Hey everyone, Carson here. I’m out of the office today (found an amazing script and helping the writer get representation!) so I’m putting up a guest article from my friend, Phil Taffs. Phil is someone who has tried and been frustrated with the screenwriting game. After seeing all these book authors become superstars, both in the literary and film world, he decided to give novel writing a shot, and has finished his first book, The Evil Inside. I asked him to share his experience so here it is. Don’t worry. I’m not telling you to stop writing screenplays (case in point, finding that screenwriter above). I do think, however, that writers should keep all avenues open. Especially since I just read a GREAT novel which I’ll be reviewing Wednesday. In the meantime, here’s Phil!
Why not turn your screenplay into a novel?
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know: There’s a certain inevitable cookie cutter-dom that comes with writing – then trying to sell – your precious screenplay.
Cue Nazi Commandant accent: “IT MUST HAVE: 120 pages; present tense; snappy (and now often ho-hum wise-ass) dialogue; 3 distinct Acts; clear character arcs; broad brushstrokes scene-setting…”
As you know – from all those hundreds of screenwriting books you’ve read and dozens of seminars you’ve attended – it’s a “formula”. And with all those baking instructions, it’s very hard to make your screenplay turn out any different, better or tastier than any other screenplay in your genre.
And unless you have a high-powered agent or a ton of studio contacts, getting past first base is far from a sure thing.
So here’s a wild thought: could your hot new (but indistinguishable) screenplay become a hot new novel instead?
For a start, with a novel, length can be as long or as short as a piece of string: from 1400 battle-scarred pages of War & Peace to the short and savage In the Cut or Less than Zero. From the doorstop Dystopia of The Passage to the lightweight but still heavy-hitting 1984 or Bright Lights, Big City.
Then within those highly flexible pages, you can write whatever you goddamn want! If you’ve already developed a good story for your screenplay, why not let it out of its 120-page cage and encourage it to roam free and frolic?
Because if you’re writing a novel, you can now extend and embellish those descriptions; deepen and refine your characterizations; play more games with your plot; (like introducing some more nifty sub-plots); key in more surprises and/or suspense; indulge in a little more lyricism; and in general just feel a whole lot more liberated and open-minded about your story.
Tired of living in the eternal present tense of your screenplay? In a novel, you can play around with the present, the past, the future, the pluperfect, future perfect, the imperfect…. The novel is a time machine and it’s heaps of fun to pull the levers up and down.
As long as you have a great story – this is the key – then with some extra effort and ingenuity – it’s possible to skin it either way: as a script or a novel.
(Or maybe even something else again: Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom was a hit play in 1984, a great film in 1992 and now it’s a super-successful 2015 musical.)
As the brilliant novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter John Irving said: writing is rewriting. The more you’re thinking about and refining your story, the better it will get.
No matter what form it ends up in.
What’s to lose?
You already have your screenplay – it’s not going anywhere.
So you can still try to sell that while turning it into a novel. And while you’re working on the novel, you’ll probably think of ways of improving your story that you can then also retrofit back into your screenplay as you go along… It’s a win-win.
Two years ago, Australian writer, Graeme Simsion, wrote a comic screenplay called ‘The Rosie Project’ – about an eccentric university professor who takes a left-field approach to finding love.
He decided to refashion it into a novel. The publisher sold world rights for $1.8 million dollars, Bill Gates gave it a blurb and Sony Pictures have just optioned it.
Like his character, Simsion’s left-field approach has paid off big-time.
A novel will become your calling card.
If you do manage to write and get a novel published then that’s going to help you sell your next screenplay.
Because hey, unlike all the other wannabe hacks out there, this guy/girl has actually written a book! So they must know about story. So it’s probably worth reading their new script as well…
With a novel under your belt, you immediately sound more impressive and credible than the thousands of other screenwriters you’re competing against.
So your next script is far more likely to get read and noticed.
Change horses for the hell of it.
You’ve already written one or a number of scripts – you know what that feels like.
Got a great new story idea? This time, why not try writing it as a novel instead?
Just for the experience. Just for the hell of it.
Even if the novel doesn’t pan out, you can always refashion it into a screenplay. Think of it as a longish first draft!
Writing a novel is great practice for scene-setting – always important for your future screenplays.
You might write a scene or sub-plot that becomes a whole other script.
It’s all good practice.
