Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: A reluctant boy genius finds out his step-father, who’s building the world’s first artificially intelligent computer, has been keeping a terrifying secret from him.
About: Gary Whitta sold his spec script Book of Eli five years ago. He went on to script After Earth for Will Smith. He’s since been tabbed as the scribe on one of the Star Wars spin-off movies. This is one of his earliest scripts (written even before Book of Eli). The script is based on an 8-bit Infocom story adventure from the 80s. A Mind Forever Voyaging is thought of as the pinnacle of the adventure stories that came out in that era. Whitta took the unique step of writing the adaptation without the rights, hoping to use the finished product to acquire the rights formally. But apparently Activision, who owns the Infocom universe, has zero interest in adapting their products to film, which is bizarre when you think about all the money that could be made. Anyway, Whitta kindly put the version of his script online for everyone to see. He still hopes to get it made one day.
Writer: Gary Whitta (based on the story by Steve Meretzky)
Details: 117 pages (2002 draft)

a-mind-forever-voyaging(boxart)(front)

If you’re like me, you became a lot more interested in Gary Whitta once it was announced that he’d be scripting a Star Wars film. I know a little about his history (he used to work in video games before moving over to screenwriting), but all I have to go on is Book of Eli and After Earth. I’ve stated before that I thought Book of Eli was a solid spec and that After Earth was a much better screenplay than it was a movie.

Still, two scripts wasn’t enough to go on. You needed a tiebreaker.

Enter “A Mind Forever Voyaging.” I’d heard of “Mind” before and while I’d never played those 8 bit adventure stories, there was something exotic about them that I always found appealing. The artwork on this one, in particular, implies a vast and rich story. It’s time to finally find out what that story’s about.

Professor Abraham Perelman, 55, is working on the first ever artificially intelligent computer. It’s a giant unseemly thing consisting of so many computers and components that it needs to be kept in an underground warehouse.

Perelman is eventually approached by a senator who’s heard about his research. Perelman explains to the senator that in 12 years, the computer will be so sophisticated that it’ll be able to predict the future. 12 years is right on track for when the senator plans to run for president. Which means, with the aid of this computer, he’ll be the first president who can actually guarantee his promises.

Meanwhile, Perelman enjoys time with his two step-sons, Jason, and Perry. In short, Perelman lost his previous family to murder. And this family lost their father to jail. So they sort of clicked together like the depressing version of The Brady Bunch.

While Jason rejects Perelman as his step-father, Perry makes a real connection with him. Even when Perry shows tremendous mathematical prowess, Perelman, a math buff himself, supports his choice to be a writer instead.

Time passes and we watch Perry grow from 8 to 11 to 16, to 20. As he grows up, the Senator keeps moving up the political ladder. Finally, Perelman drops the big bombshell on Perry. The reason he’s a math superstar? That he can solve any equation in the universe? He IS the computer Perelman’s been building. Apparently the only way to make that computer truly AI was to make it believe that it was real. Perry is the manifestation of that experiment.

Also, since the Senator is finally running for president, Perelman needs Perry to look forward in time for him and find out what the world’s going to be like in five years. When Perry does this, he sees a world where the Senator has unified all states into one. He’s also restricted most freedoms in order to keep America “safe.”

When Perry tells Perelman this, he can’t believe that his step-father is actually on board with it. From that point on, Perry decides to take things into his own hands. Since he IS the computer, he’ll write his OWN program. And he’s going to change everything to the way HE thinks it needs to be changed.

A Mind Forever Voyaging is one of the stranger scripts I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing. You see, it has one giant problem inherent in it. But that problem might also be necessary for the script to work. Talk about a conundrum.

Let me explain. The hook of this screenplay – a kid (or young man) learns that he’s actually the living brain of a computer – doesn’t arrive until page 80! That’s SUPER LATE to get to your hook.

Explaining why this is a problem is tricky because it depends on what you consider to be your story. Is your story the aftermath of a kid who finds out he’s a computer? Or is your story everything that leads up to that point? To me, the far more interesting story is a kid who finds out he’s a computer (and the subsequent aftermath). For that reason, that twist needs to show up WAY EARLIER, preferably around page 30 (the end of the first act).

For comparison’s sake, look at a movie like The Matrix, where Neo learns he’s living in a computer. Neo finds that out on page 30. Would The Matrix have worked had Neo figured that out on page 80? My guess is no.

The catch with “A Mind Forever Voyaging,” however, is we don’t start with a grown man. We start with a boy. And it’s because we watch this boy grow up through the years that the shocking twist of him not being real hits us so hard. That doesn’t hit us nearly as hard if we reveal it on page 30.

This is a classic example of one of those big screenwriting problems that doesn’t have a perfect answer. If you move the “boy is a computer” reveal to the end of the first act, it doesn’t have the same weight. But if you keep the reveal at page 80, you’re making the audience wait way too long before anything happens.

When faced with this problem, I always err on the side of “get to the story faster” and I’ll tell you why. Because when someone is reading your script or watching your movie, it always feels slower to them than it does to you. You might think, “Oh! Page 30!? No way! That’s way too early!” But in the reader’s reality, things are taking a lot longer.

Think about it. When’s the last time you read a script or watched a movie and said, “MAN! This is going by WAY too fast!” 99 times out of 100, a script is moving too slow, right? So you want to assume that with your own writing as well.

