True Detective

IMDB:True Detective

Seasons Type Genre
3- Serial Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
Scene Count
Pilot Screenplay
63 52

Signature Elements

Season Long Case

The most popular crime procedural shows such as CSI, or NCSI, set up and solve murders within the hour episode each week. Sometimes the murder mystery can span several episodes, but never an entire season. Even a show like Criminal Minds, which focuses on serial killers, wraps its murders up within one or two episodes.

True Detectives is a season long mystery spread across decades. The first murder has apparently been solved by Cohle and Hart, but with a new victim twenty years later, it begs the question, did they catch the right guy or is the killer still out there.

The episodes do not follow the familiar formula of giving the audience a death and then solving it before episodes end after going through several suspects and clues. Instead the audience gets a victim, several clues and no conclusion, which makes viewers want to tune into the next episode.

From a writing standpoint, there is a lot more time to work with in developing an interesting case. Instead of one hour, there are eight hours to work with before it needs to be wrapped up. More focus can be put on relationships between characters, clues and the killer could be anyone instead of being shoehorned somewhere in the episode.

Two Different Time Periods

A murder being spread across an entire season is unique enough, but another element used is the two main detectives being interviewed 20 years later on a case similar to the one they solved.

The interview or therapy session is a useful narrative tool to give the audience a look at what drives the main character, but True Detective utilizes it to give us a look into the future. Hart and Cohle are interviewed twenty years later on a case the audience is watching unfold. Usually the sessions happen within the same time frame, but this time gap makes Hart and Cohle almost different characters entirely as they have experienced a lot in twenty years. So not only is there the mystery of what happens with the current case, there is also the mystery of what happened to Cohle and Hart as well as the present day case of the new murder victim.

Main Characters

Martin Hart


36, in better shape and with darker hair.

He’s 56, tall, broad. He has thick gray hair, close-cropped, a hard face. He wears a well-made suit, and there’s a kind of physical intensity in his bearing.

Rustin Cohle


31, smaller, handsome but hard-worn, his shirt and suit disheveled.

51, twenty years older. He hasn’t lost any hair, but it’s streaked with steel gray, wild, unkempt and in need of a trim. He’s leaner. In the intervening years he’s shed pounds and now his cheeks are sunken. He almost looks emaciated, lupine. He’s unshaven, wearing rumpled clothes. Notice covering Cohle’s left inner forearm, a colorful, slightly-faded TATTOO of FLAMES with a PAIR of DICE at their apex.

Other Characters:

Sheriff Tate

49, soft and booze-reddened

Lt. Ken Quesada

3rd Squad Homicide Commander, Company D, late 40’s, chubby, wears a Knights of Columbus Ring he likes to rub.



Character Differences

Rust Cohle

There is a significant difference between how Cohle was written and how he was portrayed.

In the screenplay, Cohle keeps to himself, but isn’t afraid to speak his mind in a superior manner towards everyone, especially people of authority.

In the pilot, Cohle still keeps to himself, but he also doesn’t draw attention to himself. The only time in the pilot where Cohle gets confrontational is when another detective antagonizes him personally.

Comparing the two versions, the pilot version definitely comes off as more sympathetic especially given his backstory.

Location Change

In the screenplay, the setting is Arkansas.
In the pilot, the setting is Louisiana.

Act Breakdown

Both the pilot and screenplay did not have acts.

I have divided the pilot into the standard three acts:
The first act explores the crime scene.
The second act explores the investigation and provides backstory.
The third act explores a specific suspect and leaves a clue for the next episode.

Pilot Screenplay
True Detective
Act 1

A scene of the killer dragging the body and then setting the field on fire is added to start the pilot.
A scene of Cohle pulling up in his car to Hart’s home is added.
A scene of the car driving to the crime scene on the highway is added.
A scene of the car pulling up to the crime scene and the detectives identifying themselves is added.
An additional scene of Cohle describing the victim to Hart is added with dialogue taken from another scene.
A scene of Cohle telling the current day detectives that he and Hart discovered a meta psychotic and that he had to explain the term to Hart is added.
A scene of Cohle walking in the field search is added
A scene of a trooper telling the detectives drag marks have been found is cut.
A scene of Cohle examining the drag marks is cut.
A scene of Cohle telling the sheriff to clear the reporters out because they are wrecking the crime scene is cut.