Grist for your artistic and commercial mill.
How I did it
Now I’m not for one second suggesting that writing a novel is any easier than writing a screenplay. And it’s definitely not any quicker.
The average length of a script is 95-125 pages whereas the average length of a novel is 80,000 – 95,000 words – or 300 to 400 pages.
That’s a whole lot of extra words, scenes, characters, themes, issues, challenges, and complexities to deal with.
Not to worry: the more you write, the better you’ll get – whether you’re working on a novel or your next script… again – what’s to lose?
The road to getting my novel published is a story in itself: I began writing my psych-horror ‘The Evil Inside’ in 2003. After writing more than ten separate drafts, I was rejected by more than 70 publishers across three continents.
In desperation, I decided (kicking and screaming) to self-publish. After selling all of 30 copies to family and friends, I invested USD $425 in getting an independent Kirkus Review. (Even though you pay for the review, they are very well-respected because the reviews are more often critical than praiseworthy.)
The gods must have been smiling: I got a great review and used that as ammunition to approach a new batch of British publishers. One of whom – Quercus, publishers of the famous ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ series – took the bait and signed me up.
Now of course your road to publication will undoubtedly be different to mine. But there are a few handy hints you can draw from my experience:
1 Think laterally: you’re very unlikely to get picked up by the first, tenth or even hundredth publisher you submit to.
2 Follow up any lead you get from anyone: determination is the bedfellow of luck.
3 Never, ever give up.
4 Never, ever give up. (That’s really worth repeating.)
No less a luminary than Cate Blanchett suggested I turn ‘The Evil Inside’ into a screenplay instead as I was still writing it…
But I have to tell you: the Elf Queen was wrong. As an unknown quantity as a writer, that screenplay would never have got up…whereas my novel is now selling solidly across a number of continents.
And now US producers are considering it.
Sorry I gotta go: I hear the phone ringing…
Philip Taffs has worked as an advertising copywriter in his native Australia for over twenty years. – He is a PEN prize-winning short story writer, and lives in Melbourne with his wife and his two sons. – The Evil Inside published by Quercus Books UK is his first novel.
Genre: Sci-fi Thriller
Logline: When a group of dysfunctional teenagers are thrust through a gateway into a dangerous alien world, they must race to escape before the gateway closes forever.
Why You SHOULD Read: So this is screenplay number 12 for me. Needless to say, I’m really hoping this is the one. It’s the product of just over a years work. I’ve stressed and struggled to deliver an adventure that not only makes the audience clinch at their armrests, but allows them to watch relationships develop against the theme of perseverance. Thanks and good luck to the other writers.
Title: The Runner
Genre: Action / Adventure
Logline: Back-stabbed by his employer and marooned in Mexico, a tough, drug-running pilot struggles to fly himself and the family that rescued him back to America alive.
Why you should read: Growing up on the border, there are lots of crazy stories you hear about trafficking (mostly from your friends that are doing it). With this story I wanted to take a lot of that raw material and structure it with an action adventure spin and a solid protagonist while still having some of the authenticity of experience. It was a trickier line to walk than I imagined, but I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about the script so far so something must be working. I’m excited to see what the SS readership thinks (and if they think I pulled off the balancing act) and I’m pumped to use any and all feedback to keep improving the writing!
Title: The Demon Within
Genre: Horror / Psychological Thriller
Logline: After witnessing the brutal massacre of her family and undertaking years of institutionalized psychiatric treatment, Karen Reed returns to her secluded childhood home where she discovers her parents may be involved in a devilish secret.
Why You Should Read: I’m a self-taught writer that enjoys old fashioned horror movies. I was a horror geek as a kid back in the 80′s. I used to visit the old VHS video stores, staring at the beautiful covers on display but never having enough money to pay for them, or being old enough to rent them for a night or two. When my dad would allow me to see them, he’d pay the rental fee and that movie with the awesome movie cover was mine. — The Demon Within is a throwback in someways to those moments and a homage to the 70′s ABC movie of the week. It’s House Of The Devil meets Amityville. It’s Crowhaven Farm catching up with Burnt Offerings and then inviting Rob Zombie over for a glass of wine. Get to the ending. You’ll see.
Title: Mad Muses
Logline: A group of troublesome psychiatric patients band together to destroy their sadistic android nurses.
