The Scriptshadow 250 Contest is coming! And that means all of you will have an opportunity to get your script optioned by a real Hollywood producer (more on that in the upcoming official announcement). Some of you are probably working on scripts already but even if you aren’t, we’re all thinking about our next screenplay. In fact, the “next” screenplay is often the screenplay we like most, since it hasn’t laid its myriad of soul-crushing issues upon us yet. That next script is still perfect, still untouched by the cruelties and realities of filling up 110 pages of unboring material.
Well, don’t write that next script just yet. One thing it took me a long time to realize is how important planning your scripts is. There are certain boxes you want checked before you embark on that new ride, lest you find yourself halfway down an abandoned alley inside your mind wondering how the hell you thought writing this mess was a good idea in the first place.
Fear not. I’m going to give you a 5 box check list to help you make that all important decision. While this list will be prioritized, everything here is important. A screenplay is something that you’re going to spend at least a year on (that’s not to say you won’t be writing other things during that time – but the good scripts take at least a year to write). And because 365 days is such a long time to dedicate to anything, you need to put a lot of thought into WHY you would want to spend it on this particular idea. So with that, let’s get started.
1) The Script Must Be A Story You Desperately Want To Tell – A lot of you probably assumed that the number one thing on this list would be “concept.” Here’s why it isn’t. I’ve seen a lot of great concepts go really bad on the page. When that happens, it’s for one of two reasons. Number 1, the writer isn’t skilled enough yet to pull off the story. Number 2, the writer’s heart was never into the idea in the first place. Sure, it’s nice to have an eye-grabbing concept that every producer in town wants to read. But that doesn’t matter if the writer doesn’t commit their mind, their body, and their soul to getting everything out of that idea. And that only happens if the writer NEEDS to tell this story. Writing a great script is no different from the creation of any piece of art. It cannot be great unless you give it your all. And you can’t give something your all if your heart isn’t in it.
2) The Concept Must Be Great – It may not have made number 1, but concept is still HUGELY important. Let me tell you a story. I know a talented writer who lived in Hollywood a long time ago, and he actually found a producer who liked one of his screenplays – the dream! After the producer helped him re-write a few drafts, the script wasn’t improving, so the producer moved on. The writer was so devastated, he stopped writing and eventually moved out of Hollywood, figuring he missed his shot. The good news is, this writer is writing again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see him break in soon. But here’s the reason I’m telling you this story. Hollywood is a numbers game. There’s no such thing as your “one shot.” People break in by having numerous shots and eventually capitalizing on one of them. What a great concept does is it gives you a lot of shots, because more people will want to read your screenplay. So for all of you writing that introspective coming-of-age screenplay, I’m not saying that you haven’t written the greatest story since War and Peace. But I am saying that nobody will ever know, because the demand to read the script will be so low. Give us a concept with irony, or a ton of conflict, or something completely original, or something wholly inventive. Write your idea down in logline form then put your producer hat on and ask yourself, honestly, if that’s something you’d be interested in spending millions of dollars on. If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.
3) A Great Central Character – Notice how I didn’t say a great MAIN character. Sure, it’s preferable that your main character be the most interesting person in the script, but as long as one of the principle characters is fascinating in some way, you’re in good shape. Take Foxcatcher for instance. Channing Tatum’s character is reserved and hardly an eye-catching role. But that’s okay since the character Steve Carrel played is eerie and uncomfortable and weird. A screenplay without at least one fascinating central charater is like a recipe without one of the main ingredients. Have you ever had a sugarless cookie? Yeah, they suck. And it’s not hard to figure out why. So look for a character that’s either unique (Pee-Wee Herman), high-energy (Tony Stark), weird-energy (Captain Jack Sparrow), quirky (Juno), has a limitation holding them back (Forrest Gump), polarizing (Martin Riggs), dickish (Han Solo), opinionated (Pat from Silver Linings Playbood), conflicted (Chris Kyle), dangerous (Patrick Bateman), damaged (Hancock), an outlier (Alan Turing), battling demons (Whip Whitaker in Flight), funny (Buddy from Elf), sees the world in a way nobody else does (Walter Mitty). Think about the most interesting people you’ve met in your life. Ask yourself why they’re interesting. It’s usually because they contain one (or more) of these qualities. Use that as a base to come up with interesting characters of your own. But let me leave you with one warning. The story will ultimately dictate who your characters are. So don’t try to write a moody, dangerous, opinionated, former child molester protagonist if you’re scripting Herbie: Fully Loaded. Understand the kind of story you’re telling and build your interesting character around that.
