Baby Reindeer: Writing the True Life Story

This week, we’re going to be talking about Baby Reindeer, the hit limited series on Netflix, written, created by and starring Richard Gadd. 

We’re going to use Baby Reindeer to talk about how to adapt a true story into a limited series, into a feature film, or into a TV show. 

Baby Reindeer: Writing the True Life Story by Write Your Screenplay Podcast

You would think that we fully understand our own stories better than anybody else’s. But the truth is you are the hardest person to write because you are the hardest person to see. 

You can see everybody else. But your own life is processed mostly internally. And that’s the opposite of the way that screenplays work. Screenplays externalize those internal feelings. 

So we’re going to be talking about how to get yourself on the page: how to tell your true story in whatever form you want to. And we’re going to be looking at the structure of Baby Reindeer and how Richard Gadd does it in this fantastic little limited series.

Before we get started, I do want to warn you there are going to be some spoilers of Baby Reindeer ahead. I can’t talk about it in an effective way without sharing some of the details of the script. So if you have not yet seen the show, I will warn you before we get to the big stuff.

If you’ve listened to my podcast on Beef, you’ve probably recognized that the structure of Baby Reindeer and the structure of Beef are basically the same. 

Baby Reindeer and Beef are both essentially “two-handers.” 

“Two-hander” is a term from playwriting, where the story is almost exclusively driven by two main characters. I’m using that term a little loosely when it comes to Baby Reindeer and Beef, but nevertheless, both limited series focus almost entirely on the escalation between these two main characters. 

Baby Reindeer and Beef are about two characters who at any point could end the escalation that’s happening between them, but who keep making choices that drive the escalation forward. In this way, the game of both the Baby Reindeer and Beef is basically the same: 

You keep giving the main character a way out, and you keep watching them not take it. 

Now why would the writers of Baby Reindeer and Beef construct a show this way? Well, it’s one of the profound ways to deal with the lies that your character is telling themselves.

Every character lies to themselves. Every person lies to themselves. 

We don’t lie to ourselves on purpose. We lie to ourselves because we have identities. 

We lie to ourselves because there are things that we don’t want to look at. 

We lie to ourselves because we want to see ourselves in certain ways. 

We lie to ourselves because there are mythologies that have been foisted upon us since we were children, that we’ve internalized, and that change the way that we see ourselves in the world. 

There are all kinds of reasons that we lie to ourselves, but some characters’ primary problem is that they are not being honest with themselves.

If we look at Walter White in Breaking Bad, for example, his primary problem is he’s telling himself a story that he’s created a crystal meth empire just because he wants to leave something to his family, to protect them. 

But since he keeps getting a way out, we realize this is not about his family. It’s not until the final episode that Walter’s actually going to be truthful with himself: he loves it. He loves having power.  

This makes the structure of Breaking Bad very simple: allow all of Walter’s actions to keep hurting his family, to keep pulling him away from his family. Give him the amount of money he needs to walk away. Keep giving him opportunities to run away. And what does that do? That forces his truth to the surface.

The game of Breaking Bad is simply watching this person whose belief about himself does not match up with his actions. 

The same thing is true with Beef. Both characters are telling themselves, “I don’t have a choice. She escalated. He escalated. I didn’t want this.” 

But they keep getting opportunities to make peace and they keep on choosing not to do that.

And their desire to stay in this “beef” belies what they are saying about themselves and what they’re telling themselves about themselves. 

In Beef both Amy and Danny believe they are victims, but really they are both driving the drama forward. And of course, this is also true in Baby Reindeer.

Here’s where we start in Baby Reindeer:

A nice bartender, Donny, is simply doing his job, and a sad woman, Martha, played by Jessica Dunning, comes in and sits at the bar in tears. 

She generally seems to not be very well emotionally. She claims to have no money but also to have all these incredibly powerful contacts as a lawyer. 

And Donny, our main character, played by Richard Gadd, shows her an act of kindness. He buys her a cup of tea. 

And then she starts to come back. Again… and again… and again…

Pretty soon Donny ends up finding out that Martha is essentially a professional stalker. She has stalked a cop. She has harassed a man with a deaf son. She has gone to jail for this. She is the stalker of all stalkers, and she is after him.

In lesser hands, the true story of Baby Reindeer might have simply been adapted as a story of victimhood.  

There’s a way to tell Baby Reindeer like this:

“Poor guy. Shouldn’t have bought her a cup of tea. And look what she did to him. Look how she destroyed his life. Look how she destroyed his relationships. Look how she set him on edge. Look how she pushed him to the extreme.”