But, if you absolutely REFUSE to meet the Page 30 deadline, a last resort is to push your plot point to page 45. It’s still early enough to keep the story moving, but late enough to give the proper amount of “time passing” before the event occurs. Also, that way, you still have 70 pages left to play out your unique world post-reveal.

Despite these criticisms, I still want to see this movie. Once we DO get to that reveal, things start to get pretty trippy.  Like we’re jumping back and forth in time, there’s a struggle for control of the computer, there’s a little Inception thrown in for good measure, a little 2001.  And then there’s this creepy sci-fi atmosphere that’s present throughout.  To that end, Whitta really captured that eerie empty feeling you get as a story unravels before you in MS-DOS green-on-black text.  I definitely felt that here.  And along with some complex characters and an unexpected storyline, I don’t see why a studio wouldn’t at least try to develop this.

Oh, and you can read the script yourself here!

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Avoid “turn-based” dialogue. One of the tricks to keeping dialogue natural is to make sure the characters are listening to each other. That way, they’re responding to one another as opposed to saying what the writer wants them to say. I found a fair bit of turn-based dialogue here. For example, here’s an exchange…

FULLERTON
You’re seriously making the argument that an artificial intelligence has rights?

RANDU
While PRISM’s consciousness may in the strictest sense be artificial compared to our own, its evolution has advanced to the point that there’s no longer any meaningful dissimilarity between the two.

The character of Randu did not hear a single word the character of Fullerton just said. Instead, a very formal well-written answer – something you can tell was crafted and perfected ahead of time – was given instead. To fix this, put yourself in Randu’s shoes. LISTEN to what Fullerton is saying. The response, then, would probably be more reactive…

RANDU
Why wouldn’t it? While the system’s consciousness may be artificial, it’s advanced to the point where the similarities between the two are negligible.

Obviously, how you write the sentence itself will depend on character and your own voice. But the point is, you want dialogue to have that natural rhythm that comes with people listening, thinking, and responding. In real-life dialogue, you never have the perfect response waiting.

Genre: Drama/Noir/Superhero?
Premise: When a wealthy couple is gunned down in front of their son, a man named James Gordon, one of the only honest cops in the city, attempts to solve the case.
About: This FOX project is, if not the flashiest, definitely the most high profile new show on the 2014 fall television docket, with its direct tie-in to the Batman mythology. Writer Bruno Heller is best known for creating the extravagant HBO show, Rome, along with CBS’s The Mentalist. Heller comes from prime screenwriting stock. His father, Lukas Heller, is the author of several movie classics, including “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen, and The Flight of the Phoenix. Gotham will include a large cast of characters played by, among others, Ben McKenzie (James Gordon), Jada Pinkett-Smith (Fish Mooney) and Donal Logue (Harvey Bullock – Gordon’s partner).
Writer: Bruno Heller
Details: 59 pages (2nd Revised Network Draft)

Gotham-TV-Show

You can’t talk about FOX’s Gotham without mentioning ABC’s Agents of SHIELD. This is the new creative world we live in, where pre-established universes are going to take precedence over original ideas. This has always been a movie thing, but now with the whole “universe” approach, it’s becoming more of a TV thing.

Taken at face value, I like the idea. As writers, you’d hope that your fantasy (or science fiction or period piece or superhero comic) screenplay is deep enough to host a vast network of stories. If the people in your script are so singular and so uninteresting that they’re only capable of telling a single tale, you’d think you haven’t built in a deep enough mythology.

But if Agents of SHIELD is any indication of what we’re to expect from this new “Universe” approach, we can safely assume that the translations will be anything but easy. I’m sorry, but that show stunk.

Part of the problem when you’re writing this kind of material is that you’re beholden to the expectations of an audience who wants to see its star characters. Common sense says that once you take the super heroes out of a super hero universe, you don’t have much left. So the shows scramble to include super hero cameos or references to super heroes or fringe super heroes to fill in the gap.

But therein lies the problem. You can’t depend on gimmicks to keep audiences engaged in the long run. The show has to be good on its own. That’s what I went into Gotham wondering. Could it prove itself to be a good enough show on its own merit? Or, more importantly, would it even try? Let’s find out together…

26 year old James Gordon has just been fast-tracked to homicide detective in the crime-ridden city of Gotham. Gordon has a dream backstory. His father was a captain in the force. He’s a war hero. He’s a good man who wants to do the right thing.

Which doesn’t mesh well with the city he got his job in. In Gotham, tough guy criminals like Carmine Falcone are the ones who make things go round. Not police chiefs or mayors. Gordon is about to find that out the hard way.

One night, a little kid named Bruce Wayne is walking with his billionaire parents after a movie. A low-life steps in, demands their money, then shoots the husband and wife before fleeing. Gordon and his experienced (and notably less idealistic) partner Harvey Bullock are assigned the case.

Sexy nightclub owner and friend of Bullock, Fish Mooney, fingers a local thug as the killer, who they end up killing during a rooftop chase, and it looks like the case is solved.

Or is it? Gordon isn’t so sure and starts looking deeper. He finds that Fish Mooney planted the damning evidence on the local thug. When he comes to her with this theory, she beats him to a pulp and drives him to her warehouse of nightmares. But at the last second, none other than crime boss Carmine Falcone saves him.

