As American Sniper tore up the weekend with another 65 million, two new films were left trying to fight over the scraps. One of these films starred J-Lo. The other, Johnny Depp. Which one do you think won? Ready to be shocked? J-Lo’s film, The Boy Next Door (15 million), crushed Depp’s film, Mortdecai (4 million). Now I’d previously read both of these scripts and liked them both. But this was a surprise. Depp losing to J-Lo?
Many people are trying to figure out how this happened and nobody’s come up with a convincing answer yet. Deadline’s saying it’s because J-Lo is playing a part that caters directly to her audience while Depp is not. What?? Depp is playing EXACTLY the role his audiences like – a goofy weird character that requires some element of make-up between him and the audience (in this case, a mustache).
Here’s the real issue. Comedies are becoming harder and harder to make. Not only are studios frustrated with their weak international box office, but the elements have to be just right. Comedies without a proven commodity in the protagonist role are darn near certain to fail. If you don’t have Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen at the center of your film, audiences probably aren’t going to show up.
Also, studios prefer grounded comedy concepts as opposed to broad uber-goofy comedies that don’t exist in reality. What do I mean by this? Well, a grounded comedy is a comedy like Neighbors or Bridesmaids or The Hangover. These are situations that could happen in real life. So they’re GROUNDED. A non-grounded comedy would be the body switching film, The Change-Up, which is based on magic, or White Chicks, where nobody acts even remotely like people in the real world would.
There’s also a third lesser-known deviation of the grounded comedy, which I call a “Grounded Tweener” (not to be confused with a “Rounded Weiner”). These are movies that are slightly goofier than regular grounded faire, but can still technically happen. Something like “The Interview.” It’s a pretty goofy idea to think two crappy entertainment news show producers could take out the leader of North Korea, but there’s nothing in the movie that couldn’t technically happen in the real world.
While Mortdecai’s events could technically happen in the real world, none of the characters in the script act like real people at all. They’re all acting in a heightened goofy manner that doesn’t exist in reality. It’s not that it’s impossible to make these films work (The Pink Panther worked), but the tone and the humor and the directing have to be JUST RIGHT or else the whole thing comes crashing down. One look at the trailer confirms that that’s exactly what happened here.
Now I’m going to contradict myself later in the week when I review a funny amateur script with an “ungrounded” premise. But that’s what I’m trying to tell you. Even if you get it right, producers are still going to be hesitant because they know how difficult it is to transfer broad comedy to the screen. That’s not to say the industry will always be this way. The 80s and 90s loved ungrounded comedies and everything in Hollywood is cyclical. But for right now, if you’re writing a comedy, you probably want to ground it in some way.
Speaking of comedy, some of you might be laughing at my dismissal of several recent screenplays, which have since gone on to become big box office or critical successes. These scripts would be American Sniper, Birdman, and True Detective. Now there are a few of you (I won’t name names) who have used the success of these projects to prove that people like myself – that is to say, people who push a type of script formula – have no idea what they’re talking about and that writing a screenplay should be this lawless stream-of-stream-of-concious experiment where rules don’t apply.
Here’s the problem with that assumption. I like offbeat “non-formulaic” scripts just as much as the next guy. The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler are all scripts I loved when I read them. I actually love when a writer breaks the rules and makes it work. Those are the moments when scripts feel the most original. But I’m not going to lie. The success of those first three projects has baffled me to a certain degree. I thought the American Sniper script was boring, the Birdman script an aimless ESL nightmare, and True Detective was overwritten and “try-hard.”
But as I zoomed out, I found that the scripts all had one very positive thing in common. In fact, it was the exact same thing that the other three scripts I mentioned had going for them. Each script had a fascinating central character. Take a look:
The Imitation Game (Alan Turing) – A gay autistic mathematical genius.
Birdman (Riggan) – A Broadway director who’s losing his mind.
American Sniper (Chris Kyle) – A national hero whose job it is to be a serial killer.
Nightcrawler (Louis Bloom) – A crazed sociopath who will do anything to get a story.
Foxcatcher (John du Pont) – A mentally unstable recluse.
True Detective (Rust) – A philosophical nihilistic mess of a man.