4) Theme – It took me FOREVER to figure this out, but now I’m a big believer in it. And I’ll try to explain it like this. Writing a great script requires CREATIVE FUEL. Now creative fuel can come from a lot of areas. Your excitement about the story. Your excitement about one of the characters. Anything that puts you in that seat at night is creative fuel. The problem is, when you get to the fourth or fifth draft, that fuel starts evaporating. You’ve been with the script for so long that it’s become more about solving problems than creation. This is where theme comes in. If you REALLY WANT TO SAY SOMETHING with your screenplay, you’ll never run out of creative fuel. Because this isn’t just about a story for you. You’re trying to say something to the world. Whenever someone gives the feedback that a script felt “empty,” it’s almost always because the writer wasn’t trying to say anything. Take the recent film, Chef. John Favreau didn’t write that movie because food trucks were trendy and he wanted to capitalize on them. He wanted to explore what it was like for a divorced middle-aged man working in an industry that demanded all of his time to connect with his son. That’s what Chef was REALLY about. So before you start your next script, go ahead and ask if this concept allows you to say something about the world. More importantly, since everything in the world has already been explored, ask if that something is something that you have a specific point of view on – something where you can add to the conversation instead of repeat it.
5) Know Your Endgame – If you’re someone who’s just starting out in screenwriting, don’t worry so much about everything here. Take it in, understand what you can, but right now you should just be writing what you want and finding your voice. But as those of you who have written a few screenplays know, the worst feeling is getting finished with a screenplay and not really knowing what to do next. Do you enter it in contests? Do you query managers? What do you do? Well, understanding your end-game informs your writing of the script. So for example, if this is a script you want to direct yourself, you can be less conscious of the screenplay “rules” and focus more on creating something visually expressive – since you don’t have to get anyone’s approval on your script. Likewise, if you’re living really far from Hollywood, say another country, then your best avenue is probably entering contests. To that end, you won’t have to worry as much about a flashy concept because contest submissions are guaranteed reads. Therefore wow us with your storytelling instead. If your goal is to query every manager in town once you’re finished, then yeah, your logline better be eye-catching. If you’re trying to make the Black List, write something quirky with a weird main character. The better you know your endgame, the easier it will be to choose what kind of script you’re going to write. And if you’re someone who wants to explore every single avenue out there, then make sure to follow all four of these previous suggestions. Good luck!!!
Premise: In a world where every person gets one “do over” in their life, a “Do Over” consultant must use the power to go back in time and stop his ex-wife from getting married.
About: Today is a little different. I read this script for notes awhile back and really liked it. It’s rare I like a notes script enough to review it on the site, but this just so happens to be one of those occasions.
Writer: Angela Bourassa
Details: 95 pages
The cool thing about giving notes to Scriptshadow readers is that Scriptshadow readers are typically some of the most educated amateur screenwriters out there. These are writers who are serious about their craft. And for that reason, when they send me a script, it’s not some 150 page wandasaurus rex coming-of-age autobiography. These are educated writers with a strong understanding of how to tell a story.
With that said, one of the biggest problems I see with these scripts is inconsistency. The writer will nail a scene, then fail a scene. He’ll get one character perfect, but never develop another one. The script will pop in some sections, and deflate in others.
It’s rare that I get a script where I can honestly say the writer is ready to take the leap into the professional ranks. But today is one of those times. Now, if I’m being honest, I don’t know if it’s this script. I’ve had discssuions with Angela about the script’s issues, and I’ve even sent it to some of my contacts, who have the same issues – that the concept is a bit complicated and takes awhile to set up.
But, I believe this script shows that Angela is ready to play in the big leagues. And I’ll get into why after the summary.
“Do Over” takes place in a world exactly like our own, except for one difference. Everybody in the world gets one “do-over” during their lifetime. I’m sure we’ve all wanted one of these – an opportunity to erase a terrible life-ruining day and do it all over again.
But with that big of a decision and with the stakes that high, people can’t afford to screw up their do-over. That’s where Rick comes in. Rick is a do-over consultant. He helps people decide if the mistake they made that day is worth using a do-over for.