Why You Should Read: I’m in desperate need of honest criticism. I’m surrounded by non-readers or family/friends who are completely love-biased and only provide encouragement and compliments which is wonderful for my ego but doesn’t aide in my progression as a writer. Mad Muses is a lighthearted and witty depiction of mental illness, the focus is placed on character relationships and action so that even non sci-fi fans will be able to enjoy this story.
Logline: When a sister he never knew existed claims equal rights to their deceased father’s house and promptly moves in, straight-laced Jake is determined to do whatever it takes to get his childhood home back, while the presence of his out of control sister puts pressure on his marriage and threatens his dream of the perfect family.
Why You Should Read: I’m gonna keep it short. This is what I believe to be a fun and simple story in the same comedy sub-genre as “What about Bob?”. — I was fortunate enough to have it read by a story analyst at Universal (mentorship through school) and, along with some great notes for improvement, he wrote: “What’s most impressive is that you’re genuinely funny – you’ve got that essential thing: the comedy gene.” — That’s only one man’s opinion, so make of it what you will, but this section is for me to convince you to read it, so I’ll use what I have. — I’m a frequent reader of the site and have the utmost respect for you and your knowledgeable community, and I would be honored if you would read it and help me improve this screenplay, as well as my overall writing.
Get Your Script Reviewed On Scriptshadow!: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, along with the title, genre, logline, and finally, something interesting about yourself and/or your script that you’d like us to post along with the script if reviewed. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Remember that your script will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.
Premise (from writer): A brainwashed young woman, conditioned to track and kill the remaining members of her parents’ cult, must outwit a relentless small-town Sheriff and regain her true memories before she kills her next target – the man she loves.
Why You Should Read (from writer): I submitted my last script, The Dark Parade, to Amateur Friday almost a year ago to the day. Whilst I had some great feedback and insight from the SS community (and the script got a few manager reads) – no one was gonna would splash down $150m on a VFX-heavy vampire spec from an unknown writer.
Writer: Paul Friend
Details: 101 pages
The voting for last week’s amateur offerings was once again close, which left it up to me to decide which script got reviewed. The leading contenders appeared to be “To Dust” and “Vickie.” So how does one decide on which script to read? A good old fashioned First Page Showdown!
When all else is equal, let the first page tell you which script to devour. So what led me to choose “To Dust?” First, the writing was leaner. Short to-the-point paragraphs. On the first page of Vickie are two five-line paragraphs. That tells me this is going to be a bulky read.
Next, there are two separate underlined sentences on Vickie’s opening page. Underlining is clunky and, for the most part, distracting, and two separate incidences of it on the first page imply there’s a lot more to come.
But the thing that really did it in for me was the flashback 16 lines into the story. If we’re flashing back on line 16, why not just start the story in a flashback? It seems weird to take us through 20 seconds of the present to then flash back – unless there’s a notable piece of action that implies the flashback is organic and necessary. But that wasn’t the case here. All that’s happening before the flashback is that our main character is in a room.
These may seem like minor nitpicks but the first few pages are always the most heavily-scrutinized pages of a script. You’ve heard how readers are looking for any reason to say no. But this goes beyond readers. NOBODY has patience for something they’re not enjoying or that they don’t trust. So you need to ROPE THEM IN from the first page, the first paragraph, the first word and you do that by keeping things compelling and easy-to-read.
So, after that whole rant, maybe it’s time we review a script today, yeah? Let’s do it!
Ellie’s a little weird. But don’t be Judger McJudgems. You’d be weird too if you grew up in a cult and, at age 6, the police raided your compound, took you away from your parents, threw some pills at you, and wished you good luck in the real world.
21 now, Ellie’s life is complicated by the memories of debauchery and horror she experienced as a cult child. As much as she wants to be normal, those memories refuse to leave her, and this twisted view of the world manifests itself in her sexual desires. Ellie spends her evenings seeking out sexual targets. It doesn’t matter who they are – men, women, couples – as long as she can drink, forget, and fuck, she’s happy.
That’s until she goes home with a doctor and wakes up to find him stabbed to death. She could, of course, pull the denial card here. The problem is, she taped herself doing it on her phone! Siri, how do you dispose of a body? So Ellie gets the hellie out of that house, just before the police show up and start looking into what happened.