Falcone tells Gordon that he likes his chutzpah, but that the way things work in Gotham isn’t always black and white. He admits that the local thug wasn’t the killer, but that tabbing him as such was a necessary evil to keep the city happy. He tells Gordon that the best thing for him is to get on board and play the game. Any other option is going to result in… not so pleasant circumstances.

And thus the roadmap for Gotham is laid out. Will Gordon play the game? Or will he fight for justice?

Bruce-Wayne-in-the-Gotham-TV-show-2Look!  It’s young Batman!

Gotham was better than I thought it would be. During The Dark Knight trilogy, the most boring scenes were always when they focused on Gordon. But I realize now it’s because they couldn’t give him enough time to truly shine. And honestly, how do you shine in a Batman movie if your name isn’t Batman or The Joker?

Now that Gordon is the focus, we get to know him a lot better. And gosh dangit if I didn’t like the guy. Heller uses one of the oldest yet most obvious tricks in the book to make you like his hero. He makes him a good person! There’s no saving the cat here. We just see from the outset that Gordon wants to do good in a bad world. How do you dislike somebody like that?

There’s a great screenwriting trick to highlight this called “comparative actions.” Early on, when Gordon and Bullock are looking for a lead, they go to Fish Mooney’s nightclub. Once there, they hear Fish’s thugs beating up some poor schlub in the alley.

Bullock casually talks with Fish as the screams continue, while Gordon gets antsier by the minute. There’s clearly a crime going on but his partner isn’t doing anything about it. Finally, Gordon can’t take it anymore and goes out to the alley to check it out.

This is comparative action. Just like that, we understand where these two guys stand. And as an added bonus, it makes us like Gordon a little more. He’s always going to look out for the little guy. He’s always going to fight crime.

What most surprised me, though, was that I actually cared about this case. And not because it was Batman’s parents. I cared because the more Gordon looked into it, the more it looked like there was a conspiracy involved, that this wasn’t just a random crime, but a calculated hit in order to redistribute power in the city. I wanted to keep reading because I wanted to know what the damn conspiracy was. I was hooked!

Now I have to admit, I don’t know if this is how the origin of Batman goes. But assuming the choice was an open one, I know that a lesser writer probably wouldn’t have made it a conspiracy. He would’ve used the investigation to simply introduce us to Gotham and all the characters. At the end of the episode, then, we probably would’ve caught the bad guy. The fact that this went higher up was both intriguing and set up that essential “long-running question” that a TV show needs to keep viewers coming back. Who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents???

Gotham started off today as a show that had my curiosity. It now has my attention.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The coolest thing about this script is how it made its bad guy GOOD in order to make him BAD. Remember screenwriters, the obvious choice is to make your bad guy a big bad meanie. But that usually feels obvious and boring. When Carmine Falcone, Gotham’s biggest criminal boss, is introduced, he isn’t introduced killing someone or beating up our hero. He’s introduced SAVING our hero! Then having a nice pleasant conversation with him. The genius of this? He saved Gordon so he could be an even bigger bad guy. He needed to be good to be bad. By now having Gordon on his side, it allows him more control over the city. It’s evil and manipulative, but most importantly, it makes him a way more interesting bad guy than had he just acted bad.

Genre: Drama
Premise: When a struggling actor’s father is diagnosed with cancer, he must finally grow up and become the patriarch of his family.
About: This film received a lot of press when writer-director Zach Braff raised the funds for the film on Kickstarter. There was some initial backlash, as some noted that Braff would’ve been able to raise the money by traditional means anyway. But Braff argued that doing it the Kickstarter way enabled him to make “no sacrifices.” Which means, of course, that for better or worse, this is exactly the film Braff wanted you to see. Braff’s previous writer-director entry, Garden State, was a surprise hit at Sundance and went on to gross 10 times its budget. Everyone kept asking him, “When are you going to direct again?” Well, 10 years later and Braff’s second movie is finally here!
Writer: Adam J. Braff and Zach Braff
Details: 120 minutes

wish-i-was-here-poster

The Wish I Was Here experience can be summed up by its title. Many hours after I saw the film, I casually wondered, “Why didn’t he just call it ‘Wish You Were Here’ as opposed to this strange variation on the phrase?” Then I realized, “Ohhhhhh. The ‘I’ is a play off the phrase, implying he wishes he was currently present in his life.” I felt a little dumb for missing that, but upon further reflection I realized, “Wait a minute.  That was kind of a clumsy play on words.  By no means was it obvious.” Which pretty much summarizes the movie itself, a clumsy story that wasn’t easy to get.

The script starts off strong, with a traditional setup of goals, stakes, and urgency. Aiden (Braff) a struggling actor with an 8 year old son and 11 year old daughter, has been married to his wife since college. His kids go to a prestigious private Jewish school courtesy of Aidan’s rich father. But when his father gets cancer and must pay out of pocket, the checks to the school stop, and all of a sudden, Aiden’s free ride in life is over. For the first time ever, he must figure out a way to provide for his children, which means he must consider giving up his acting dream.

Goal = find a way to keep his kids out of public school. Urgency = the check to the school is due in a couple of weeks. Stakes = if he doesn’t figure it out, he might have to give up his dream.

