8 Screenwriting Lessons from “Halt and Catch Fire”

If I were an executive over at AMC, I’d be a little nervous.  What, with Mad Men and Breaking Bad all wrapping up, and to mention the producers of The Walking Dead talking about moving the show more towards a Cop Rock vibe and all.

It’s a general truism for we in the screenwriting class (or at least, true enough) that nervous suits with greenlight powers often make bad, bad decisions, badly, but I can personally assure you that AMC’s new show Halt and Catch Fire is not one of them.  From a screenwriterly angle especially.

It’s set in the early 1980’s, and follows a handful of computer engineers, programmers, and salesmen, in their quest to release a game-changing personal computer before giants like IBM can snuff them out.  That sound you hear isn’t your hard drive stuttering; it’s my computer club kid heart skipping a beat.

I’m 8 episodes in, (and I’m digging it. Mostly) so if you’re gonna watch it, you might wanna skip my post below, as it’s sure to contain a bunch of SPOILERS, or mildly spoiling elements.  If you’re caught up with the show, slap a quarter on my Donkey Kong, and let me give you my two cents on where it goes right, and where it goes wrong, from a screenwriting angle.

First, the good stuff, AKA elements of the OS that are user-friendly AKA the good screenwriting learned from the show:

Good screenwriters are good students and observers

First off, one of Halt‘s many strengths its incredibly accurate portrayal of that burgeoning PC era, no easy feat for any screenwriter of any era.  The writers on this show? They’ve got all the terminology right, all the dialogue, all the engineering. I can verify that, for what it’s worth.  (A little after this show’s current episode took place, I was getting into my first Atari 800XL, and I can assure you, the lingo and the concerns facing the engineers on the show connect at a solid, glorious 300 baud.)

And it’s not just the tech they got right. They got the 80s right, (as well as they could with what’s presumably a limited, first-season budget).  And I’m not talking about art direction; I’m talking about writing a Speak-and-Spell into the show, Cabbage Patch Kids, people referring to cell phones as “carphone thingies, ” and attitudes towards women in the workplace (Mad Men showed it well, but who knew sexism continued into the 80’s!?) (Please read my sarcasm there.)

Further adding to the realistic backdrop of the show is the use of real companies, like IBM, Texas Instruments, Commodore, Microsoft, and names like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the like.  The show’s writing simply nails the era, and nails that “early PC” space.  Details, my writer pals.  Details turn the written page, and so too the world.

Good characters make choices

Joe MacMillan, played by Lee Pace, is a character that sets the entire series in motion with a big, bold choice: He backs the company into a corner and plays them like a fiddle.  The next day, they have no choice but to ditch their entrenched, corporate ways and step forward into an unknown market.

Gordon Clark, played by Scoot McNairy the engineer he convinces to build the prototype, steps up to the plate, even having suffered his a big personal failure just a few years previous when he tried to build and market his own cutting-edge computer.

Cameron Howe, played by Mackenzie Davis, drops out of college to pursue the idea of building a computer that will revolutionize everything.

These three characters’ choices set the series in motion, and their subsequent choices are often equally as bold. While, yes, there are few mealy-mouthed /domestic / who-cares? moments, for the most part, these characters are strong, because they choose. And the series, like Mad Men, is strongest when it keeps its characters in a tight orbit around the workplace.

The best characters need something from other characters

As a result of their choices, these three are unified towards a single task, despite serious conflict between/amongst them.  Joe needs Cameron to write the software, but wants to keep her at a distance romantically.  Cameron wants Joe romantically, but can’t articulate it in terms the cold, manipulative Joe can relate to, so ends up blustering /coding herself away from him, but they both ultimately seem to need each others’ company in an off-kilter way.

Gordon the engineer needs this project to succeed as a way to purge his failure demons from the previous project, and prove to his wife, kids, and wife’s family that he can put something beautiful and practical into the world.  And he needs Joe to shake open doors and grease the palms, but what’s great is, for the most part, he can’t stand the way he does it.

