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CSI TV Show Story Deconstruction

By Sherri Sheridan

C.S.I. “Grave Danger”
Episodes: Grave Danger 1 & 2, CSI Las Vegas, 5th Season, DVD Disc 7
Story by: Quentin Tarantino
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino



C.S.I. 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 event.

Opening Scene:

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 expectation).

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.

Investigation: 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 Nick.

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 finale.

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.”

First Big TV Show Commercial Break

Act 2:

Hook #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.”

Subtitles/Time Jump: “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.

Supporting Characters: 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.

Character Identification: 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 ones.

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 story event.

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.

Investigation: The 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 cowboy alive!

Suspense/Character Identific
ation: 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 buried alive?”

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.

Coming soon.... the rest of this CSI story deconstruction!



"A genius is one who shoots at something no one else can see - and hits it ."

– Anonymous

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