In honour of Eric Kripke's new show The BOYS on Amazon, let's look at
Six Ways Supernatural Teaches Us to Create a Sci-fi Show With Monster Heart
1. The High Concept
1. The (high) CONCEPT: “Having a striking and easily communicable idea.”
A good high concept should be unique (and/or a twist on a classic tale), have mass appeal, obvious potential, and be short and sweet. It’s the heart of the logline, but the logline may be more detailed (When (Catalyst) happens, the Protagonist must do X or else Consequences/Stakes). In this case there are no stakes, no mention of the boys hunting their mother’s demonic killer – but you can absolutely visualise the show from that single sentence:
“Two brothers cruising the dusty back roads in their trusty 64 Mustang battling the things that go bump in the night.”
The Mustang changed to an Impala, but the heart of the show stayed the same.
2. The Characters
2. The CHARACTERS – the same, but different:
“If Sam’s the good kid, Dean’s the troublemaker. If Sam’s Luke Skywalker, Dean’s Han Solo.” Hot damn, I’m sold. Stereotypical? Sure. With a nice twist – the Good one (Sam) is actually the black sheep of the family, while the Rebel (Dean) is obediently following in his father’s footsteps.
But how does Kripke elevate them from cliche to iconic? He keeps them grounded. They each have a concrete purpose. Sam is an earnest stand-in for the audience in this fantastical world, and Dean is a brilliant comedic foil. Kripke shows their personalities in everything they do: Dean’s music tastes. Who gets to drive the Impala. What they eat. Just like us, they’re opinionated! Passionate! Specific. Above all, they’re flawed.
Dean was deeply messed up by growing up “as a warrior” – he can’t form relationships (but boy can he chase tail) and he’s going to drag his brother back into the family biz despite knowing he’s better off out! Sam is happy to let innocent people die while he’s off being a lawyer instead of saving them with his brother. They don’t always get it right, and we love them for it.
Check out how Kripke reveals their characters through music. It’s also a great example of that elusive thing you always hear about: writer’s VOICE.
3. The Conflict
3. The CONFLICT – it’s all about the Bromance:
Brothers at odds who move heaven and earth to save each other. Supernatural sidestepped the problem of X-Files, Castle, Lucifer, and many others who rely on the “will they, won’t they” romantic chemistry of the leads. By focusing on brothers instead, we get to have our gooey drama cake and eat it too! The push and pull of their family bond will never end, no matter how many love interests come and go in the interim. And the heart of the conflict ties right back to the characters and their starkly contrasting views on everything.
4. The FUN
4. The FUN – (because no one really cares about werewolves):
“I want this show to capture a certain spirit,” Kripke wrote. The “youthful electricity of dropping out and hitting the open road…” In the “episode arenas” pitch doc, he went on to make the promises in the photo above: that every episode will have scares, humour, and above all HEART.
This FUN vibe is felt throughout the Pilot – the brothers face danger, but the show never takes it (or them) too seriously. Peppered with quotable lines, it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: a frickin’ fun escape.
Not very scary you say? As Dean would say, “House rules. Writer writes the script, Viewer shuts their cake hole!
5. The Tone and World
5. The TONE and WORLD – everyday Joe Hero in America
Kripke says it’s set in the “diverse highways and byways of supernatural America.” He also emphasised that it should feel “GROUNDED” – and that’s something it does well. He likens it to “star Wars in Truck Stop America.” However, unlike the Jedi, Sam and Dean don’t have superpowers – nor James Bond tech or wizardly assistance – they’re just two everyday guys with a shotgun, salt, and Google. Heck, you and I could become Hunters right now too! Let’s go!
6. The Structure
6. The STRUCTURE – Layering the Hero’s Journey
If you’ve researched Story Structure (and if not, go check out my article!) and read the Supernatural pitch, you’ll see Kripke is a fan of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”. He did a masterful job weaving Sam’s heroic journey with a Monster of the Week plot, supported by a strong theme, all while hitting the commercial breaks! I’ll do a deep dive in text, but here’s an overview.