Okay, I can get on board with that, even if the goal is a little “Rich People’s Problems.” But thennnnnnnn… the second act comes. Second acts are where screenwriters make their money. The professionals know how to write them. The posers fake their way through them. And there was never a second act more faked through than “Wish I Was Here.”

Structure is the tool that creates narrative. You make sure your characters are going after something, and that that something is clear and has consequences. That’s what pushes your characters forward, giving them things to do and actions to achieve. The second we stop understanding what your characters are going after and why, we lose interest.

Look at a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark. What happens if, once we hit the second act, Indiana heads off to Iceland, buys a cottage, makes friends with the locals, and becomes a carrot farmer? You’d be confused, right? You’d say, “Wait, wasn’t he going to go after that Staff of Ra thing? Isn’t that what the beginning of the movie was about?”

Yet that’s exactly how Wish I Was Here unfolds (or should I say “unravels”). Once we’ve set up the goal (figure out how to keep the kids out of public school), we go through one tiny sequence of Aidan trying to home school his kids (which was silly – but at least he was pursuing the goal that was set up), and then that was it. The “keep the kids in private school” thing was forgotten.

Instead, we drifted from scene to scene focusing on characters discussing the complexities of life (from dying dad to recluse brother to frustrated wife to confused kids).

One particular scene embodied this problem. It occurred midway through the film when Aidan and his wife (played by Kate Hudson) are sitting alone on a Life Guard chair on the Santa Monica beach, at night, talking about how they used to be happy.

This is the kind of scene that you, as a screenwriter, should kill people to avoid. It is the definition of a “scene of death” (scenes of deaths are screenplay killers). It’s also common for amateur writers to misinterpret these scenes for “good writing.”

And why not? “Important” things are being discussed (life, love, regret!). But a discussion about these trite obvious life experiences never offers anything more than impatient seat-shifting. First, the scene is on the nose. Characters talking about their feelings is almost always boring unless it’s a climax scene where they’ve spent the entire movie holding back and are only now letting loose.

Second, two characters sitting down talking is almost always a bad idea. It’s the definition of stagnant so it almost always plays dead. Third, you never want characters talking about their backstory together unless said backstory reveals something surprising or adds something important to the story. Characters discussing things that we’ve already assumed, such as they were once happy (Of course you were once happy! You got married!) is never a recipe for a good scene.

But the worst part about this scene is that when you sit two characters down in a comfortable environment with nothing else going on and a seemingly endless amount of time at their leisure, you say to your audience, “There is nothing going on in my movie right now.” Because if there was something important going on in your movie, your characters would be dealing with it. They wouldn’t be out here droning on about when they first met.

WishIWas_2796428b

Assuming that the point of this scene was to show that these two were once happy (which I still think is a pointless scene since we already know that), let’s compare it to a scene from American Beauty that is sort of trying to do the same thing.

In the scene, Lester (the main character) has just bought a 1970 Pontiac Firebird without telling his wife. She stumbles in to find Lester carelessly drinking beer on the couch and angrily demands to know whose car that is in their driveway. He tells her it’s his. “Where is the Camry?” she asks. “I traded it in.” After arguing a bit longer, Lester pulls Carolyn close, and all of a sudden, the mood is charged.  Everything about the present is forgotten. They’re young again. They’re excited.

They descend onto the couch like teenagers when Carolyn notices that—“Lester. You’re going to spill beer on the couch.” And just like that, the moment is ruined. The two go back to jabbering before Carolyn eventually storms out of the room.

Notice how much more is HAPPENING in this scene than in the “Wish I Was Here” scene. It starts off with a problem, creating conflict from the outset. “Whose car is that in our driveway?” The scene then makes an unexpected turn in the middle, when Lester makes a move and the unthinkable happens – Carolyn is actually into it.

This part is important, because we’re seeing an action that shows us how they used to feel about each other.  He’s not telling her, “Remember when we used to like each other?”  We’re seeing it.  Then the scene turns again when Carolyn lets her obsession about inconsequential things get the best of her and the moment is lost. So not only is there something happening in the scene, but we’re exploring character as well (Carolyn’s flaw of not being able to “let go”). How much more interesting is this than two people sitting next to each other like robots and saying, “Remember when we used to like each other, bee-beep booop?”

But but but! I want to play devil’s advocate here. If I were Zach Braff, I’d probably defend my script by saying, “Carson, you’re focusing too much on these tired “rules” of screenwriting that there has to be a “goal.” That the plot always has to be straightforward and easy to follow. My movie’s not like that. My movie is about characters and how they interact with one another, how they battle life’s complexities and problems. It’s not about having a clear A to B story.”

Okay, that’s a fair argument. There are successful movies that do this. And to a certain extent, I agree. If you have an interesting set of unresolved relationships in your script, then the “narrative,” (the thing that drives the reader to keep reading) is to see if and how these relationships are going to resolve themselves. That’s how When Harry Met Sally works. We stick around solely to see if they’re going to get together.

And Braff definitely puts a lot of effort into this area. Aidan’s dad doesn’t like how Aidan is an actor. Aidan’s dad doesn’t like Aidan’s brother for being such a dumbo. Aidan and Aiden’s brother don’t talk as much as Aidan wants them to. Aidan and his wife are struggling to find the love they once had. Aidan doesn’t agree with his kids’ infatuation with the Jewish culture.