The lesson here is a simple one. Character first. As much as I love story and despise scripts that don’t put any effort into that area, a script can survive most issues if it has a fascinating key character. In the end, we go to the movies to see people – to see what makes them tick. A story is merely an avenue to provide characters with difficult choices – choices we’ll enjoy watching because we’re captivated by the person making them. And I’m not saying that every script has to be like one of these – dark heavy pieces with a troubled main character. But whatever story you’re telling, it’s a good idea to ask yourself, “How can I make my main character stand out?” Cause that’s the common thread with all the scripts that break through.
Finally, today, I want to talk about loglines. Quite a few of you signed up for logline assistance after my post on Thursday, and I’ve noticed that one particular mistake is being made more than any other when it comes to writing loglines. It’s something I’ve talked about before but it continues to be a problem. I call it “logline schizophrenia.”
There are essentially two parts to a logline – the setup of the main character and the key element of conflict they’ll be engaged in. When both of these elements work together, the logline works. When they don’t, you have logline schizophrenia. And usually, when you have logline schizophrenia, you have script schizophrenia. This is why you’ll hear people say, “Don’t start a script until you get the logline down.” They’re saying that if you can’t make your one-line story summary make sense, what makes you think you can make an entire script make sense? Let’s first take a look at the logline for The Imitation Game to see a logline that works.
A mathematician who doesn’t work well with others is tasked to join a group of code-crackers in hopes of solving the elusive Enigma Code that Germany used during World War 2.
Okay, so the two elements here are 1) a mathematician who doesn’t work well with others, and 2) a group of code-crackers trying to crack Enigma. The mathematician element in the first part connects with the code-cracking aspect in the second part. And a character who “doesn’t work well with others” in the first part connects with the joining “a group of code-crackers” in the second part. There is a cohesiveness about this logline. Now you may say to yourself, “Well duh Carson. That’s obvious.” Well no it isn’t. Not if the loglines I get are any indication. I would actually say that 80% of all the loglines sent to me are discarded for this very reason. I’m not going to give you actual loglines because I don’t want to embarrass anyone but here are a couple of VERY close approximations to the loglines I receive.
A health-conscious chef has his life turned upside-down when his cousin, who plays a well-known clown for a national TV show, shows up needing a place to stay.
Let’s take a look at the two elements. 1) A health-conscious chef – As random as the adjective “health-conscious” may seem, I see this ALL THE TIME. Writers give their protagonists adjectives that are completely irrelevant to the story. 2) His cousin, a clown on a TV show, shows up needing a place to stay – What exactly in the second part of this logline connects with the first? A TV clown and a health-conscious chef? The average person is going to look at this logline and be confused. Let’s look at how we might create a more coherent logline from these elements.
A famous TV chef known more for his outrageous personality than his food, gets an unexpected visit from his estranged brother, a stuffy Michelin star chef who despises everything his brother stands for.
Granted this logline isn’t perfect, but you can see how the elements actually line up this time around. We have a glitzy chef who prefers style over substance, being forced to live with his chef brother, who demands substance over style. Also, because the elements line up, so does the conflict. We know exactly what these two are going to be at odds about. Whereas in the first logline, we don’t see any clear conflict. Why, for instance, is the chef’s life turned “upside-down” by his brother showing up? Because he’s a clown? The logline doesn’t tell us how that would matter. Again, it’s too schizophrenic. Let’s look at another one.
When a mild-mannered accountant unexpectedly develops the power to manipulate fire, he starts robbing local banks, eventually becoming the most notorious bank robber in history.
Again, the schizophrenic nature of this logline may seem obvious to you (“What does a guy who’s developed fire super-powers have to do with robbing banks?”) but here’s the funny thing I’ve learned about schizophrenic loglines. It’s easy to spot them when they’re not yours but tough to spot them when they’re your own. Bad ideas often sound good in our heads because they came from our heads. Our brain has connected them because it wants the logline to work. It takes someone else to point out that the two elements don’t go together. So what could we do to make this logline work? Well, we’d have to change it pretty drastically.
The world’s best bank robbers form an “all-star” team and start robbing banks of billions of dollars, claiming they won’t stop until the one-percenters start sharing their wealth.
