Last year, in anticipation of the upcoming Star Wars films, I invited anyone who wanted to send in their own Star Wars script to do so. I would review the Top 5, and if one was really awesome, who knows, Disney might see it and get the writer involved in a future installment of the series. I received 20 Star Wars scripts in total. This week, I will review the best of those. Yesterday we got Old Weapons. Today we get a rising shadow!
Genre: Sci-fi Fantasy
Premise: (from writer) After the murder of her master, a young Padawan subverts the Jedi Council’s wishes in order hunt down his enigmatic killer before she can put to use a powerful and ancient Sith artifact.
About: Tom Albanese has had a couple of scripts reviewed on the site before and keeps coming back for more. He’s a great guy and always up for some constructive criticism. One of his scripts actually went on to get optioned. He’s a writer I’ve been watching for awhile.
Writer: Tom Albanese
Details: 114 pages
If you’re like me and you watched the prequels, you were probably one of the many people who said, “I could write something better than that.” And that’s exactly what this week’s writers have set out to do, prove that with a little time, they could write something better than that lazy George Lucas could.
Yesterday proved that it isn’t as easy as it looks. Not only can one quickly get lost in this universe, but amongst all that information one has to set up, you also have to come up with a story. That was the big fault of the prequels. They weren’t telling stories. They were telling history. Which is exactly why the three films felt like really glossy sci-fi fantasy documentaries. Not a whole lot ever happened.
What I’m looking for, this week, is someone who can capture the intensity and the fun of those original films. Find a story with great new characters that contains urgency and stakes. That was the secret sauce of the original Star Wars films.
While Rise of the Shadows is definitely an improvement over yesterday’s entry, it makes some mistakes pretty early on that hurt it. After a nice opening where a Jedi master is killed in front of his apprentice, a feisty young woman named Ralia, we head back to the Jedi Council on Coruscant. And this is where, unfortunately, we spend a good 40 minutes. Coruscant is firmly entrenched in the prequel universe, and I still contend that it leaves everyone with a bad taste in their mouth. It shouldn’t be in any sequels.
But anyway, an evil former Jedi named Gena Kortana is the one who killed Ralia’s master, all for an old piece of technology that can raise the dead. But Gena can’t use the thing until she regains her powers. To do that, she must find the person who took them from her, which just happens to be our old Vapor Farmer Friend, Luke Skywalker, who’s now in his 70s.
So Gena invades the Jedi Palace with a couple of nasty bounty hunters and somehow kills almost all of them. She’s able to kidnap Luke and head off to a dangerous unknown planet in order to get this gizmo to work. The ever-feisty Ralia, still pissed that this bitch killed her master, is able to find out where the planet is and go after her.
But she gets there too late. Gena is able to raise from the dead a really evil Sith Lord named Darth Tauren, who grants her her powers back. Ralia tries her best to get revenge, but only ends up killing Luke, who, to his credit, dies before having to watch the finale to last night’s The Bachelor.
Ralia is able to escape with her toes in tact, but now that Gena and Darth Tauren have this Sith-Raising machine at their disposal, they agree that there’s one guy they really want to see back in business. A certain black-clad mechanically breathing dude who loves telling people his familial relations to them. To be continued!
So like I said, this was better than yesterday’s entry. At least this time around, we got some originality, a new story with mostly new characters engaged in a new plot. I liked that. But I’m starting to notice a trend here. It seems in almost every new Star Wars 7 idea I hear, the new main character is a young woman.
Does this mean every writer thinks alike? That we all follow the same thought patterns and come up with the same ideas? That we’re all really unoriginal? Or is this really the way to go? Because whenever I see the idea, I’m immediately reminded of “The Next Karate Kid,” where they tried to replace Daniel-san with a girl. And oh, how cheesy it felt.
Not that Rise of the Shadows was cheesy. I think it was rather un-cheesy, which is easier said than done when writing a light sci-fi fantasy space opera. But what doomed this script for me was all the stagnation.