On the day we meet Rick, Rick learns from an old friend that his ex-wife, Sarah, got married THAT DAY. Depressed as all get-up, Rick gets black-out wasted, only to wake up in his apartment with a loud large folksy Minnesotan woman telling him to get dressed and get ready.
This is Connie. Connie, a friend of Sarah’s, tells Rick that she used her do-over last night to give him another shot at Sarah before she gets married. But there’s a catch. He has to bankroll her life-long dream to be a plus-sized model, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity she screwed up yesterday because of a number of factors. Her second shot at the audition is in 6 hours. It’s time to get going.
Rick spends the first part of the day trying to eject from this lunatic woman’s orbit, before realizing that the only way he’s finding out the location of his ex-wife’s wedding is through her. He reluctantly teams up with her, and the two experience a city-wide adventure, capped off by Rick’s big opportunity to get Sarah back. The question is: can changing one day really change your life?
Do Over does a few things really well. The two main characters are great. And by that, I mean, they both stand out, particularly Connie, who’s probably the best female comedy character I’ve read, amateur or pro, in a year. It’s not just the characters as individuals though. It’s the way they contrast. It’s the way they play off each other. To Rick, Connie is a hideous creature who needs to be placed back in the zoo. To Connie, Rick is a capital “D” douchebag who needs to be yanked off the Douche Highway. This contrast and conflict makes the two irresistible to watch together.
The story itself is also very contained, lending itself perfectly to comedy. They get one day to both get their shit done, and time is always running out. Any time you write a comedy, it works best if the goal needs to be achieved immediately. It just puts the characters under more stress, and stress is a great way to squeeze comedy out of people. So short time frame plus fun characters plus tons of conflict between the leads – plus the fact that Angela’s just naturally funny – these are the things that made this script stand out.
Here’s the big problem with the script though, and something I’ve discussed with Angela. It partly goes back to what I was talking about the other day. This is a BROAD premise (there’s no such thing as getting a “do over”). So it requires the audience to make more of a leap to believe in what’s going on – something studios aren’t favoring at the moment. They want comedy premises that can exist in the real world.
But this isn’t the only problem. The premise here isn’t an easy one to explain. In fact, the first 20 pages of the script are dedicated to setting up the rules and backstory of the script. The first ten explains the do-over rules themselves and what Rick does. And then we need to explain how Connie met Rick last night, Connie’s extensive backstory, and what Connie needs help with today. It’s a long sequence of pure exposition followed by a long sequence of pure exposition, a double-death exposition sand trap.
It’s actually a testament to Angela that she’s still able to make the script work after that. I remember when I read the first act for the first time and I thought, “Jeez, this is a lot of information required to set up the story.” If I were a producer, I probably would’ve mentally given up on the script then. However, once that’s gone and we’re just following these two characters, the script becomes so charming and fun that you can’t believe how big of a 180 it’s pulled.
There’s definitely a lesson to be learned here, and one I think Angela would agree with. Overly complicated premises that require a lot of explanation are the mortal enemy of comedy. It’s pretty obvious why. They require you to reserve a large portion of your script just to explain what’s going on. If you’re funny, you can add little jokes to this explanation, but no matter how funny you are, you can’t mask the fact that you’re having to explain so much. So when you’re picking your next comedy script, take that into consideration. Simplicty goes a long way towards allowing you to focus on the comedy.
And with that, I turn to you, loyal Scriptshadow readers. I feel that once this script gets rolling, you see the talent on display. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a simpler way to explore this premise that would help this script go from good to great. Anyone have ideas on how to pull that off?
In the meantime, I’m including the script. And I’m encouraging those in the business to check out Do Over. Angela will be writing in the professional ranks within the next year or two, particularly with Hollywood’s increasing love affair for female-dominated comedies. Get her while you still can!
Script link: Do Over
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The 3-Ply logline. Usually, a logline consists of two parts: the main character and the situation that character finds himself in. We can call this the 2-Ply approach. Here’s a 2-Ply logline for Taken:
(Ply 1) A former CIA agent (Ply 2) must find and save his teenage daughter when she’s kidnapped by a gang of ruthless criminals.
When you have a complicated world or idea that needs explaining, however, it forces your logline to become 3-Ply, since you now have to add a section where you explain the world. This makes the logline wordier and harder to digest. We can see this with Do Over.