Usually the Monster of the Week is the A-story and the boys’ relationship issues are the B-story, so I’ll keep that naming convention despite the story being flipped in the pilot (the monster of the week takes back seat to the boys’ search for their dad).
B-story (FEELS): Dean wants Sam’s help to find their missing Dad. In order to do that, they need to:
A-story (FACTS): Solve the last case their dad worked, which was the Weeping Woman. And to keep us tuned in next time, throw in:
C-story (FUTURE): The thing that killed Sam’s mom is still out there, as is their Dad….
Before we look at more structure, let’s look at the THEME of the episode: You can’t run from who you are.
Dean embodies the theme – he was born to be a Hunter and that’s what he’s doing. And he challenges Sam to recognise it too, saying, “You can pretend all you want Sammy, but sooner or later you’re going to have to face up to who you really are.”
Now, Sam believes the opposite, and in a clever parallel, so does the monster (the Weeping Woman). Sam left his Hunter life behind (or so he hoped) and is scared to go back to it (B-Story). He likes his “safe” life. The Weeping Woman likewise left her past (killing her children) behind, and can’t face going back, repeatedly saying “I can never go home” (A-Story). And, it’s Sam’s realisation / empathy with the Weeping Woman (“You’re SCARED to go home”) that allows him to solve the case by bringing her home.
See, Dean was right all along. Face who you are and your problem will be solved. But Sam refuses to learn that lesson and is in fact going to go back to his “apple pie life” at the end of the episode, so he faces a terrible consequence: his girlfriend is killed by the same demon that killed his mother. Damn. Now, he’s finally ready to embrace his destiny as Hunter with his brother.
If you look at it from another structural POV:
Sam believes: He will be happy living his normal, SAFE life as a lawyer. (Thesis)
Dean believes: He’s only going to be happy if he rejoins his family as a Hunter. (Antithesis)
They believe: At the end, they need to go on the hunt – together. (Synthesis)
So how does that fit Campbell’s hero’s journey?
Well, Sam starts out in his almost-happy life ( Stasis)
when his estranged brother Dean shows up looking for help finding their dad (Call to Adventure),
Sam initially says no (Refusal of the Call),
but eventually agrees and they go on a road trip (Crossing the Threshold)
to the town of the last case, where they do Hunter things – impersonating cops etc – and follow clues (Road of Trials)
until they come face to face with the Weeping Woman (Meet the Goddess / Midpoint),
which leads to their first clue about their missing Dad, and where Sam first apologises to Dean (Atonement with the Father),
then they solve the monster quest (The Ultimate Boon)
but Sam still refuses to see that he’s meant to be a Hunter (Refusal of the Return)
until something supernatural kills his girlfriend (Rescue from Without – yes it’s a bad thing, but it “saves” him from his normal life)
and he finally embraces being a Hunter with his brother (Crossing the Return Threshold).
Holy cow, all of that in a show about two brothers on a road trip battling monsters?!
Time for a DEEP DIVE into the SCRIPT(S) and STRUCTURE! Remember, if you need a refresher on structure, check out my Story Structure Basics page.
Find more info on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey ON WIKIPEDIA HERE.
Let’s take a MUCH closer look.
We’re really lucky to have access to two wildly different pilot drafts (links in Resources), which in turn differ substantially from the aired pilot. At the time of writing this, you can binge the Winchester boys via Amazon Prime in the U.K., but there’s also a link to the pilot transcript for those who want to follow along in text only.
Pilot (Draft): In this earliest draft, Sam doesn’t know anything about hunting or the supernatural so the first two acts are Dean trying to convince him ghosts are real. His Dad’s already dead, but Dean thinks the Weeping Woman might’ve killed their mom (their mom died in a car wreck) so he needs Sam’s help solving the case. Also, Sam’s not happy in his “apple pie life” because he’s planning on being long distance with his gf and he’s showing doubts about law school. At the end, Dean’s going to head out to Arizona looking for their dad alone, and Sam decides to simply tag along.
