Lessons For Writers From Agents Of Shields – Part 1

by J.J.Foxe on October 5, 2013

(JJ’s note – the majority of this article was written prior to Episode 2 being screened in the UK.  But I had to go out of town for a couple of days – and caught up with some old friends. Many guinesses and jager bombs and a two day hangover later…I’ve finally got back to my computer to finish the article and post this.  And now I’ve hit publish, I can watch Episode 2.  And then write Part 2 of this ongoing series!)

 

 

Last week the new Joss Whedon helmed series ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’ premiered here in the UK.  As the story model that I’m guessing will be used in the Series is similar to the overall story model I’m using on a series of novellas that I’m working on at the moment I thought it would be a great exercise to watch the series as it airs over the next few months and see what lessons writers of this kind of story can learn.

To get the ‘purest’ reaction possible as Season 1 unfolds I’ve deliberately avoided reading stories/interviews etc with the creative minds involved in the show – so as I sat down to watch Episode 1 here were the facts that I knew:

  1. Joss Whedon is involved
  2. It’s based in the Marvel Universe – I’ve seen the Joss Whedon helmed Avengers Assemble, but none of the individual character films (e.g. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America etc).
  3. There are a couple of recurring characters.  One of those characters is Coulson – who appeared to die in Avengers Assemble.  And the other is Agent Maria Hill.

The Story Model In AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D

The kind of story model that I’m guessing will be used in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is one where there is a self-contained story in each episode and an overall story arc for the season.  There may be two-parters along the way.

This is the kind of story model that Joss Whedon has used before – if you want a crash course in this model in action then head over to Amazon and get one of the box sets of Firefly and binge watch it.  THEN go and watch the movie Serenity – and then go buy the three Serenity graphic novels that fill in some of the gaps between Firefly and Serenity and would have been episodes if Fox hadn’t stupidly cancelled the best show on TV!  (And yep, I’m a secret browncoat and Joss Whedon fanboy!).

This kind of story model in TV drama is reasonably new by the way – by ‘reasonably new’ I’m talking 20 years or so – and is a really interesting way to make episodic stories have greater resonance.

If you’re writing this kind of model, the pilot episode is really important and has to carry extra weight. Most episodes in the series will have two or maybe three dramatic function to carry – the Pilot Episode has at least five.

The Five Dramatic Functions of The Pilot Episode

The pilot episode has got to do the following jobs – not necessarily in this order:

  1. Tell a self contained story
  2. Introduce the story world
  3. Introduce the story characters and their relationship to each other
  4. Introduce story threads that connect to the self contained story in this episode AND connect to the overall story arc of the series
  5. Give the viewer a reason (or multiple reasons) to watch Episode 2

Now given that Joss Whedon is heavily involved (and from the little I knew) here are some of the assumptions that I’m making:

  • There will be a ‘team’ involved
  • The story world encompasses individuals with superpowers
  • There will be actors who have appeared in Joss Whedon’s work before
  • There will be intelligent and interesting female characters
  • In fact, the majority of the characters will be interesting!
  • Snappy, sassy dialogue

SPOILER ALERT There will be detailed references to the events and characters in Episode 1 – if you’ve not already seen it, I suggest you watch it before you read the following analysis. In the UK you can find previous episodes on the Channel 4 website.  In the US you’ll find it on ABC I think.  If you use Google you’ll find the replays.

Let’s move on and examine those 5 dramatic functions, and see how they played out in Episode 1 of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D

Dramatic Function 1 – Tell A Self Contained Story

There are two stories in Episode 1.  The superficial story is the story of Michael Peterson, a guy with apparent superhuman powers.  The real story is an origin story – it’s how Skye becomes an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Note how Peterson’s character is introduced – his kid is looking at superhero figures in a shop window and he asks his son which ones he wants for his upcoming birthday.  And he says even though times are tough they will be good.

So we can intuit that Peterson is a good guy – and this is confirmed to us when there is an explosion in the top of the apartment building in the background and he races off to help.

He then makes sure nobody is watching and displays ‘superhero’ abilities to climb up the side of the wall, rescue a woman who is in the burning building, and then leap several stories to the ground with the woman in his arms without being hurt.

But Peterson isn’t an ordinary super hero – he’s a guy who’s been fitted with a stolen implant/device called Centipede that turns him into a Super.  And as the episode unravels we found out that the implant is unstable, that the woman he saved isn’t just a woman he saved, but is involved with the people who stole the Centipede implant, and his visit to the hospital for advice risks exposing them.

And then we get the kicker – that the previous guy who had the centipede fitted actually blew up and caused the explosion (due to a mix of unstable elements).  And the only way for Coulson’s Team to stop him exploding is to put a bullet though his brain.  Coulson tells Fitz and Simmons to find another solution.

The story reaches a conclusion in a Train Station – Coulson talks Peterson down and then just as we’re wondering what’s going to happen Ward shoots him in the head.  But Simmons races in to check Peterson – and we see Fitz up in the gallery with Ward.  So we now that Fitz and Simmons came through.

Peterson’s story is interspersed with the story of Shield catching up with Skye and her assisting the Agents to find Peterson.  At the end of the story we see Coulson and Skye leaving a house where they’ve told Peterson’s boy that his Dad will be home soon.