Again, maybe not the best logline, but one in which we can clearly connect the two halves. At the beginning we’re talking about bank robbers and at the end we’re talking about robbing banks. Now some of you may be saying, “Well not every movie can be broken down into a logline like that.” True. I’m not claiming this is required 100% of the time. But almost all of the cases of mismatched loglines reside in book adaptations, biopics, and real-life scenarios – projects that are usually developed in-house. If you’re trying to get the attention of the industry with a spec script, your logline will be your main selling point – and if it sounds clunky or schizophrenic, people probably aren’t going to ask you to read it. Keep that in mind when you’re writing your next script!
We’ve got a little bit of everything today. I also went deep into the submissions for a few of these so some writers might be surprised to see their work finally appearing. As usual, read as much as you can of each, vote on which one you like the most, and give the writers your thoughts on what you read in a constructive way. Most writers never get feedback. So even something like, “Your opening scene feels too reserved” can really help. Can’t wait to see which script emerges on top!
Title: The Stag
Genre: Survival Thriller
Logline: A Stag Weekend in the Tasmanian Wilderness goes horribly wrong when a hunting accident forces the bridegroom and his five friends into a nightmarish trek for survival while being hunted by a vengeful Mountain Man.
Why You Should Read: Like all good genre films The Stag has a strong hook and plenty of thrills and spills but is grounded by strong and interesting characters. However, the main reason you should review it is simply because a number of your readers probably think Tasmania is a made up place filled with cartoon devils or part of Africa. It’s not, and this means The Stag can double as both a fun geography lesson as well as a script review. I also think it would be valuable for your international readers, as I’d be interested in scriptshadow’s opinion/debate on whether scripts set outside of the US can be used as calling cards to break in or whether US based material is more likely to launch a career.
Title: The Willow Groves
Logline: A struggling journalist has the chance to reignite her career when she receives a mysterious letter from a girl claiming to be possessed and seemingly trapped at “The Willow Groves” plantation; an estate with a sinister history.
Why you should read: This is the first screenplay I’ve written. I spent months, planning, writing, re-writing it. Awake until the early hours while laying in my bed, thinking over certain lines and sequences, making sure that it was really the best that it could be. — I’ve spent time trying to create a world and an atmosphere that, hopefully, the reader will enjoy.
Genre: Supernatural Thriller (pilot)
Logline: A recently paroled convict returns home to make amends with his estranged family, while also returning to his destiny: the master of ceremonies for a God intent on making “her” debut to the world.
Why you should read: Angry Scientist here, — I think differently than most writers. I operate outside the box. I’m here to push the medium. This is my attempt. Review it, and I’ll show everyone how to write compelling, original shit.
Title: Let Us Touch The Sun
Genre: Vampire Mystery
Logline: A Transylvanian Countess struggles to conceal her dark inheritance from two investigators when she finds herself drawn to a bereaved English girl.
Why You Should Read: Several recent AOW candidates have appealed to 1980s nostalgia so I’ll try for a different demographic: 1970s Euro Horror. A smaller audience, perhaps, but definitely there by way of dvd labels Blue Underground, Redemption and Shameless. Indeed, LET US TOUCH THE SUN is my attempt to write something I would purchase myself from one of these labels – a film drenched in the climate of its mysterious female antagonist, unerring sense of place, and all-pervasive sensuality. – Rest assured, however, that I’ve aligned this heady sensibility with the rigour of the Hollywood paradigm and can imagine the role of Countess Kristeva appealing to someone like Penelope Cruz. I’d also like to think that even those who aren’t keen on vampire films will find themselves drawn in (and refreshed) by the unique tone and atmosphere: A vampire film that takes place predominantly during daylight hours… It’s also an ultra-fast read and would add a dash of retro glamour to Amateur Friday! The faithful are baying for “new blood” so maybe it’s a perfect time to give someone quietly addicted to Scriptshadow their moment in the sun…!
Title: Jenny’s Got a Cult
Logline: A dysfunctional family must band together to save their outcast daughter from marrying into a cult.
