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Dexter: How to Write Action Screenplay
Season 9 of Dexter, New Blood, is premiering soon, so I think it’s about time we talked about Dexter on this podcast.
We’ll explore not only the engine of the Dexter series, but also do a deep script analysis of a very specific scene of Dexter to teach you how to create unforgettable images when writing action in a screenplay.
I have to admit, when Dexter first came out, I was resistant to watching it. I thought, A serial killer who only kills bad people? Talk about taking the easy way out!
Fortunately, I made the mistake of letting that perspective slip to my fiancé, who promptly sat me down and forced me to watch every single season. It turns out I was completely wrong.
This is a show that takes what could be a glossed over, super-palatable Hollywood take on serial killing, and turns it into a really deep exploration of something much more interesting: not what it means to be a serial killer, but what it means to be a human being.
It takes a deeply disconnected character, who desperately wants to feel human connection despite being biologically unable to do so, and takes him on a journey where, season after season, he becomes a little bit more human.
Along the way, Dexter shows how we all become disconnected as people and as writers.
It shows how we all keep secrets that cut us off from other human beings, how we all hide ourselves from the people we love most, and how we can all be a little sociopathic at times.
But Dexter also shows us how we all strive to feel connected. It shows both the beauty and the cost of longing for, and coming closer to, and missing out on opportunities for vulnerability and empathy.
How this will play out in the new ninth season of Dexter: New Blood remains to be seen. But for the first three seasons, Dexter slices its way through those treacherous waters with a simple but really elegant series engine.
And though Dexter may stumble a bit in its middle seasons, it finds its way back to what makes it great in a way that is valuable for anybody who wants to really understand how to write for television.
Usually, when we’re looking at a television series on this podcast, we talk about big complicated things like engine and structure and how they’re put together. And we’re going to cover these concepts in Dexter today as well.
But then we’re going to get really deep by looking at Dexter from a different angle, analyzing the way one very specific scene in Dexter was put together and what you can learn from it when it comes to writing action in a screenplay.
Through some deep script analysis of Dexter, you’ll learn not only how to write better action in your screenplay, but also find that idiosyncratic, personal voice in your writing.
It’s a complicated thing to find your voice in screenwriting, especially when you’re writing a scene in a familiar genre that we’ve seen a million times before, when you’re writing within parameters that maybe seem a little too familiar.
We’re going to dive deep into one very specific scene, a scene that in other hands could have been extremely boring. It’s the kind of scene that we’ve seen many times before not only in Dexter, but in any show in the cop genre: The scene where the latest murder victim is found.
The scene we’re going to look at is at the very beginning of the Season 3 finale, Episode 12: “Do You Take Dexter Morgan.”
To catch you up on what’s happening up to this point in Dexter I’m going to talk a little bit about the engine of the Dexter series.
Dexter is a serial killer. The engine of the show is that all Dexter wants is somebody who understands him because for his entire life he has had to keep a terrible secret: He is a sociopath who doesn’t feel anything and carries a “dark passenger” that wants to kill and can’t be satiated.
So in a quest to be a good person (and to not get caught), Dexter lives by the code of his police officer father, Harry. But that code is also the thing that keeps Dexter forever isolated from other people.
The movement Dexter goes through in episode after episode, season after season, and the thing that actually makes him likable, is not that he’s a crazy serial killer. It’s that he starts to build human connections and even gets close to feeling human feelings.
That’s the series engine of Dexter. We’re not watching Breaking Bad. We’re watching Breaking Good.
What happens in each season is that Dexter finds somebody who actually has a chance to understand him – who shows him who he could be if only he could be seen and accepted by another human being.
(In fact, even though Dexter: New Blood is set ten years after the original run’s finale, showrunner Clyde Phillips has stated that it explores themes related to family, and fathers and sons specifically. )
In this way, Dexter isn’t telling the story of a serial killer. It’s telling the story of a family, of a man trying to live up to his father’s example, and of a brother trying to connect with his sister.
The tragedy is that after changing and healing and growing and becoming more human, at the end of each season, Dexter is going to have to kill that person, not for bad reasons, but for good ones. And that murder is going to reset him in that state of sociopathy that he’s used to functioning in at the beginning of the next season.
This is the tragic series engine of Dexter. And the real reason this engine is so powerful is that even though most of us are not serial killers or sociopaths, every single one of us has had the experience of opening our hearts to somebody else and being hurt.
All of us have had the experience of being moved and changed, becoming more of who we are or who we want to be, becoming more of a person, and then being hurt, disappointed, and betrayed.
Every single one of us has had that experience of becoming more human by actually empathizing and becoming vulnerable with another human being. All of us have had to make the decision that Dexter has to make at the end, which is whether to stay open, hold on to our growth, and stay vulnerable in the face of betrayal, loss, hurt, threat, risk, and danger, or to close off that piece of ourselves that makes us human.
This is what makes this show about a sociopathic serial killer something that we can really connect to as screenwriters, not just as gawkers at horror, but as emotional human beings.
