All this week, I’ll be putting one of YOUR dialogue scenes up against a pro’s. My job, and your job as readers of Scriptshadow, is to figure out why the dialogue in the pro scenes works better. The ultimate goal, this week, is to learn as much about dialogue as we can. It’s such a tricky skill to master and hopefully these exercises can help demystify it. Here’s yesterday’s “You vs. Pro” if you haven’t read it yet.
In this opening scene, which takes place 50 years in the future, SAM FREEMAN, a “memory diver,” is preparing to go inside the brain of a comatose soldier to try and save him. The soldier’s father, ADMIRAL BLOCK, and Sam’s boss at the hospital, TRENT HARKNESS, head into the operating theater with him.
SAM, admiral BLOCK, and HARKNESS enter the operating theater. Block’s son HARRISON is already hooked up to the Rig.
SAM: Listen, Admiral… I think, given your son’s prognosis, speaking as his therapist… I don’t want you to get your hopes up, ok.
BLOCK: What the hell are you saying? He’s my son!
HARKNESS: No no no, what Dr. Freeman is saying, sir, with this kind of procedure-
SAM: What I’m saying is that maybe it’s time to let go. Do the decent thing, let your kid fade out. Lord knows he could use some peace.
Harkness, mouth agape. Block, turning fire engine red.
BLOCK: You may want to think carefully about the next words that are going to come out of your mouth.
SAM: Or maybe you want to think about what you’re signing your son up for. The years of therapy. The pharmacy’s worth of drugs to get him even remotely close to stable. The drain he’ll be on his family, financially and emotionally. He’ll know. Oh, he’ll know. And he’ll hate every minute of it.
Harkness is turning white as a sheet. Complete shock.
SAM (CONT’D): That’s what you want for him, I won’t stop you. But maybe you should think on whether death isn’t kinder than your selfish need to prolong a life that’s already over.
Block, teeth bared, GRABS Sam. PUSHES him against the wall.
Harkness snaps out of it. Frantically calls for some orderlies to pry Block off Sam.
SAM: Go ahead, get it out. Let loose. Come on. Do it.
Block, muscles taut with fury. We realize Sam genuinely wants Block to beat the shit out of him. And after a couple of tense seconds, Block sees it, too.
BLOCK: You’d like that, wouldn’t you?
He releases his grip. The ORDERLIES burst in, ready to regulate. Block holds up his hands; the orderlies hang back.
BLOCK (CONT’D): You don’t know my son. You don’t know shit. (to the orderlies)
It’s okay, I’m good.
HARKNESS: I’m terribly sorry, Admiral. I assure you, Dr. Freeman will-
But Block’s not paying attention to Harkness. He stands next to his son, strapped into the Rig.
BLOCK: When he was seven, Harrison brought home a stray dog. Mr. Tails. Ugly mutt. Kid loved that damn thing.
Block runs a hand through his comatose son’s hair.
BLOCK (CONT’D): One day, they’re out playing, dog gets hit by a car. I see the animal’s in pain, dying. Try to explain to Harrison what’s the humane thing to do.
Block fixes Sam with a hard stare.
BLOCK (CONT’D): Wouldn’t let me near the dog. Kept kicking me. Punching. Kid’s seven, and he’s putting up one hell of a fight. Knew he’d get his ass whooped, too. Didn’t care. Just needed me to take his damn dog to the vet. Wouldn’t back down.
There’s a stillness in the room, punctuated only by the sound of biomonitors beeping in the background.
BLOCK (CONT’D): I know my son. I know what he’d want me to do. If there’s even the smallest chance…
A silent understanding passes between the two men. Finally, Sam nods.
SAM: I’m sorry for what I said. It wasn’t my place.
BLOCK: You said what you thought you had to. No harm in that. But next time you suggest euthanasia to a parent, I recommend you keep your trap shut.
Sam clicks his cyberdeck into the Rig. Removes the dust plug from the datajack in his skull.
Harkness is staring daggers at Sam. This isn’t over. As he lies down and reaches for the data cable:
SAM: So what happened to Mr. Tails?
Block’s eyes cloud over.
BLOCK: You got work to do, doc.
SAM: Yeah. I suppose I do.
Sam jacks in. His eyes close.
RIG OPERATING SYSTEM (V.O.) Begin playback: March 18, 2057.
FADE TO WHITE.
In this next scene, a father, Matt, is preparing his daughters, 17 year old Alexandra and 10 year old Scottie (yes, Scottie is a girl), to have their last moment with their mother, who’s been in a coma and has just now been taken off life support. Matt is particularly concerned about Scottie, who’s been slow to grasp the magnitude of her mom’s situation.
[Elizabeth] now lies with no machines at all. Around her BALLOONS droop, FLOWERS wilt, get-well CARDS lie in a pile. Elizabeth too is wilting and drooping. Her skin is pasty, and her cheeks are hollow.