In the meantime, Ellie’s surprisingly well-adjusted older sister, Tilda, who was also part of the cult, tries to get Ellie’s priorities in order. And it looks like Ellie’s about to do just that when she officially meets her long-time crush, Greg. But it turns out Ellie’s midnight killer instinct wasn’t a one time deal. Siri, what is that liquid they use to dissolve people in bathtubs? This leaves Ellie, who clings to her sanity, to try and find out why she’s doing this and why she can’t seem to remember it. The answer, as you might expect, is going to shock us all.
To Dust is a pretty solid script. It achieved the most important thing a script is after, which is making me want to read til the end. I was definitely curious about if Ellie was killing these people. And if she wasn’t, who was? I also enjoyed becoming familiar with the term “frog-marched,” which I suspect may be Paul’s favorite word.
Now since we were talking about second acts yesterday, and specifically inter-character conflict, I should point out that Paul did a good job of that here. Ellie and her sister, Tilda, had an unresolved conflict in that Tilda was the grown up one paying for everything and cleaning up all the messes, while Ellie was the one who did whatever she wanted and refused to accept the consequences. Those clashing philosophies allowed Paul to write some nice scenes between the two in the second act.
The problem is, Paul is playing with fire here. Which everybody knows leads to ashes. Which everybody knows leads to dust. Whenever you’re writing the “murky” thriller, where everyone’s motivations are shrouded in mystery and nothing is as it seems, the script can easily become frustrating, as the reader often feels like they’re working hard and not getting rewarded for it. How many times is it okay to show Ellie do something horrible followed by her looking confused and scared? Sooner or later, the reader wants to know what the f&%$ is happening.
Indeed, the big problem here for me was repetition. Once we got to the midway point, I felt like the script wasn’t evolving. It wasn’t giving me anything new. So while the writing was still solid, I was losing interest.
Part of the problem may have been that Ellie plays a reactive (borderline passive) role in the story. She does something bad and then just hopes that they don’t catch her. For all the confusion we see her go through, she never actively does much about it.
I wanted to see her be more proactive at some point. And we get a little of that, like when her and Greg go to her old home. But with this being one giant mystery, you probably want your main character to be active in solving it.
The whole way through this, “To Dust” was hanging onto a “Worth the read.” Fingernails were scraping, and there was a lot of looking back to see how big the drop was, but I knew it was going to hinge on the ending. When you play “everything’s a mystery” until the very last scene, then your last scene better be fucking jaw-dropping.
To Dust didn’t have a bad ending. But it was kind of predictable and not as earth-shattering as I would’ve hoped. Also I wasn’t even 100% clear on what happened (Were her sister and the Sheriff working together? Why did they want Ellie to kill people again? What did that accomplish? I’m not sure I ever got an explanation there).
So this one didn’t quite make it to the finish line for me. But there’s still some really good writing on display here. This is the kind of script you read and say, “Okay, his next one might be the one that breaks him in.” But you got to pick the right concept. I’ve seen a lot of writers who I thought were ready to take the leap with their next script cripple themselves with lousy concepts. Maybe we can help Paul find a great idea because he’s a writer who should be working soon.
Screenplay link: To Dust
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This lesson is a reaction to “Vickie.” “Clean eating” is all the rage these days. Well let’s apply that rage to screenwriting!!! Try to keep your script-writing as clean as possible. Underlined words, long paragraphs, clunky punctuation (lots of ellipses) – they all have their uses. But they should be used as little as possible. Try to have just words on your screen if you can. Think about it. What’s an easier sentence to read?
The ninja warriors dash across the lawn and LEAP onto the roof with trained precision.
The NINJA WARRIORS dash like TIGERS… FWOOSH! They’re in the air now… MOON-light glinting against THEIR swords… … … THEY LAND on the roof without a sound…–!
Keep your sentences naked of excess so they’re clean and easy to move the eyes through.
So the other day, a writer told me he’d been excited about entering the Scriptshadow 250, but lately, he didn’t know if he’d be able to finish his script on time. “You’ve got over three months,” I told him. “What don’t you have time to do?” “I just can’t seem to figure out second acts,” he confided. “I can make it through about 15 pages, but then I have no idea what to do next.”
Getting lost in the second act is not a new problem for screenwriters. In fact, on the list of screenwriting fears, it’s usually up there with writer’s block. But just like any problem in screenwriting, the solution presents itself once you break down the issue. And what I’ve found is that the writers who have problems with second acts are the same writers who never learned how to tell a story properly in the first place. So let’s start there.