I agree that, assuming we care about these relationships, that theoretically they can carry the script. But therein lies the problem. I didn’t care about the relationships. And it was mostly because of scenes like the one above. Instead of characters EXPERIENCING problems, they would often TALK about problems. And there isn’t a whole lot dramatically exciting about people talking about their problems. It goes back to the oldest screenwriting rule in the book. Don’t tell us. SHOW us. And there were too many “Character A sits across from Character B and talks about life” TELL scenes.

That’s why story is so important, why character problems aren’t enough. Story forces characters to act instead of sit around and talk. Which means characters are changing through action as opposed to conversation. The only action in Wish I Was Here were gimmicky scenes that had nothing to do with the story – like going out and test-driving a Maserati to feel better about themselves – empty visual experiences.

Wish I Was Here tries so hard to be that emotionally moving movie about life and death, but Braff doesn’t have the writing skills to pull it off. Too much talking, not enough happening.

[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Beware Peacock Dialogue. Braff has a nasty habit of drawing attention to his favorite lines of dialogue. He spotlights these moments by stopping all space and time so that YOU KNOW HE LOVES THIS LINE. These lines scream, “I want to be in a trailer!” and have that larger than life feel. These sound right at home in a trailer, but are too big and showy to work in the moment. “You can pick ANY ONE you want, as long as it’s unique and amazing… like you.” “When we were kids, my brother and I used to pretend that we were heroes, the only ones who could save the day. But maybe we’re just the regular people. The ones who get saved.” Dialogue should always serve the moment. If it becomes bigger than the moment, it’s a peacock (sprouting its feathers) and draws attention away from the scenery behind it.

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.

Genre (from writer): Strip-com
Premise (from writer): Dodd and Ollie think they’ve hit the jackpot when they inherit a strip club, but they soon find out it just might be the worst place on Earth.
Why You Should Read (from writer): I notice you’ve been doing more TV stuff lately. Tina Fey’s sitcom and then the AOW of TV dramas. Maybe it’s time for an Sitcom amateur Friday? How can you resist? It’s one fourth the work of reading a screenplay! — Now that you’re completely sold on the idea, here’s why you should select my sitcom pilot. It’s an R-rated workplace comedy designed for pay-cable or the internet. My idea was to take the typical big, dumb network sitcom and give it a cable edge. Imagine something like “Cheers” with drugs and nudity. It’s in the vein of some of my influences: Peep Show, Eastbound and Down, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Writer: Colin O’Brien
Details: 36 pages

beautysecrets2__christopheronstott

A couple of weeks ago we switched up the Amateur Offerings procedure to reflect the state of entertainment as we know it. Instead of being script racist and separating the pilots from the features, we offered a conglomerate of ALL screenplays, movies AND television for your voting pleasure.

Not surprisingly, the vote came down to a feature (“No Guts No Glory”) and a pilot (“NSFW”). The vote was so close, I decided to read the first ten pages of each to determine which got the review. Since they were both comedies, I based my decision on laughs. Humor is entirely subjective, but I could only smile during the first 10 pages of No Guts No Glory. With NSFW, I laughed half a dozen times. So NSFW it is!

Children’s book publisher and all around conservative guy, Benjamin Dodd, is attending his creepy uncle’s funeral with his wacky best friend, Ollie, where he learns that Uncle Chester left him his infamous strip club, SKANKS.

Ollie thinks this is a sign from God (what that sign is isn’t clear) whereas Dodd treats it as an annoyance. His plan is to sell it right away. But Ollie convinces him to go check it out first. How can they sell something without getting to know it?

Over to Skanks they go, where they conveniently learn that there’s some strange rule in the contract that they’re not allowed to sell the place until it’s profitable (wha??). So all of a sudden, Dodd’s stuck as the official owner of a strip club!!

The two start meeting all the strippers (like the cute Sizzlean, who’s the world’s worst stripper. Every time she tries to talk dirty, she inadvertently lets slip that she’s only doing this for the money), Roxbury (an out-of-shape 50 year old whose big move is ashing her cigarette while she’s grinding you) and Jasmine (Ollie’s ex-girlfriend who’s become a stripper to get back at him).

In the end, Dodd becomes smitten with Sizzlean, and figures, what’s the harm in running this place until he can sell it? Let the adventures of a children’s book publisher turned strip club owner begin!

Now before I get started on my thoughts here, I want to explain why I chose this over No Guts No Glory. Gazrow is a great longtime contributor to the site and I want to help him out with a little feedback.

Upon reading the first few pages of “Guts,” I felt an intense similarity to Zombieland, with the backstory voice over that eventually leads us to the present day where we meet our zombies. When you write something similar to a famous movie, you create two problems for yourself. 1) It makes you look unoriginal. As soon as people go, “This is just like Zombieland,” they lose confidence that you’ll be able to deliver something fresh and exciting. 2) You invite quality comparisons to that film, which, 99% of the time, you lose. The stuff about being scared ever since he was a kid was kind of charming. I smiled. But it wasn’t as creative or funny as the whole “zombie survival rules” voice over in Zombieland. Zombieland set up an exciting new world. The voice over here felt more expository.

