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TIGER KING: PART 2: Genre, Structure, Hook and Engine
Last episode, we spoke about the genre experience of Tiger King and what got people so hot and bothered about the miniseries, both emotionally and ethically. This episode, we’re going to look at the structure of the miniseries, as if it were a fictional work of art (partly because, to a great degree, it is). We’re going to divorce ourselves a bit from any justified outrage, to talk about what made it work, and how you can apply those lessons to your own writing. (I promise, without selling your soul!)
To understand why the structure of Tiger King works, we need to understand that as screenwriters we have an incredible power to set the expectation our audience shows up with.
The place you set that expectation is on your first page; in the very first page of your TV show, your miniseries, your feature film, your documentary.
The very first page, the very first scene, the very first moment, you’re basically saying “Bang! Here’s the feeling, this is what it is going to feel like.”
If you don’t set that expectation, your audience will still have an expectation. You’re just not going to like it.
Back in the day when I first came to New York, I was directing Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway Theater. And Off Off Broadway Theater is, to say the least, challenging.
When you go to an Off Off Broadway play your expectation is not “This is going to be good! I can’t wait to be entertained!”
Usually you’re going to support your friend and you’re thinking, “Oh please, please, let it not suck.”
The Off Off Broadway stages don’t have curtains. So while you’re sitting and waiting for the show to start, usually what you’re looking at (because nobody has any money) is a couple of chairs and a box. You’re looking at something you wouldn’t even call a set. It’s just whatever they could afford.
So one of the things I realized when I was directing Off Off Broadway, or even Off Broadway, was that if I could just spend a little bit more on my set, and I could allow my audience to come in and look at something cool, I could completely change their entire expectation.
They’ve shown up because they want to support their friend. But I don’t want them feeling that, “Oh, I’ve got to support my friend” feeling. I want them feeling that, “I am about to be entertained” feeling.
So what I would do is spend money on that set. I would think about what the image was that the audience would be looking at as they sat down and took their seats, because that image is going to shape their entire experience.
Similarly, coverage readers, producers, agents, and even audiences are far too familiar with the feeling of being disappointed when reading a screenplay.
In fact, there’s a good chance that the first producer who reads your script is doing a favor for a friend. And trust me, they’ve got that “I’m supporting a friend,” feeling. Which means you’ve got to shake them out of it, and get them into the “I’m being entertained” feeling.
When we are working on a screenplay, our first image shapes the entire experience. Our first scene shapes the entire experience. And the shame is that so many writers end up throwing away their first page, their first image, their first moment, they end up throwing it away because they use it to “set things up” or “establish things.”
They think because they’ve read about the idea of “normal world” that the movie hasn’t started yet, we’re just at the beginning.
But if you don’t catch them at the beginning, they’re never going to see the end. So you start establishing the genre experience from the very first image, from the very first scene.
Now, I want you to think of that first sequence in Tiger King, and notice how the directors are already setting the expectations for your experience!
“Animal people are nuts, man and I might be one of them people, I don’t know. But they’re all half out-there, man. They’re crazy.”
“You know, the monkey people are a little bit different, they’re kind of strange. But the big cat people are back-stabbing pieces of shit.”
“You know, it is not every day that a zookeeper went to prison for murder for hire. So, I’m sure, I’m sure y’all got a story to tell.”
Think of that beginning, you’ve got the super intense dude in a hat lighting a cigarette telling you the craziest story you’re ever going to hear. You’ve got a series of images of dudes driving in cars with giant tigers and lions. You’ve got this weird looking guy telling you big cat people are pieces of shit. And then you’ve got, “It is not every day that a zookeeper ends up in prison for murder.”
Look at that opening sequence from the very first image and notice how it feels like Tiger King.
For better or for worse, Tiger King is not a documentary about the exploitation of animals; Tiger King is a documentary about, “You’re not going to believe this crazy shit,” that happens to take place in the world of exploitation of animals.