Most stories are told by introducing a problem into a person’s life. That problem becomes the impetus for that person to ACT. This is obvious when you think about it. If you encounter a problem, you only have two options. Do something or do nothing. Most people will do something. That something becomes their GOAL. And the unresolved nature of that goal (will he or won’t he achieve it?) pulls the reader along until, at the end of the story, our person either succeeds or fails. So, to summarize:
THE GOAL IS ALWAYS TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM.
Look at almost any movie and this sentence holds true. (Problem) Hitler is looking for the most powerful religious artifact in history and plans to use it to take over the world. (Goal) Therefore, Indiana Jones must find that artifact first. (Problem) A giant monster has emerged from the bottom of the ocean and threatens to destroy the world. (Goal) The military must stop it. (Problem) In the popular film, Gone Girl, a wife has disappeared and the husband is suspected of her murder. (Goal) The husband must find out what happened to his wife.
Once you understand this basic principle, you have all the tools you need to tackle your second act. Because while a story starts out as a problem a character must solve, it becomes, in its second act, a series of conflicts that put our main character’s success in doubt. Let’s see if we can summarize that:
THE SECOND ACT IS WHERE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER ENCOUNTERS CONFLICT
This is a very simplistic assessment of the second act, but as you’ll see, it holds true in just about every movie you’ve ever seen. During those middle 60 minutes, nothing seems to be going right for the hero. He always appears to be running into trouble. This “plot conflict” is the first of two planes you need to master in the second act.
As we’ve already discussed, your character’s goal is to solve a problem. The second act, then, must make solving that problem the most difficult thing your character has ever had to do. You achieve this by placing OBSTACLES in front of the character’s goal.
For example, in Gone Girl, Nick needs to find out where Amy is so he doesn’t get sent to prison for the rest of his life. That’s his goal. The second act, then, is a series of obstacles thrown at Nick to make his job difficult. One of those obstacles is that his affair with another woman is exposed. If Nick is having an affair, it’s all the more reason for him to get rid of his wife. Later, another obstacle is introduced in the form of Amy’s journal. In the journal, Amy talks about how Nick is “dangerous,” how she’s scared of him, and how she thinks he might harm her. Yet another obstacle that makes his goal more difficult.
True, not any old obstacles will work. You need to be imaginative. And the obstacles themselves must hold weight. But if you continue to come up with good ones, it’s not hard to keep the reader’s interest.
But plot obstacles are only half of the second act battle. You also need to explore your hero’s relationships. When screenwriters give up on screenwriting, it’s usually right before they figure this part out. Because before you figure this tool out, your second acts are just plot. They’re robotic efficient story movers. But they lack emotion, lack soul, lack heart. In order to bring that feeling into the story, you need to master the art of inter-character conflict.
Inter-character conflict works like this. For every relationship between your main character and someone else, you need a SPECIFIC UNRESOLVED CONFLICT between them. Don’t be vague about this. Write it down somewhere. I’m going to make this very clear. Understanding the specific issue/problem/conflict in each of the key relationships in your screenplay allows you to explore your characters on an EMOTIONAL LEVEL so that your story isn’t just a robotic plot mover, but rather a living breathing exploration of the human condition. And that’s what makes a second act work. Here are a few unresolved conflicts between characters from well-known movies.
Silver Linings Playbook
Pat and Tiffany – She loves him, but he’s still in love with his ex-wife.
Anna and Elsa – Elsa avoids a loving relationship with her sister in fear that she will hurt her.
Nick and Detective Rhonda Boney – Despite wanting to believe him, she suspects that Nick killed his wife.
Mac and Teddy – Mac just wants to raise a family. Teddy just wants to have fun.
The Social Network
Mark and Eduardo – Mark is more interested in their company. Eduardo is more interested in their friendship.
Now I’m highlighting the main relationship in all of these movies, but your hero should have 2-5 key relationships in the script, and you should have a conflict for each of them. Once you have that conflict written down, every scene between those characters will, in some way, explore that issue. This is why we, as an audience, watch. We want to see if these characters are ever going to resolve their conflict!
When writers don’t inject problems/issues/conflicts into their relationships, the scenes between the characters are often lifeless. And why wouldn’t they be? If you don’t have anything to hash out, anything making your relationship difficult, it’s nearly impossible to draw drama out of the relationship.