SCOTTIE: How come Mom isn’t on any more machines? Is she getting better?
The adults exchange glances. Dr. Herman approaches Scottie.
DR. HERMAN: You must be Scottie. (off her nod –) Scottie, I have a present for you.
Dr. Herman hands her a little squeaky RUBBER OCTOPUS she pulls from her pocket.
DR. HERMAN (CONT’D): That’s right. It’s an octopus. Such a funny creature with its eight legs. But did you know octopi are actually extremely intelligent, like dogs and cats? They have unique personalities, and just like us they have a lot of defense mechanisms. I’m sure you know about the ink sac. She uses ink to confuse her predators. She can camouflage herself. She can emit poison, and some can mimic more dangerous creatures, like the eel. I keep her to remind me of our defense mechanisms — our ink, our camouflage, our poison, all the things we use to keep away hurt. The reason Dr. Johnston invited me here today is to meet you, Scottie. I’ve heard a lot about you.
SCOTTIE: Like what?
DR. HERMAN: I’ve heard that you’re a wonderful and unique and spirited girl.
Dr. Herman shoots a look at Matt before continuing.
DR. HERMAN (CONT’D): And I’ve heard your mom’s not doing too well and that she’s going to die very soon.
All watch Scottie react to this news.
SCOTTIE: Dad, is that true?
MATT: Yes, Scottie. It’s true.
DR. HERMAN: You’re going to have to be a very brave girl right now, and you’re surrounded by people who love you. I came to meet you and tell you that if you ever want to talk about what you’re feeling, I would like to talk to you too. I can help you face what’s going on without all the silly defense mechanisms that work for an octopus but not for us.
DR. JOHNSTON: Okay. Thank you, Dr. Herman.
Dr. Herman looks at everyone with great sincerity before leaving. Scottie is left holding the octopus. She drops it, and it squeaks a little.
ALEXANDRA: What the fuck was that?
DR. JOHNSTON: Yes, well, they say she’s very good one-on-one.
SCOTTIE: So Mom’s going to die for sure?
DR. JOHNSTON: Yes. We worked really hard with her, but three other doctors and I agree she’s in what we call an irreversible coma. Do you know what that means?
SCOTTIE: It means she doesn’t have a brain anymore.
DR. JOHNSTON: Not exactly, but… yes, that’s the general idea. So we’re doing exactly what she wanted us to do if that ever happened. That’s why she’s not attached to the machines anymore.
ALEXANDRA: It’s for the best, Scottie. Look at her. She’s not happy like this.
DR. JOHNSTON: The purpose of medicine is to heal, and we can’t do that now.
MATT: Do you understand?
SCOTTIE: Yes. What will we do with her body?
Dr. Johnston looks to Matt for this one.
MATT: First Mom’s going to give some of her organs to other sick people, so she can
help save their lives. That’s a really neat thing she’s doing. Then we’re going to… we’re going to scatter her ashes in the ocean. You know how Mom always loved the ocean.
SCOTTIE: Her ashes?
Scottie looks at her mother, picturing her as ashes.
SCOTTIE (CONT’D): When will she die?
DR. JOHNSTON: Any day now, I’m afraid. But you still have some time.
DR. JOHNSTON (CONT’D): Well. Let me know if you have any more questions.
MATT: Thanks, Sam.
The doctor leaves, and the room is quiet. Scottie is in a sort of trance.
ALEXANDRA: Come here, Scottie.
Scottie goes to her sister, who takes her in her arms.
SCOTTIE: Do eyeballs burn?
SID: Hey, Scottie. Don’t think about stuff like that.
Okay, let’s take a look at our first scene, which is from an amateur script called “Firstborn.” At the outset, the scene appears to have a lot going for it. We have clear goals (Block wants to save his son. Sam’s trying to convince Block it’s a bad idea). We have conflict (stemming directly from this difference in opinion).
We approach the scene from a slightly unique angle. You’d expect a doctor to fight for a patient’s life. In this case, Sam’s fighting to end the patient’s life. So the scene has a slightly different flavor to it. And yet, something feels off about it. The dialogue isn’t popping the way it should. Why?
Well, the first thing I noticed was that a lot of lines had what I call “hiccups,” additions or pieces of text that screw up the rhythm of the line. Take this line for example: “You may want to think carefully about the next words that are going to come out of your mouth.” The hiccup here is “that are going to.” “That are going to” shouldn’t be in this sentence. It should just be, “You may want to think carefully about the next words out of your mouth.” Reads better, right?
Or check out this line: “No harm in that. But next time you suggest euthanasia to a parent, I recommend you keep your trap shut.” This sentence doesn’t even make sense. “The next time you suggest euthanasia, keep your trap shut.” How can he keep his trap shut about euthanasia if he already suggested it? What’s meant to be said here is that the next time Sam thinks about suggesting euthanasia, he should keep his trap shut. It’s a small oversight, but a hiccup that gives the reader pause. Once these hiccups start piling up, the read becomes difficult and frustrating.