And once it finds its hook, it just keeps doing that hook forever. It puts that hook front and center.
So, this is the first concept I want you to understand. Genre and hook are just different ways of saying the same thing. So genre is the feeling, but hook is the sales pitch.
Genre is the feeling that you’re trying to create for yourself as you write your screenplay. Hook is the way that you, and more importantly, your audience, is going to talk about your screenplay. So, genre is the inner feeling, hook is the way the structure of the film allows us to talk about it.
Now what a lot of writers would do if they knew that your “mild-mannered” zookeeper was going to end up in prison, is save that information for last. They would think, “You know what? That’s my amazing trick ending, I’m going to put that off, and we’re just going to start with this nice kindly zookeeper.”
But notice, if you did that, you wouldn’t get the feeling.
We aren’t going to meet James Garretson, the weird guy who tells you what piece of shit big cat people are– we aren’t going to meet him again for many, many episodes.
Why is he front-loaded here? He is front-loaded here for hook.
You can see from the very first sequence, from the very first image you’re already telling yourself the story that this is going to be freaking wild, that this is going to be freaking weird.
You’re already asking yourself the question, “How did a zookeeper end up in prison for attempted murder?” And you’re already feeling the wild world of Tiger King.
So this is the first lesson; don’t save the best for last, save the best for first. Don’t wait on your best stuff; put your best stuff right at the beginning, because in your best stuff, you’re going to find your hook.
A lot of people ask, “What if I put the hook right at the very beginning and then it never gets that good again?” Well, then you’ve a high class problem! That just means you haven’t pushed your movie far enough.
Because once you find your hook, your job is just to outdo it and outdo it and outdo it and outdo it. Once you find your hook, you just have to keep on outdoing it; you’ve got to keep on giving more.
So here’s the hook, right there in the first minute of Tiger King.
It isn’t just about tigers. It is about the weirdest bunch of people we’ve ever seen. It is about this crazy journey by which this dude goes from being a tiger owner to being in prison.
You can see the hook from the very beginning and you’re starting to already ask, “why?”
You get to the end of each episode of Tiger King and you think, “Wow, it couldn’t be any weirder than that!” And what do they do next episode? Well, it gets weirder.
And you think, “Well, it couldn’t get any weirder than that.” And what happens in the next episode? It gets weirder, and it gets weirder, and it gets weirder, and it gets weirder, until you didn’t even know it could get weirder.
This is a concept called engine. It’s the structural concept not just behind Tiger King, but behind any Miniseries, and any TV show.
And how do you find engine? You figure out what elements give you that genre feeling, and you keep doing them!
What a TV show audience wants is the same thing you want when you watch a TV show. You want to come back and feel the same way, with different material. You want it to be both the same and different.
Once you figure out your engine, all you have to do is keep doing it.
If you’re writing an action franchise, it is the same thing. You want to establish the engine and then you want each The Fast and the Furious to feel like The Fast and the Furious before it. The same, but different.
Each Avengers needs to feel like the Avengers before it. The same, but different.
Each Austin Powers needs to feel like the Austin Powers before it. The same, but different.
Each The Godfather needs to feel like The Godfather before it (sorry, Godfather III). The same, but different.
All you’re doing is looking for a feeling that hooks you, and then creating an engine to deliver that feeling again, and again by outdoing what came before.
In a feature film it is the exact same thing, whatever you do on page one, your job is to keep outdoing that feeling.
And yes, of course, you can have other genre feelings as well.
As I talked about in my Parasite podcast you can have changes in tone within the genre that you’re playing with. You can get away with depth in a silly piece, and you can get away with silliness in a deep piece. You can get away with an ethical message in a torn-from-the-headlines piece, and pure fun in a piece that should be really traumatic.
And of course Tiger King could have gotten away with weaving in the deeply ethically disturbing stuff they saved till the end along the way.