We can do all that, but it’s not going to be a particularly compelling limited series.

When we come to watch a movie or a limited series or a TV show, we want to watch a character go on a journey

We want to watch them change or fail to change. We want to feel like they are moving under their own power, not just being acted upon by external forces.

Whether you’re writing a true story about yourself, or any character, it is incredibly challenging to tell a victim story in a way that is compelling. Because a victim, by their own definition, is not driving their story.

Rather, they are being acted upon by events out of their control.

And this is particularly true when you want to adapt your own story like Richard Gadd has done with Baby Reindeer.

If you want to adapt your own story, you have to be willing to look incredibly deeply at yourself, even if you have been victimized, even if terrible things have happened to you beyond your control.

Even if your life is a horror movie, where “monsters” have come out of the closet and are chasing your character, you still have to ask yourself: how is this character allowing this? How are they inviting this? Or how are they failing to make the choices that push them through it? 

What is the lie that they told themselves that they need to resolve? 

Or, what is the problem in them that these external circumstances are coming into their lives in order to force them to confront?

To be clear: we are not trying to blame the victim when we adapt a true story. 

Sometimes, in real life, a piano falls out of the sky and it happens to land on you. And you didn’t invite the piano. You didn’t step under the shadow. You didn’t fail to look. You did nothing wrong. Sometimes the universe does victimize us.

I’m not debating that. What I am saying, though, is that if you want to feel like you are rooting for yourself, and if you want to feel like you are moving, as opposed to being acted upon by forces outside of your control, or if you want to feel that way for a character (which is actually what makes us empathize and care about characters) then you have to tell more than just the victim story.

There is no doubt about it: in so many ways Donny is victimized not only by Martha, but also by Darrien, the writer/director he so admires.

He has been victimized and we can guess maybe even during his childhood there are ways he’s been victimized. The way that his society deals with his complicated sexuality there are so many ways that he has been treated wrongly and unfairly hurt.

However, there’s nothing Donny can do about that.

And there’s nothing we can do about that when it happens to us. 

So if we want to tell a story with structure, the story of a character an audience can actually connect and root for it, we have to figure out what choices the character is making in relation to the victimization.

 In other words: How are they still the main character even though all these bad things are happening to them?

This is what allows us to actually draw these societal and interpersonal wrongs into the light.

One of the beautiful things about the structure Richard Gadd found in adapting his true story into Baby Reindeer is the way it gradually surprises our expectations about the “stalker” genre. 

Baby Reindeer is constructed to start us out, in episode 1,  looking at Donny very much the way that he looks at himself. But then, episode by episode, it starts to peel away the layers of the story he’s telling himself about himself, until we find more and more complexity. 

We start out looking at Donny as a victim. But by the end of Baby Reindeer, what we’ve actually seen is the pattern that Donny is stuck in. The pattern of choices that he is stuck in that are actually driving the circumstances of his life.

So this is the primary thing I want you to remember (and this is true in any story):

We are not looking for characters that are acted upon by the universe. 

We are not looking for stories about characters who are simply victimized and play no role in their own stories. 

We are not looking for plot

We are looking for stories about characters who make choices in relation to the crap that happens to them.

We are looking at the ways characters change or fail to change in relation to the crap that happens to them. 

In other words, we are always looking for journey

This is incredibly important when it comes to writing your own true story. 

For many of us what draws us to write is that terrible, unfair things have happened to us. We want to understand them, and we want to write about them. But we are often so angry that it becomes hard to see ourselves inside of our own stories. 

If a woman appears from the woodwork and you are kind to her and she stalks you and ruins your life, there’s a good chance that you are coming to that script from a place of anger.

Maybe you’re writing a script about your failed relationship and you’re so angry at your ex. You’re so angry at what’s happened.

Maybe you’re writing a story about a societal injustice and you’re so angry about how people are treated in the world. 

In all these cases, the urge is to take the story outside of yourself and to say, “well, if this person would just be different. If these people would just be different. If our society would just be different. How wonderful would things be?”

While there is value to that kind of wish, it’s very hard to get action out of that way of looking at the world. We end up feeling like the character is sitting in place. They are not the author of their own story.

So in order to tell your true story, you’ve got to look very closely at your truth. 

In a way, you have to be tougher on yourself than you are on the other characters. You need to develop a level of empathy for the people who have wronged you that maybe even exceeds what they deserve.