Coulson then asks her if she’s considered the job offer he’s made – she seems reluctant.  She’s not a ‘team player.’  Coulson says: we’re not exactly a team.  They then get a message – they’ve got to go in and confirm an O-8-4.

Skye asks what that is – Coulson replies: You’ve got 10 minutes to find out.  And Lola turns into a hover plan and they head off towards Episode 2.  (See Dramatic Function 5 below.)

Dramatic Function 2 – Introduce The Story World

The Story World in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D is essentially the real world with three additions:

1. There are humans who possess superpowers (and the ‘normal world’ has only recently become aware of their existence).

There is an oblique reference early in the story to Iron Man, Captain America and The Hulk.  Plus the Michael Peterson character has super powers – even if the Centipede enhances them.

2. The Agents themselves seem to be ‘normal’ humans – albeit very, very good at what they do

The Agents themselves don’t appear to have superpowers – but they all excel in one or two areas.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the Season and whether in fact they are somehow more ‘gifted’ than ‘normals.’

For example there’s a line of dialogue where Coulson is talking to Agent Ward about Skye and he says: “We don’t know anything about her.  Do you know how often that happens?  That never happens.”

3. The Agents – and the mystery opponents – have access to a level of technology that appears to be comfortably years ahead of what we currently possess

There are gadgets illustrating this throughout Episode 1 – there’s Coulson’s “car” Lola, the gadgets that Fitz and Simmons have, the Centipede device itself and so on….

Indeed, there’s line of dialogue where Agent Simmons obliquely references this and says: “I’m not Hermione you know, this is all science.”  Whether deliberate or not, that als0 has resonance with what Arthur C Clarke said about levels of technology and magic.

Dramatic Function 3 – Introducing The Characters And Start Introducing Their Relationships

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is an ensemble story, and the different characters in that ensemble – and their talents! – need to be introduced to the audience.  Whedon and his crew manage to pull this off without weighing the Episode down with a ton of exposition.

Dramatic Function 4 – Introduce Story Threads That Connect To The Overall Story Arc

Obviously the overall story arc will be revealed over the course of the season.  But here are the potential threads that connect to that story arc:

  1. Who are the people who stole the Centipede? And with that question comes a string of further questions: why do they want it? What are their goals? What are they planning to do?  Who is funding them?  And ultimately we come back to the first question: WHO are they?
  2. What happened to Agent Coulson in ‘Tahiti?’  And why can he never know?
  3. Relationships – will Skye and Agent Ward hit it off? When Coulson gives the QNB T-16 to Ward instead of Skye he confesses he is attracted to her.  Plus there’s the unexplained relationship between the ‘laboratory’ Agents – Fitz and Simmons.
  4. Skye is connected to an ongoing story – The Rising Tide.  They are mentioned several times at the start of the episode – and she seems be broadcasting for them.  This is another thread that will be interesting to see where it leads.
  5. Agent May is another story that may be ongoing – she is a legendary field agent who has taken herself out of the field for reasons unexplained….and is ordered back in the field by Coulson.
  6. There’s another one that almost goes unnoticed – in the opening scene in Paris when Agent Ward has to penetrate the baddies apartment, there is a woman present.  Who doesn’t act surprised by his appearance, and when he is involved in the subsequent fight merely walks out with her suitcase as if she was going to catch a train.  A throwaway…or something to be used later?  Interesting.

Dramatic Function 5 – Give The Viewer A Reason To Watch Episode 2

At the end of Episode 1, Coulson is talking to Skye and wants her to become an Agent of Shield when he is given the message that an O-4-8 has been discovered and he has 10 minutes to get to the airport.  Coulson tells Sky that if she wants to find out what it is, she’s got 10 minutes to decide.

She tells him that they’ll never get to the airport in 10 minutes in his car (NAME) when his car suddenly converts into some kind of flying machine.  And of they blast.

The implicit assumption for Skye – and the viewer – is that there are more adventures to come.  And the next one will be chronicled in Episode 2.

On top of that we have the unanswered questions we looked at in Dramatic Function 4.  It will be interesting to see how the numbers are reported in the UK and the US as the series rolls on…but I watched it with my eldest son (who is 11) and he can’t wait for Episode 2.

Summary

On its own this is a really interesting story exercise for me – but when coupled with the fact that I hit publish on the pilot episode of fiction series called The Kingston Chronicles next week it takes on much more relevance.

Having gone through Episode 1 of Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. like this I can instantly see how influenced I’ve been by the work of Joss Whedon and it’s been interesting to do a similar analysis on the final draft of MY pilot episode and check that it hits the five dramatic functions outlined in this analysis.

More About ‘The Kingston Chronicles.’

The first episode of The Kingston Chronicles will be published on Friday, 1st November – and will be titled ‘Fallen Angel.’

The Kingston Chronicles is a 12 episode series of novellas – each of the novellas is a self-contained supernatural thriller that also connects to a story arc that is played out over the 12 episodes.

Additional stories set in the world of The Kingston Chronicles are available to folks who are signed up to my ‘Readers’ Mailing List.  There will be a different, free story every month, so use the form below and sign up.

As well as the free stories, you also get news, release dates etc for the forthcoming episodes of The Kingston Chronicles.