In Season One of Dexter, the friend who understands Dexter is another serial killer, the Ice Truck Killer, who turns out to be his brother, separated from Dexter after their mother was brutally murdered and dismembered before both of their eyes.
Over the course of the first season, the Ice Truck Killer seduces Dexter with his darkness. At the same time, Dexter’s sexually uncomfortable girlfriend, whom he’s taken on as a “beard” for his sociopathy, seduces him with her light.
By the end of the season, Dexter has to choose between the darkness that understands him and the light that never will. You know what he chooses. Even though it means he must kill the one person in the world who could actually understand him, Dexter chooses light.
In Season Two of Dexter, the friend who understands Dexter is Lila, a beautiful artist and recovering addict.
Much like Rita in the first season, she begins as a “beard.” Dexter convinces Rita that he’s struggling with drug addiction in order to throw her off the trail of his murderous activities. And when Rita forces him to join a 12 step program, Lila becomes his sponsor.
But it turns out that Dexter’s “dark passenger” is something Lila understands well, even if she doesn’t recognize it as a need to kill. She doesn’t see him as inherently disconnected, but inherently addicted.
As Lila pushes him through the 12 steps with love and without judgment, Dexter actually changes. He lets go of his addiction, finds what looks like real love with Lila, and becomes a better man (if not a better boyfriend) in the process.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Lila has a dark passenger of her own that’s much less controlled, and possibly even more destructive than Dexter’s.
By the end of Season Two, you know what happens. Dexter once again has to make the choice to kill the one person who understands him.
In Season Three of Dexter, the friend who understands him is a powerful, high-profile prosecutor named Miguel.
In the season opener, Dexter tries to dispatch a violent drug dealer who’s been on his hit list and inadvertently kills Miguel’s brother. Miguel is convinced that the drug dealer has committed the murder, and when Dexter finally finds his target, Miguel catches him in the act of killing the man.
But rather than acting like a prosecutor and turning him over to the authorities, Miguel is overwhelmed with gratitude and a profound friendship between Dexter and Miguel develops over the course of the season. It’s the kind of friendship that could teach even a sociopath what friendship really is and really means.
By the end of the season, Dexter believes he has turned Miguel into a serial killer just like himself. They’re two like-minded buddies hunting down the bad guys that a failing system has set free and dispatching their own kind of justice together in pursuit of a better world.
In doing this, Dexter violates his father’s code by revealing his true self to another person, all so he can have a friend and actually connect with another human being.
This is actually the first time that we’ve seen Dexter violate Harry’s code. In other words, it’s the first time we’ve seen him honestly and completely be himself with another human being.
And the friendship works wonders, not only for Dexter but also for Rita, who finds her own new best friend in Miguel’s wife and who finally believes herself to be moving toward the kind of marriage she’s always dreamed of with the evolving Dexter.
Unfortunately, unlike Dexter, Miguel does not have a code at all. It turns out that Miguel has been playing Dexter, that their friendship was never real, and that Miguel is using his newfound serial killer skills to kill off his political enemies, whether they are evil or not.
Dexter, once again betrayed after making himself vulnerable, turns his best friend into his worst enemy. After a dark game of cat and mouse between them in Episode 11: I Had a Dream, Dexter chokes Miguel to death.
So, at the very beginning of Season 3, Episode 12, the season finale, we have the scene where Miguel’s body is discovered.
If you’re a writer, this is the kind of scene you dread writing. But it’s also an opportunity to learn how mastering the art of writing action in your screenplay can transform a boring scene to an unforgettable one, and reveal your voice as a writer.
So what makes the scene so challenging?
First off, there’s not a lot of excitement inherent in the scene. We already know the murder has happened, and we already know Dexter’s plan, which is to pass off the body as the victim of a different killer that the cops are tracing. Since we already know the plan, there’s no interesting reveal of how Dexter did it. There’s no interesting sleight of hand.
We’ve also already seen such brutality out of Dexter, and out of the other killer who skins his victims alive, that a choking victim is not particularly interesting. If anything, it’s anticlimactic.
Most importantly, we’ve seen the “body-gets-discovered” scene in a million other crime shows, let alone in several episodes of Dexter. We have seen dead body after dead body found in some horrible position, all of which are a lot more terrifying than bruising around the neck.
The truth is, we can’t really outdo those graphic images from all those other TV series by focusing on the horror. We can’t even really outdo what we’ve already seen in Dexter because the writers have been so brilliant in executing the different multifaceted death scenes in previous episodes throughout the first three seasons.
We have to somehow find a new way to deal with this old scene. We have to find a way that’s worthy of revealing that the dead body being discovered belongs to the most important person to ever enter Dexter’s life.
The way the writers face this challenge is so interesting, and is a master class on how to write action in a screenplay.
We start off really close on Miguel’s dead face. Then we get a little bit wider and we see this bruised cut where the wire choked him. We pull up, and the image starts to turn until we are far, far away looking down on the body from above. From this odd distance, we realize we’re on a peninsula surrounded by water.
A jogger appears, sees the body, pulls out his phone while backing away, and runs away.
Two cop cars appear and the cops get out.
A firetruck appears.
A black car appears.