Next, there were a series of cliché/cheesy lines. Stuff like, “He’ll know. Oh, he’ll know.” The second “Oh, he’ll know,” is overly dramatic and unnecessary. Later, when Block realizes Sam wants him to beat him up (for reasons that aren’t clear to me), Block replies, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” How many times have we heard this line in movies and TV before? Hundreds? Thousands? Once something becomes overused, it feels lazy and cheesy.
But, of course, the worst line of all is, “When he was seven, Harrison brought home a stray dog. Mr. Tails.” Adding the dog’s name is a hiccup here. Stopping after “dog” would’ve been preferable. But the real problem is that by going back in time to tell a story, you take us out of the immediate conflict of the scene. This is why I advise to stay away from flashbacks or mono-backs (monologues focusing on backstory) if possible. It’s not that they can’t work. It’s that they rarely work.
To better understand why this dialogue doesn’t work, let’s examine why the dialogue in the second scene does work. For those who don’t recognize the scene, it’s from the film, “The Descendants,” which starred George Clooney. The script, written by Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, and Nate Faxon, won an Academy Award.
So what’s so good about this scene? Well, I’m guessing none of you picked up on this while reading it, but notice how this is the most heartbreaking scene in the script, the finally-letting-go scene, and it contains zero emotion. What I mean by that is, there’s no yelling here, no crying, no fighting. It’s a very calm matter-of-fact scene. With that in mind, ask yourself which scene is more emotionally moving to the reader, the first or the second? The second, right?
You’re going to hear it again and again on this site. Irony plays such a huge part in making the elements of a screenplay work. This is a scene about death with no emotion. That’s exactly why it works. Because it’s unexpected. It’s not the way you traditionally see the scene going down.
Speaking of untraditional, let’s take a closer look at the octopus. I think the octopus dialogue is genius, and I’ll tell you why. Imagine your version of a dying hospital scene. What’s the last thing you’d expect to be in that scene? An octopus. And that’s exactly why this works, because it’s so unexpected. It comes out of nowhere and throws this weird energy into the scene that tells the audience, “You do not know where this is going.” And when we don’t know where something is going, we pay closer attention. Because we want to see where it goes.
Contrast this with the first scene. We all knew exactly where that scene was going. There was nothing unexpected about it, which was a big reason why you probably grew bored reading it. This was a problem yesterday as well. I was never in doubt about where that amateur scene was going. And the more expected something is, the more boring it tends to be.
The octopus becomes this weird failed attempt to placate Scottie. And when it fails, the rest of the room is left to pick up the pieces, leading to yet more unexpectedness. Who’s going to clean this up? What are they going to say to clean it up? These are the questions that drive the scene, that make us want to keep reading.
Yesterday, there were those of you who saw the amateur scene as better than the pros. Do you feel the same way today? If so, why? Share your thoughts. But try to articulate WHY you think the dialogue works (or doesn’t). “The second one is better” doesn’t help anyone. It’s only once you understand why something is or isn’t working that you’re able to apply that knowledge to your own screenwriting.
What I learned 1: The octopus – In well-worn scenes that we’ve seen a thousand times before, inject your own “octopus” into the scene to make it feel different.
What I learned 2: Hiccups – Hiccups are any additional words in your dialogue that aren’t necessary. But it can also be incorrect use of words, tenses, subjects, phrases. Hiccups are just as bad as spelling errors. On their own, they’re not a big deal. But once they pile up, they can spell doom for your script.
All this week, I’ll be putting one of YOUR dialogue scenes up against a pro’s. My job, and your job as readers of Scriptshadow, is to figure out why the dialogue in the pro scenes works better. The ultimate goal, this week, is to learn as much about dialogue as we can. It’s such a tricky skill to master and hopefully these exercises can help demystify it.
Our first scene introduces us to Boyd, a washed up cop, and Dominique, a drug addicted jazz singer. Boyd has just driven Dominique home from the station after she was released from a solicitation charge. As she gets out, she invites him up to her apartment for a drink. This is where the scene takes place (in the apartment). Outside of the car ride they just shared, this is their first conversation.
Boyd grabs a bottle of the good stuff off the makeshift bar.
DOMINIQUE: Not that one. That one’s for show.
Fishing inside a cabinet, Dominique produces the exact same bottle. She pours them both a drink.
Curious, Boyd sniffs his bottle, then sniffs what she’s poured. He smiles knowingly.
Dominique’s on one side of the large canopy bed. Boyd’s miles away, on the other side. Morning light creeps around the drapes.
BOYD: I saw you once.
DOMINIQUE: Don’t be coy, detective. I see you in the back, watching me. You think I don’t, but I do.
BOYD: One, remind me to pick a new spot. And two, it was a long time ago, Chicago. A club called Mister Lucky’s.
DOMINIQUE (playful): What do you know about Mister Lucky’s?
