Table of Contents
- What is a Police Procedural?
- The 10 Essential Steps to Writing a Police Procedural
- 1. Do Your Research
- 2. Interesting Protagonist(s)
- 3. Equally as Interesting Antagonist(s)
- 4. Setting
- 5. Point Of View
- 6. The Set Up
- 7. The Interaction between Protagonist and Antagonist
- 8. Make the Police Procedure Complex and Challenging
- 9. Adding a Deeper Connection between The Protagonist and The Case
- 10. Focus on Pace
- In Conclusion
- In Summary
What is a Police Procedural?
A police procedural is a sub-genre of the police drama. It’s also often referred to as an inverted detective story or a ‘howcatchem‘. Police procedural scripts highlight the investigative procedure of the police department and/or officer who acts as the main protagonist.
This differs from a ‘whodunnit‘, which emphasises finding out who committed the crime through uncovering the mystery. A police procedural often starts with a crime committed by our antagonists, so we know straight away who we’re looking for.
The police procedural is about coming along for the ride with the police as they investigate the criminals. It takes a traditional crime drama and uses a different structure to change how we see the narrative. It can allow for a more complex experience than a straightforward murder mystery and often favors in-depth characterisation.
The 10 Essential Steps to Writing a Police Procedural
Most police procedural scripts follow similar steps to ensure they are as entertaining, captivating and thrilling as possible.
Three examples that excellently highlight the importance of these 10 essential steps are:
- 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, the Spike Lee joint following an African-American detective setting out to infiltrate and expose the local Ku Klux Klan group.
- Heat (1995), the Michael Mann film following the conflict between an LAPD officer and a career thief. In this, a game of cat and mouse ensues, taking a toll on both their professional and personal lives.
- Fargo (1996), directed by the Coen brothers, which follows police chief, Marge. She investigates homicides due to a botched kidnapping ploy by car salesman Jerry, who is seeking to extort money from his wealthy father-in-law.
Let’s look at how 10 essential steps can help you create a cleverly crafted police procedural script, and how these examples use them in their storytelling. Spoilers ahead!
1. Do Your Research
Before writing anything, it’s imperative to do some screenplay research to accurately portray a police investigation. Most of what audiences know about the police is from films and TV. So by using factual, realistic police techniques, your screenplay will be much more believable.
Moreover, proper research will free you from relying on tropes or cliches and consequently lead to more originality. It might also lead you to unique characters, storylines, settings or plot ideas. Truth is typically stranger than fiction after all.
Research takes time, but it’s worth it in the end. Luckily, there are plenty of different resources to find useful information to use in your script:
- Movies / TV shows/ Documentaries
- Books and memoirs
- YouTube videos
- Visiting police stations
- Interviewing/talking with police or detectives
Seeing how real-life investigations operate will help you craft a more realistic script. However, it’s still the job of the writer to make the characters that use those police techniques actually interesting. Don’t rest on your laurels.
2. Interesting Protagonist(s)
Police procedurals that follow one detective need to make this detective wholly complex. Both through their professional and personal lives, often our protagonists are troubled and/or deeply consumed in their work.
A typical cliche is that this is the source of their trouble in their personal lives. It’s a cliche though because it works. It helps to add layers to a typical by-the-books cop and to flesh them out as a human beyond their job role.
Our protagonist is who we follow along for the ride. The person we trust most in the whole entire story. So they need to be interesting, relatable and complex. Let’s look at how our three films portray captivating protagonists:
- Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman is the first African-American detective in his Colorado police department. Therefore he is fighting not only racism in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, but the prejudice and challenges against him personally.
- Lt Vincent Hanna is an eccentric yet brilliant LAPD officer in Heat. His troubled relationship with his ex-wife and estranged daughter is a result of his extreme commitment to his work. This gives his character layers and internal conflict because the deeper he dives into catching thief Neil McCauley, the more his relationships seem to fade away from him.
- In Fargo, pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson appears shy and timid on the surface but is really an expert and ruthless police officer who excels at her job. She has a sweet home life that lies in stark contrast with the harsh world she deals with doing her job.
An interesting protagonist is vital to separating your screenplay from every other run of the mill police script. And it’s important to resist the typical grizzled detective in favour of a nuanced, original character.
3. Equally as Interesting Antagonist(s)
In BlacKkKlansman, our main antagonist is Grand Wizard David Duke and his racist followers whom Ron Stallworth is actively trying to take down.
- Duke is a powerful antagonist because he is constantly proven to be stupid, arrogant and blindingly ignorant but holds influence and power.