You need to push yourself to look for humanity even in people who seem mentally unwell or evil or terrifying or cruel. You need to find empathy for them and find a way to humanize them. And you need to push inside yourself to ask:

How was I at fault? What poor choices did I make in relation to this? How do I need to change? What is the secret that I am keeping from myself that these events– whether they’re arbitrary or invited in by my actions– that these events are forcing me to look at.

And that is going to be the center of the structure of your adaptation..

At the center of Baby Reindeer is an incredible line from early in the relationship with Martha.

Donny admits to us in voiceover that there are things that he likes about Martha. Particularly, he likes the poetry of the way she speaks. One of the examples that’s given of her poetic way of speaking is these words:

“Some people run away by packing their bags. Others run away by standing in place too long.”

This beautiful little quote is an encapsulation of exactly what Donny’s problem is:

He doesn’t think he’s running away. He thinks he’s being kind.

He thinks he’s being brave: by trying to make it as a comedian, dealing with these unfair obstacles in both his career and his personal life. 

He doesn’t think he’s running away, but he is. 

Donny is running away by standing in one place, coming back again and again to the same unhealthy patterns, the same relationships that hurt him, failing to run after what he really wants.

In the second episode of Baby Reindeer, we will meet the woman that Donny really loves, Teri, a beautiful, brilliant, transgendered therapist, played by Nava Mau.

This is the next layer of the onion. 

In Episode 1 of Baby Reindeer we don’t know that Donny is strugglihng with his own sexuality. All we know about Donny is that he tried to be nice and some terrible stuff happened to him. 

But in Episode 2, we peel back the layer of the onion and we start to realize that Martha (“I’m a lawyer. I don’t have any money. I have all these incredible contacts”) is not the only person who is lying about who she really is.

Donny is also going into his relationship with Teri under false pretenses. In fact, he’s even used a fake name and a fake profession, because he is ashamed.

He is ashamed for reasons that we don’t fully understand yet. In our minds, we’re probably sticking him in the traditional genre of a closeted man who is trying to figure out his sexuality. 

Later, we’re going to unpeel the layers of that onion, too.

In Episode 2 of Baby Reindeer, what we’re really seeing is a man falling in love with a person who is perfect for him

We are seeing Donny falling in love with exactly the right person, but failing to choose her because of his shame about himself.

And we’re watching Donny start to choose the happiness of his stalker over his own happiness and over Teri’s happiness.

We’re watching him “protect” Martha. 

And as the show continues to an extreme, we’re watching him protect Martha and not protect the relationship with Teri.

I’m going to give you some small spoilers here…

Even at the moment in a later episode when Martha violently attacks Teri– she beats the crap out of her, pulls out a clump of her hair and tells her she looks like a man– even at that moment, Donny does not go to the police.

He lies to Teri. He tells her that police couldn’t help. But lies when she asks if he told them what Martha did to her. 

This is one example the writer giving the main character a way out, which they fail to take… and the beginning of exposing the lie he’s telling to himself. 

When we first saw Donny at the very beginning of Baby Reindeer, we saw him going to the police and not being taken seriously because he doesn’t have any evidence of Martha’s violence. 

But this is evidence of her violence.

Donny has the evidence he needs to actually stop the stalking, and he chooses not to.  As a brilliant therapist, Teri puts a finger on it. She says, “I think you love it.” But Donny is not at a place where he can accept that. 

He has a little lie that he’s telling himself. The lie is that he’s protecting Martha. 

The lie is that she’s emotionally unwell. The lie is that he doesn’t want to hurt her. The lie is that he’s ashamed. The lie is he’s overwhelmed.

And there’s another little lie too, which is that in order to tell the police about Martha, he has to tell the police about Teri. And in order to tell the police about Teri, he has to accept that he is in love with a transgendered woman.

And that means accepting complicated things about his own sexuality.

So you can see what’s happening here.

Yes, Donny is being stalked by a crazy woman. He is being put through hell. But the structure of the script for Baby Reindeer is not just Donny being put through hell. 

The structure of the script is Donny choosing Martha over Teri. The structure of the script is Donny choosing not to end the stalking.

The story of the script is the secrets that the main character is keeping from himself.

Now, there are going to be some major spoilers ahead because this continues…

As the script continues, we’re going to learn that Donny is not only having trouble being honest about who he is with Teri. He’s also having trouble having a sex life with Teri.