Pilot (Script): I feel this script is a leap ahead of the previous draft. First, Kripke axes two entire acts of exposition by having the Winchester brothers raised as hunters. Hell, we know supernatural things are real by the end of the Teaser! This gives us a lot more fun as the boys get more time to do what they do best – “saving people, hunting things – the family business.” Plus, the boys now have strong feelings over how they were raised, and over their dad. Mmm conflict. Finally, their dad is alive but still missing, which gives us a nice long-term quest.
Pilot (Aired): Alas, we don’t have a shooting script, so I have to go on the edited aired version. The biggest change here is the monster-of-the-week changed from some crazy abused killer woman (who kept killing after death) to the much simpler Wailing Woman who murders unfaithful men. Also, there’s more C-story clues of their dad thrown in. I’ll point out some specific changes in the aired pilot in red in the breakdown, and discuss possible reasons for the change.
Pilot Logline (according to me):
Sam thought he’d escaped the family ghost hunting business – until his estranged brother shows up looking for help to find their father, who disappeared while hunting the Weeping Woman in White.
Teaser: (04:30 / 4 pages)
22 years ago their mom is murdered and torched by something supernatural. EEEK! Script change: Dean rescues his baby brother Sam from the fire… Originally their dad hauled them both out. This change is cool because it parallels the end and it displays one of Dean’s core beliefs: His job is to protect his little brother.
ACT I (04:30-16:17 = 11:47 / p. 5 to p.19 = 15 pages)
You / Stasis:
(04:30-/ p.5-8)Sam has a great girlfriend Jessica, he aced his LSATS, and he has an interview for a full ride scholarship at Stanford Monday morning (See those stakes sizzle). Originally he’s already in law school and has vague Thanksgiving plans with his gf, but this gives him immediate stakes to lose. Also, the script has 4 pages of “Life is good” Sam – but the pilot gives only a minute and a half. No one cares Sam, we want the…
Need / Catalyst:
(06:55/ p.10) Easy Tiger! Dean shows up with news: their dad is missing.
Call to Adventure (and refusal):
(08:21/ roughly p.13) Dean’s laid out the reasons they need to track down their dad, and he asks – “So are you going to come with me or not?” And Sam replies “I’m not.”
That’s right, like all good heroes facing a call to adventure, Sam initially says “Hell no!” Why? Bust out the B-story baby! Sam hated their childhood and he swore he was done with hunting, and he thinks their father’s vengeance mission is pointless. Here comes my favourite piece of dialogue in the episode: 08:33/ p.14 “When I told Dad I was scared of the thing in my closet, he gave me a .45.”
So what changes Sam’s mind? Dean hurls the theme at him again: “So what you gonna do, you gonna live some normal ‘apple pie’ life?” Ouch, the truth hurts – but that’s not the real hook. Dean says “I can’t do this alone.” And Sam says “Yes you can.” So Dean admits, “Yeah. Well. I don’t want to.” (09:35)- and there it is. Big tough Dean needs his little brother. Originally, this scene was Dean pointing out Sam’s duty to his family, to their dad. But his dad is never going to motivate Sam. Only Dean can do that. Because deep down, he loves his brother. Aww 🙂 Sam’s next line tells us he’s in: “What was he hunting?”
Acceptance of call / Choosing Act II:
(11:40/ roughly p.15) After Dean fills him in on some A-story facts, Sam has one more chance to say no. But instead, he accepts, with one caveat – he needs to be back first thing Monday. Dean replies in typical fashion, “A job interview? Skip it.” But in a nice reiteration of the stakes, Sam replies: “It’s a law school interview – and it’s my whole future on a plate.” That’s right Sam, you’re risking your future if you go with your brother and you know it (and now we know it too).