Main Points:

Hart and Cohle investigate the murder scene of a young girl.



The story for the first act remains generally the same with only a few changes. A main component of the case throughout the pilot is the angel wings attached to the victims back which causes the case to be called the Pine Angel Murder and something Hart and the M.E. spend some time on. With the Angel wings removed, these additional details were dropped.
Cohle is very abrasive and outspoken in the screenplay which leads to clashes with everyone. In the pilot, Cohle is more relaxed and focused on just the case at hand. Hart takes the lead and Cohle respects that, letting him do his thing while he does his.

There are three main changes to the case:
The angel wings are removed and instead, the victim is wearing antlers.
Devil traps are added around the victim, leading to further clues.
The previous missing girl is linked to the new victim.

There is a stark difference in what both current day versions of Hart and Cohle are being interviewed for. Hart’s interview is all about Cohle while Chole’s interview is all about the case. Cohle’s case is the murder while Hart’s case is Cohle.

Show creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga do so much of the heavy lifting with center frame police interview character introductions. Martin Hart is well-dressed, well-fed, seemingly content with his post-law enforcement life. We’re given very little information about his current occupation but a free-wheeling manor and the ease with which he engages authority is evidently proof of a well-lived life.

In contrast, Rust Cohle looks like he might be an inmate. Haggard. Tired. Smoking. Thin and pale. Even the rooms, while Cohle’s room is part interrogation room, part break room, it’s a stark difference to the glass and steel of Hart’s success. Whatever happened back in the day, affected these men differently, as life took diverging paths

“When you attach a conclusion to a case, you look for a pattern and prejudice your evidence.” This is phenomenal. In his book, How the Police Generate False Confessions: An Inside Look at the Interrogation Room, author James L. Trainum outlines the ways attaching conclusions affect police work and subsequently generate unjust outcomes. This line, this wonderful point made by Hart is the basis for most investigative police work on television but fails to address the inherit bias leading to an imbalance in our criminal justice system. To have Hart make the point, then have Cohle refute it with ‘Wait and see…” really encapsulates the dynamic at work here. These are good cops. They do good work. They work hard and take their job seriously. The stack of books at Cohle’s sparse apartment shows he may not have anything but the job.  This further propagandizes Cohle’s character,  while Hart is a good cop, Cohle is next level.



The screenplay is very descriptive of settings and characters. However not a lot of the description carried over to the actual pilot. While I was reading the screenplay, it did give an imaginative view of the writer’s vision, and although I had seen the pilot a long time ago, the screenplay’s imagery was all I could work with, in addition to picturing Harrelson and McConaughey.
So there is a fine line between how descriptive to be and how much it matters. You could describe the perfect scene, but when it comes to practically filming it, it probably won’t come across the same at all.
As writers it is always better to try and write conflict into a scene to keep it interesting. Cohle causes conflict in almost every scene because he cannot get along with other people. Although I see the reason for it, his conflict with everyone was completely removed from the pilot.


End of Act 1: Cohle tells Hart he believes life is meaningless as they drive back from the crime scene.

Script Notes:

In the screenplay, the background behind Hart during the interrogation is of a green plaster wall and a bulletin board. The description gives an overall impression of a very rundown place.
In the pilot, the background behind Hart is the police office hard at work. The look and feel is modern day and nothing seems too rundown compared to the screenplay’s description.

In the screenplay, the interviewer and questions being asked are never heard.
In the pilot, the interviewer and questions are heard.

In the screenplay, after the initial reaction to Cohle being drunk, Hart tells Cohle it will be fine.
In the pilot, Hart answers the door with his daughters and doesn’t say anything. Dialogue is cut.