BOYD: I knew talent when I saw it.
BOYD: Which makes me wonder –
DOMINIQUE: What’s a girl like me doing working at Club Cake?
BOYD: Something like that.
DOMINIQUE : Atoning for my indiscretions. And you? What kind of cop’s moonlighting for an asshole like Q?
BOYD: They say true success is knowing your limits and not letting others burden you with their expectations.
DOMINIQUE: What’s that? Some new age, 12 step bullshit?
BOYD : My way of saying we have a lot in common. Boyd raises his glass.
BOYD: To indiscretions and atonement.
DOMINIQUE: I’d thought it’d get easier.
BOYD: So did I.
DOMINIQUE : Daisy said you were a good guy. Are you?
BOYD: When I’m not burdened by expectations? — Yeah.
DOMINIQUE : I’ve got enough pricks in my life. I could use a friend with no expectations.
BOYD: Then I’m your man.
Biting her lip.
DOMINIQUE: Come on.
Dominique steps out of the ripped dress. Boyd’s eyes follow long legs and firm ass down the hall.
DOMINIQUE: Bring the bottle.
BOYD: Where are we going?
DOMINIQUE: To bed.
Sitting on the large canopy bed, Boyd’s confused. Off his look.
DOMINIQUE: That one’s for show.
In this next scene, we have Tom, a homicide detective, paying a visit to Vanessa, a successful novelist who’s a person of interest in a murder case. The two have met before, but this is the first time Tom is seeing her alone. Her house is a huge, a mansion. The scene takes place up in her large office.
He follows her inside. He watches her body. His movements are tentative, off-balance. She turns [the music] down.
On a table by the window, he sees [a computer]. Spread around it are newspaper clippings. They are all about him. We see the headline on one: KILLER COP TO FACE POLICE REVIEW. She sees him glancing at the clips.
VANESSA: I’m using you for my detective. In my book. You don’t mind, do you?
She smiles. He looks at her, expressionless.
VANESSA: Would you like a drink? I was just going to have one.
TOM: No, thanks.
She goes to the bar.
VANESSA: That’s right. You’re off the Jack Daniels too, aren’t you?
She is making herself a drink. She takes the ice out and then opens a drawer and gets an icepick. It has a fat wooden end. She uses the icepick on the ice, her back to him. He watches her.
TOM: I’d like to ask you a few more questions.
VANESSA: I’d like to ask you some, too.
She turns to him, icepick in hand, smiles.
VANESSA: For my book.
She turns back to the ice, works on it with the pick. She raises her arm, plunges it. Raises it, plunges it. He watches her.
TOM (wary): What kind of questions?
She puts the icepick down, pours herself a drink, turns to him.
VANESSA: How does it feel to kill someone?
He looks at her for a long beat.
TOM (finally): You tell me.
VANESSA: I don’t know. But you do.
Their eyes are on each other.
TOM (finally): It was an accident. They got in the line of fire.
VANESSA: Four shootings in five years. All accidents.
TOM (after a long beat): They were drug buys. I was a vice cop.
A long beat, as they look at each other.
TOM: Tell me about Professor Goldstein.
VANESSA: There’s a name from the past.
TOM: You want a name from the present? How about Hazel Dobkins?
She looks at him a long beat, sips her drink, never takes her eyes off him.
VANESSA: Noah was my counselor in my freshman year. (she smiles) That’s probably where I got the idea for the icepick. For my book. Funny how the subconscious works. (a beat) Hazel is my friend.
TOM: She wiped out her whole family.
VANESSA: Yes. She’s helped me understand homicidal impulse.
TOM: Didn’t you study it in school?
VANESSA: Only in theory. (she smiles) You know all about homicidal impulse, don’t you, shooter? Not in theory — in practice.
He stares at her a long beat.
VANESSA (continuing quietly): What happened, Tom? Did you get sucked into it? Did you like it too much?
TOM (after a beat): No.
He stares at her, almost horrified.
VANESSA (quietly): Tell me about the coke, Tom. The day you shot those two tourists — how much coke did you do?
She steps closer to him.
VANESSA (continuing): Tell me, Tom.
She puts her hand softly on his cheek. He grabs her hand roughly, holds it.
TOM: I didn’t.
VANESSA: Yes, you did. They never tested you, did they? But Internal Affairs knew.
They are face to face. He is still holding her roughly by the hand.
VANESSA (continuing): Your wife knew, didn’t she? She knew what was going on. Tommy got too close to the flame. Tommy liked it.
He twists her hand. They’re pressed against each other — their eyes digging into each other.
VANESSA: (continuing; in a whisper): That’s why she killed herself?
He is twisting her arm, staring at her, pulling her against him. We hear the DOOR behind them. A beat, and he lets her go, turns away from her.
Roxy stands there, staring at them. Her hair is up. She wears a black motorcycle jacket, a black T-shirt, and black jeans and cowboy boots.