Take a look at yesterday’s script, Huntsville. The key relationship in that story was 40 year old Hank and his friendship with 17 year old Josie. So I ask you – what’s the problem (or conflict) in this relationship? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Hank wants Josie but can’t have her. It’s illegal. Therefore, every scene they’re in together is laced with that unresolved conflict. Will Hank make a move? Will the relationship go to the next level? The idea is to create a circumstance where the reader asks the question: “How is this going to be resolved?” If that question doesn’t come up, you’re not doing your job.
Take another recent script review: The Founder. What was the main problem between Ray Kroc and Mac McDonald? Ray wanted to expand the business. Mac was fine with the way the business was. Every phone call between the two in that second act revolved around this unresolved issue. These contentious discussions upped the conflict, which upped the entertainment value. The Founder doesn’t work if there isn’t any problem between Ray Kroc and Mac McDonald.
When seeking out conflicts to explore in relationships, two great places to look are your own life and (yup, I’m being totally serious here) reality TV. One of my friends has a testy relationship with her mom because her mom thinks she needs to get married now when she’s still young and pretty. My friend, however, isn’t in any rush. There isn’t a phone call that goes by between the two where this isn’t discussed outright, passive aggressively, or through subtext. Someone else I know disavowed his best friend because that friend is now dating his ex-girlfriend. You should see what happens when those two are in the same room. I once knew a guy who was in a three-year relationship with a woman he loved dearly, but that woman was an alcoholic and refused to quit drinking. Every day for him was a struggle.
Reality TV does this in a more on-the-nose way, but they’re still good at it. Most reality shows these days depend more on character than plot, so they put a ton of emphasis on relationship conflict, which is the same thing I’m asking you to do. It’s why you always find the religious nut and the gay marriage advocate on the same show. Or why two exes who never quite got over one another are brought back together. Or why a father is featured on the show of a man who’s never been able to achieve his dad’s approval. I’d argue that almost every reality TV show these days is about relationship resolution. So don’t be ashamed to study them.
That’s pretty much the basics for how to handle your second act. Plot obstacles and relationship conflict. And actually, when you think about it, it’s all conflict. Obstacles create conflict for the plot. Unresolved issues create conflict between characters. Are there other things to focus on in the second act? Of course (your main character battling his flaw for one). But if you master these two things, you should be able to write some kick-ass second acts. Which you’ll need to if you’re going to win the Scriptshadow 250! ☺
Premise: An ex-Death Row worker who has since isolated himself from the world finds his life reinvigorated by the arrival of a beautiful teenage girl.
About: A lot of people chastise the Black List for celebrating scripts that already have production deals or writers who already have established careers. But baby scribe Anthony Ragnone truly is an “out of nowhere” find. Outside of some assistant work, he was just your average amateur writer trying to get noticed. He did so with “Huntsville,” which finished around the middle of the pack on the 2014 Black List. (Note: Due to some reveals in the screenplay, I would suggest you find and read this script before reading the review. A lot of people should have the script to pass around since it was on the Black List)
Writer: Anthony Ragnone II
Details: 92 pages
If I heard that a band of eager young screenwriters were heading to Los Angeles and would be here tomorrow, and the city commissioner gave me one billboard to put up at the entrance of the city, in which I could offer any message I wanted to said screenwriters to give them the best chance at success, I know exactly what that billboard would say:
SIMPLIFY YOUR SCREENPLAY!
One of the most common mistakes I see new writers make – and it only seems to be getting worse – is biting off more than they can chew. An extremely complicated plotline following multiple protagonists with flashbacks and flashforwards where every third character’s motivations are shrouded in mystery… It certainly sounds fun from an eager young writer’s point of view. But the amount of skill required to pull something like this off is higher than you could possibly know.
And I know that sucks to hear because when you’re a young writer, you want to break the rules. You want to show why you’re different. So you conjure up some part-Charlie Kaufman, part-Aaron Sorkin, part-Scorsese screenplay that is simply too complicated to wrangle into any sort of enjoyable shape.
The scripts that I see which continue to sell or make an impression on the industry are often simple stories with a slight complication or two. If you look at the latest Black List, Catherine the Great (the number one script) is a very simple story following a woman who rises to power. The only complication is that it doesn’t take place in one continuous timeline. My favorite script on the Black List so far, The Founder, is even simpler. An ambitious man tries to create a fast food empire. There are no bells and whistles. Just the necessary conflict he endures while trying to achieve his goal.