(12:38/ p.17) Yay, Sam’s in, so let’s go back to the Monster of the Week: the Woman in White murders her victim Troy. Hey, remember, this is a SCARY show! EEEEK!
END OF ACT I.
ACT II (16:18-25:20 = 9:02 / p. 20 to p. 36 = 17 pages)
Go / Crossing the Threshold:
The journey has begun (literally)! Blake Snyder would call this the “promise of the premise” or in many other hero’s journey breakdowns its leaving the Known (Stasis) world and entering the Unknown.
We see a hunter’s life: fake credit cards (that will be important later), bad gas station food, fake IDs, and small town cops at crime scenes. Why did you ever leave, Sam? We also get some great character insights, like Dean’s “best of mullet rock” music taste and Sam’s aversion to junk food. Subtle and specific.
Search / Road of Trials:
Impersonating Marshalls, interviewing people, and Dean being a wiseass.
P.24ish – the bridge cops scene used to be in a police station. The bridge is better because the location ties with the case (where the Wailing Woman jumped to her death) and they’ll revisit the bridge at the end of the act. It was likely cheaper to have two scenes in the same location as well.
A few A-story clues thanks to the cops and the computer and they’re on their way to the…
Find / Midpoint / Meeting the Goddess:
(22:40 / script: p.33). On the bridge for a ghost stakeout: perfect chance for an eat-your-heart-out B-story clash. Things are unraveling. They’re not getting anywhere with their dad’s case. Sam reiterates the stakes – gotta be back by Monday. Dean challenges him with the theme again -“You can pretend all you want Sammy, but sooner or later you’re going to have to face up to who you really are.”
Script change – originally this scene revealed Sam’s fight with their dad years ago about choosing college over the family biz. But what’s better than a fight years ago? A fight RIGHT NOW! Between brothers! Dean insists Sam is “one of them” but Sam rejects that, rejects “Dad’s crusade,” rejects being like Dean. Sam points out that even if they find the monster, Mom is never coming back. That HURTS Dean so much he slams Sam against the wall! Right now, they could just part ways… (End Midpoint)
…Except they see the Weeping Woman and are once again united in purpose: running for their lives from the possessed Impala. With no other options, they JUMP! …But after the commercial break they’ll be fine, and Dean’s muddiness gives them an excuse to go to motel to get their next clue.
Script change – the stakeout and chase were originally in a cornfield, and Weeping Woman didn’t attack them, but the possessed Impala and bridge jump added a lot more danger! Plus, it gave my favourite “show don’t tell” moment when Sam asks, “Who’s driving your car?” And Dean pulls his keys out of his pocket in an unspoken No one!
END OF ACT II.
ACT III (25:21-34:50 = 9:29 / p.37-49 = 13 pages)
C-story for the win: turns out their dad bought a room in the motel too (thanks to the matching last name on the fake credit card). And hey, their dad already figured out the Wailing Woman case, giving them their next A-story clue: her husband. Plus, another C-story crumb: the salt and catseye shells meant their dad was worried about a Big Bad much worse than Weeping Woman…
None of that is in the script. Instead, Dean was packing up, ready to go off after their dad instead of finishing the case, and Sam was telling him to stay. This was proof that Sam was embracing his roots now, but it didn’t make sense for Dean’s character since he’s the tried and true hunter – he would never abandon a victim. Really glad they changed it, especially because now we get…
Atonement with the Father:
My favourite character-building dialogue (27:24): Sam apologises for earlier and Dean stops him and replies, “No chick flick moments.” This is a huge turning point in Sam’s arc, and marks the Atonement with the Father midpoint in his hero’s journey. Like it or not, he’s committed to his brother now – even if he hasn’t realised it yet.
(28:56 / roughly p. 40) We can’t have a brotherly bonding moment without adding MORE DANGER! Dean is arrested for using fake IDs! And he gives us the quip: Cop: You got anything that’s real? Dean: My boobs.