Why You Should Read: My name is Allison Raskin and I’ve been a fan of the site for years. I graduated from USC’s screenwriting program in May 2011. I’ve been lucky enough to snag a manager (after working as his assistant for a year) but he hasn’t done anything in terms of my writing (instead I go out on audition for roles I’m not pretty enough for because my headshot is misleading). If my logline sounds familiar, it’s because there was a 2008 blacklist script with a similar logline (APOSTLES OF INFINITE LOVE). I wasn’t aware of this until I was halfway through my first draft. I also wasn’t aware that my management company is the one trying to produce it…Despite these obstacles I decide to continue because it was a story I really wanted to tell. Hopefully it will be a story you want to read.
Title: The Answer
Genre: Supernatural horror
Logline: After losing his wife during the exorcism of one of his children, a deadbeat alcoholic has to sober up fast and find a way of fighting the demon that’s possessing his youngest child.
Why You Should Read: The script was a semifinalist – three months in a row – in the Amazon Studios writing contest of 2011 and received some studio notes. However, that was three years ago and many drafts ago. I want to see where it stands now.
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): When her older brother — a notorious NYC graffiti writer — is murdered, a teenaged fine arts student must infiltrate this underground world in order to find her brother’s killer.
Why You Should Read (from writer): The script takes place in NYC during the implementation of Mayor Guiliani’s infamous “broken window” theory. I hurried to get this draft done, as I feel it’s only gaining relevance given the current events. Graffiti’s a tough subject to crack (since most people see graf writers as nothing but vandals), but I tried to make the world as human as possible — through the eyes of a strong young woman. Think Point Break in the world of graffiti, with some freaking GIRL POWER!
Details: 100 pages
Who says we don’t give high ratings to amateur screenplays on Scriptshadow? As long as you bring the goods, you’re going to get recognized. And Ivy brings the goods. Yet it almost wasn’t to be. Ivy went neck and neck with The Multiverse in last week’s amateur offerings and you guys know I prefer a good sci-fi premise to almost anything else. The Multiverse sounded like it could be the next Inception.
But there’s also something to be said for unique subject matter. When’s the last time you saw a movie about graffiti? Well, I guess there was Exit Through the Gift Shop, but that wasn’t so much a movie as it was a strange movie-docu hybrid. This is a straight up screenplay about the underworld of graffiti artists, seasoned inside a nice little murder-mystery. Let’s take a closer look.
The year is 1995. 18 year-old Ivy goes to a prestigious Michigan private school on an art scholarship. Ivy is extremely talented, but too shy about her work. She’s scared to put it out there for others to see, and it’s starting to take a toll on her education. Her professor tells her that if she doesn’t come out of her shell soon, she may not be here much longer.
Tragedy strikes when Ivy gets word that her older brother back in Brooklyn’s been murdered. When she heads home, we learn a little more about her background – abandoned by both their parents, the siblings leaned on one another to scrape by. It appears that since Ivy’s left, her bro, “Jocky,” has become quite the celebrity on the graffiti scene.
When she asks the cops what happened, they tell her, look, we can’t help you unless you help us. Get in with the graffiti gangs and sniff around, see if you can’t get us some names. It isn’t long before Ivy meets Sev, the 24 year-old reining graffiti king. Word on the street is that Sev killed someone a year ago for stepping on his territory. Could he have done the same to Jocky??
Ivy joins Sev’s gang and shows the kind of promise few graffiti artists do, and her and Sev get real close. The more she gets to know him, in fact, the more she questions whether he could have really killed her brother. But when Sev starts to suspect that Ivy may be working with the authorities, all bets are off, and Ivy may find out first hand what Sev is capable of.
If Ivy were graffiti art, it would definitely be the kind you’d stop and look at. However, the closer you looked, the more you’d see some rushed strokes, some clumsy color patterns. You’d take note of the artist though, and keep an eye out for more of their work.
One of the things I liked about Ivy was its attitude towards art. It reminded me a little bit of Dead Poet’s Society. Characters would routinely trumpet the importance of “letting go” and “breaking the rules.” That’s where all the best graffiti came from.
