Thriller Structure In TV: Scorpion

UP IN FLAMES

Have you ever watched the show Scorpion? Whether you like it or not, you can’t overlook its perfect thriller structure. It’s a quirky, yet heart-thumping, series about five geniuses who contract their services with the FBI.

In every episode they get themselves into a world of hurt, but also end up victorious. Last night, I was watching the show. As I perched on the edge of my seat I couldn’t help but notice its perfect thriller structure. Immediately, I thought this fine example of story structure would make a great post.

Meet the Characters

All the characters are well fleshed out, with backstories and flaws woven in flawlessly. Walter leads the group, Scorpion. He’s an off-the-charts genius and the main protagonist. But Walter has trouble connecting with people. He’s so smart, too smart, that he can’t understand human emotions, or why people lead with their hearts and not with logic. In his mind, it doesn’t make sense. Little by little with each week, Walter begins to see the error of his ways (character arc), and it’s all because of Paige.

Paige is a single mom to a genius boy, Ralph. For years she believed her son was autistic. Early on in the series she worked as a waitress, busting her hump to send her son to doctors and keep food on the table. When Walter was called into the diner to solve some dramatic attack (I forget what it was) he immediately became smitten with Paige, and he realized Ralph wasn’t autistic. He’s a genius, like Walter. Because of his fascination with Ralph and his feelings for Paige, he hired Paige to show the team how to connect with “average” folks. Paige is the face of Scorpion. And, I might add, gets paid a ridiculously huge salary to keep everyone in line. She’s secretly in love with Walter, but because of her past relationships, is afraid to act on it.

Cabe is the FBI agent who acts as liaison between the team and the government. He’s known Walter since childhood, when Walter hacked into NASA at, like, six years old. He plays the father figure. But don’t think for a second he doesn’t have flaws of his own. For instance, he thinks he’s bulletproof; he’s going through a mid-life crisis, and he holds many dark secrets.

Happy is an Asian girl who can fix anything, climb anywhere, and has an incredible mind for constructing quick fixes. Happy she is not. If anything “Grumpy” would fit her personality better. Happy fears abandonment, getting too close to people, and is very much a little girl at heart. Still, she’s lovable, as they all are.

Sylvester is an overweight genius whose mind computes figures like no other. But Sylvester has every phobia and anxiety issue under the sun, and each episode seems to strike at one or all of his flaws. That poor guy has hung off the side of buildings, almost drowned, almost got blown-up, and had to go undercover in a maximum security federal prison. For a germ-a-phobe, that was a nightmare!

Unlike Sylvester, Happy, and Walter, Toby is a genius who has his PhD in psychology. So he sees behind the veil of people’s false façade and is overly in touch with his feelings. He loves Happy and Happy loves him, but because of her flaws, she resists his advances while Toby will do anything to win her love. Which often gets him into trouble.

New this season they’ve added Ray. Ray is about as far as you can get from a genius. Born from midget (is that the proper term these days?) parents, I suspect, Ray is a down-to-earth dude who thinks Walter is his best friend. Ray has a childlike way of viewing the world, so Paige believes Ray is good for Walter. She hopes Ray will show him the other side of the tracks, so to speak. Since Walter always takes Paige’s advice, he allows Ray to live in his RV, parked inside Scorpion headquarters. Ray has no trouble showing his feelings, either. He dances (badly), makes stupid (but hilarious) comments, and always seems to break something important. He’s a walking disaster. The perfect addition to the team.

Did you notice there wasn’t one character without flaws?

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*SPOILER ALERT*

The Structure of Last Night’s Episode, entitled Crazy Train

We start with Toby — again trying to prove to Happy that he’s man enough for her — throwing himself in a boxing ring with a muscle-bound hulk. Toby believes he’ll “get in his head” and win her love. But Happy is the only one of the team members who doesn’t show. Good thing too, because Toby gets knocked out in seconds.

Then we see Walter in Ray’s RV, admiring a photo with a service medal draped over the frame. When he tries to touch it, Ray snaps at him to put it down. Very uncharacteristic of Ray, so we know something’s up with that photo. But they won’t tell us…yet.

Then we see Paige and Ralph board a train with another boy and his mother. And we know trouble will soon follow. (Setup) They’re going on an outing to complete a school project. The boy (a cool kid) wishes he didn’t get stuck with Ralph (a nerd) as his lab partner. Minutes into the ride someone sabotages the train and sends it barreling down the tracks — a runaway train. There’s no way out. (First Plot Point at exactly 15 min into the show — the 25% mark)

Panicked, Paige calls Walter and the team for help. But when Walter hacks into the system to remotely take control of the train he quickly realizes the magnitude of the situation. The bad guy (antagonist) took precautions to ensure this couldn’t be stopped. The DOT recalls all trains to the station to clear the tracks for the runaway train.

