What prompted me to tackle this thorny issue was an incident that recently occurred in the weekly TV spec-writing class I teach for mediabistro.com.
One of my students was writing a spec script of The Office. I won’t go into the plot of his script, but the second act break involved Michael Scott getting fired. Obviously, a bold, dramatic move. It poses dire consequences for every character in the script. And it creates huge conflict within the world of the show. All good elements in creating compelling drama.
It’s also Schmuck Bait.
A sitcom term, “Schmuck Bait” usually refers to plot points that—while potentially explosive and dramatic—actually just do nothing but create false jeopardy. They promise consequences and courses of action that can’t possibly occur.
Firing Michael Scott, for instance,especially in a sample spec script, is certainly “Schmuck Bait,” because no rational reader is ever going to believe that Michael Scott is genuinely going to be fired from Dunder Mifflin. Without Michael Scott, there’s no show… so firing him only creates false jeopardy.
A similar Schmuck Bait might be on, say, 24, if an episode ends with a cliffhanger suggesting Jack Bauer has been killed. Sure, it’s a great cliffhanger, but no one—except maybe a genuine schmuck—is actually going to believe that Jack Bauer, the central character of the entire series, is dead.
Thus, Schmuck Bait is a dramatic twist, or turn of events, that doesn’t tease or “bait” anyone but… well… schmucks.
The problem with Schmuck Bait is that it’s seductively easy to use. I mean, if you’re writing The Office and need a gripping second act break, what could be more riveting than firing the main character?!
But there are two problems with Schmuck Bait. One: it’s false jeopardy. And two: it’s often generic, rarely stemming from the central conflict of the story. I.e., the idea of Michael getting fired could be used in virtually any episode of The Office. It’s totally non-specific. And this is where the solution comes in.
Most people—without even knowing it—turn to Schmuck Bait when they’ve lost sight of their script’s main problem or story engine. If you’re writing a spec for The Office, for instance, in which Michael desperately wants to win an annual Dunder Mifflin award, it would be easy to engineer a schmuck-baiting second act break—the cliffhanger in which all seems lost—where his shenanigans get him fired. But the driving force of your spec is Michael’s desire to win the award, not keep his job, so the cliffhanger should pertain directly to his current desire. I.e., it should be a moment in which Michael thinks he has lost all chances of winning the award. Losing his job is certainly dramatic, but not only is it unbelievable, it has nothing to do specifically with your story.
A less schmuck-baity second act break might be Michael losing the one account that would allow him to win. Or learning someone else is announced as the winner. Or withdrawing from the contest. You can choose whatever it is… as long as it’s something that could actually happen in the course of the series… and is also a logical extension of the central conflict.
So next time you’re worrying whether or not you’re incorporating Schmuck Bait, take a look at your script’s central premise. Ask yourself: “what’s the worst possible outcome of this particular premise?” Is it Michael Scott losing a contest? Terrorist’s killing Jack Bauer’s important prisoner? Meredith Grey’s favorite patient dying? This answer should guide you in the right direction.
Because when you try using Schmuck Bait, the only one who ends up looking like a schmuck… is you.