In early 2014, the television landscape was rocked by the debut of TRUE DETECTIVE, an epic 8-episode drama from HBO that blurred the line between television and cinema more than ever. It was a serial killer crime procedural — as familiar a genre as they come — but the execution was so unique and at such a high level of craft that the series immediately established itself with viewers and critics alike as one of the great achievements in the modern era of television drama.
From the getgo, the series broke with convention. One writer, one director, for all eight episodes. Two big movie stars in the lead roles. Three separate time periods, spanning 17 years. A focus on character over plot, with a “literary” (to borrow a term from the original pitch document) approach that incorporated complex philosophical theories with multiple story threads and a rich offscreen world. Episodes would often end on an ambiguous note, with a teasing element left merely in subtext. In fact, key elements were often introduced in an episode, not to pop up again for another 2 or 3 more episodes. There was a trust in the audience that they would not only watch closely but analyze the content, discuss it online and at the watercooler, and, wait for the convergence of all of these threads in a slam-bang climax.
With the long time frame and the extensive cross-cutting between 1995, 2002 and 2012, narrative structure in TRUE DETECTIVE was obviously a huge undertaking. The pilot episode, “The Long Bright Dark,” had to clearly establish the framing device of the 2012 interviews with the seamless interweaving of the 1995 murder investigation (while hinting at events in 2002), show the theme in action with the defining characteristics of our dual protagonists as they drove the story forward, drop a few details of the sprawling criminal case while teasing others, and fit it all into a classic four act structure with cliffhanger endings for each act.
You can see how it was done in my Full Story Map for True Detective:
The TRUE DETECTIVE Story Map is an example of the type of roadmap that you need to create before you start writing your original pilot. It may even be the most important step in your writing process.
If you’d like to learn how to structure your pilot using my first-ever Story Map beat sheet for TV drama or 30-minute sitcoms, you can download one of my webinars with the Writers Store or you can work with me in my Story Maps Master Class.
Good luck and happy writing,
p.s. An updated version of my True Detective story map is included in my book, Story Maps: TV Drama: The Structure of the One-Hour Television Pilot, available now in PDF format here and in Paperback and Kindle on Amazon.