There are reasons for that that we’re going to get into as we continue. And we’re going to learn that as that starts to happen, that he starts to find himself drawn back to Martha, obsessing over Martha, masturbating to Martha.

In fact, there’s even a scene where he chooses to go have sex with Martha, and having sex with Martha frees him up to recover his sexuality with Teri.

You can see, as each episode of Baby Reindeer progresses, we’re getting a different level of how complicated Donny is, how he is actually orchestrating the mess of his life, even though he is being victimized and forces are attacking him from outside of his understanding.

As Baby Reindeer continues, we’re going to see an even more complicated side of Donny’s problem evolve. We’re going to go back in time to see Donny’s relationship with Darrien.

Darrien, played by Tom Goodman-Hill, is a writer who’s written a TV show that Donny idolizes. He meets him at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where he is struggling to perform his act. And Darrien comes in like the force of rescue that Donny has been waiting for.

Darrien is somebody who appreciates Donny’s talent; someone who sees who he is and wants to help his career.

And just as Donny is desperate for Martha’s idolization of him, he is equally desperate for Darrien’s idolization of him. 

And Darrien brings Donny to the light. He laughs at his jokes, helps him find his confidence, helps him hone his show, brings audiences to his show, helps him be a better artist.

But he also brings him into an incredibly dark place, abusing extreme drugs. 

And every time he gets really high, Donny will wake up and realize that there’s been some kind of non-consensual sex happening while he’s passed out. 

And he keeps coming back…

So yes, Donny is also being victimized by a terrible man in Darrien. But the story of Baby Reindeer is not the story of how Donny is victimized. The story is of how Donny keeps choosing to come back to Darrien. 

He keeps coming back and he keeps coming back, even though things are happening he’s not comfortable with, even though he’s aware that there’s something sexual happening.

He keeps coming back until it explodes into a violent and horrifying rape.

And this adds the next layer of complexity because now we start to reconfigure the whole story we’ve been telling ourselves.

This is what it means to go on a journey. And it’s not only the journey of Donny, the character. This is the journey of every writer as we try to look at our own true stories.

As I said at the beginning of the podcast, your true story is actually the hardest story to tell because you’re looking at it through the blinders of the lies you’re telling yourself. 

And often, just like the Donny character, we tell a certain version of a true story, and then we have to look under that version. 

Structurally, Baby Reindeer actually goes back in time to look under that version. 

And we start to realize that his questions about Donny’s sexuality began with this rape. We start to realize that he’s not sure if he is gay or bisexual or attracted to men or attracted to transgendered people, or if he is just so complicated in trying to make sense out of what has happened to him that it has changed his sexuality forever.

So we are launched into a different level of depth of understanding. And you can see structurally how this is evolving. We’re not getting it all at once. We get a snapshot of something pretty close to what we’d expect, even though it pushes a little beyond.

Then we get another snapshot and we go, “Oh, this is way more complicated than I thought.”

And then we get another snapshot going back in time that changes our understanding of everything that’s happened up until now. We start to realize, “Oh, this is a man who’s kind to Martha who’s dealing with having been violently raped.”

Not only has he been violently raped, but he’s allowed it to progress, coming back again and again because he wanted praise and he wanted a career, putting himself in a more and more dangerous position.

In other words, running away by staying in place.

Baby Reindeer is a story about a man who can’t have a real relationship with the woman he loves, not just because he has a stalker that he’s oddly fantasizing about, but because he is trying to make sense of the rape that has happened and who he really is and what his sexual preferences actually are and what is just an effect of the trauma. 

We’re starting to understand all the different layers– again, not by how he was victimized.

Yes, we see Donny being victimized. But by how he is orchestrating his own story, how he is running his own pattern, how he constantly is choosing to run away by standing in place.

Here’s a major spoiler coming… 

The series feels like it culminates when Donny finally tells the truth to himself.

Again, this is the same structure as Beef and the same structure as Breaking Bad

In Beef (I won’t spoil it for you but listen to my Beef podcast) it culminates when Danny and Amy actually look at the truth of themselves.

In Breaking Bad It culminates when Walter admits that he loves it.

Baby Reindeer culminates when Donny finally tells the truth.

Donny has been doing, throughout the show, a terrible comedy act. We have watched him do stupid gags and stupid jokes that are bombing throughout this show. And we’re waiting. 

We’re a smart audience. We’re waiting for him to finally tell the truth in comedy and get the audience laughing. But that’s not what happens.

What happens instead is that he has a total breakdown. The audience does not laugh, but he tells the truth. 