Doing so would have allowed their audience to come away with a clearer understanding that this tiger thing is actually a problem that we should address. Rather than thinking of the Tiger King as a martyr that should be saved.
Without defending the choice, (I would have made a different one in their shoes). I do want you to understand why they made it.
They made this choice because dealing with all that dark stuff about tiger exploitation (and people exploitation) up front would have made their hook a lot harder to deliver. And would have made falling in love with Joe Exotic from the beginning a lot more challenging for their audience.
Once we fall in love with a character it’s hard to stop caring about them. And that’s why these “documentarians” front load all the cool and crazy (and beautiful) stuff about Joe Exotic, and save the really dark stuff for the “trick ending.”
In this movie, the “amazing trick ending” is, “oh shoot, did we mention Joe Exotic shot those tigers in the head when they got too big?”
“Did we mention he probably burned down his own studio and killed all his own alligators? Did we mention that those terrible things he got thrown in prison for allegedly doing… well, he did them? Did we mention that all those rag-tag people we showed you at the beginning, that loved these tigers and found purpose with them, that made you feel like all this might be… well… okay? Did we mention he betrayed all of them? Even the ones he claimed to love? Did we mention he got all his boyfriends hooked on meth… Did we mention (um… actually we didn’t…) that many of the things he said about Carole Baskin probably aren’t true? Did we mention that we edited the footage to make it look like Carole Baskin was keeping her tigers in tiny cages, to make her look even worse than he was, to make this challenging character a little more palatable? Did we hold off a bit too long on letting you know how badly these majestic creatures are suffering in captivity so you can feel enthralled rather than disgusted?”
Yes. They did. And they didn’t have to. But finding a different way would have been harder, and riskier.
And more importantly, they didn’t do it, because that wasn’t the point, at least for them. The point was: check out this crazy shit, and this crazy beautiful and broken guy and this crazy beautiful and broken community… and then once you really love him, once you really love them all, watch it all full apart.
It was never about the Tigers, it was about Joe Exotic. That was true in both life, and in the film.
Some people will say that form is function and any movie about Joe Exotic should be as Joe centered as he is. And others will say that Tiger King squandered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change something terrible about the world, and instead used its power to solidify it. And others will say it’s somewhere in between. That if you’re paying attention (and you watch all the way to the last episode), most of the truth finds its way out.
But it’s an inescapable fact, even if that’s true, that a lot of people didn’t get it. Otherwise there would be more people lobbying for an end to tigers in captivity than there would be lobbying for a pardon for Joe Exotic.
As a writer, you have to ask yourself what you believe. And what effect your story is going to have on people. What story are they going to tell themselves? And are you going to tell the hard truth or an easier lie? Will you be able to look at yourself in the mirror when you’re done?
The stakes are higher when you’re working on a documentary about real people’s lives. But they’re really no different when you’re working on any work of art.
Our characters are real for the people who watch them, and the way we write them, and the way we tell their stories, will shape the lives of everyone who experiences our work.
Tell the story with a slightly more human Carole Baskin, not a perfect Carole Baskin, just a Carole that gets the same benefit of the doubt that the filmmakers give Joe, and Joe Exotic does become a lot less likable. But millions of people end the movie feeling like maybe there’s something that can be done about this, rather than feeling like there’s no better place for these animals.
But regardless of where you fall on the ethical responsibilities of Tiger King, the lessons of Tiger King the film can be valuable to your writing.
Because whatever you feel about Tiger King, these are some darn good filmmakers. And there’s a lot you can learn from them, even if you don’t agree with the choices that they made. So set aside your judgment for a moment, just like you would with a less inflammatory film.
Here’s what you want to learn: once you’ve made a promise to the audience and once you’ve made a promise to yourself, once you’ve said, “this is where the movie lives,” and you’ve shown it to them, you cannot let your foot off the gas.
In fact, you’ve got to keep pushing that gas pedal down, you’ve got to keep on delivering more and more and pushing it beyond where you knew it could go.