My official check-out point, though, was the Neo-Nazi Hitler-loving step-dad. Now I have no problem with Hitler or Nazi jokes. They can be hilarious in the right context. But it always worries me when one of the big early jokes in a script is NOT CONCEPT-BASED. In other words, if you were writing “Neighbors,” and one of the first jokes involved a character with a flesh-eating virus, I would be worried. What does that have to do with a family who moves next to fraternity house? Why aren’t you getting your jokes from that situation? That’s why we paid to see the movie.

Now I’m not saying this Nazi father thing doesn’t somehow link up to the zombie stuff later on, but as a reader, these are the mental “flags” that can quickly pull us out of a script. The huge left turn into Nazi humor was too jarring and too broad, and ultimately what led me to go with NSFW. It should be noted, however, that comedy is entirely subjective. And for some people this might’ve been fine. Still, I always think that when you pick a comedy idea, almost all the jokes should stem from the concept.

Back to NSFW. This script started out strong. I love that it didn’t feel like the writer was trying too hard to be funny. The laughs were just happening. I liked that we jumped right into the story as well, with some scary biker dude eulogizing Uncle Chester with the most inappropriate story ever. Good stuff.

From there on, though, it was a mixed bag (as comedy often is). I found Ollie to be a little on-the-nose. Like “Look, I’m the wacky friend! Look at how wacky I can be!” When you create the wacky sidekick character, it’s important to give him a fresh spin so he doesn’t feel like every other comedy sidekick ever. It’s usually about finding an angle (a “lives with his parents” socially unaware entitled brat – Alan from The Hangover). If your only synopsis for a character is “the wacky friend,” you’re in trouble.

From there, we need more story and more drama. Let’s take a detailed look at how to do that.

DODD
We need to know more about Dodd and his job BEFORE he inherits the strip club. You want to create the maximum reactive impact from a children’s book publisher being given a strip club. That doesn’t happen here since I didn’t even know he was a children’s book publisher until AFTER he inherited the strip club. So find a way to squeeze this in early. Maybe in the opening funeral scene, we see Dodd leafing through a number of children’s books. There can be mothers nearby who spot him doing this and mistake him for a pedophile. Also, I’m not sure you want to leave this scene without Dodd going onstage and saying something about his Uncle. It’s a chance for you to tell us a little about Dodd. Why not take it?

THE STAKES
It’s not clear why Dodd needs to manage this place. There’s a vague allusion to some artificial “condition” in the deed that he can’t sell Skanks until it’s profitable. That’s weak sauce. Let’s build a real reason why he needs this place and add stakes to it. For one, maybe there’s something Dodd needs (a new house – I’ll get to why in a second). Whereas he barely makes anything at his publishing job, he finds out this place is a goldmine. This is his meal ticket to a comfortable life. If you don’t like this idea, you allude, in the story, to some gangster the old manager owes a lot of money to. When Dodd takes ownership of this place, that debt is now transferred over to him. It could be 100 grand. So Dodd HAS to run this place to make enough money to pay this psycho gangster off or else he’ll be killed.

A FIANCE
I think you’re missing a huge opportunity by not giving Dodd a fiancé here. You can have his fiancé be a controlling bitch as well as out of his league. She’s super conservative, as is her wealthy family. Now, by accepting ownership of this strip club, you’re creating a world of conflict at home with his fiancé. Also, with his fiancé being the breadwinner, Dodd has always felt emasculated. For once, he wants to be the breadwinner (and buy an expensive ring or a house for the two of them) so that she’ll finally respect him. He takes this job to do just that. You can play this two ways. She finds out about Skanks, which creates all sorts of conflict within their relationship, or he hides it from her, which can be funny in other ways. Also, this creates a lot more romantic chemistry between Dodd and Sizzlean, since we know they can’t be together. The fact that neither of them are taken right now makes their potential romance unexciting. That’s easily changed by giving one of them a significant other.

YOU CAN GET MORE OUT OF THE WORK STORYINE
Once they get to the strip club, everything is too easy. They’re able to hang out there, explore, get to know people. It’s kind of funny, but without any conflict, it’s not nearly as funny as it could be. Conflict is your best friend in comedy. You need something bigger PULLING at Dodd here, so his time at the strip club is never comfortable. Now that we’ve introduced a fiancé, she can always be calling and telling him to “get over here” (maybe she’s even his boss or an upper level employee at the publishing house he works at). That gangster can show up and demand his money.  Finally add an immediate problem from the company itself that’s demanding his attention. We can’t ever feel too comfortable in a comedy, that things are going to be okay. This setup feels too comfortable.

Because of some of these structural issues, I can’t quite give this a “worth the read,” but it was close. As you can tell from how in-depth I went, I believe in Colin. Just remember, it’s not all about the funny dialogue. You have to continually put your characters in bad situations to find the best comedy.

Good luck!

Script link: NSFW

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Finally! A writer who gets this right! One of the most ANNOYING things a reader endures is the ambiguity in which a writer picks a character’s first or last name to deliver dialogue. For example, one character will be introduced as SOLOMON HASHER and another as RYAN SMITHSON. Then, when it’s time for dialogue, one of those characters will be known as ‘HASHER’ while the other is “RYAN.” Why the last name of one but the first name of the other????? What Colin does is he introduces Dodd as: “Benjamin DODD.” And then Ollie as simply, “OLLIE.” By only capitalizing Dodd’s last name in the intro, it makes sense why his last name is used for dialogue, while with Ollie, his first. I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen this. And I thank you, Colin. I thank you!