In the final episode Donny tells the truth about being raped. He tells the truth about his sexuality. He tells the truth about Teri. And he tells the secret that keeps him in place:

There was only one thing he loved more than Teri: hating himself.

He reveals the secret that made room for Martha.

And we want to believe this leads to a happy ending. We’ve seen so many movies and TV shows where this leads to a happy ending.

We are being set up for the happy ending, and we’re even given a slice of the happy ending we’re expecting.

But Baby Reindeer is not about how we transcend our problems. Baby Reindeer is about how we find ways to keep running away by standing in place.

So, at this point, major spoiler alert. I’m going to totally ruin the ending for you…

By the end of Baby Reindeer, we have watched Donny go back yet again to Darrien.

We’ve watched Donny agree to take a job working for and with Darrien. 

Darrien promises it will be different this time. He’s seen the video. He knows what happened. 

And Donny chooses him again. 

At the very end of the limited series, we watch Donny go into a bar and sit down and order a drink in tears. And a kind, handsome bartender brings him the drink and Donny realizes he doesn’t have his wallet. The guy buys him a drink and we fade out. 

This image is again part of the key to the secret of Baby Reindeer and the way that the piece is constructed. 

The piece is not about looking at Martha and what made her a stalker. The piece is not about looking at Darrien and what made him a rapist. The piece is not about looking at the many, many ways that Donny has been victimized. 

Baby Reindeer is looking at the stalker that lives inside of Donny. Martha is just a blown up and turned up to a level 10 version of the needy piece in Donny that keeps coming back, that cannot let go of toxic relationships for him.

She is just an externalization of the needy thing inside of him, and that’s what attracts him to her. 

She is just the part of him that is running by staying in one place too long. 

And this is the last piece that I want to talk about in relation to writing a script about yourself. 

People always say, write what you know. And then it’s hard to connect that to the idea that, there are these archetypal characters that are supposed to exist in your script. (if you’ve read The Hero’s Journey or Christopher Vogler’s work).

Hold on, I’m supposed to write what I know, but I’m also supposed to write these archetypes?

The way you can think about archetypes is this: 

Every character in your life is an expression of some piece of you. 

So when you write Martha, you’re not actually writing Martha. You’re writing the piece of you that’s Martha. 

When you write Darrien, you’re not actually writing Darrien. You’re writing the piece of you that’s Darrien. 

When you write Teri, you’re not actually writing Teri, you’re writing the piece of you that is Teri. 

Because that’s the only piece of these characters that you can actually know.

That’s actually how you write an archetype. 

The idea of an archetype is that archetypes are connected to the collective unconscious, that fabric that Jung talked about, which ties us all together. 

That means in accessing archetypes you don’t go outside. You go inside. 

You go to the piece of them that you’ve internalized and you try to figure out what that actual connection was that brought them into your life.

You’re trying to look for the piece of them in you. And that’s what makes Baby Reindeer so fantastic.

If Richard Gadd writes Baby Reindeer without looking at “how am I like this? How are we connected? How do I have this need in me?” then Martha is just an un-human creature ruining his life.

But by allowing himself to actually look that little sliver of him that wanted this, the little sliver of him that loved her, the little sliver of him that loved the praise and the affection, that loved the compliments, that loved being the object of someone’s obsession, the little piece of him that loved the drama and the even bigger piece of him that hated himself– by understanding the truth about Donny, boht Richard Gadd and we, the audience come to understand Martha.

By understanding Donny, we come to understand why this movie matters to us as the viewer, even if we’ve never been stalked.

Because this is not a limited series about, “I got stalked by this crazy person and I got raped by this crazy person.” 

Baby Reindeer is about standing in place when you need to move forward.

This is a limited series about running away, by staying in one place too long. This is about failing to go after what you really want, because of a failure to love yourself enough. This is a limited series about failing to cut the toxic people out of your life, and instead coming back again and again and again.

This is about the piece of us, of all of us, that is Martha.

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We match every donation we receive dollar for dollar, and use the funds to offset the cost of our programs for students who otherwise could not afford to attend.

We have given away over 140,000 of scholarships in the past year.

Thank you for your support!

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Need A Payment Plan?

We like working with artists and strive not to leave writers behind over money.

If you need a payment plan or another arrangement to participate in our programs, we are happy to help.

Chat us or give us a call at 917-464-3594 and we will figure out a plan that fits your budget.

Join the waitlist!

Fill in the form below to be placed on the waitlist. We'll let you know once a slot opens up!