40 pages of this script took place inside the Jedi Temple, probably one of the more boring places you can place a story. Especially when you’re talking about Star Wars, where you can literally place your characters anywhere in the universe.
And it wasn’t just the setting. It was that our characters were standing around TALKING in the Jedi Temple all the time. This was one of the huge problems with the prequels – that everyone was always STANDING AROUND TALKING. Look at the original Star Wars. There isn’t a lot of standing around and talking. There’s always doing. There’s moving forward. There’s thrust.
In the one place where there is standing around – Luke’s introduction on Tatooine – there was a sense of resistance and conflict as Luke didn’t want to be there. Even as we were there, we were being pulled somewhere else. Here on Coruscant, everyone seemed really content with their surroundings, save for Ralia, who admittedly wanted to avenge her master’s death, but just couldn’t find the means to do so.
We even have flashbacks to tell the backstories of our characters. No no no and no again! Flashbacks not only stop your script – they literally MAKE YOUR SCRIPT GO BACKWARDS. This is BAD. But the worst part about it was that flashbacks weren’t even needed. I needed one line to know that Ralia’s master picked her over Gena. I don’t need to go back and see it happen. Guys, if you need to convey something about your characters, make sure you’ve exhausted EVERY AVENUE before you consider a flashback. And then, please, still don’t write a flashback.
But the flashback represented more than backwards-ness. Star Wars has always been at its best when it moves. So to choose a flashback, a device that is guaranteed to stop the movement of your script, is a sign that you don’t understand what makes these movies work! In short, we needed less standing around on Coruscant and the Jedi temple, and more flying around the galaxy.
What about the characters? Anything good? Outside of Gena, I don’t think any character popped. In fact, I think great characters were ruined. Luke Skywalker is relegated to being dragged around half-conscious for most of the movie. This is supposed to be the greatest Jedi who’s ever lived and he’s taken down by a non-Jedi with little resistance and dragged around in a half-drugged state? NO! You can’t do that to a historically great character. It would be like putting the Godfather in an Assisted Care Facility and having him drool all over himself for 30 minutes. No way!
But anyway, the reason Gena works is because she’s the most active. She’s the one who’s driving the story. Which is a solid approach, since Darth Vader, our original villain, is the one driving the story in Star Wars and Empire. But there were no PERSONALITIES outside of Gena. Ralia was active and always wanted to do something, but I never saw anything that made her unique, original, and stand out as her own person.
When Obi-Wan does the Jedi Mind trick as they’re trying to enter Mos-Eisley (“You don’t need to see our identification”), we really get a sense of who this guy is. I needed distinctive moments like that from characters in “Rise” to really individualize them. But I never got them. Solely sending your characters out to save people or get upset when their masters are killed isn’t enough. Anybody will act that way. What does your character do (how do they act) that nobody else in the world does? That’s what will make them stand out.
Props to Tom for writing something that captured the heart of Star Wars. But we needed way more action, more adventure, as well as more distinctive characters, to really make this Episode 7 pop. What did you guys think?
Script link: Rise of the Shadows
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: You need to pick a defining trait for your character and really hit on it throughout the script. Han is selfish. Obi-Wan is wise. Chewbacca is loyal. These are the personality traits that will define your character to the audience. If you don’t repeatedly hit on them, the characters start to come off as personality-less. Which leads to bland characters. Bland be bad.
Last year, in anticipation of the upcoming Star Wars film, I invited anyone who wanted to send in their own Star Wars script to do so. I would review the Top 5, and if one was really awesome, who knows, Disney might see it and get the writer involved in a future installment of the series. I received 20 Star Wars scripts in total. This week, I will review the best 5. Let’s hope we find a winner!
Genre: Sci-Fi fantasy
Premise: (from writer): 1000 years in the future of the Star Wars universe, a young female fugitive from Tatooine and the last Sith Lord must travel to the abandoned city world of Coruscant to retrieve the location of an ancient planet-destroying superweapon: the Galaxy’s only hope of overthrowing the totalitarian rule of a sinister New Jedi Order.