ESCFX-032Mistake #15 – Too many characters!

After consulting on a script last week, the writer asked me, “Is there anything in my script that screams amateur?” I found that to be an interesting question. As writers, avoiding that amateur status is a must. No one wants to cluelessly show up to their first hockey practice wearing a football helmet. Now the truth is, the best way to shake off all the amateur mistakes is through good old fashioned practice. But we at Scriptshadow are committed to speeding that process up.

So today, I’m going to list the top 21 amateur mistakes I encounter. If I see any of these in a script, I know I’m dealing with an amateur. But instead of listing them for you in order of frequency, I’m going to list them in order of importance. So the number 1 mistake is the absolute WORST amateur mistake you can make. The number 2 mistake, the second worst, etc., etc.  Oh, and because I love you guys so much, I’m going to give you 21 little mini-solutions to these mistakes. Are we ready? Let’s do it.

1) Bad Concept – Boring, uninspired, and drama-less movie ideas are the most crippling mistake you can make as an amateur. Your script is dead before the reader has even made it to the first word of your screenplay.
Solution – Always field test your ideas. Go off the energy of the reaction rather than the words. If someone looks and sounds excited after you give them the logline, it’s a good idea. If someone acts reserved, confused or polite, it probably means they don’t like the idea, even if they say they do. Of course, get different opinions. No idea is universally loved.

2) Passive/Reactive Protagonist – If your hero is not actively pursuing something in your script, that means he’s sitting around waiting for things to happen, which means your story is probably waiting around too. There are some movies that don’t have big goals driving the story, but they’re often niche material and they’re often not very good.
Solution – Make sure your hero always has a goal at every point in the story. If they achieve one goal, give them another.

3) Cliché – Everything from the characters to the scenes to the plot points are stuff we’ve already seen in other movies.
Solution – Stop using choices you’ve seen from other movies. If you’ve seen one of your characters in another movie, change him. If you’ve seen a scene before in another movie, don’t use it. You won’t always succeed, but you should at least try to come up with a fresh take on every choice you make.

4) Lack of effort – Nothing seems very well thought through. Scenes feel empty and rushed. Even character names seem flat (Bob, Joe, Bill). You get the sense that the script was written in a week with the writer never once questioning any of his choices.
Solution – If you want to compete in the big-leagues, you have to bring your A-game. Think through as much of your story as possible before you write it. And always question your choices while you’re writing it. Ask yourself, “Can I write a better scene here?” If the answer is yes, re-write the scene.

5) Thin characters – None of your characters has any depth. They lack flaws, backstory, a compelling worldview, anything interesting to say, or any sense that they existed before they first appeared in your script.
Solution – They’re annoying as hell, but write a 3000-5000 word backstory for all your major characters detailing their life from birth until present day. The more you know about someone, the more real they’ll appear on the page. Also, every person on earth has one major flaw holding them back (even you!). Figure out that flaw in your characters, and make sure it keeps getting in their way throughout the story (if your hero is selfish, keep giving him opportunities to be selfless).

6) No drama – There’s very little conflict, obstacles, or choices that anyone in your story has to deal with. Things are handed to your hero without him having to work for it. Scenes often consist of agreeable characters talking agreeably.
Solution – Start every scene with an imbalance. Someone wants something and the other person doesn’t want to give it to them. That’s not the all-encompassing answer to creating drama, but it’s a start.

7) Unnecessary scenes – Amateurs love to include scenes that have nothing to do with the story.  They figure as long as their characters are talking about something, it’ll be “entertaining.”
Solution – Figure out what your hero’s main goal is (defeat the terrorists).  If you’re writing a scene that isn’t necessary to your hero achieving that goal, it’s probably not necessary.

8) Slow first act – A close cousin to the above, writers use two, three, even four times the amount of scenes they need to set everything up. They think they’re “adding depth” by building up their world, when in reality, they’re boring the reader, who’s getting impatient because nothing’s happening.
Solution: Things always need to happen faster in your story than you think they do. Move that exciting plot point from page 30 to page 15. Move your big midpoint twist from page 60 to page 45. Get to the good parts sooner, then create more good parts. You’ll thank me.

9) On-the-nose dialogue – Characters say exactly what they’re thinking all the time, leading to predictable and boring dialogue.
Solution: In general, people hide their true thoughts behind facades. The happiest person is sometimes the saddest on the inside. The person who’s the nicest to you may be the one always talking behind your back, or seeking something from you. Always remember that when you write dialogue. There’s usually a hidden agenda.

10) No stakes – Nothing really matters in your story. Your characters will end up in relatively the same position whether they succeed or fail.
Solution – Make sure there’s always something on the line for every character in the screenplay, not just in the overall story, but in each individual scene. The more that’s on the line, the more intense your story or your scene will be.