- Moreover, racism in wider society becomes the antagonist of the story too. So the stakes are very high.
Heat‘s main antagonist Neil McCauley is complex because crime has been his entire life. So he struggles to live normally when given the chance. McCauley lives by the motto:
“Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”
This means he can never commit to a true relationship, and no amount of money he steals can ever fill that void. Therefore, when he falls for Eady, an internal struggle ensues.
Fargo has a multitude of antagonists.
- The two criminals tasked with the kidnapping, Carl and Gaear, are ruthlessly, unnecessarily violent, always at the wrong times.
- Both are brash and indecisive and struggle to work together, creating a lively dynamic between the two.
However, Jerry Lundegaard, our main antagonist, is the most compelling out of all.
- Jerry is completely inexperienced with committing serious crimes.
- He never knows when to overstep and be authoritative. He doesn’t even want to know all the details of the plan.
- He’s a coward and borderline sociopath who tries to have his own wife kidnapped for money.
- Jerry is not only captivating but a painfully comedic antagonist that ultimately creates pathos.
The environment and world you create needs to be just as creative as your characters. If your environment is uninspired and unimportant, then the characters lose any realism they had.
Setting and character need to work in unison together. They should complement each other. For example…
- Set in 1970s Colorado, which is racist despite the strides the anti-racism movement has made, BlacKkKlansman‘s setting is hostile and confrontational, creating tension and high stakes. The civil rights groups constantly have to fight for what they believe in against oppression and violence.
- The cold, wintery setting of Fargo, North Dakota feels desolate in the landscapes, yet populated in its intimate and warm small towns. The sky and the snow match colour, making for an atmosphere that engulfs the audience.
- The bustling Los Angeles is always crowded, giving the overwhelming feeling that our criminals could be hiding anywhere. It gives this sense that another crime is taking place right around the corner.
Having an exciting world can propel both the tension your audience feels, and help craft your characters as more realistic and grounded in your screenplay.
5. Point Of View
By showing our antagonist‘s perspective, we either:
- detest them and their actions more
- understand where their actions stem from
- see the true threat they pose.
Often when we show both perspectives of our characters in the screenplay, similarities between the two begin to appear. The line between good and bad starts to become increasingly blurred, making for a more compelling and interesting script overall.
Showing us a different perspective from just the ‘good guys’ is a great way to play around with how you structure your narrative. By revealing clues sooner than others, you can really shift the way the audience sees the story.
We begin to put ourselves in the position of the characters, which is vital for captivating an audience. Or seeing the antagonist‘s point of view demystifies them, making them seem more pathetic in their actions.
6. The Set Up
Police procedurals often start with the crime being committed first, making us instantly connect with the antagonist. It establishes their motives early on in the script and gives them more depth. This makes their threat more convincing and palpable, therefore raising the stakes for the protagonist.
- In Fargo, we don’t meet our protagonist Marge until a while into the film. We’ve already established the cruel world of the crimes being committed and then we go to Marge and her more wholesome life. This establishes a stark contrast.
- BlacKkKlansman opens with a shot of Dr Kennebrew Beauregard delivering a racist hate speech. This sets the stakes high, giving us a clear idea of the hate the protagonist has to fight against.
- And Heat begins with our antagonists pulling off a heist. This demonstrates their skill and professionalism, showing what the protagonist is up against.
Opening with a gripping incident whilst also setting up the story is one of the best ways to establish setting, introduce characters and compel the audience into sticking around. It’s one of the most important parts of the script, so it needs to be engaging and tense. Set the stakes high and pull the audience in.
7. The Interaction between Protagonist and Antagonist
Where two worlds collide. The interaction between your protagonist and antagonist can be one of the most compelling and tense scenes in the entire screenplay. It’s where anything could happen, where both characters surrender themselves to each other’s company.
Some of the best scenes where opposites finally meet include:
- Clarice meeting Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
- Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley meeting in a bustling restaurant in Heat.
- Batman interrogating the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Adding an interaction between your protagonist and antagonist in your police procedural script is a great way to show their personalities and how they act in pressured situations. This adds a side to them the audience hasn’t seen before.
This scene can be a showpiece, putting together two characters that we’ve anticipated meeting throughout the story. It’s where a clash of ideals can take place and where the protagonist or antagonist finds something new out about each other or themselves.
Moreover, as the above examples demonstrate, it can be a great opportunity for the actors to flex their muscles. And this can be a great asset for your screenplay to have.