About: The mysterious Ellen Starkweather seems to get hyped a lot in the comments section, yet no one knows where she comes from or where she gets her fans. Can Scriptshadow readers solve the mystery? I reviewed one of Ellen’s scripts awhile back. Let’s see what she has in store for us today…
Writer: Ellen Starkweather
Details: 157 pages!
As you’d expect, I have some MAJOR opinions about Star Wars, way too many to get in to here. But one of my strongest opinions is that in the two best Star Wars films, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the films are all about urgency. They move quickly because they’re both chase films, with Darth Vader always on our heroes’ tail. The problem with the prequels was that they ditched this formula in favor of slow introspective mythology lessons. It wasn’t pretty.
So when I opened this up and saw 158 pages, my head sunk. 158 pages?? That pretty much ensured there would be zero urgency. And it’s not the only Star Wars script of the bunch with that kind of page count. There’s another one that’s 150 pages! I’m telling you, the Star Wars formula that works best is one that keeps things moving. BUT I’ll gladly eat my shorts if Ellen Starkweather can prove me wrong. Let’s see if this 160 page epic changes my opinion…
It is 1000 years after the end of Episode 6, but you might not have guessed it, since we start right back on our favorite little dusty planet, Tantooine! It’s here where we meet a couple of our Jedis, Master Mahrel-Dee Goodweather, a middle-aged woman, and Temlin, a 16 year old girl who’s just starting to realize her Jedi powers. Neither of these two know each other yet. But they will. Oh yes, they will….
So in this episode, it’s kind of like Jerry Seinfeld’s Bizarro World, as the universe has been flipped. The Republic is firmly in control, but they’ve become such a dictatorship that, without even knowing it, they’re now the bad guys. Joining the Dark Side is the new hip “rebellious” thing to do. And that’s what Temlin and her land-speeder racing buddies are into.
Eventually, Master Mahrel-Dee goes looking for this new Jedi girl, possibly for training, but Temlin is able to get away and go to Yoda’s old stomping grounds (or mushing grounds?), Dagobah, where she’s been sent to meet someone important. It’s there where she finds a dark-cloaked 900 year old man who happens to be a Jedi himself! Or a Sith Lord, depending on your perspective.
It doesn’t take us too long to figure out that this 900 year old guy is Luke Skywalker (yes, you read that correctly), and Luke wants to bring Temlin to Coruscant to look for some old super-weapon plans (if you’re thinking these plans have something to do with Death Star 3.0, you’d be correct). She’s not so sure, but she doesn’t have many other options (it’s not like there’s a bar on Dagobah to think things over), so she says ‘why not.’
Meanwhile, Master Mahrel wants to get her hands on Temlin because Jedi chosen-ones are at a premium. So, about a hundred pages into the script, she starts chasing the two through the galaxy and is finally able to nab them. It’s then that Luke and Mahrel get into a lightsaber duel and she kills Luke the exact same way Vader killed Obi-Wan!
But a ship collision follows and Mahrel is burned over 80% of her body. She wakes up three years later (yes, three years), and is now wearing (yup, you guessed it) a white female Vader suit. Oh, and while she was asleep, a new Death Star was built! And hence we get another final-act run at our favorite robot moon, where it is once again, sadly, destroyed.
Okay, where do I start here! Let’s start with the good. The page count here is way too long. But at least the script was easy to read. Most paragraphs were two lines or less and the dialogue moved along quickly. While I wasn’t always thrilled with the direction the story took, Starkweather was usually able to move us through each sequence quickly, whether it be a speeder race on the now overrun-with-jungles Coruscant, Temlin trying to snatch Boba Fett’s old laser gun from the Sarlac Pit or the occasional space battle.
