
other CSI’s start looking for other clues in the lab. Warrick
watches traffic cameras and picks a white truck speeding through
an intersection around the time Nick was taken (luck? he picks the
right one and the driver was speeding on camera).
Torture / McGuffin (random freaky event pushes plot forward):
Nick is shown passed out in a plastic coffin like box surrounded
by brown dirt. The antagonist who we still cannot see, just his
arms moving in corners of the frame, tosses some glowing green light
sticks into the box along with a loaded gun and a tape recorder
(setup), as if everything had been carefully planned. He then closes
the lid and starts to cover it with dirt, burying Nick our favorite
Place characters in extreme emotional, physical and spiritual danger.
What is the worst thing that could happen to you? This is a good
place to start sometimes for a suspense story. Some of the worst
things that could happen, are about to happen to Nick. As he passes
through each hellish test of courage and stamina, we follow along
thinking in the backs of our minds “what would I do if I were
Ticking Clock / Suspense:
A ticking clock sound is heard in the background as dirt is thrown
on the plastic box making Nick’s face disappear in an unsettling
visual, causing the viewer extreme emotional worry and distress
as each new shovel of dirt is added. This lets us know there is
a definite time pressure suddenly in finding Nick. How much air
does he have left? How long can someone last in a box buried alive?
The CSI team has no idea where he is at this point, and we as an
audience get to really start worrying about Nick even more now (character
identification – jeopardy), and whether or not they will find
him in time.
soon.... the rest of this CSI story deconstruction!