The problem with this is that Ivy doesn’t break any rules itself. It’s a straightforward setup. Ivy must figure out who killed her brother (goal). She gets in with a dangerous crowd (stakes). Her school is only giving her 30 days leave (urgency). Not that I see anything wrong with this. I love a well-structured screenplay and thought Ivy did a great job of it here. It was just funny that what the characters were saying didn’t match up with what the writer was doing.
But it does bring up an issue we don’t talk about enough. And that’s that, when you do stick to the rules, you have to camouflage them. If it’s too transparent that you’re hitting all the standard story beats, the story itself becomes transparent.
For instance, in an early scene where Ivy goes to her brother’s apartment, the cops knock on the door. They come in, discuss her brother for a minute or two, and then say, “We need you to infiltrate these graffiti gangs. Will you do it?” Now, this scene may need to happen to push the story forward, but that doesn’t mean you can just plop it in there with no finesse.
I mean a) why would they think some uppity private school girl would be able to infiltrate a dark dangerous graiffiti world that she didn’t even know about until today? And b) Where are the formalities involved in creating this operation? Police work has to be documented, it has to be approved. Yet here, apparently, two random cops can just be like, “Go infiltrate a gang,” and that’s that.
We needed more camouflage here. We needed the cops to have seen Ivy’s art to get the idea that she could impersonate a graffiti artist in the first place. We needed more formality than 2 minutes of conversation and “Go do something that could get you killed.” Sometimes, as writers, we’re so blinded by what needs to happen in our story, that we don’t think to ask, “Does this make sense?”
Your story has to be seamless, especially when in it’s in a construct where readers are predicting your beats before you write them. If you write a scene that screams: HERE’S A MAJOR STORY BEAT – you can bet that it will take them out of the story.
There were a couple of other rushed decisions at the end of the script too. A new character (and potential brother murderer), Oz, shows up with only 20 pages to go. Although we’d heard Oz’s name before, it wasn’t in any meaningful capacity. So to then make him a major character in the very last act is jarring.
This seems like it would be an easy fix though. Just make Oz more of a rival to Sev. Maybe Oz tags over some of Sev’s work, or challenges him on subway cars – anything to make him more of a presence earlier in the movie.
And finally (major spoiler), I didn’t like the absentee father coming back to save the day. The father had ONE SCENE previous to this, and all of a sudden he’s Superman, arriving at the last second to save the day. I like the IDEA of the father arcing, but once again, if you don’t put in the legwork earlier in the script (aka more than one scene with dad), it reads false.
But this is also an easy fix. When Ivy comes back to the Bronx, why can’t she have two goals? The primary one is to find her brother’s killer, of course. But the secondary goal (and major subplot of the film) is to reconnect with her father. Or at least find out why he left Ivy and her brother. That should give you a few more scenes between the two, and make the father’s arc more believable.
This may sound like a bunch of criticism, but actually, these problems I’m mentioning aren’t big at all. Most of Amateur Friday scripts need major overhauls. This just needs adjustments. Ivy was not only a fun script, but I could see it playing at Sundance. For that reason, it gets the first amateur “worth the read” of the year!
Script link: Ivy
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Camouflage. Camouflage your story beats, people. Think of it this way. Let’s say you want to hit on a girl. Do you walk up to the girl and say, “I’m hitting on you.” No, you walk up, ask her the time, what she’s doing here, what her name is. Hopefully a good conversation follows, and then you ask her her number. You’re camouflaging your true intention. Same thing with story beats. You can’t have a cop say, “We need you to infiltrate a gang” out of nowhere. You have to build up the situation so that the statement becomes a natural extension of what’s come before.
Last week, we discussed the five pillars of complexity. Some of you had fun with my attempt to break it down into mathematical terms, which is fine. I will hate you forever. But I think I got the point across. As long as you’re aware aware of the things that complicate a script, you’ll be more likely to find a solution.
Well, I had so much fun writing that article that I’m going to write a similar one. Except instead of focusing on negative subject matter (what not to do), I’m going to focus on the positive (what TO do). Today, I’m going to write about screenwriting MASTERY.
Now here’s something you might not know. It takes the average screenwriter seven years to break into the professional ranks (to get paid for their work). How do I know this? It’s a combination of talking to hundreds of screenwriters and reading hundreds of screenwriter interviews. That number seems to be the one that keeps coming up the most.