Old Weapons has one major problem though. It uses the old films as its crutch. The entire movie is a mish-mash of the plots from the original trilogy. We have our hero growing up on Tantooine, her family dying, having to go to the Cantina in Mos Eisley, going to Dagobah where someone’s been hiding for 900 years, getting captured on the bad guy’s ship, to the older wiser Jedi getting struck down by another Jedi, to a Jedi getting burned to death and needing to live inside a life-support machine, to a Death Star being made and having to be destroyed. There was so darn little originality in this script that, if I’m being honest, it was hard to take it seriously.
It all boils down to the script being too “fan boy.” What I mean by that is the writer clearly loves the original films so much that they can’t think beyond them, and therefore every decision and choice is in service to those movies somehow. Why, for instance, do we have characters trying to get Boba Fett’s gun in the Sarlac Pitt if it has nothing to do with the story other than it’s cool to bring up Boba Fett?
Then there’s Luke Skywalker. Luke Skywalker’s been alive for 900 years? I mean, I guess he has the force in him, and we’ve established that allows beings to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do, but this just rang false (and somewhat goofy) to me.
I wanted to see something NEW brought to the table. I wanted a different story to experience, not a rehash of everything I’ve already seen. There are hints of that here. Obviously, our main young Jedi is a girl. The new “Darth Vader” is a girl. But I don’t think you can just change the sex and everything be new and different.
On top of all this were some… curious choices. When we meet Jedi Master Mahrel-Dee, it’s insinuated that she just got out of a three-way with two younger Jedis. Also, 16 year old Temlin is in a relationship with another 15 year old girl, one who she plays sex games with (it’s implied) where one of them dresses up like “General Master Solo.” Then later, one of our characters is a suicide bomber who blows up a bunch of people.
Choices like this really worried me because the tone of Star Wars is a clear one. It’s light fun entertainment. I don’t know why we’re implying sex on any level, much less playing dress up in a sexualized lesbian teenage relationship or having three-ways. And suicide bombers, while maybe a little easier to buy in this universe, are too complicated an idea for the target audience (young children) to grasp.
Tone is something I continue to see amateurs struggle with. They often throw anything they think of into their stories without considering how it fits in with the bigger picture. It’s like they take the stance, “If I think of it, then it’s tonally consistent.” That’s not how it works. I’m not going to have Eve imply she wants to give Wall-E a blow-job just like I’m not implying three-ways in Star Wars.
Then there are just the geeky things that I personally didn’t agree with. I’m not sure you mess with the opening crawl (having the letters turn blood red and say everything you just read was propaganda). I don’t think you want to talk about midi-chlorians, as it was widely agreed that this was a huge misstep for the franchise. Coruscant being run by cannibals who strap human skeletons to the front of their ships felt exactly like the Firefly villains, to the extent that it was almost a direct ripoff.
I think that’s my biggest beef here. There was no originality in Old Weapons. It was all rehashing storylines and characters we already knew. For Star Wars to grow (and for any script to grow), it needs to explore new ideas and invent its own story. I kept waiting for that to happen with Old Weapons but it never did. ☹
Screenplay link: Star Wars: Old Weapons
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: “Writing light” is when you write very sparse paragraphs (one or two lines tops). “Writing heavy” is the opposite (Thick paragraphs of 4-5 lines). When you “write heavy,” the page count tends to be lower, since your lines aren’t spread out as much. “Writing light” creates the opposite effect. The excess carriage returns take up more space and can easily add 10-20 pages to your script. So there’s this debate whether one should “write heavy” to keep the page length down, even though it means a harder read, or “write light,” which jacks up the page count, but is much easier for the reader to get through. Here, Ellen obviously took the “writing light” approach and added a good 20 pages as a result. I admit it was easier to read than if this was 140 pages written “heavy,” but the reality is, 160 pages is just too damn many, period. My advice is: this is screenwriting. You have to do both. You have to write light with a heavy writer’s content. Let me give you an example:
The robust trees and their exposed roots snake through the yard like curious animals, adding a deep unexpected texture to the front of the house, the kind of anomaly that screams “unnatural.”