The three characters reside in a finely-crafted web of desire and dependence, which only heightens the conflict gives us three interesting peeps to track.  And that comes in handy when any one of the characters goes off on a not-so-good screenwriting tangent (such as the ones I’ll describe below)

Strong, smart female characters make strong, smart shows

Finally, Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t shy away from the female contribution to the 1980’s nascent PC market, which was (and in many ways still is) an infamously male-dominated, chauvinist space.  Gordon’s wife Donna Clark, played by Kerry Bishé, saves the day in a big way, several times over, with a deep and wide computer engineering skillset usually reserved in cinema for the faux-nerdy guy or the  condescending male uber-genius with an ironic t-shirt draped over his rolls of fat, sucking on a 2-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper.

And of course Cameron herself is portrayed as a coding auteur; the best in her new field, and a visionary, if perhaps not quite knowing how to articulate that vision.  Wow!  Complex female characters who make choices and drive the action forward.  The show is a must-watch for that reason alone.

And now, the bugs in the code.  Not major, but could sure use some reprogramming.  Here’s some cautionary screenwriting lessons learned from Halt and Catch Fire:

Backstories tend to be less entertaining than frontstories

Woe is me. Joe, our  Jobs/PT Barnum main character, has scars. Turns out, it’s because his mom pushed him off a roof when she was on drugs.  Or encouraged him to fly.  Or something. And now Dad works for IBM. And Dad got Joe a job at IBM, but Joe had some sort of crazed meltdown and smashed up a server room. Again with the “or something.”

And Cameron’s dad, get this, was killed in Viet Nam, and she doesn’t wanna talk about it.

A huge writing mistake: characters whose backstories seem more interesting than their frontstories.

Five bucks says the next season (if there is one) opens with a flashback, showing Joe smash up that IBM server room a few years ago.

But I’m honestly hoping they skip that entirely, because the story Joe’s currently in will prove to be so utterly amazing and fantastic and involving, that there simply won’t be time to show the backstory, which really doesn’t matter anyway.

Bottom line: a cheap way of giving your character depth is to give them an ambiguous backstory and have them “Not wanna talk about it.”  But seriously, who in real life ever brings up a painful backstory and doesn’t want to talk about it?

Characters are stronger without a safety net

The stakes of nearly every Halt and Catch Fire script are pretty clear – the team needs to get this PC to market before the company runs out of money and the characters implode from all the building conflict they’ve been nurturing.

But when it comes to the stakes of two of the main characters, there’s a lot to be desired, and hopefully they can improve on this stuff for the next season.

Take Joe Macmillan.  He’s the visionary sales guy greasing the palms and making all the right corporate moves. But while his exploits are super 80s and fun to watch, we’re told and shown pretty early in the series that his estranged dad is a big muckety-muck at IBM, and is loaded.  Oh, and wants desperately to be back in touch with his son.

That leaves us with the uncanny sense that if Joe fails, he’s, uh, got dad and IBM to fall back on.  His dad even offers him a new position at IBM in one of the later episodes.

If Joe can fail and still land on his feet, they’z ain’t no stakes. Flat out.  Flat steaks.

Similarly, Gordon’s wife Donna is on the verge of leaving him.  But when the darkest of the 8-bit poo hits the fan… aw shucks, she’ll stand by her man.

Without more severe consequences, these characters’ travails often come of as first world problems, especially so when set against the backdrop of the nascent PC industry.

Watch out for dumb executive script notes

And how ’bout these lines of code that could use debugging?

– Cameron stealing car keys and house keys over an insult reported by a kid, then breaking and entering into a house with a can of spray paint, bent on revenge?

– John leaning on his good ole boy connections to have Joe beat to a pulp by the local sheriff?

Me, I can’t help but think these are the results of some new, hack executive blood that AMC had recruited to shepherd the show.  You can almost hear the hacky-poo-poo notes making the show’s writers cringe:

“Have John sic the sheriff on Joe and beat the crap out of him.  Good for the trailer. They’ll Tweet about it and that’s what we need.  Oh, and show how edgy Cameron is by having her break into Gordon’s house with a can of spray paint. But she doesn’t use it. Aces!”

If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s don’t chase sexy notes in the name of sexing up your show!  Or, (and I’m giving these folks the benefit of the doubt and assuming these Microsoft Windows blue-screen-of-death script moments weren’t the result of bad executive notes), at the very least don’t try to arbitrarily sex up your show. If you want to sex it up, do it organically.  Give us a set up for Joe’s amorous encounter with the bearded butler that lets us buy it more, rather than just going for a first season shockaroo for shockaroo’s sake.  Paint the need more clearly for John to have Joe beat up by the sheriff, rather than just ratcheting up the heat with the big boss, Cardiff, and then assuming we’ll make the connection.