Cops roll out the yellow tape.
Cops talk among themselves
Finally from way up above, Dexter ducks under the yellow line and takes pictures of his best friend.
Even though we’ve seen a million different death scenes and a million different shows like this, we’ve never seen the death scene from exactly this angle.
But what’s even more interesting about this scene is that this unique shot, that starts so close on Miguel’s face and then pulls so far, far, far away, is not just a stylistic directorial trick. It grows out of the internal state of the main character.
The way these screenwriters write the action of this scene in Dexter is an externalization of Dexter’s internal experience, and the story he’s telling himself about his friendship and about who he is as a person.
The shot is exactly what Dexter has experienced over the season: feeling so close to another human being, telling himself the story of a real friendship, and then pulling so far away when he sees his friend’s darkness that he can’t feel anything at all.
It’s the same thing Dexter fears any good person would do to him if they actually saw his own “dark passenger.”
He can’t even feel the closeness that once existed. There is nothing left. He’s on a peninsula surrounded by water, and his friend is just a body on the ground that he photographs and documents.
This image is juxtaposed with a voiceover in which Dexter talks about what it’s like to be an empty vessel, which is how he’s always felt.
We realize at that moment that this shot is composed of that exact emptiness. This shot grows out of that empty feeling. And those words, like that image, are the new story that Dexter is telling himself about this person that he actually did become close with.
We are actually watching Dexter cancel out that closeness with emptiness. Like we do in every season, we are watching Dexter fall back into his old pattern after getting so close to discovering a new part of himself.
What’s so powerful about that shot is that we feel Dexter acting out this internal story and shifting his own internal story back towards emptiness and darkness.
This is where that personal idiosyncratic voice – your unique take on the material – comes from, even when you’re working on a scene that doesn’t immediately lend itself to drama.
Your voice as a screenwriter doesn’t come from a “brilliant idea” or from somewhere “out there.” Rather it comes from looking deep inside yourself, inside your character, inside the pages you’ve already written, and finding a way to externalize the internal story you find there.
That experience may come to you in an intellectual way or in a visceral one.
It may be that if you’re a visual person, something visual just comes to you before you even know what it means. If you look closer at that image, eventually you’ll realize the key to really understanding your character lies in that image that your subconscious mind has given you. That image already tells you exactly what you need to know.
Or if you’re less visual, you might get a boring image that doesn’t seem so special. In that case, don’t worry! Just close your eyes and keep looking. Say to yourself, Let me look at this image a little bit closer. Let me listen a little more distinctly. Let me just keep searching the image until I find something that surprises me.
It may be that once you find that surprising image, or that surprising line, or that surprising moment, that you’re then able to deconstruct it. You may discover that once you find that image, you’re then able to extrapolate and figure out what that image actually means. What does it say about your character’s journey and their internal state? How is it an externalization of their internal story?
You may have trouble picturing cool visual images or hearing cool lines of dialogue. Maybe the line of action in your script just looks like another “discover-the-body” scene. Maybe a line of dialogue just sounds like an uninteresting, “hey, what’s up.”
In that case, again, don’t worry!
If you’re a little more cerebral, then one of the ways to find that specificity, to find your voice when writing action in your screenplay, is to ask yourself specific questions.
What would happen if I look inside my character? What if I actually connected to the internal story my character is telling themselves at that moment of their journey? What is that voice in their head saying? Why is that beautiful or tragic or complicated? What if I actually connected to what that internal story means to them and what it feels like to them?
You can then ask yourself, How do I externalize that feeling into something I can see or hear? How do I take that internal story and extrapolate it into something visual? How do I take that feeling and extrapolate it into a visual image that is symbolic of that internal story?
It really doesn’t matter whether you work from the outside in or from the inside out. The thing that does matter is that level of specificity.
Clear images and clear lines and clear structures make clear scripts. But clarity is not the goal. The goal is to create beautiful, unforgettable images in the action of our screenplays.
Those beautiful idiosyncratic images and those unforgettable lines and moments that we remember happen in our writing when we stop acting like a sociopathic manipulator moving the pawns of our story and let go of our need to control.
When we instead find a way to overcome all that and connect, when we come at something from this deeply connected place, we’re going to find something just a little different than anybody else.
Those are the moments that sell scripts. Those are the moments that make us fall in love with characters. Those are the moments that make us feel a little more human.
Being a screenwriter is a journey of empathy, and just like Dexter, there are numerous obstacles that stand in our way. Some of them come from well-meaning people in our past who mean to protect us. Some of them come from traumatic experiences with people who didn’t wish us well or failed us. Some of them come from painful relationships that end in rejection.
The process of being a writer, like the process of being a human, is about getting past all of that, and finding the trust in others, yourself, and the characters that live inside you. It’s about finding the trust in what you see, hear, and feel when you look a little more closely.
It’s about finding the trust in yourself to connect… and evolve.
I hope you enjoyed this podcast. Please take a moment to rate and review us, and then come join me for a free class every single Thursday night. You can RSVP and find out more at writeyourscreenplay.com/thursday.
*edited for length and clarity