In the screenplay, Cohle is interviewed in the same background as Hart.
In the pilot, Cohle is interviewed in a different room, possibly the lounge.

In the screenplay, the murder is called the The Pine Angel and Cohle says to thank the Democrat-Gazette for it.
In the pilot, the murder is called The Occult Ritual Murder and Cohle says to thank the Advertizer.

In the pilot, Cohle mentions he had two cases open and shut before this.

In the screenplay, Cohle says the date March 3, 1990 as a voiceover during the next scene.
In the pilot, Cohle says the date Jan 3 1995 during the interrogation scene not as a voiceover.

In the screenplay, the crime scene is in a forest.
In the pilot, the crime scene is in a field but the body still remains next to a tree.

In the screenplay, Hart and Cohle are wearing trench coats.
In the pilot, Hart and Cohle are wearing State Police jackets.

In the screenplay, Rust sees a snake slither away from the crime scene.
In the pilot, there is no snake.

In the screenplay, as they first find the body, there are birds shrieking. There are angel wings glued to the victims back and pentagrams marked on the tree.
In the pilot, there are no birds shrieking. The are no angel wings on the body or pentagrams on the tree. Instead the victim has antlers on her head and there are weird circular symbols on her body.

In the screenplay, the victim’s black skirt is hanging on the tree above her.
In the pilot, there is no skirt hanging on the tree.

In the screenplay, Cohle examines the victim’s face.
In the pilot, Cohle doesn’t move the body or examine her face.

In the screenplay, Cohle and Tate argue about how to handle the scene and which M.E. to call.
In the pilot, only Hart talks to Tate and only one M.E. is called. There is no animosity between the sheriff and the detectives, just an understanding that it is a fucked up case. Cohle does no interact with Tate at all.

In the screenplay, Cohle takes control of the scene and tells everyone to form a grid search. Cohle then calls for back up.
In the pilot, Hart remains in control and orders a grid search and backup. Cohle remains focused on examining the body the entire time.

In the screenplay, there is a deputy present along with the sheriff.
In the pilot, only the sheriff interacts with Hart.

In the pilot, multiple shallow stab wounds is added to the list of injuries.

In the screenplay, Cohle’s nickname is the banker and Hart tells the detectives this during an interview scene.
In the pilot, Cohle’s nickname is the taxman and Hart is heard saying this through a voiceover.

In the pilot, after Hart describes the different type of men, the current day detectives asks what type he is. In what looks like an ad-libbed response, Hart responds just a regular guy with a big dick. The scene has several of the dialogue cut.

In the pilot, while Cohle is examining the body, Hart puts down evidence numbers.

In the screenplay, in addition to being described as very bland with piles of books everywhere, Hart describes Cohle’s department as depressing and rundown.
In the pilot, although Cohle’s department remains bland, his books are piled off to the side and the apartment is very modern and clean.

In the screenplay, Hart talks about how he is glad he settled down.
In the pilot, Hart adds that a certain man without a family could be a bad thing.

In the pilot, Cohle examines devil traps at the crime scene which become key evidence items.

In the screenplay, Hart tells the current day detectives that he learned that Cohle did undercover work.
In the pilot, this part of Cohle’s backstory is cut.

In the pilot, Hart is more positively constructive towards Cohle, telling him not to make assumptions based on just the current evidence.

In the screenplay, Cohle says the victim is a prostitute based on the length of the short skirt.
In the pilot, Cohle says the victim is a prostitute based on her teeth.

In the screenplay, Cohle mentions his daughter has been gone for five years.
In the pilot, this is not mentioned this early.

In the screenplay, the billboard of the missing girl is shown during the conversation between Cohle and Hart. The billboard has no other significance in the screenplay
In the pilot, the billboard of the missing girl is shown at the end of the conversation between Cohle and Hart. The missing girl becomes very significant later in the episode.

In the screenplay, Hart tells the interviewers he really didn’t like Cohle after his speech about how life is meaningless.
In the pilot, this dialogue is cut.