You can just as easily write…
The trees’ gnarly exposed roots snake unnaturally through the front yard.
What I learned 2: If there is a large LONE time-jump forward in the second or third act of your script, there is probably something very wrong with your story (and one of the biggest tell-tale signs that you’re reading an amateur). Large time jumps happening once your story gets going almost NEVER work unless you’re established a time-jumping rhythm throughout your script (and this is one of many time jumps, such as you’ll see in a movie like Braveheart).
Star Wars - Old Weapons - by Ellen Starkweather – MONDAY REVIEW!
Logline: 1000 years in the future of the Star Wars universe, a young female fugitive from Tatooine and the last Sith Lord must travel to the abandoned city world of Coruscant to retrieve the location of an ancient planet-destroying superweapon: the Galaxy’s only hope of overthrowing the totalitarian rule of a sinister New Jedi Order.
Star Wars – Secrets of the Ancients – by Robert Cornero
Star Wars – The Admiral’s Vendetta – by Scott F. Butler
Star Wars – Children of the Jedi – by Nicholas Saraceno
Star Wars – The Emperor (an origin story of the Emperor) – by Zachary Stevens
Star Wars Ep 7 – Rise from the Shadows – by Tom Albanese
Logline: After the murder of her master, a young Padawan subverts the Jedi Council’s wishes in order hunt down his enigmatic killer before she can put to use a powerful and ancient Sith artifact.
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: Members of a deep-space mission come out of cryo-sleep only to learn that one of their crew members has gone missing, and that mysterious forces may be to blame.
Why You Should Read: Ron Hollis has been promoting his script in the comment section for awhile now and when Scene Week came around, he got a ton of support for his scene from other readers. Therefore, I’m giving him an Amateur Friday shot!
Writer: Ron Hollis
Details: 116 pages
I don’t know where I first heard the phrase “Go big or go home.” All I know is that Ron Hollis must have that credo tattooed to every visible part of his body. I’ve got to give it to the guy. Anyone who attempts to explain the origins of mankind, the universe, and the meaning of life, all in one script, isn’t messing around.
It’s funny that just yesterday I wrote that article about unconventional writing. We couldn’t have received a screenplay better designed to explore that debate than Dark Matter. This script is anything but conventional. It takes chances left and right. It’s weird. You’re never really sure where it’s going. By gosh, a chimpanzee even turns into an alien boy at one point!
So it leads us back to yesterday’s question – is this the kind of unconventional writing you want writers to embrace? Or should Ron utilize a more proven storytelling approach? Keep that in mind while we check out the plot.
Dark Matter follows two separate narratives. The year is 2199, and mankind has created a space station orbiting Mars. Three people are operating this station. Ethereal beauty Angelique is the one we’re primarily following. So one day, while the crew’s going about their daily duties, Angelique spots a glowing white orb dancing around the ship. It’s a fascinating moment for her, but since it leaves as quickly as it showed up, all she can do is marvel at the experience then get back to work.
Cut to a few hundred light years away where we meet up with the H.M.S. Babylon, a ship that’s travelling to a distant planet. On this ship, crew-member Newton is brought out of cryo-sleep to be informed that fellow crew-member Adam has disappeared! The record of this disappearance is being conveyed to Newton by the ship’s creepy A.I. controller, S.O.L.O.M.O.N., who seems a lot like another artificially intelligent ship controller we know.
SOLOMON’s acting all fishy when Newton asks specific questions about Adam, so he’s forced to wake up the rest of the crew early and do some detective work. After some snooping around, they realize that aliens may be involved. Apparently, they’re being followed by, or are in some kind of “dark matter” that’s allowing their entire ship (and their minds) to be controlled. Naturally, this freaks everyone out.