VANESSA (continuing brightly): Hiya, hon. You two have met, haven’t you?
Roxy looks at Tom. Vanessa goes to her, kisses her briefly on the lips, stands there with her arm around her — both of them looking at Tom.
He walks by them, opens the door to go, his face a mask.
VANESSA (continuing): You’re going to make a terrific character, Tom.
He doesn’t look at her; he’s gone.
So what’s the big difference? The first scene is two people talking. The second scene is a SCENE.
What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take a look at the first scene. It’s not bad. But there doesn’t seem to be a clear goal for our characters. It’s more of a mish-mash of conversation interrupted by the occasional piece of backstory. “What’s that? Some new age, 12 step bullshit?” “My way of saying we have a lot in common.” Boyd raises his glass “To indiscretions and atonement.” “I thought it’d get easier.” “So did I.” “Daisy said you were a good guy. Are you?”
“I thought it’d get easier??” Where did that come from?? This seems to be the beginning of a new beat in the scene, a new segment of conversation, which is fine. You can switch gears in a scene . But the problem with this scene is that it never quite finds the gear it wants to cruise in. It feels like it’s always switching gears. This is usually due to the writer being unclear on what his characters want in the scene (their goal). If the writer doesn’t know what they want, he has the characters talk to fill up air, and that almost always results in bad dialogue.
I see a lot of beginners writing this way. They have a vague idea of where they want the scene to end (in this case: the characters having sex), but they haven’t thought about what each character wants that will lead them to that goal. So the dialogue essentially becomes a time-wasting feature until one of the characters says to the other, “Let’s go to bed.”
If, for example, Boyd really wants sex from this girl (his goal), you can play with that. It’s not going to be as strong as a detective probing someone about their role in a murder, but stakes are relative to the characters and the situation, and you can make some of the simplest goals feel important. For example, let’s say we make Boyd a sex addict (He doesn’t have to be. He can just be horny. But I’m raising the stakes a little). Boyd’s goal in this scene, then, is to have sex. Once you have a goal, you can create obstacles to that goal, and now you have conflict, which creates tension/drama.
The way the scene’s written now, Dominique is making it clear she’s going to have sex with Boyd no matter what. I mean she’s practically got it tattooed on her forehead. That means everything in the scene is a foregone conclusion, which is boring. Instead, what if Dominique is fucking with Boyd, just like Vanessa is fucking with Tom. One second Dominique is being flirty, the next she’s stonewalling Boyd. It’s driving him crazy. He doesn’t know if she wants him or not. By doing this, the GOAL IS IN DOUBT. And if the goal is in doubt, the dialogue has purpose. Because it means Boyd has to use his words (his dialogue) to get something.
The second scene is from Basic Instinct (I changed the character names in hopes that you wouldn’t know). Whereas our amateur scene just plopped its two characters down into a room, you can tell the scene in Basic Instinct was CONSTRUCTED. What I mean by that is that pieces were put into place to mine as much drama as possible from the scene.
The very first thing that happens is Tom sees the newspaper clippings of himself on the desk. This is significant because Tom thought he was coming in here as the dominant party. This switches things up. It means Vanessa has become the dominant player. These kinds of things always work – where you change the assumed dynamic between the players in the scene. A cop is supposed to be in charge around a suspect. But now, the suspect is in charge, and that gives the scene an exciting unpredictable energy.
Next, the scene has clear goals. Tom wants to find out information about the murder from Vanessa. Vanessa, on the other hand, her goal is to intimidate Tom. She wants him to know that if he’s going to look into her as a suspect, it’s going to come at a price. This creates a TON of conflict, which is the fuel for any great scene. Looking back at that first scene, I’m not sure I noticed any conflict.
Next, we have subtext. Tom’s not coming right out and saying “I think you’re the murderer.” That would be boring. He’s digging, he’s probing. Nor is she saying, “Don’t fuck with me, Tom! I will make your life miserable.” That also would be boring. She’s showing him that she’s looked into him. She’s crunching ice. She’s pushing his buttons.
Next, the scene builds. Each segment of the scene escalates the tension. The tension near the end of the scene is higher than the tension at the midway point which is higher than the tension at the ¼ point which is higher than the tension at the beginning. That’s good writing, when a scene builds up, when you feel that air being pumped into the balloon. Go back to the first scene again. Notice how ¾ of the way into the scene, the energy doesn’t feel that much different from the energy at the beginning of the scene.
Finally, Eszterhas (our writer) throws a little twist into the end, by having Roxy show up. It’s not a huge part of the scene, but it’s a calculated measure. Watching Vanessa flip the switch and become rosy and sweet shows how calculating she is, how easy it is for her to go from one extreme to the next, which is scary if you’re Tom.
There’s a lot more to talk about with both of these scenes, and I encourage you guys to point out what you find. And hey, if you want to rewrite the opening scene to show the writer how you’d make it better, by all means, go ahead. I’d be interested to see what you came up with. This week should be fun!