The Brian Duffield script, The Babysitter, which finished 3rd on the list, follows a kid with a crazy baby sitter. The Wall, which finished sixth on the list, is about a one-on-one battle between two snipers. Achingly simple. The first script on the list that I would categorize as “complex” would be “Mena,” which uses an overly complicated 40 page montage before it gets into its core story. Not surprisingly, I think it’s the weakest of the scripts mentioned. Reading it was a struggle.
This brings us to today’s Black List script, which is, yet again, a simple story. It’s about a 40 year old man, Hank, who lives a boring isolated life. His job is to watch the local high school parking lot so that aspiring Ferris Buellers don’t try to play hooky. For fun, he occasionally goes fishing at a local lake. Other than that, he takes care of his turtles, and enjoys a drink or two.
Everything would’ve continued on this way had Josie not arrived. A smoking hot punky 17 year old, Josie isn’t who she seems at first. She’s actually thoughtful, sweet, and cool. She pushes Hank to open up, get out of his comfort zone, and actually go out and have fun. Within a few days, the two are practically best friends.
And that’s when Marcus gets involved. Marcus is one of those kids who would ditch school every day if it wasn’t for Hank sitting in that parking lot busting him every time he sneaks out of school. Marcus hates Hank, and that makes things very awkward when Marcus starts dating Josie.
Josie jumps back and forth between spending time with the two, and you get the sense that something here is going to break. It’s just a question of who snaps first. Of course, if that’s all there was to the story, there wouldn’t much to talk about. There’s something in Hank’s past that he doesn’t like to talk about, and it may be the thing that undoes them all.
Once again, we’ve got a super simple story here. A friendship between two unlikely people that’s thrown into disarray by a dangerous third party. The reason that simple stories are so effective is because it’s easy for the reader to understand what’s going on. And that’s a powerful tool as a writer. Once someone thinks they know what’s going on, you can mess with them. You can throw unexpected twists and turns at the story. You can build suspense. You can foreshadow standoffs between characters.
When everything is shrouded in mystery and hiding behind fifteen cross-cutting storylines or time jumps, the most effective storytelling tools become unavailable to you. It’s hard to be suspenseful if we’re not even sure who’s who or what’s what.
Huntsville uses a very simple device to keep our interest, and that’s an impending sense of doom. You usually only hear about this device in relation to horror scripts. But it can be used in any genre, and if you’re writing a slow-burn story, it’s pretty much a necessity. The impending sense of doom here is Marcus. He’s our bad guy who doesn’t like Hank. And the closer Hank gets to Josie, a girl he’s falling for, the more we get the sense that, at some point, Marcus is going to get rid of Hank.
Another reason I think writers are scared to keep things simple is because they equate simple with boring. To these writers, I’d say shift your complexities away from plot and into character. If you can create at least one complex character, readers will keep reading if only to try and figure them out.
What makes Hank such a good character are all these hints at his dark past. Every once in awhile, Hank will see a man sitting in his apartment, long gray oily beard in an orange jumpsuit, just staring at him. Part of the reason we keep reading is we want to know who this man is and how he relates to Hank.
But also, we want to know how far Hank will go. He knows he can’t and shouldn’t be with this girl. It’s illegal. And yet, this is the only person in the last ten years who’s reached out to him, who’s shown him that there’s still joy in life. I’ve said this before but whenever you have a character who’s fighting something within themselves, you, at the very least, have a watchable character.
(Spoilers) I’ll finish this off by saying I did NOT see this ending coming at all. It takes a lot to fool me since I’ve seen every trick in the book. But Ragnone got me good. No doubt, the ending is what got this script on the Black List. And I’ll go so far as to say it never would’ve worked had the rest of the story not been so simple.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There’s a difference between a simple story and a simple concept. A simple story is just telling a story in a simple way, and is often preferred. A simple concept is another thing entirely. As much as I liked this script, I’m not sure I’d advise other writers to write a concept this simplistic (older guy meets younger girl and becomes friends with her). Unless you find an agent who sends it to everyone in town and it gets on the Black List, scripts like this more often fall through the cracks. I’d advise a high concept or a genre approach if you’re trying to get noticed as an unknown writer.