Now you’re probably wondering what these two completely separate space missions have to do with each other. Well, not a whole lot. The lone connection is that Newton and Angelique are a couple and really want to call each other, but no one on either ship will allow them to. I’m guessing this has something to do with cell phone charges in the year 2199 being REALLY bad.
Eventually, Angelique and her crew decide to go down to the Mars surface (not sure if it’s ever explained why?), only to crash land in the process. Back on the Babylon, SOLOMON’s acting more and more suspicious, while the crew keeps seeing more aliens, white orbs, and spaceships. At one point they even bring out a chimpanzee (“Darwin”) as bait to lure the aliens in.
But don’t worry, it gets stranger! The crew realizes that dark matter can only be accessed subconsciously, so they decide to go into hyper-sleep together and take on these problems through their collective subconscious. While there, they’re able to communicate with the dark matter and the aliens, and find out what their ultimate endgame is. Of course, no one’s really sure what’s real and what’s not, which begs the question if any of this is even real.
Okay, so here’s the big debate, kids. Yesterday we asked if we should let the writer follow his voice while ignoring convention, or follow the proven storytelling methods Hollywood endorses. To add some stakes to this debate, let’s say that YOU are developing this project for a studio and are tasked with guiding Ron to write a great script. What would you do with Dark Matter?
To me, the two separate narratives here are a killer, particularly because there’s barely any connection between them outside of one character from each ship mentioning that they want to call the other. Outside of that, bouncing back between a station orbiting Mars and a ship hundreds of light years away seemed distracting and unnecessary (and is it even possible to make phone calls light years away?).
Now if we’re playing devil’s advocate, we could say, “Yeah, but take the double-narrative away and you take away the script’s originality.” I suppose that’s true. But would you rather have a focused story that’s more engaging or an unfocused one that’s more thoughtful? For me, I always want the more engaging story, but I know others disagree with me on this.
As for everything else, Dark Matter was one of those scripts that took a lot of work to get through. And readers don’t like to feel like they’re working when they read. The problem was I was never quite sure what was real and what wasn’t. And I couldn’t decide if the deliberate vagueness of the storyline was well-crafted or sloppy.
What I mean by that is we’re given these really vague rules, like the fact that dark matter and the soul are linked. And that aliens can take over humans and make them look like human-alien hybrids. That there are alien ships and there are alien orbs, and the two may or may not be connected. And to communicate with dark matter and aliens (which may or may not be the same thing), we have to access our collective subconscious while we sleep.
All of that stuff sounds fun in a vacuum, but when you add it all together and try to spin a story around it, it can be quite frustrating to try and keep up with. If I don’t understand the rules of the universe you’ve created, how can I remain invested? It’s kind of like listening to two people talk in a language you only sort of know. You understand a few things here and there, but most of the time, you have no idea what they’re talking about, and boy is that frustrating.
It IS a delicate balance though because there are movies that have been able to make this work, such as Donnie Darko and 2001. All the answers are not given. There are many little gaps in rules and logic, and somehow, it makes the story feel deeper and more exciting. Instead of you feeling frustrated trying to figure things out, you feel excited, like every frame could contain a new clue to the mystery. You want to participate. Why Dark Matter didn’t get there, I’m not sure. All I can say is that the rules were a little TOO fast and loose. It was hard to find any numbers that added up.
Speaking of 2001, you have to be careful about letting your influences be too influential. S.O.L.O.M.O.N. was so similar to H.A.L. that whenever he spoke, all you can think about was that movie. You can’t have that. Look, our favorite movies always end up influencing our scripts. But you have to be smart about it. Find a new angle that makes the thing you’re stealing seem unique.
Maybe you change SOLOMON to a female voice. Maybe you make SOLOMON a full-on see-through virtual ship-assistant (something it looked like Ron was thinking of doing, but never quite pulled the trigger on). What I can tell you is that you if you recreate one of the most famous characters ever, people are going to call you on it.
