THE DETECTIVE SCRIPT PART 2
Let’s continue our conversation about detective script tropes.
If the killer isn’t pursuing a Killer, then there is a 90% chance the case will Go All the Way to the Top. Meaning case or corruption in question will eventually be shown to involve businesspeople, politicians, clergy, etc. Back in the late-‘90s when everyone seemed to be writing nothing but detective scripts, every once in a while the Killer would also Go All the Way to the Top. We sometimes see that occur in produced titles like TRUE DETECTIVE and FROM HELL.
However, the past several years we have seen a shift away from the ‘90s-style big city detective script to its small-town counterpart. In the same way the former is chasing SEVEN, the latter seems to be chasing THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.
In the small-town detective script, we’re much more likely (75%) to see a female protagonist. There is also a likelihood (25%) she isn’t law enforcement, at all; she’s a concerned citizen, she’s connected to the case, she’s from out of town, etc. If she is law enforcement, she is typically the Sheriff, or the Chief of a small police force. She’s always in a position of authority; I’ve yet to see a version of this script in which our protagonist is a rank-and-file deputy or officer. (Even though she’s almost never a “detective,” for shorthand we’ll keep calling this a “detective script” since the A-story is still about a protagonist trying to solve a case).
The small-town detective script is much more often (75%) driven by social issues. The crime often (75%) involves some form of bigotry, hatred, etc. Whether it does or not, there is a 50% chance that there is a Killer involved, and/or it Goes All the Way to the Top.
Since we’re trading the city for a rural setting, there aren’t as many tall buildings around from which the antagonist can fall at the end. These scripts are much more likely to end with a sneak-‘n’-creep in a remote location, typically either a hazardous natural setting (these scripts love frozen lakes) or the antagonist’s lair. If it’s the antagonist’s lair, there is almost always a stable or pig farm involved. Instead of falling off a tower, the antagonist will instead fall into dangerous farm machinery (if a lair) or fall through the ice/off a cliff (if a natural setting). Either way, like the antagonist who falls off a building, the protagonist is at least somewhat absolved of their death.
Here is the ultimate reason we’re climbing into the machinery of these tropes: One of the best ways for a spec script to get traction is if it offers a fresh way into a genre; it’s unique, and “feels special” in some way. A script lacking that additional spark becomes what is sometimes called “execution driven.” For example, FARGO is a small-town detective movie, but it’s elevated by Oscar-winning levels of execution. Otherwise, a script is more likely to be tossed on the pile with all the others that are simply a collection of familiar tropes.