The team tries and fails, tries and fails. Until Happy comes up with the idea to pour chicken grease on the tracks so the train won’t smash into the tunnel wall when it takes the corner.  Which works…for now.

But the train won’t stop. It won’t slow. Paige and Ralph will die if they don’t do something quick.

Happy discovers old tunnels off the tracks that run through the business district and by the airport. The bad guy must be planning to use the tunnels, which is why he wants the tracks clear. Oh no, a terrorist attack! The team charges to the airport and low and behold someone dug a hole in the floor of the vault. A vault where there was a collection of rare gold coins worth millions. (First look into the antagonist force — Pinch Point #1, exactly 37.5% mark) The hole leads to the tunnels. And, of course, the team jumps in.

They find the antagonist limping through the tunnels. Because he twisted an ankle, they manage to stop him. Uh-oh, he’s got a partner who still has control of the train.

Knowing there’s only one way to save his beloved Paige and Ralph, Walter dives onto the side of the speeding train to take it over manually (Midpoint Shift at 30 min. in, exactly halfway). But the train’s coming up on a junction box and the window is made with tempered glass. He can’t get inside. If they don’t do something fast, he’ll die in 5 seconds (Ticking clock).

Whew, Paige smashes the window in the nick of time.

Walter devises a plan to manually stop the train by switching a lever. But the bad guy snapped off the handle!

Are you seeing the pattern here? Two steps forward, one step back. Action, action, and more action. No one stands around and musing about the situation. They ACT. Obstacle after obstacle, they’re always moving forward. Sound familiar? Please also note there’s no saggy middle because they keep hitting their milestones. Let’s continue.

There’s only one thing left to do. If the train continues straight, they’ll all die. They need to switch tracks; it’s their only hope.

While Walter hacks the system again he needs Paige to hang out the train with an umbrella and flip the switch on the tunnel wall as they speed by. Happy is screaming from the car that it won’t work. The train is moving too fast. Sylvester is beside himself, hands cradling his head, all of his anxieties kicking into overdrive. Toby tries to rationalize the situation, which no one wants to hear.

Wind whipping her hair, Paige leans out the train….and then drops the umbrella. In seconds they’ll all die! Wait. Who’s that on the tracks? It’s Happy charging straight at the train. At the last possible moment she lunges for the switch, flipping it in the nick of time. The train veers onto the new track.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll all survive. No one’s safe yet. The tracks aren’t finished. It’s a dead end. If they stay the course, they’ll crash.

Meanwhile, Cabe and Toby try to convince the bad guy to rat on his partner, who’s raising the stakes even more with his maniacal plan. We see a cut away scene with this partner at his computer, punching the keys, ensuring the train goes up in flames. (Second Pinch Point at 5/8th mark, or 62.5 %)

Walter tells everyone, including Paige and Ralph, to move to the front car. He plans to separate the cars, and then hop into the front car with Paige and Ralph. After he disconnects the cars, he’ll have 10 seconds. But as Paige and Ralph watch through the back window, Walter waves goodbye. He’s willing to sacrifice himself to save the ones he loves. (Second Plot Point at exactly 45 min., or 75%)

Walter’s train car crashes into the tunnel wall, crumbling into a hunk of metal. OMG, he’s dead! (All is Lost Moment)

Meanwhile, Cabe and Toby force the first bad guy into a trunk. Toby uses psychology against him by sticking the trunk in the car and rocking it side-to-side to simulate driving. Once back on the ground they clang shovels together and sprinkle cereal over the top. Thinking they’re burying him alive, the buy guys tells them where to find his partner. Cabe and Toby speed to his apartment, where Cabe kicks in the door. Punches fly. He’s not going down without a fight! (Climax) It was more exciting than that, but I’m short on space.

But what about Walter? At the last minute he leaped from the car by a wire and is hanging in the tunnel by one hand.

Now safely on the ground, Paige runs to him — and slaps him across the face. Pure emotion displayed on the screen with all kinds of hidden messages but most importantly, it shows her undying love for Walter.

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The nice thing about this show is that it utilizes all forms of storytelling, like Mirror Moments, Bookends, and so forth. A few minutes before the end we hear about the boy (who was stuck with Ralph as his lab partner earlier) calling him for a playdate. In the boy’s mind, Ralph is now a hero. Also, we discover the reason Happy didn’t show for Toby’s big boxing match was because she was trying her hand at stand-up comedy, which Toby overanalyzes as her way of dealing with her feelings for him. And, of course, we discover who was in the picture in Ray’s RV and hear the touching story behind it.

Each episode leaves you with a satisfying conclusion, a resolution. We’ve laughed, panicked, chewed our nails in horror, rejoiced at the protagonist(s) victory, swooned hearing the heartwarming stories, and then walked away complete. In some episodes they leave one unanswered questions, which they’ll wrap up later. And sometimes they tie it all in a nice, neat bow like they did in this episode. Either way, it’s one helluva a wild ride, a vicarious experience, and a memorable show.