What I learned: Sitting two people down and having them talk is usually not enough for a scene. What Basic Instinct teaches us is that you should construct the elements of your scene in such a manner as to create and build tension.
TITLE: Saul Roth’s Band of Merry Felons
LOGLINE: A crew of gangsters take a road trip to deliver millions of dollars in stolen casino money to their flamboyant mob boss, along the way getting into misadventures involving drugs and sex, and fighting off rival mob crews.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: There are quite a few reasons why you should read my script Saul Roth’s Band of Merry Felons. It is funny, it is edgy, it has colorful characters, and it has new interpretations of the types of characters often seen in the gangster genre. Another reason why you should read it is because I have been reading the scripts you have been putting out there for amateur offerings, and quite frankly I haven’t been too impressed by what I’ve been seeing. My script is better.
TITLE: Space Invaders
GENRE: Sci-fi Action Comedy
LOGLINE: The invasion came. Humanity lost. The processing of billions of corpses into bio-fuels begins.
By avoiding human interaction, a loner computer gamer survived the alien plague. But the only way she’ll survive the alien harvest is by joining in with a close-knit militant family journeying to humanity’s final fortress, NORAD.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Awhile ago, Carson reposted a comment I made about the choice between writing something personal and writing something commercial. I figured I may as well leverage that post into a review. So I’m throwing-down with a good ol’ alien-invasion script.
TITLE: Let Us Touch The Sun
GENRE: Euro Horror
LOGLINE: A Transylvanian Countess struggles to conceal her dark inheritance from two investigators when she finds herself drawn to a bereaved English girl. A love letter to European vampire cinema of the 1970s.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Because I’m NOT writing for the US market! As much as I love ScriptShadow, my influences primarily come by way of the European imagination. As such, LET US TOUCH THE SUN is drenched in the climate of its mysterious female antagonist, unerring sense of place, and all-pervasive sensuality. Indeed, my Black List reviewer commented: “The sensuality of vampires is a long-standing obsession for filmmakers, but this stands out even in that canon as being an exceptionally hot-under-the-collar version of the classic tale.”
TITLE: 50 High Street
GENRE: Juvenalian Satire
LOGLINE: A secret room in the cellar of an old New England mansion may hold the key for a stay-at-home dad fighting for custody of his children.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: I recently asked a friend who sold his spec how many drafts he wrote. He said a hundred. Well that’s about where I’m at with 50 High Street. I certainly could have never brought it this far without all the notes from all the people who took the time to read it. I wrote a Juvenalian satire because those are the kind of films I enjoy the most, Fight Club, V For Vendetta, the films of Billy Wilder. In that tradition 50 High Street is a thoroughly researched, scathing indictment of the no-fault divorce industry. I hope Carson chooses it because I can’t recall any Juvenalian satires ever having been reviewed on AF. And I think the feedback could be interesting.
TITLE: Liar. Coward. Judge.
LOGLINE – Deep winter in Civil War Era Missouri – A Union Deserter, a Priest and an Assassin must fight for survival when they are stranded in the wilderness and hunted by a terrible Sasquatch.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Liar. Coward. Judge is a script that has been written out of frustration as much as ambition. As a conscious reply to those horror scripts that turn a blind eye to character, theme and subtext it is a pitch black descent into madness that treats the Sasquatch myth with rare seriousness. It is a savage horror with a truly unique setting that is driven not by the relentless movement from jump scare to gore gross-out but by the development of characters.
Most of all though you should read Liar. Coward. Judge because it doesn’t just ask that cliché question; “who will survive?” but wants you to ask yourself; “does anyone deserve to?”
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 an ex-UFC fighter reluctantly accepts a kidnapping job from the Russian mob, he sneaks into an upscale apartment complex to capture the target but finds himself in a high intensity hostage situation when armed terrorists simultaneously take over the building in a Mumbai-style attack.
Why You Should Read (from writer): Been hacking away at this craft for several years now. Have written several scripts, read countless others. It can be a frustrating grind — writing scripts and trying to find success with them. Sometimes I’d love to quit. But I just can’t. Nothing else even remotely interests me the same way. — This is a classic blood-pumping action thriller with a modern touch that should be a fun ride if it ever makes it to the screen. But don’t take my word for it. One reviewer had the following to say: ”Although there are big budget explosions and gun fighting scenes, the script never feels cliche in its execution of plot. It doesn’t lean on the violence and pays close attention to staying original and dark throughout. This could be a big, blockbuster film that would attract a broad audience and potentially an A-list actor.” — Also, it’s a quick 105 pages with sparse, vertical writing. At the very least you won’t get a headache reading it.
It’s done well in contests (initial draft was top 15% in Nicholl) and on the Black List (revised draft recently received an overall rating of ’8′), but I’d love to get it some more exposure. The more eyes on it, the better, right?