(Ply 1) In a world where every person gets one “do over” in their life, (Ply 2) a “Do Over” consultant (Ply 3) must use the power to go back in time and stop his ex-wife’s wedding.
If you’re forced to write a 3-Ply logline, keep it as simple as possible. Don’t use a bunch of adjectives or tangents. Know that your logline is already a mouthful, and that keeping its pieces simple and to the point is the way to go. So, for example, this is how an inexperienced writer may write the logline for Do Over:
(Ply 1) In a world where every person gets one “do over” in their life, (Ply 2) a cocksure “Do Over” consultant who’s already used his own do-over (Ply 3) must count on the do-over of a random stranger he meets on a night of drinking to stop his ex-wife’s wedding, a stranger who’s going to make him jump through numerous hoops to get what he wants.
Premise: A teenager is forced by his mother to befriend a female classmate who’s just been diagnosed with leukemia. An unexpected but life-changing friendship follows.
About: This former 2012 Black List script turned film just sold for a record 12 million dollars at Sundance.
Writer: Jesse Andrews (based on his own book)
Details: 114 pages (3/23/12 draft)
When I heard yesterday about the big Sundance sale for this movie, I pulled “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl” off of the digital pile to check it out. Now I’m no cinematic scientist, but I was hoping that the film had been purchased because it was actually good, and not because one of its principle characters was a female teenager dying with cancer, thus the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the success of The Fault In Our Stars.
Then again, for a place where most sales hover around the 2 million dollar range (The Eli Roth Keanu Reeves collaboration, “Knock Knock” just sold for 2.5), 14 mil is a hefty price to pay for something that isn’t any good. Sundance may have lost its luster since most indie films are going straight to digital these days. But their 2 or 3 breakout sales are usually pretty good. Let’s see if Cancer Flick joins those ranks.
Greg is starting his senior year at high school and informs us right away that by the end of this year, he’ll have killed a girl. Well, maybe not directly, but in some significant way he’ll be responsible. Greg is a weirdo who spends the majority of his time making bizarre movies (stop motion, sock puppets) with his best friend, Earl.
So one night, Greg’s informed by his mother that his classmate, Rachel, has been diagnosed with leukemia. Because his mom happens to be the most mom-like mom in the world, she insists that Greg call Rachel and offer her help, despite the fact that he barely knows her. After a lot of resistance, he does, and it goes about as well as you’d expect. As in it’s a disaster. Neither of the two are interested in talking to each other.
Unfortunately, mom doesn’t let Greg off the hook, and forces him to actually visit Rachel. What starts off as a series of weird awkward conversations, develops into Greg’s first genuine male-female friendship. And oh yeah, Greg informs us, don’t worry. Rachel is not the girl who dies in this movie. That will be someone else. Hang tight to find out who.
In a sort of 80s homage, Greg is in love with the hottest girl in school, Madison, who happens to actually be that rare combination of hot and cool. As Greg drools over Madison’s every micro-movement, Rachel’s at home literally drooling into a barf bucket, as her disease continues to worsen.
Eventually, Greg decides to make one of his weird movies for Rachel to cheer her up. But it proves to be the most difficult thing he’s ever done, and he gets lost in numerous versions of the film. As Rachel continues to get worse and Prom night approaches (hey, it IS a high school movie), Greg has to stop pretending that all of this is going to be okay, and come to terms with the fact that the most important girl in his life may not be around soon.
Me & Earl & The Dying Girl kind of sneaks up on you like a hillbilly in the Appalachian Mountains. You think you’re safe in your little tent as you zip up your sleeping bag and get ready to call it a night, only to realize that you’re in the middle of nowhere and, if something goes wrong, there’s no one around to hear you scream.
Okay, maybe that’s a little over-the-top but the point is, “Dying Girl” comes at you under the radar as this sweet safe little story, only to whack you over the head when you least expect it. And to that end, it’s a good read. I mean there really is a lot to celebrate here. Which is funny to say, because there was one element that almost COMPLETELY RUINED the screenplay for me.
I don’t know how much you guys have heard of the term AFFECTED DIALOGUE, but it’s about time we talk about it. Have you ever watched American Idol and listened to someone sing in a very RASPY voice? In these cases, the singer is AFFECTING their voice to create a certain sound. Now there are two kinds of affect – the kind where you can tell that that’s the singer’s NATURAL tone, and the kind where the singer TRIES HARD to add the rasp. The latter never works because no matter how good of a singer you are, you can hear the trying.