11) Telling instead of showing – Given the choice between telling the reader something, (“Hey Joe, I heard you’re the best realtor in the state,”) or showing them (a scene where Joe convinces a family hell-bent on not buying a house to buy it) the writer almost universally chooses to tell it. Hence, their script is full of talking heads instead of action.
Solution – This one’s easy. Every time you need to tell the audience something important about your plot or your characters, you’re not allowed to let your characters say it. You have to come up with a way to show it through action instead.  Finding the right “show” scene is one of the most rewarding feelings in screenwriting.

12) Lack of clarity – This is one of the hardest ones for an amateur writer to catch because it’s completely beyond their realm of understanding. They don’t yet know how much information to give the reader, so usually border on too little. So the reader’s always confused about what’s going on. These scripts can be mind-numbing to read.
Solution – It’s a bitch finding someone who will do this, but the only way to really nip this in the bud is to have a “clarity” reader, someone who reads your script for clarity issues. After they’re finished, quiz them on all the major plot points and characters. See if they understood everything. If they didn’t, find out why.

13) A wandering second act – Everything seems to be going well at first, but as soon as the writer hits the second act, the script falls off the rails and becomes an unfocused mess.
Solution – Remember, character goals are your friends. As long as your protagonist is going after something important, your script will have direction. The second he isn’t, your script is going to lose steam. Once again, if a goal is met, replace it with another one, preferably one bigger than the last.

14) No urgency – Nobody seems to be in a hurry to do anything. While not as crippling to a screenplay as no goal or no stakes, a script without urgency starts to feel slow and unimportant.
Solution – Even in an indie film, the idea is to always have something your characters are trying to do, and preferably something they need to do quickly. “Quickly” can be relative, but in general, it should feel like your characters are running out of time to do whatever it is they’re trying to do.

15) Over-description – The reason why you see a lot of over-description (“The cool grass nuzzles up against packed dirt as a hulking boot plunges down on the oxygen-dependent blades”) is a) because most new screenwriters write as novel-readers, since that’s the only kind of writing they’ve read up until this point and b) because they want to impress you with how many words they know. Neither is a good thing.
Solution – During important moments (an important character, an important location, an intense scene) that’s when your description should be a little more colorful. Otherwise, keep it simple and clear. It’s a screenplay and meant to be read fast.

16) Too many characters – The writer just keeps introducing them. Every new scene has another character or two. And they actually expect the reader to remember all of them!
Solution: Ultimately, your story will determine the number of characters you include. I read a script last week with 4 characters. I read a script yesterday with 15. Just remember that you usually don’t need as many characters as you think you do. Try to combine or cut characters if possible. Use the extra script time you gain to develop your main characters. If you have over 20 named characters, you probably have too many.

17) Plot is unnecessarily complicated – Amateurs love to make things way more complicated than they need to be. Lots of plot twists. Triple-agents. The guy who works for the secret guy who works for the secreter guy. Complex plots are actually great when done well, but the amateur doesn’t yet know how to navigate these tricky waters. They’re still learning. So it’s a little like watching a 4 year old try to skate an Olympic freestyle routine. Sure, you’re really rooting for them.  But after they’ve fallen down five times in a minute, you don’t want to watch anymore.
Solution – Your plot will be determined by your story. Chinatown is going to have more plot than Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But in general, your plot should be simple. Any complexity should be saved for your characters.

18) Terrible use of exposition – Characters talk endlessly about the plot and each other’s backstory, and there’s no attempt to hide this exposition at all.
Solution – However much exposition you think the audience needs, divide that by four. That’s how much you’re allowed to give them. Therefore, find the 25% of your exposition you believe is the most important, and hide it throughout your script in parts.

19) On the nose characters – This usually goes hand-in-hand with on-the-nose dialogue. This includes characters who act and talk exactly how they look. A big muscly guy who has a big burly Brooklyn accent. A small nerdy guy who loves computers. The hot girl is, of course, a bitch. The old hag who lives next door is a giant meanie.
Solution – A form of on-the-nose characters can be okay (by “a form” I mean still adding a twist to them. A meathead can still talk like a meathead, but maybe has some unexpected trait, like he loves cats). But mix in these on-the-nose characters with off-the-nose ones as well. The nerd who’s a stud with the ladies. The basketball star who’s a quiet recluse. The company CEO who’s a jokester. This is one of the easiest ways for me to spot a writer who knows what they’re doing, the ones who create off-the-nose characters.

20) Way too much mindless action – Amateur writers often mistake “something happening” for “lots of action.” But if we don’t know why the action’s happening or know the characters who are in the action well, we won’t care. Check your favorite action movies. Write down the ratio of scenes with action to those without action. You might be surprised at how many non-action scenes there are.
Solution – Put more emphasis on character development instead (putting your hero in situations where his flaw is challenged. So if your character is anti-social, make it so he has to go to a party). That way, when we get to the action scenes, we’ll care more, since we’ll know your characters better and care whether they survive.

21) Spelling/grammar – You might be surprised that this one is so low on the list. But I’d rather have all the things above than good spelling. With that said, bad spelling and bad grammar usually go hand in hand with everything else here. Once people start taking all that other stuff seriously, they take more pride in their presentation.
Solution – Get a proofreader. Either here with us, with someone else, with your friends, family, whoever. But if you want to be taken seriously, your work has to look professional.

Archives

  • 2014 (165)
  • 2013 (287)
  • 2012 (276)
  • 2011 (290)
  • 2010 (323)
  • 2009 (350)