You have to serve that thing that matters most to you first. Because that’s your hook. That’s the thing that’s going to deliver the genre feeling to your and to your audience. That’s the promise.
And everything else has to serve that.
The reason that Tiger King is so successful is the same reason it’s so ethically frustrating. Because it chooses to serve the hook of “ain’t it strange” escapism at any cost.
If you think of the structure of the entire miniseries, how each episode both shows you stuff and hides stuff, shows you a piece, hides another piece… the way that that information is delivered is designed to work the hook.
In my Write Your Screenplay class I talk about four phases of writing, and hook is the Producer Draft of writing. It’s how you deliver your content in the most hooky way possible, so that literally anyone who watches it can pitch it and deliver the genre feeling of the piece to another potential audience member. This is how we get word of mouth.
And anybody who watched Tiger King knows this about the piece: it is so darn easy to talk about.
You’re able to say to your friend, “You are not going to believe this,” and then when they watch, it is even weirder than they expected. So what the show delivers is actually even more than it promised.
Finding hook in your screenplay is not about “selling out.” Hook is about “selling in.” Finding the thing that matters most to you, and pushing on it and pushing on it.
Not everyone is going to agree with you about what is most important. But those who do will follow you to the end of the earth, and become your passionate fans and proponents.
This is your job as a screenwriter. When you come up with an idea for a movie or a TV show, when you come up with a hook, what starts to happen is you start to pitch yourself the movie, you start to see where it is likely to go.
And guess what? All those places you saw are probably boring. They’re probably boring because they came to you right away, they’re the obvious stuff. You’ve got to keep looking until you get beyond the obvious stuff.
And guess what? If you’re making a documentary it is the same darn thing.
If you’re making a documentary about big cats and all we see is big cats, you haven’t gotten beyond the obvious stuff; you’ve got to find a way to find that thing that no one has explored exactly this way before. That angle that only you have looked at. What is that thing that is entertaining to you that other people haven’t even noticed? That’s your hook.
So now we understand genre, we understand hook. But there is one more thing that makes Tiger King so easy to connect to, and that is the structure of Joe Exotic’s journey.
Joe Exotic is not necessarily a likable character, (even with the little clean up job they did on him at the top of the film). He is an exploiter of big cats, he is a polygamist, he is a drug user, he is violent, he is deeply chauvinistic, he is hate-filled, he is self-destructive, he is potentially an arsonist and he is potentially guilty of paying multiple people to attempt murder.
So why are people fighting to try to save him? Why are people asking for a Presidential pardon? Why did people fall in love with this character?
It’s not because he saved a cat out of a tree as some screenwriting books would tell you.
And it’s not even because the filmmakers went to such lengths to hide the darkest parts about him until the end.
They fell in love with this character for the same reason that they are going to fall in love with your character.
People fell in love with Joe Exotic because Joe Exotic has such a clear want and such a clear need.
Joe Exotic is willing to take such completely unique steps to try to get that want and that need met. What I call the how of the character. He has such a specific how.
Unlike most people, Joe Exotic is willing to do pretty much anything and combat pretty much any obstacle and behave in pretty much any way necessary to get what he wants.
The want that Joe Exotic is aware of is different from the want that’s actually driving him. The want for fame versus the story he is telling himself.
And because of his complicated want for fame (which he calls the want to be Joe Exotic, to raise these tigers, to keep his special little village of misfits alive).
Because of the way that desire manifests, what ends up happening is that we watch this character manifest his own tragedy in the structure of the film.
Joe Exotic’s tragedy doesn’t happen to him, it happens by him.
And because it happens by him we are devastated by it, and we care about him, even though all the things he is doing are wrong.
Tiger King starts with a guy who just wants to raise tigers. It starts with a guy who is going out to the truck stop finding the homeless drug addicts and bringing them home to work; giving people meaning and finding meaning for himself.