Finally, this story seemed to be about “what comes next,” or the afterlife. That’s pretty much what the last 20-30 pages are about. However, there was barely ANY DISCUSSION about the afterlife throughout the script.
If you’re going to focus on a particular subject matter, especially something as intense as the afterlife, you have to design your characters around that idea. We need characters who are extremely religious. We need characters who are extremely scientific. We need agnostics. And we need conversations that tackle these different points of view in compelling entertaining ways. It was really strange that this script ended on such a religious note, yet barely brought up religion throughout its running time.
I’d be interested to hear what people think of Dark Matter in light of what we discussed yesterday. Would you rein this in or would you let Ron trust his voice and roam free? The unfocused narrative and vague rules ultimately did it in for me. But Ron certainly has a unique point of view and way of writing that should serve him well in his career.
Screenplay link: Dark Matter
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you’re writing, you’re always looking for which parts of your story pack the most punch and which parts are missing something. With each subsequence draft, you want to spend more time expanding the “packing punch” parts and less on the “something’s missing” parts. Over the course of many drafts, you’ll see the good stuff expand to take over most of the screenplay while the lacking stuff disappears completely. That’s the approach Ron needs to take here. The stuff that packs the most punch is on the ship, Babylon. The stuff that seems to have something missing is the Mars storyline. Therefore, I’d eliminate Mars and keep the story on the ship.
Today I want to pose a question to you that’s had me stumped for awhile.
What is the difference between BAD non-traditional writing and GOOD non-traditional writing?
I’m asking this question because I meet so many writers who insist on defying convention. I read their scripts and I say, “I don’t see a focused story here. I don’t see you setting up your characters correctly. I don’t see your story starting soon enough. I don’t see you adding conflict or suspense or any of the things that traditionally keep a reader interested.” And their response to me is always, “Well I don’t want to do it like that. That’s how Hollywood does it and I don’t like Hollywood movies. I want to do it differently.”
My gut reaction is to groan, but then I realize that they have a point. There isn’t just “one way” to do something. There are lots of ways. And if I tell these writers, “No, don’t do it that way,” aren’t I stifling their creativity? Aren’t I potentially preventing a new voice from emerging? If I was Captain of Hollywood, True Detective would’ve never been made. Yet there are a lot of people who love True Detective, and that’s definitely a show that “does it differently.”
Here’s the problem though. 99% of the time I let these writers roam free, they come back with a hodge-podge of ideas, sequences, and characters in search of a script. It’s like walking into a Category 5 Screenplay Storm. Anyone who’s been tasked with reading amateur scripts where the writers ignore all storytelling convention knows what I’m talking about.
Yet these writers continue to drum up compelling arguments to defend their approach. They say, “Well I don’t want to write Transformers, or Grown-Ups, or Identity Thief, or Olympus Has Fallen. Those scripts follow all the rules and they suck.” Hmm, I think. Can’t argue with that. And yet I can’t seem to convey to them that even Hollywood’s vanilla is better than their chocolate without getting a funny look or a black eye.
Maybe we can solve this by moving away from the amateur world and into the professional one. Because in this venue, writers are having the same battle. They all want to write something challenging and unique, a convention-defying opus that will win them an Oscar. All else being equal, no one wants to write Battleship. And they seem to have hard-core cinemagoers on their side. You need look no further than the Scriptshadow comment thread to see Grendl preaching this every day – break away from convention, ignore the rules, create something original!
But let me offer you the flip side of this argument. It’s only two words long.
Here’s a book that was adapted by and then directed by the Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer), three of the more visionary directors in Hollywood. The result was one of the most beautiful movies of the last decade. And one of the most unfocused unsatisfying stories of the year. I’m not going to say the film didn’t have fans. But by and large, it was a failure, making only 30 million domestic. A documentary about chimpanzees made more money that year.