Writer: Bill Anthony Lawrence
Details: 105 pages
Yesterday’s late posting (sorry about that guys) stirred up a bit of controversy in the comments section, with someone saying, “Is this all ya got?” In five years of reading Amateur scripts on Scriptshadow, is this really the best you can come up with?
Now personally, going off all the professional and amateur scripts I’ve read, I think yesterday’s top 10 is AT LEAST better than the bottom 25% of the Black List, with the only difference being the Black List writers have agents blasting their scripts all over town, to the very voters who vote on the list.
However, I will admit that we haven’t found anything world-changing. But that’s because no one’s writing anything world-changing. Not amateurs, not pros, not anyone. A world-changing script (which I’d consider “American Beauty”) comes around once every few years. “Genius” scripts, maybe once a year. Really really awesome scripts, maybe 3-5 times a year.
It’s really hard to do.
And I do think there’s a bit of a “lightning in a bottle” thing going on when it comes to writing a great script. Something you only realize you’re onto once you’re 40-50 decisions deep into the process. There’s no real way of knowing you’re there until you’re there. And there’s no way of really going back if you aren’t. You’ve already committed a ton of time to the script.
I’m a Chicago Bulls fan. Which has been hard since Michael Jordan left the team. We have zero talent on our team. The kind of situation where if a player goes down, we’re asking people on the streets if they know how to dribble a ball.
But the Bulls have this coach. And the coach only requires one thing from his players. That they give their all every single second of every game. And I don’t mean that in some vague “try your hardest all the time” kind of way. I mean literally EVERY. SINGLE. SECOND.
So while the other team is strolling up, dribbling the ball, the Chicago defender will be right up in his face, waving his hands around, dancing his feet back and forth, non-stop high energy ball all the time, making that other guy miserable. If a player stops moving for so much as a second, the coach calls a timeout and benches him.
And you know what? They’ve been one of the best teams in the league because of it – finishing way higher than they have any business finishing. And it all has to do with effort. They just outwork the more talented teams. Finding lightning in a bottle is near-impossible. But effort is something all of you have control over. You may not be the best in your class. But if you give your all on every single element, if you work your ass off, you can hang with writers a lot better than you.
Where does that leave us? Oh yeah, reviewing a script! Roy Spence Jr. used to be one of these badass MMA fighters who could choke people out with his legs and stuff. You know, one of those cool cage-fighting guys that laugh at boxers because they’re such pu*&ies. Now he runs an honest business while occasionally looking for his Russian wife, who deserted him and took their only daughter.
When a local Russian crime boss tells Roy that he knows where to find his daughter, and he’ll offer that information to Roy if he does a job for him, Roy’s in. Of course, Roy has no idea what he’s in for. Turns out he has to find and bring back an FBI informant, who’s hiding in one of most heavily secured buildings in the city.
Roy suits up and heads over to the building, gets all the way up the 30th floor, where the informant, Marat Dementyev, is located, only to find that Marat’s being guarded by a powder keg of an FBI agent named Sandra Packard. Packard neutralizes Roy, but before she can take him down for good, explosions start happening all over the building.
After looking into it, they realize a terrorist organization consisting of 40+ men, is coming up the building to get that informant. Roy and Sandra are now forced to work together to get Marat, and themselves, out of the building in one piece. Wouldn’t you know it though, there are a lot of unexpected surprises along the way. Let’s just say other people have thought way further down the road than Roy has. And they’re going to make sure he’s not walking away with Marat.
You know how everyone pitches their action script as “Die Hard on a plane,” “Die Hard on a bus,” “Die Hard in a 5 star restaurant.” The funniest thing I’ve ever heard is this producer who said that he was once pitched, “Die Hard in a building.” So ignorant had people in this town become, that they didn’t even know what movie they were referencing anymore.
And indeed, one look at Nerve and Sinew, and it appears to be the embodiment of that pitch! Die Hard in a building, right? That’s certainly what you’re worried about going in. Another action-thriller clone, so many of which gum up the script airwaves to the point where Hollywood has to cough them out on a weekly basis. Maybe that’s why we have so many earthquakes.
But I’ll tell ya this. Nerve and Sinew is not your average action-thriller. This is good! I mean, it’s kind of formulaic, but it’s got its own thing going on as well. One of the hardest things to do in screenwriting is to have a simple plot, yet keep your audience guessing. And that’s what I liked most about this script. You think you know what’s going to happen next, but you don’t.
The first thing Lawrence did right was the opening. Instead of only following Roy’s storyline, we’re following Sandra’s also. And with Sandra, we’re not quite sure what’s going on with her. So there’s a mystery box quality to her storyline. Eventually, near the end of the first act, the two storylines meet up, and we get some semblance of what she’s up to.
But at that very moment, a third entity, the terrorists, show up, and neither Sandra or Roy know who they are or why they’re here. That’s good writing. As soon as one thread is settled, you want to introduce a new one. The audience always has to have a carrot dangling in front of them.