Act 2


A scene of Cohle confirming that he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital is cut.
A scene of Hart talking about the case with his fellow detectives is added.
A scene of Cohle admitting he has trouble sleeping to the current day detectives is cut.
A scene of Cohle remembering his daughter dying in a flashback is cut.
A scene of Maggie waking up and not finding Hart in bed is added.
A scene of Hart telling the current day detectives that some guys die right away after retiring and to stay busy is added.
A scene of Hart and Cohle interviewing a local woman is added.
A scene of Hart and Cohle interviewing a local old man is added.
A scene of Hart and Cohle interviewing a priest is added.
A scene of Hart and Cohle interviewing Sheriff Tate about the missing girl case is added.
A scene of Lieutenant giving a press conference is added.
A scene of Cohle and Hart arriving at the prison is cut.
A scene is added of Cohle talking to the current day detectives about their current similar case and how they hid details from the paper.
A scene of Hart recalling his feelings about Cohle to the current day detectives is cut.

Main Points:
Hart and Cohle investigate leads on the murder.
Hart has Cohle over for dinner with his family.



Given that the show is called True Detective, it would make sense that there would be a few scenes of interrogation. However in the screenplay, there is only one interrogation and that is of Dora’s ex Charlie in prison.
The story changes drastically as more people are interviewed and give more clues and information that both the characters and the audience can work with.
There are two main additions to the story that help tie it together and give it leads which are explored later:
The first is the devil traps scattered around the crime scene. The detectives learn what the devil traps are after interviewing a local pastor. This ties into the second addition, which is more focus on the previous missing girl. There is a missing girl alluded to on a billboard in the screenplay, so it is plausible there were plans to tie it together, but after going through rewrites, the decision must have been made to tie it in right away.
Devil traps are found at the missing girl’s aunt and uncles and the story is set up for the next episode.
The rest of the story stays relatively the same with the interviewers asking the same questions and the dinner scene going the same way.


As noted, there are several scenes added to round out the story and in most scenes that stayed, there were several changes made.
The bare bones story remained, but the structure and details changed.
There is also a distinct preference to not show a reaction to startling news in the screenplay.
We never get to see the reaction to Dora’s death from Charlie or the reaction from Cohle’s depressing back story from Maggie. Instead, it is just hinted at, and possibly revealed off screen.
In the pilot, not only do we get to see their reactions, it is because Cohle blatantly tells them the truth without sugar coating it.

End of Act 2: Cohle has dinner with Hart and his family.

Script Notes:
In the screenplay when Hart and Cohle arrive at the station, the receptionist tells them that the Lieutenant wants to see them.
In the pilot, the scene starts with Cohle sitting and overhearing detectives talk about the case and Hart already in Lieutenant’s office.

In the screenplay, both Hart and Cohle are in the Lieutenant’s office. After Hart is excused, an attorney then questions Cohle about his previous work experience.
In the pilot, only Hart is in Lieutenant’s office. Hart tells the Lieutenant that Cohle is smart and should stay on the case with him. The Lieutenant says that is fine as long as Hart stays lead. The Lieutenant also mentions doing a press conference. The whole side story with the attorney and Cohle is cut.

In the screenplay, after Cohle leaves the Lieutenant’s office, he tells Hart that he has leads to chase and leaves.
In the pilot, since the scene of Cohle in Lieutenant’s office is cut, Cohle and Hart are just working late when Cohle decides to leave.

In the screenplay, at the truck stop, Cohle sees two girls exiting trucks as he listens to the radio.
In the pilot, only one girl exits the truck and Cohle is watching in silence.

In the screenplay, after Cohle watches the prostitutes, a playground next to the truck stop gives him an eerie feeling as he thinks about his daughter.
In the pilot, the playground scene is cut.

In the screenplay, Cohle gives the prostitutes his business card.
In the pilot, Cohle does not give out his business card.

In the screenplay, Hart is asleep in the chair with a book on his stomach. His wife wakes him up wearing a football jersey and goes to make him coffee.
In the pilot, Hart is asleep with no book, and his wife wakes him up while holding coffee and wearing her own pajamas.