8. Make the Police Procedure Complex and Challenging
As we see the crimes being committed, there’s no complexity and mystery as to the exact how – this would be a ‘whodunnit‘.
However, the journey the police take and the clues they use still have to be compelling and puzzling enough to show how skilled the investigators really are. The audience needs to feel invested in the mystery that the characters are uncovering, even if we know the outcome already. Furthermore, it helps ground our protagonists as actual police officers who essentially don’t know it all.
An uninteresting or simple investigation that the audience can solve early is going to leave them bored and unsatisfied – even if your characters are great. If we know the who, the gripping aspects will be in the why and how.
Truly challenge your protagonist. This has to feel like the steepest test they have probably ever faced in their career. This justifies its presence at the centre of the story and why we are watching in the first place.
9. Adding a Deeper Connection between The Protagonist and The Case
It’s essential in your police procedural script to give layers to the protagonist(s). An easy way of doing this is to give them an ulterior motive to solving the case. A deeper reason, something often personal, that drives them to catch the criminal. For example…
- In BlacKkKlansman, Ron feels the responsibility of fighting racism on his shoulders, making us root for his character even more. He also has to wrestle with his identity as a police officer, being that he has to lie to the civil rights group he goes undercover at.
- Al Pacino’s character, Lt Hanna, has a failing marriage due to his commitment to catching criminals like Neil McCauley. Therefore it could be argued that every case he takes on is personal, because it’s constantly ruining his relationships with everyone else – evident by his three previous divorces.
- Fargo’s Marge Gunderson is pregnant and therefore doesn’t want to bring a baby into the world where senseless violent crimes against civilians are being committed. Again, this makes every case she takes personal. She has a wider concern of the motivations and actions of people in the world she’s bringing a child into.
All three of the main protagonists have both an external and internal struggle, something personal in the case to them. This makes the journey we take with them that much more complex, as pursuing one struggle often impacts the other simultaneously.
What separates forgettable police characters from those we are compelled to watch is the personal story. How their work and personal lives tangle together is a great way of adding personality and conveying a whole range of emotions springing from the detective work.
10. Focus on Pace
A good police procedural script focuses on both the protagonist and antagonist‘s arc, by switching back and forth between them. But if one narrative is stronger and more interesting than the other, when you switch to the latter, the audience will become bored and long for you to go back.
It’s vital that each narrative arc has interesting events, no matter how small, to keep the audience engaged and maintain a great pace. They could be:
- Discovering a new clue
- A new crime scene
- Pursuing a new lead
- New aspects to either the protagonist or antagonist revealed
- A mistake the criminals have made
- A twist in the tale
It could be as big as an officer revealed to be working for the opposition for example, or as small as a fingerprint on a phone. Adding vital events in your police procedural script is essential to keeping the pace of the entire narrative captivating, interesting and most of all, entertaining.
Don’t substitute any part of the procedure when writing a police procedural script. Creating an outline of how everything works together is a great way of starting a well-rounded script. Everything should work in unison to build a cohesive world, with creative characters and an interesting narrative that will keep the audience hooked from start to finish.
Films like BlacKkKlansman, Heat and Fargo were all written with a grounded reality at the forefront. Then, it’s up to the imagination of the writers to populate that world with compelling characters and surprising storylines.
With a police procedural, you can create a whole range of interesting characters to play around with; from good cops to gangsters, to unwilling criminals. They can all have different backgrounds, motivations and personalities. Use the freedom of not having to reveal the plot (the who of the crime) to explore the depth of the story world and characters.
Police procedurals are an opportunity to tell a detective story with a wider thematic reach. They’re not just about the crime itself, but everything that surrounds it. They can explore an array of new possibilities that a standard police drama can’t. So lean into the satisfying complexity that a police procedural can bring and make your detective story stand out.
A police procedural is a sub-genre of a police drama. Police procedural scripts highlight the investigative procedure of the police department and/or officer who acts as the main protagonist. This differs from a ‘whodunnit‘, which emphasises finding out who committed the crime. A police procedural often starts with a crime committed by our antagonists, so we know straight away who we’re looking for and focus instead on the how and why rather than the who.
There are 10 essential steps to writing a police procedural script:
1. Do Your Research
2. Create Interesting Protagonist(s)
3. Create equally as Interesting Antagonist(s)
4. Lean into the Setting
5. Establish and Play With the Point of View
6. Nail the Setup
7. Include Protagonist and Antagonist Interaction
8. Make the Police Procedure Complex and Challenging
9. Create a Deeper Connection Between the Protagonist and the Case
10. Focus on Pace
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