It’s probably no coincidence then, that there are seven pillars to screenwriting mastery. Now for those freaking out about waiting seven years for success, I have good news for you. Just the fact that you KNOW these seven pillars exist will help you speed up the process. How quickly? That depends on how talented you are and how hard you work.
So what are the seven pillars? They are, in no particular order, concept, plot, dialogue, character, message, story, and writing. Some more good news. You don’t have to master all of these to sell a script or get paid as a writer. But you do need to be proficient in almost all of them. Let’s take a look at each pillar individually and see what they consist of.
CONCEPT – We were just talking about this yesterday. Concept seems like it shouldn’t be a pillar, because a concept literally takes 5 seconds to come up with. But it is a pillar. In fact, it might be the most important pillar of all. That’s because a lousy idea negates everything that’s written after it. And when I say that you need to come up with a good concept, I don’t mean you need to come up with some huge monsters vs. aliens premise. There’s nothing wrong with a small story. But just like any idea, the concept must have specificity, it must have elements that intrigue, there must be conflict inherent, the stakes must feel high, and if you can add irony, all the better. Let’s say, for instance, that I wanted to write a movie about high school. Here are two potential concepts for the subject matter. “A bullied teenager who struggles to make friends tries to make it through his first year of high school.” “A bullied teenager with a speech impediment finds success when he becomes the unexpected hero of the debate team.” Look at how much more specific the second idea is. A random teenager is now a teenager with a speech impediment. Instead of dealing with just “school,” we’re dealing with the world of the debate team. Because it’s the debate team, stakes are implied (competition). There’s even some juicy irony there (someone who can’t speak joins the debate team). Coming up with a good concept is tough. Some of us are better at it than others. The best thing to do is ask others about your ideas. If they don’t like your ideas, ask them to be candid as to why. Sometimes you need to hear out loud what’s not working about your ideas in order to change your approach (I offer this service by the way – but be ready, I will be honest).
PLOT – Plot is the sequencing of events that tell your story. If you have your main character, Joe, buy apples and then, in the next scene, break up with his girlfriend, you’re plotting. You’re taking one sequence and following it up with another. The reason plotting is so difficult is because you have to do it over 110 pages. And, unfortunately, just showing Joe go from one task to the next for an entire movie isn’t going to keep our interest. You need to show him pursuing something important. You need to show him run into unexpected obstacles. You need to decide when the bad guys catch up to him. This is why the 3 Act structure was created, to give you a sense of where to put these things. But as you’ve all figured out by now, the 3-Act structure only guides you. In the end, it’s your creativity that’s going to dictate how you plot your story.
STORYTELLING – Contrary to popular belief, storytelling and plotting are not the same thing. There is some overlap, but whereas plotting is the art of sequencing events, storytelling is the art of coming up with events (or ideas, or characters). So when you say, “Ooh, what if my main character is actually a ghost and he doesn’t know it!!??” you’re coming up with your “story.” Still confused? Let me try and clarify. There’s a scene in Psycho where Norman Bates pushes the car of the woman his “mother” has killed into a lake. “Storytelling” is coming up with that idea in the first place. “Plotting” is deciding where to place that scene in the screenplay. Let’s try another one. Storytelling is the idea that people in the Matrix can bend space-time, allowing them to have special “powers,” and the subsequent distribution of those powers to all the relevant characters in the movie. Plotting is figuring out where in the movie to best introduce these powers. To that end, storytelling is the art of creation, of coming up with a series of ideas to buff up your story. The mastery of storytelling comes from understanding when an idea is cliché or subpar, and pushing on until you come up with something better. Most new screenwriters have a low bar for their ideas, and go with whatever comes to mind. Veteran screenwriters have a high bar and therefore keep searching until they find an idea good enough for their story.
DIALOGUE – Here’s the thing with dialogue. On the one hand, it’s not as important as the story itself. What do I mean by that? Let’s say you met someone who witnessed and told you the story of Pearl Harbor. The guy may not be the best talker, but the story would be so fascinating that you wouldn’t care. With that said, the most obvious sign of a rookie writer is bad dialogue. Unfortunately, dialogue is one of the hardest things to teach because it’s based more on feel than any other screenwriting component. I can give you a head start though. Here’s a recent post I made on improving dialogue.