Character relationships are better when they grow naturally

Don’t get me wrong. I love the character of John Bosworth (played by Toby Huss) as the firebrand Texas gladhander from the old school, and I love how he resists, severely, the notion of shifting the business towards the PC market and the future, and then ends up growing to embrace it.

But one scene between him and Cameron and a couple of drinks (even with the hacking embezzling / sacrifice development later) doesn’t add up, for me, to Cameron making a stop at his house, let alone crying and hugging the sonofabitch on their way to Comdex.

The beauty of a TV series is its time.  It’s not a two hour film, so you can take the time to build great characters. Granted, the show probably wasn’t given carte blanche and had to do a lot of heavy lifting, fast, in order to prove to the suits that it could find an audience.  But don’t forget: the reason we get hooked to these shows to begin with is not whether or not they get along, or not whether they can make us cry tears of joy (HBO’s The Newsroom excepted, as it’s in its own bizarre category), but whether or not we find their relationship interesting.

All and all, I’m digging this show, mostly. Now if they can just make some of these clunky, Windows-esque bug fixes, I’ll bet you my copy of Zork that this little show will find its way, Macintosh style, into our screenwriter hearts.

4 thoughts on “8 Screenwriting Lessons from “Halt and Catch Fire””

  1. Glorius write up, O’Malley. I’ve been watching since the beginning. I agree, they nail their period, much like MAD MEN. I sincerely believe this takes place in the 80s. The music, the props, the zeitgeists of the era. Interesting point you raise about the tacked on notes; I’ll have to ponder that. I remember how excited I was with the pilot, how the “tech chase” was so exciting, actually deconstructing the code, etc., and then being disappointed in the following episode/s when it goes less tech fun, and more soap opera. But the characters are catching up.

    The ep 8 beat of the wife sticking around (fantastic surprise) I think warrants a giant wait-and-see attitude. To me that moment, and the story about the ring, were so strong and worth their payoff. What it does to stakes, well, they all could be sent to prison at any second. The moment at the house when Cam hugs the man, I thought that was a beautiful SUGGESTION of how far they’d grown to respect each other. It made me believe there was a lot more bonding that happened which I’d not witnessed – in fact, isn’t that how it happens in real life? Go away, come back, two people’s relationships have changed, deduce, extrapolate what must have gone on in your absence. To me it ignite a little journey of imagination, which is always good.

    Re the cop beating, I can see where that’s a bit over the top, but on the other hand, that good ol’ boy money boss, he scares the bejeebus out of me, and this felt very consistent with his character. So I bought it.

    Look most forward to the next two episodes. Great post, Bri.

  2. Thanks John! True, Donna sticking around / the decoder ring angle was a nice surprise. And yeah, Cardiff himself is a scary, if not cartoony, millionaire heavy. Re: the bonding between Cam and John – it IS how it happens in real life, I agree, but I reckon I was just having difficulty tracking how they bonded to each other. I remember a scene with Cam and John at night in their office, and prior to that, not much else. But perhaps you’re right – the suggestion / off-screen-ness of the bonding might be enough. Me too, re: looking forward to the next ones. Good fun! Thanks for the insights!

  3. Question – did you binge watch them all at once? I’ve been watching it weekly, and I find that can make a difference in the illusion in how much character simmering has transpired. Since I watch MAD MEN live, between the first episode and the last of the season, you feel like you’ve lived a Life Time, primarily because so much actual time has gone by. CATCH is having that effect one me, as it’s being slowly fed to me. (Though I did watch the first half all at once, I admit, as I’d been away from my DVR for so long.)

  4. I watched ’em in a batch of 2, then 3, then 2, then 1. You’re right. Binge watching might be the hitch. The thing is, I like watching on the ole projector, and firing up the projector for a 44 minute episode feels like I’m burning that lamp faster than I would if I’d do 3 episodes at a time. I just might have to pace them out though and see if that helps me enjoy them more. (And by the way, file this under “First World Problems.”)


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