In the screenplay, the book Hart was reading leads to Maggie asking about the case.
In the pilot, Maggie says she saw news about the case on TV.

In the screenplay, the morgue scene starts with the body already out. There is banter between Cohle and Hart.
In the pilot, the morgue scene starts with the body being pulled out. There is no banter between Cohle and Hart and the dialogue about the angel wings is dropped in favour of the antlers which Dicillio suggests talking to an anthropologist.

In the screenplay, there is violent tension between Hart and Cohle after Cohle says some more weird stuff.
In the pilot, there is no violent tension, just Hart being unsure how to react to Cohle.

In the screenplay, Hart gives a complete rundown of his backstory to the current day detectives.
In the pilot, Hart takes medication as he is talking with the current day detectives and his back story is significantly cut.

In the screenplay, both Hart and Cohle debrief the detectives.
In the pilot, Lieutenant Queseda starts the debriefing with the article about the murder and then only Hart debriefs the detectives.

In the screenplay, Hart tells the detectives what specific jobs they are doing.
In the pilot, Hart does not assign jobs, but just says what they all need to do collectively.

In the screenplay, Hart and Cohle travel the highway and pass a nuclear plant which leads to a conversation about nukes.
In the pilot, Hart and Cohle travel through a rundown part of town on their way to the highway. They do no see a nuclear plant and do not talk about Nukes.

In the screenplay, Cohle asks the current day detectives to go buy him beer.
In the pilot, Cohle asks the current day detectives to go buy him beer and the two detectives are finally shown on screen.

In the screenplay, Cohle takes the lead on the interrogation of Charlie. Charlie mentions Dora saying crazy stuff and mentions her mother. We do not see Charlie’s reaction to Dora being dead.
In the pilot, Hart takes the lead on the interrogation of Charlie, taking many of Cohle’s lines. Charlie says Dora met a king and wants to become a nun. The mother is not mentioned and we see Charlie’s reaction after Cohle tells him she is dead.

In the screenplay, Maggie asks Cohle if he ever used his gun.
In the pilot, Audrey asks Cohle if he ever used his gun.

In the screenplay, Cohle is.
In the pilot, Cohle is from Texas and grew up in Alaska. Roberry quad in Houston.

In the screenplay, Maggie just gathers from talking to him, that Cohle is going through a rough time.
In the pilot, Cohle tells Maggie his daughter passed away and his marriage fell apart after that.

Act 3


An important scene is added in the police station where the following events take place:
The detectives report back to Cohle and Hart.
Cohle gets into a fight with one of the detectives.
A reverend shows up with the Lieutenant and is helping develop a task force for crimes with anti-Christian matters, which Cohle finds ridiculous.
Kathleen shows up with forms for Hart and an affair is alluded to but not shown.
A scene of Hart and Cohle driving to the previous missing girl’s uncle’s house is added.
A scene of the current day detectives asking them why they checked on the previous missing girl is added.
A scene of Hart and Cohle questioning the aunt and uncle of the previous missing girl is added.
A scene of Cohle investigating their yard outside and finding the devil trap is added.
A scene of Hart and Cohle bagging the devil trap as evidence is added.
A scene of Cohle seeing the new case file from the current detectives is added.

Main Points:

Hart and Cohle find a devil’s trap at the house of a girl who went missing previously.



Several new scenes added give the show a different direction than the screenplay.
In one scene alone, Cohle gets into a fight with a detective to establish his lone wolf status, a reverend tries to start an anti-christian task force, and Hart is possibly having an affair with a legal aide. This adds several different threads that weren’t there originally.

And as mentioned before, finding the devil traps at the previously missing girl’s house leads into the next episode.


The majority of the third act were scenes not in the screenplay. Therefore I have no comments on the technical aspect.

End of Act 3: Cohle tells the current day detectives that he knows the killings have started again.

Script Notes:

In the pilot, the current day detectives tell Hart they heard stories about Cohle and want to understand his process.