CHARACTER – In my opinion, character is the single hardest component of screenwriting. Hands down. I say that because 95% of the characters I read in a script don’t feel like real people. And the reason they don’t feel like real people is because the writer hasn’t created any depth to them. And the reason the writer hasn’t created any depth to them is because they didn’t do the work. Creating characters that feel real requires tons of work on the front end (character biographies) and the back end (rewriting). I rarely read a character that feels honest and fully formed in a first draft. It’s only through the writer getting to know their character over drafts and drafts that they finally become a real person to them, and by extension, us. Character is where the true pros make their money. You can get lucky with a good premise. You can fake your way through a plot. You can have some natural talent when it comes to dialogue. But it takes hard work and dedication to the get the characters right. And only the best writers are willing to do that work.
MESSAGE/THEME – Do you subscribe to the theory of, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” I feel you. I was once like you. Until I realized that theme UNIFIES a screenplay. It brings it all together. Don’t believe me? Go read a bad amateur screenplay (we’ve posted a few here on the site). The commonality you’ll find in all of them is that they’re lost and unfocused. Why? Because they have nothing to unify them. They have no theme! When you have a message you’re trying to convey in your script, you have a story with purpose. Theme can easily be overlooked in screenwriting, but it shouldn’t be.
WRITING – Last but not least, let’s not forget the actual WRITING. I wasn’t going to include this one but as I looked back at all the amateur scripts I’ve read, I found a major trend: sloppy writing. Overly complicated sentences, sentences that were too long, sentences that were too short, misuse of words, trying to be too cute, dependence on SAT words, bad grammar, purple prose, clunky sentence structure, endless description, you name it. A reader can’t appreciate your story if they can’t get through one of your sentences without wanting to gouge their eyes out with a rusty spork. Each genre will have its own tone, each screenwriter his/her own style, but for the most part, you should write simple clean easy-to-read sentences. If you need help, find a screenwriter you love and read all their scripts over and over again. Pay close attention to how they write and use their style as blueprint for your own.
And that’s it my little screenwriting rapscallions. It’s a good idea to rate yourself in all these categories and, wherever you’re weak, do something about it. For example, if you’re weak in plot, watch a bunch of movies and ONLY focus on plot. If you suck at dialogue, read a bunch of scripts by great dialogue writers and figure out why their dialogue works. For most of you, your screenwriting education is self-taught. Blindly writing screenplays over and over probably isn’t going to help. You need to identify your weaknesses and specifically work on them. These seven pillars are a great place to start. Good luck!
Premise: In the near future, the police department has developed a device that replays sound from the past, which allows them to listen in on murders after the fact.
About: Here we have another Top 10 2014 Black List script. Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns is from Scotland and this script also placed on the Brit List earlier this year. She’s also adapting “The Good Nurse” for Darren Aronofsky, about “The Angel of Death” nurse who killed over 300 patients.
Writer: Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Details: 119 pages – February 2014 draft (this is the draft that landed on both the Brit and Black List).
Today I want to talk about ideas. A good idea is one of the easiest things to bring to the table as a writer. It doesn’t take a year of meticulously outlining and plotting and character work and drafting and re-drafting. An idea can come to you in a split-second and is therefore one of the least time-intensive components of the process.
It’s also one of the easiest ways to set yourself apart. For example, let’s say you want to write a murder-mystery. Okay, you’ve just joined 6000 other murder-mystery scripts. Hallelujah to that scenario. Are you sure your murder-mystery is going to be better than every one of them? The odds say no.
BUT… what if you could change something in the IDEA that made your murder mystery stand out from all the others? What if you had a concept that allowed you to explore that murder-mystery in ways that nobody else who was writing a murder-mystery could? You have just – without even writing a single word of your screenplay – separated yourself from the pack.
And that’s exactly what’s happened today. Aether is an okay screenplay. It moves a little slow for its own good and the characters aren’t as exciting as I’d like them to be, but because we have a unique concept – a specialized audio device that allows you to re-listen to the crime scene – it makes the read a lot more interesting than had this been yet another straight-forward murder mystery.