Sounds like a kickass thriller to me. How about you? Have you ever seen the show?

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About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She lives in rural New Hampshire where she's surrounded by wildlife...bear, moose, deer, even mountain lions have been spotted. Course, Sue would love to snuggle with the animals, but her husband frowns on the idea.

14 Comments

  1. Not having watched the show made your analysis even better for me! A fascinating example of perfect structure at work. I’m bookmarking this for future reference – and making a point to buy some Scorpion DVDs 🙂
    Nicholas C. Rossis recently posted…Political Machinations in Ancient Greece: An Interview by Celine JeanjeanMy Profile

    • Thank you, Nicholas! I just learned why Scorpion has perfect structure. Art Holcomb, who often guest posts on Storyfix (Larry Brook’s site), was part of the development team who launched the show. Art is a master storyteller. Not sure if you have the same channels as us, but it’s on CBS. Oh, and Netflix. Enjoy!

  2. This is one of the best posts I’ve seen in years. I admit to being an outliner, and trying to use structure in my stories. It’s one of those things that a story needs, just like characters, plot, and setting.

    I don’t have a Facebook site myself, so I haven’t stumbled into the lounge. That is subject to change very soon, and I may join you down the road.
    Craig recently posted…The Idea Mill #16My Profile

  3. Great post, Sue!

    I haven’t seen the show, but I like how you’ve identified the plot points and the fact that all the characters have pretty big flaws. I think that flawed characters are compelling to an audience. Take the new Hawaii 5-0 for instance. The works of them need some major psychotherapy, but it’s still drawing big numbers. Thinking about it, they seem to have the thriller structure down pat.

    And speaking of flawed characters, did you ever watch the TV show “House”? It seemed hugely successful, but I absolutely couldn’t stand the character Hugh Lawry played and wouldn’t watch it because he was such an asshole. But you can’t argue – he had a good run.

    It’d be a real treat to sit in with a group of script-writers when they plan an episode of a show like Scorpion. I’ll bet they map it out just like you analyzed. Good post! Keep ’em coming!
    Garry Rodgers recently posted…LAST WEEK’S REAL GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRALMy Profile

    • I used to love House. Yes, he was an ass, but he also had good qualities, albeit buried deeply. Actually, you’re the second person to mention a show that I’ve liked where the characters were less than likable. I guess that proves that story structure trumps all. Ooh, I would LOVE to sit in on the script writers meetings. How fun!

  4. Thanks for telling me about Scorpion. I just bought the first season an Amazon.
    pauldaleanderson recently posted…Talk to me: tell me what you like or don’t likeMy Profile

  5. I find it really fascinating, Sue, the way you break down this show into its structural parts. I think it’s important that writers keep in mind not just the story they’re telling, but also how it’s put together. Those behind-the-scenes structural elements matter!
    Margot Kinberg recently posted…Road TripMy Profile

    • Thank you, Margot. Lately, it seems I find structure in everything, from TV shows to a leaf or a spider. With books, TV shows, movies, it’s especially important that the story has a strong foundation. Behind-the-scenes, like you say, is sometimes easy to miss when we’re engrossed a fictional world. And, I think, that’s why so many new writers don’t understand the importance of story structure. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of misconceptions while teaching.

  6. Sue, so surprised to see Scorpion used as a model of anything. I have watched enough to appreciate your diagnosis but just haven’t been able to warm to Walter and find Toby’s diagnoses simple-minded and far more consistent with moving the plot along than real life. Happy is so unlikable that I have no patience with the plot stretches to fit her skills in. But my chief problem is Walter- how can any one relate to such an arrogant psycho path? Somehow Leonard Nimoy got the job done and remained likeable. In fact adorable. Cabe brings nothing to the table – neither hero nor especially good guy. I guess I watch now and then because I think the premise is so promising.
    Maybe I’m the wrong demographic because it seems to be attracting viewers. But it raises in my mind the importance of a likeable protagonist. Flawed usually helps – but when the central flaw is lack of empathy, seems to me the writer is facing an impossible task. In the case of Scorpion the writers have the added burden of working in plot points to show off everybody’s talents – hence the credibility stretches. So am I too old for the show or are you just too nice?

    • I definitely see your points, Steve, but you can’t argue with the structure. It’s not that the characters have to be “likable,” but the reader/watcher must be able to “empathize” with them. Sometimes that translates to likability. Sometimes not. Take Hannibal Lector, for instance. He wasn’t a likable character and yet, I kept hoping he’d win because I empathized with his plight (or maybe I just love a great serial killer). Admittedly, there are much better shows on TV these days than Scorpion, but during this episode I had an ah-ha moment, so this is what I chose to showcase.

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