Overall Breakdown

True Detective’s screenplay is very different from the pilot with regards to details. It is probable that this was one of the early drafts shopped around initially before it was sold and reworked.
This gives a great example of what the first draft looks like and how much it changes before being filmed.

There are several things that stay consistent from the screenplay to the pilot.


In the pilot, Cohle and Hart make a great team. Cohle minds his own business and focuses on finding all the facts and details of the case to help him solve it. He does say some unsettling thoughts, which does bother Hart, but not to the point of hating Cohle. Hart and Cohle maintain a professional partnership with both respecting each other’s ability to do their job.

In the screenplay, there is more animosity between the two detectives. Hart takes Cohle’s beliefs to heart and harbors some hatred towards him for even thinking the way he does. As noted, Cohle’s character is abrasive and gets under everyone’s skin including his partner. Although their partnership has more tension, there is still the same respect and teamwork in both the pilot and screenplay.

The victim’s body is another similarity with only a few details changed. The angel wings were exchanged for antlers and devil traps were added to give further clues to explore.

The dinner scene, prison scene and current day interviews generally stay the same. There are small changes made, but nothing that changes the outcome or purpose of the scene. As noted before, the only changes between the dinner and prison scene is Cohle being honest with Charlie and Maggie. The current day interview adds the actual questions and the interviewers are eventually seen on screen.


As noted previously, Cohle’s character is changed from an aggressive, in your face character to a more quiet focused character. Cohle let’s Hart take the lead in most situations instead of trying to take the lead himself.

The story takes a different direction at the end of the episode with an added single scene that sets up multiple threads:
A lead on the relatives of the previous missing girl is utilized, as Hart and Cohle interview her aunt and uncle and then find a devil trap on their property.
A reverend is talking with the lieutenant about creating an anti-christian task force.
Hart is probably having an affair with a legal aide.

Another significant change is Cohle’s backstory about working undercover and the lieutenant trying to use that to his advantage. There is no interaction at all between Cohle and the lieutenant and this story line is cut entirely from the pilot.

Overall the screenplay was written well, but not a lot of it transitioned to the screen. Which again, isn’t a bad thing as the original screenplay obviously generated interest. There were numerous changes made to the pilot in terms of structuring and creating a whole new stream of storylines with additional scenes.

True Detective should give hope to those worrying or stressing over making their story perfect. You’re first draft will always be a work in progress and from there you’re never done until you sit and watch the final product on TV. As long as you got the general structure of the story and strong signature elements, the screenplay isn’t set in stone, but an ongoing piece of art that, if interesting enough, will eventually generate interest from someone. Then the real work begins.

Screenwriting Techniques

From Start to Finish

As stated in the breakdown, True Detective is a great example of how much a screenplay can change from first draft to pilot. The main story and signature elements stay the same, but the details are changed to craft a better story on screen and to set up leads for future episodes.

Descriptive Writing

The descriptions for both characters and setting creates a detailed mental imagery of what the writer is trying to convey. Although it likely won’t translate to an actual pilot, the point of the writing is to capture the reader’s attention and give them a visual experience to work with.

Flashback Switching

True Detective takes place in two different time periods and throughout the screenplay we see how it transitions from current day to the past. The current day scenes are all interviews, so it doesn’t confuse the audience when it makes the switch. There is no indication in the Slug that there is a change in the time period. Instead, Hart and Cohle’s age (Hart, 51,) is used to denote that we are now focusing the older version of the character.


True Detective uses voiceover from the future Hart and Cohle as they are interviewed. This voiceovers are used over scenes in the past as they investigate the murder.


Interviewing the main character, either in a therapy or by police, is a narrative technique used to get their perspective on matters and reveal important information. During these scenes, it is easier to relay important exposition in a way that is not going to take the audience out of the story. The main character is simply answering questions, and although that information may seem oddly shoehorned in other scenes, during an interview it fits right in.

Thanks for reading and feedback is appreciated.

Next Pilot: Stranger Things (Nov 7)