I bring the film up because this is the kind of thing you’re advocating when you say, “Fuck convention and write whatever you want.” You have three of the stronger talents in the business writing six narratives spanning six different time periods, with no clear connection. Set one of those time periods a thousand years in the future. Have the main character followed around by a homeless looking Leprechaun creature who spouts out indecipherable ramblings. I mean come on! There isn’t a single audience member who’s going to respond to that. It’s too weird!
And I can hear you from here. You’re saying, “Well I’d rather Hollywood produce ten failures like Cloud Atlases than one “hit” Iron Man 3.” No you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. I dare you to sit down and try and watch Cloud Atlas’s three hour running time and not start checking your e-mail by the halfway point. I thought Iron Man 3 was pretty bad. But at least it was trying to entertain me.
My lack of enjoyment not-withstanding, the point is, two popular writers were given free rein to go crazy with a huge budget and created a piece of doo-doo. Which begs the question, is this what we want all the time? Julie Delpy written movies? Shane Carruth written movies? Another “Somewhere” from Sophia Coppola? Steve Soderbergh busting out films like “Bubble” every year?
It sounds fun in theory. Yeah! Give those guys gobs of money and let them do whatever they want. But what are the actual consequences? The consequences are film geeks getting to masturbate online about 10 minute tracking shots. But that’s where the benefits end. There would be no movie business because attendance would be down 90%. And the thing is, what you’re asking for is already here! These movies have already happened. You’ve just never heard of them because they were so bad.
Does a movie that promises to aggressively subvert the romantic comedy genre sound intriguing? Sure. But watch “I Give It A Year” and tell me you don’t want to kill yourself by the end of the first act. Diablo Cody won an Oscar. Let’s let her go wild on the page and see what happens. It happened, with a movie called “Paradise,” which I’m pretty sure is still waiting for its first customer. Francis Ford Coppola was given free rein on his last film. What did he come up with? Twixt. I’m guessing you didn’t rush over to Fandango to find the opening day showtimes for that one.
Now you may be saying, “Yeah, but I don’t like the sound of any of those movies, Carson. So of course I’m not going to see them.” That’s the problem. Millions of other people feel the same way. And if no one’s going to see these “fuck convention – I’ll write what I want” movies, then there won’t be a movie industry anymore.
On the flip side, there are definitely screenplays that have defied convention and turned out great. Pulp Fiction, Slumdog Millionaire, American Beauty. More recently, some might say American Hustle and Her. Which is why answering this question is so difficult. What makes one unconventional script good and another terrible?
I’ll give you an example from both sides. What makes the intense dramatic unconventional Short Term 12 good while the equally intense dramatic unconventional Labor Day is terrible? I suppose we can break down each script point by point, but I’m looking at the bigger picture. How do writers not bound by rules keep away from the bad and write something good? Do they just follow their heart? Should writing contain no form whatsoever other than the stream-of-consciousness rolling off the writer’s fingertips? I mean we can’t really be advocating this, right? There’s got to be a plan.
Ah-haaaaa. I believe that may be the clue we’ve been looking for.
If we’re going to do something as radical as defy convention, it only makes sense that we have a plan. Now that I think about it, the successful “unconventional” screenwriters I’ve spoken with always knew why they did what they did. They understood their unorthodox choices and made them for a reason. The people whose unconventional scripts aren’t so good are those who can’t answer any questions about their choices. They seem tripped up when you ask them even the simplest question, like “why did you choose this plot point here?” or “why did Character A do that?” They never had a plan, which is why their scripts tend to feel so aimless and frustrating.
So what I’d say to everyone planning on writing that next great unconventional screenplay, learn everything you can about this craft and then have a plan when you write. It doesn’t have to be everybody else’s plan. It just has to be yours. And know why you’re doing shit. The more control you have over your choices, the more logical your script is going to be, and the easier it’s going to be for your reader to digest. If you think that advice is for wimps and you want to fly by the seat of your pants, that’s fine. But don’t be surprised if you leave a lot of confused readers in your wake.
What about you guys? What do you think the key is to writing an unconventional screenplay?