Affected dialogue is similar. It’s when you give a character a unique “affected” way of speaking. You can spot a great dialogue writer when they affect a character’s dialogue so naturally that you don’t notice it. Even though the character is clearly talking in a stylized way, it feels like an extension of who they are.
Then there’s the opposite, and that’s the character of Earl (Greg’s friend), a character whose dialogue was SO affected that it almost single-handedly destroyed the script for me. I liked almost everything else about this script except when Earl spoke. Here are some examples of his lines. “Won em off Ill Phil playing Tonk. Tired a whoopin his dumb ass.” “So now we both lit.” “Did he act all stoned and shit? While he teaching?” “Man, what the hell’s wrong with you. All apologetic and shit. Makin errything about your sorry ass.” Yes, that was “everything” spelled “errything.”
Maybe the actor they got to play Earl in this film is a comedic genius and makes this dialogue work. But reading it was like watching a 60 year old white male who’s never been to an actual ghetto in his life do tons of research online of how black people talk, and then write a character with a “black” voice. It actually made me cringe at times.
The crazy thing is that Greg’s dialogue is great. Greg is funny, thoughtful, strange, and therefore whatever comes out of his mouth is usually memorable (from one of Greg’s voice overs: “One last thing. Hot girls destroy your life. That’s just a fact. It doesn’t matter if the hot girl is also a good person. She’s a moose, you’re a chipmunk, she’s just wandering through the forest, oblivious, and she doesn’t even know that she stomped your head.”). There’s no affecting Greg’s voice. He just “is.”
Andrews also possesses a very rare superpower – the ability to take the script through familiar story beats without you knowing you’re going there. (spoiler) There’s this moment late in the script where Greg is taking Madison to prom, and we’re on our way to pick Madison up, only to show up, instead, at the hospital, where we realize Greg has ditched his dream date in favor of being with Rachel. I kicked myself for not seeing it coming, but oh how intense the moment was because I didn’t.
(Spoiler) Andrews also uses the “unreliable narrator” approach to assure us that Rachel is going to be okay in the end. We’re specifically told she’s not going to die. But then, quite suddenly, she does. And in retrospect, you knew it was going to happen, but dammit if, in the moment, you didn’t believe Greg when he assured you she’d be fine.
Finally, Andrews uses some bells & whistles to spice up a lot of the scenes. For instance, when Greg goes to school, we occasionally go into a little “faux-Terminator” POV where he assesses, like a robot, the variables (jocks, hot girls, appropriate handshakes) a typical high school senior deals with on a daily basis. Or whenever he goes over to Rachel’s, there’s a poster of Hugh Jackman in her room that will just start sharing his opinions with Greg.
I don’t mind Bells & Whistles IF they’re a natural extension of the characters or story. So let’s say you’re writing a script with a baseball player as the protagonist. If, say, the ghost of Babe Ruth occasionally appears to give the protagonist life advice, that makes sense due to the baseball connection. If your main character has deep intellectual conversations with squirrels for no reason, however, it can come off as “quirky try-hard.” Me & Earl & The Dying Girl falls somewhere in between these two extremes. Some of these bells & whistles were funny enough to make you forget they were written, while others (Hugh Jackman) screamed “Look at me! I’m a quirky writer!”
Despite the back and forth nature of this review, I’d definitely recommend Me & Earl & The Dying Girl. And that’s mainly because (spoiler) the ending really hits you on an emotional level. I didn’t expect it at all but darnit if Andrews didn’t suck me into this world and make me care. I don’t know how this new generation of writers is writing about cancer and keeping it accessible, but somehow they’re doing it. Check out “Dying Girl” if you can find it.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: You can’t use action lines to tell the reader that a character is speaking. You have to ACTUALLY HAVE THEM SPEAK. I’ll notice screenwriters make this mistake every once in awhile, and Andrews (who makes a few newbie mistakes throughout “Dying Girl”) makes it here. During a scene where Greg is making a bunch of jokes to Rachel and she’s laughing excessively, we get the action line: “Rachel is now begging Greg to stop.” Even though we understand what you mean, it doesn’t feel like it’s happening because you’re only describing it. You need Rachel to literally beg Greg to stop via her dialogue. So in this case, you would instead write something like – RACHEL (dying laughing): Stop! Oh my go… (gasping for air) please…Greg…
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-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.