And then what happens is, Joe Exotic finds an antagonist.
He finds this woman Carole Baskin who is trying to shut him down. And Carole Baskin has no chance of shutting Joe Exotic down. She has no chance. He is making money hand over fist, he has a successful business, he has such a dedicated staff that one of them loses her arm and decides instead of having it reattached that she is going to get back to work.
But because of his hatred for Carole Baskin, Joe Exotic ends up destroying his own life, ends up destroying his own zoo, ends up destroying his own relationships, ends up losing everything. Not because some antagonist came in and took it away, but because he made choice, after choice, after choice that took it away from himself.
And guess what? We would have fallen in love with Joe Exotic even if the filmmakers hadn’t gone to such lengths to make Carole Baskin awful, or to hide Joe’s worst tendencies, or to save the ethical issues of tiger exploitation to the very end.
We would have fallen in love with Joe Exotic for the same reason we fell in love with Walter White, or Bojack Horseman, or Larry David.
Because we get him.
We get what drives him. We get what he wants. And we get what he needs. And we get the how of the way he’s trying to get those wants and those needs met. And we get how he’s the architect of his own tragedy.
And this is the concept I want to leave you with; because a great main character is the same in a feature, in a documentary, in a miniseries, in a TV show, in a web series, in a short. The thing that makes a great character is the same thing: it is somebody who wants something, who wants it real bad.
Not a person that stuff happens to, but a person who stuff happens by. Whose want is so strong (right or wrong) that it is going to drive them to make crazy choices that nobody else would make, that are unique to them.
And those crazy choices are going to take them on a crazy journey that changes them forever.
As in the case of Joe Exotic, it might be a tragic story. But it also might be a comedic story. It might be a happy story. It might be a journey of transcendence or it might be a journey of self-destruction or it might be a mixture of the two.
Because at the end of the day, movies are like life, and what we connect to in life are characters. We connect to people who want things and who go for them. And in the same way, this is how we connect to ourselves.
Because we’re all in a time right now when we are binge watching Tiger King because it is really hard to be with ourselves; it is really hard to be in our world right now. It is really hard to feel that our world isn’t happening to us; it is hard to feel like our world is happening by us.
And if you want to find that structure in your life, and if you want to get back to rooting for yourself as a main character, you’ve got to decide what you want.
You’ve got to decide what you want and you’ve got to start making choices towards it. Not the choices you’re supposed to make, not the choices that people will like you for making, not the choices that you think you ought to make, but the choices that only you would make, the choices that feel right.
You want to look at your “how” and say, “How do I want to do this? What’s my hook? What’s driving me forward? How do I want to tell this story of this section of my life?” And then you want to start doing it, and then outdoing it and then pushing it further.
And the same thing will happen for you that will happen for your characters, which is that you will start to fall back in love with yourself, and you will notice that people start to fall in love with you as well.
That people start to connect to your vision and care about your vision and share your passion and want to help you—that the world starts to move, not to you, but by you, that your story starts to happen not to you, but by you.
If you’ve been struggling to get your writing going again during this crisis, I would like to make you aware of a couple of things we have going on for our students.
The first is, we have a free quarantinis happy hour of writing lessons and exercises and community; it is every Thursday night 7 PM EST, 4 PM Pacific and it is hosted by me. It is a fabulous community and you can come for free. If you can afford to make a donation, we will match your donations and apply them to our scholarship fund.
The second is that for every full priced class that is sold during this period, we are giving away two 50% scholarships that allow people who’ve been affected by the crisis to come at 50% off.
So if you’ve been affected by the crisis you can check on our and we’ll let you know if we have scholarships available, you can self-identify and you’ll get a scholarship instantaneously if you need to take a class.
And if you are able to afford a class you can know that your money is going not only to help you pursue your passions but also to help other people pursue theirs. You can find more information about both of these on my website; www.writeyourscreenplay.com/quarantinis.