Originally Sam and Dean interviewed Wailing Woman’s mother (yawn) and Sam went off to interview a “serial killer” in prison. This was replaced by Dean’s arrest, interrogation, and Sam going off to get A-story facts from the Wailing Woman’s husband (whoa, she drowned her kids, yikes!). Basically, pure fun and excitement (Dean giving his name as Ted Nugent, ha!) plus it gives us the brothers’ Holy Grail: their dad’s JOURNAL. In the script, Dean had the journal from the beginning, but by inserting it here with a message in it for Dean we now know their dad is alive and we have that C-story thread to tug us into episode 2.
Luckily breaking Dean out of the police station only requires a fake 911 call and a paper clip, so we’re good to go— oh wait! The Weeping Woman is in the car with Sam! Let’s-
END ACT III.
ACT IV (34:51-42:30 = 7:39 / p.50-59 = 10 pages)
Adrenaline rush time. 36:22 / p.51 Sam’s gonna be killed by the Weeping Woman! Dean saves him by shooting the ghost. Luckily Sam realised (lightbulb moment / Apotheosis!) that she’s afraid to go home and he drives her there through the wall – but now he and Dean are BOTH gonna die. UH OH! Time for the –
Climax (of the monster of the week) / Ultimate Boon
38:20/ p.53 The Weeping Woman is destroyed by her dead kids in the nick of time. In the earlier draft when she was a psycho abused killer, it was her parents that destroyed her, but this has more emotional punch. Queue our theme reinforcement – You can’t outrun who you are (and trying to do so will have dire consequences). In this case, she’s trying to outrun the memory of murdering her children – but they get her in the end. Usually this would be the climax for the whole episode, but I said this was really the A1 story. The main story is about Dean getting Sam to join forces, so we move on to…
All is Lost
(39:50 / p.55) The coordinates in Dad’s journal show their next destination – but Sam REFUSES (Refusal of Return). He wants to return to STASIS – but that’s not an actual “return” because if he does that, his journey will have been for nothing. It’s like Hercules going home after doing just some of his Labours. Sorry Sam, your destiny awaits. (Script Change: Originally Dean had no leads for their dad’s whereabouts so he said he was going back to their old house, but Sam choosing to go home DESPITE the lead is a stronger choice). Alas, Stasis wins. Sam still rejects being a hunter, rejects the theme. Uh oh Sam, uh oh. Guess we’re going to have to get drastic. Dean takes him home. Parting is such sweet … ah screw it! Let’s have a –
Second Climax – the climax of the episode / Rescue From Without
41:26 – A demon “aids” Sam to get back on his hero track by torching Sam’s girlfriend Jess – just like his mom died! Hello C-story (or D?) again! No Stasis for you Sam. But don’t worry, Dean will save you from the fire (again) in an exact echo of the Teaser.
Resolution / Crossing the Return Threshold
(42:25 / p.59) Sam embraces his hunter roots and his destiny as he loads the shotgun in the Impala with a determined, “We’ve got work to do.”
END ACT IV
Woooo! That was fun! For more fun, let’s see how it stacked up against my Pilot Structure Pie – seeing how each Act and the key moments break down in minutes vs the whole. If the You / Need / Go stages below are unfamiliar, you may know them as Stasis / Catalyst / Cross Threshold depending what structure you like to follow, but check out my Story Structure Basics page and see how they’re all similar.
Link to the pitch: https://twitter.com/therealkripke/status/1093557218346061824?s=21
Great interview with Eric Kripke about writing the pilot: https://spn-freshblood.livejournal.com/569958.html
Link to the pilot script (not the shooting script, still variations with the aired pilot): https://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/Supernatural-1.pdf
Link to the pilot transcript (for those of you not watching it live): http://www.supernaturalwiki.com/1.01_Pilot_(transcript)
Link to the earliest pilot draft (when Sam didn’t know anything about hunting) http://leethomson.myzen.co.uk/Supernatural/Supernatural_1x01_-_Pilot_Draft.pdf