So what’s Aether about? Homicide Detective Harry Orwell was part of a prized team that recently created a device that could take sound waves in a room, collect them, and play them back long after they were made. This evolved naturally, then, to the homicide world, where it’s become a tool for detectives to figure out who the killer was.
Harry’s a troubled dude though. Like a lot of other “listeners,” he’s traumatized by the desperate last pleas and gulps and breaths of the murder victims who he must listen to over and over again. It’s become so bad that his department has actually hired a shrink to work through these issues with each audio-detective.
Well, one day Harry is listening to a murder, and he hears the exact same scream that he heard in a previous murder. He eventually deduces that the murderer has access to one of these audio devices (AMPS) and, after killing his victim, likes to sit around and re-listen to his kills (if this is a little confusing, I’m right with you. I didn’t entirely understand it either).
What makes things worse is that the latest victim is a bartender who was serving Harry drinks the night she was killed. And Harry, who was wasted, has no recollection of how he got home. Both the department and Harry start to wonder if he’s involved in the killings. When a woman from inside Harry’s department is killed next, the witch-hunt is on. So if Harry isn’t the killer, he’s going to have to find some evidence to clear his name quickly.
At the beginning of this review, I talked about finding an original idea. Now, I’m going to talk about EXPLOITING that idea. Because an unexploited original idea is no better than an unoriginal one.
What does it mean to exploit an idea? It means finding things about the idea that the average Joe never would’ve thought of and then implanting those ideas into your script in interesting ways. Think about that. You’re the screenwriter. That’s your job! You can’t be just like everyone else who comes up with an idea. You have to be exceptional. You have to find things that others can’t. Or else what makes you so special?
Take Back to the Future. A guy accidentally goes back in time and must figure out a way to get back home when the time machine breaks. That’s a fun idea. But a lousy writer’s going to come up with a bunch of surface-level hijinx (oh, gas used to be 5 cents!) and that’s it. Zemeckis and Gale dug deeper. They said, “Well wait a minute. What if, when he went back in time, he accidentally screwed up the meeting between his parents? And now he has to figure out a way to get them together before he goes back home or he’ll never be born?” THAT’S exploiting your premise. THAT’S digging deeper than the obvious.
One of the problems with Aether is that it doesn’t exploit its premise enough. Beyond listening in on these past murders, the only deeper exploration of the idea is that the killer has one of these audio devices too. There’s SOMETHING to that but it’s still just a seed of an idea. It needs to grow or else you’re going to get yet another of those murky executions of a cool concept.
Another thing I want to talk about is how our investment as an audience is almost always tied to the main character’s investment in the story. So look at a movie like American Sniper. For all the problems I had with the script, Chris Kyle is steadfast in his desire to keep going back to the war, to save his people, and to win the war itself. His DESIRE motivates our DESIRE to see if he succeeds.
In Aether, the big dramatic question is: Is Harry the killer, and is he going to get caught? That’s an interesting question and one that would typically keep an audience riveted. The problem is, Harry is such a sad-sack, such an introverted uninvolved character, he doesn’t really seem to care one way or the other. You get the sense that he’d be fine with getting caught because then he wouldn’t have to deal with any of this mess anymore.
In other words, because Harry wasn’t interested in his own self-preservation, I wasn’t interested in it either. And that’s what was so weird about reading Aether. You have a serial-killer mystery on your hands, and yet I never felt completely concerned or involved.
With that being said, this is not an American movie. This script screams Scottish indie flick all the way. And I know the films over there are a lot more laid back, so maybe people won’t have these same issues with Aether. But I still think this premise needs an industrial grade drill to dig much deeper into the concept itself. We’re only scratching the surface here. We must go deeper.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: So when you come up with a unique concept for a screenplay, I want you to do something before you write a word. Write down the first five ideas you come up with as far as the direction you want to take the movie, then consider erasing them all. I’m not going to say to definitely erase them all, because one of them might be brilliant. But chances are, the first five things you think of are exactly what everybody else would think of. And you’re a screenwriter. Which means your job is to dig deeper than everybody else.