The script then segues into one of my favorite devices, the “temporary truce” between two enemies, who now have to work together. This allows conflict (them each needing to do things their way) inside of conflict (having to maneuver around the terrorists). Thats’ the “fresh piece” that separates this from Die Hard. It’s two people, both of whom don’t like each other, forced to work together.
The only problem I had with the script was that it may have tried getting too cute. Spoilers abound. Halfway through the script, Lawrence made the daring choice to have our hero escape the building. But it’s a false escape. It turns out the informant was a fake. The real informant is back inside. Which means Roy must go back in.
The problem I had with this is that you basically say to the audience, “Getting out of the building isn’t that difficult.” Because they already did it once. And there’s something about completing the goal and then having to go back in and complete the same goal that feels a little repetitive. I just thought, “Haven’t we been here already?”
Also, from that point on, the story and the elements weren’t as clever. And how could they be? We’d already been down this road.
It’s one of those 50/50 choices that are really hard to gauge as a writer in the moment. I can see why Lawrence made the choice (Roy getting out of the building at the midpoint is completely unexpected, and the detour informant is a nice surprise). But in making it, you force the story into a weird corner where everything feels kind of sleepy. Like giving kids cake at a birthday party, having them go outside and play around for awhile, then bringing them back in for more cake. No matter how you cut it, the enthusiasm for the cake is never going to be as high the second time around.
But I’ll give it to Lawrence, this is really solid writing. I can totally see him writing a big action flick assignment in a few years if he keeps at it. And who knows, he might even get this one made. All the elements are there for a movie. No doubt about that. If he can pull off something a little more exciting with that second half, I may be in. Oh yeah, and this needs a new title! Scriptshadow Nation – Help him out!
Script link: Nerve And Sinew
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Never weigh your twist on the twist alone. What’s more important is what the twist does to your story afterwards. A great in-the-moment twist is worthless if it saps the air out of the balloon for the next 30 pages.
Here they are folks! These are the top 10 Amateur scripts ever submitted to Scriptshadow (not including The Disciple Program and Where Angels Die). My voting system works like this. People send in their top 10, and then I assign a sliding point system to each entry. So if something finishes number one on someone’s list, I give that 10 points. Finishing number two gets you 9 points. Three gets you 8 points. I then tally all the points up. I’ve included the point totals of all ten. I believe over 300 people voted!
Inside the numbers: Only one script that got a “wasn’t for me” made the list (Primal, at number 8). The Savage South, a rather low key script at the time, had a lot more supporters than I thought! Finishing at number 8. Things got REALLY crowded at the bottom and some scripts JUST MISSED the list. The three that were the closest were Goodbye Gene, with 170 points, A Bullet For My Best Friend, with 163, and Guest, with 156. Also a sorta surprise was Grendl’s Real Monsters making the list. A lot of people seemed to like that one. Well, I’ll leave it at that. Here is the list. Congratulations to the top 10, and thanks to everyone who voted!!!
1) Rose in the Darkness – 533 points - A secluded boy’s way of life is threatened when he befriends Rose – the girl whom his parents have imprisoned in the family attic.
2) Patisserie – 502 points - A young Jewish woman in occupied France escapes the Nazis by changing places with a shop owner. But as her love grows for the other woman’s husband and child, so does her guilt.
3) Fascination 127 – 419 points - A group of men are hired by a mysterious client to remove Jim Morrison’s casket, give it to him for 24 hours and then return the casket into the ground before it is publicly exhumed to be moved to the United States.
4) Keeping Time – 390 points - A for-hire time traveler who specializes in “preventing” bad relationships meets his match with a mysterious woman who claims to also be a traveler and is determined to stop him from completing his mission.
5) Fatties – 308 points - When a lonely masochistic chubby chaser is abducted by two fat lesbian serial killers, it’s the best thing that ever happened to him.
6) The Devil’s Hammer – 297 points - When an outlaw biker, and soon to be father, attempts to leave the sins of his old life behind, he is pushed by a vengeful Sheriff into the arms of an ancient cult of disease worshiping sadists.
7) Primal – 234 points - After survivors of a recent hurricane relocate to a quiet Louisiana bayou town, a creature goes on a nightly rampage of terror and carnage. Convinced it is the legendary werewolf known as loup garou, an intrepid teen vows to discover the beast’s true identity and destroy it.
8) The Savage South – 201 points - When a professional contract killer discovers he’s become the target of an assassination himself, he teams up with the would-be killer to figure out who set them up.
9) Real Monsters – 180 points - The members of a small Irish town housing a supposed Lochness-like monster in their lake find their world turned upside-down when an American documentary crew arrives to find out if the monster is real.
10) Reunion – 176 points - At their ten-year reunion, a formerly bullied outcast decides to enact revenge on the cool kids who made his life miserable.