Premise: An alcoholic woman who becomes obsessed with a couple whose home she passes every day on the train, is convinced she knows what happened when the woman in the relationship goes missing.
About: This is Paula Hawkins’ first official novel, but she has written a few chick-lit books under a pseudonym, although you couldn’t’ get her to tell you the titles if you tried. A former financial analyst and journalist, Hawkins explains The Girl On The Train as her last-ditch attempt at becoming a novelist. Hawkins says of how she came up with the idea: “I used to commute when I was a journalist, from the edges of London. I loved looking into people’s houses. The train went really close by apartments, so you could see in. I never saw anything shocking, but I wondered, if you saw anything out of the ordinary, an act of violence, who would you tell and would anyone believe you?” Dreamworks has optioned the book, although the film doesn’t have a star or director attached yet. That could change soon. The book now has 10,000 Amazon reviews (Gone Girl had 20,000 when David Fincher became attached).
Writer: Paula Hawkins
Details: 326 pages
Just Monday we had a guest author chime in on how much freedom one has when writing a novel – being able to play with the narrative, taking different points of view – and boy does today’s novel support that claim.
There will be, of course, people who shrug The Girl On The Train off as a Gone Girl clone, a book that came along at just the moment Gone Girl movie mania was sweeping the nation. The novel, like Gone Girl, is a crime-thriller, takes us through different points of view in regards to a missing woman, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, has the word “Girl” in the title.
But what might surprise you is that “Train” is better than Gone Girl. I don’t say that easily. Gone Girl’s amazing first half and mid-point twist help it win the “first half of the book” award. But whereas Gone Girl starts running out of steam once it leads to its inevitable conclusion, “Train” only gets better as its climax approaches.
That was always my big problem with Gone Girl – the book, and then the movie. As much as Gillian Flynn tried to convince us that her dark weird ending was the way she preferred it, it was clear that she simply wrote herself into a corner – confirmed later in an interview where she confesses to not outlining – one of the most important aspects in writing a great ending. The Girl On The Train has no such issues.
Middle-aged Rachel Watson has pretty much given up on life. She ruined her marriage to the perfect man by drinking too much, then watched as he moved into the arms of a younger prettier woman. Rachel moved out of town, got fat, and now rides the train every day to a job she doesn’t have anymore, but which she must pretend to have in order to keep her flatmate from kicking her out of her apartment. And oh yeah, she’s rarely sober.
The lone light in Rachel’s life is Jason and Jess, a perfect couple who live in a house she passes on the train every day. The two are always outside, kissing, hugging, living that perfect life Rachel once had. Of course, their real names aren’t Jason and Jess. Those are the pretend names Rachel has given them, which seems appropriate, given her happiness exists only in a fantasy world she creates.
Rachel first noticed Jason and Jess because their home is a few houses down from where she used to live. Her ex-husband still lives there, now with his perfect replacement wife, Anne. Rachel would like to say that she’s a big girl who’s moved on from that world. But the truth is, she gets drunk every night and stalks her husband, both on the phone and at the house. We learn very quickly that Rachel isn’t exactly… stable.
Then one day, everything changes. As she’s passing by in the train, she sees “Jess” outside her house with ANOTHER MAN. Her fantasy world destroyed, she’s unable to process this information for days. However, it’s what happens after that really shakes her foundation. “Jess” goes missing, and no one has any information on what happened to her. No one, that is, but Rachel.
Rachel, excited to actually have a purpose in life again, goes to the police to inform them about the man she saw outside with “Jess” (real name: Megan). But they dismiss her as a sad middle-aged drunk woman. It’s for this reason that Rachel must take on the case by herself. Well, at least in her opinion that is.
The book jumps back and forth between the points of view of Anne (Rachel’s replacement), Megan (the missing woman before she goes missing), and of course, Rachel. What makes the investigation so fascinating is that Rachel is wasted half the time, so she’s just about the most unreliable narrator ever.
She wakes up each morning only vaguely remembering the night before, making her investigation a puzzle where all the pieces are upside-down. The whole time we’re excited as we get closer to the answer. But we’re always wondering: Can we really trust anything we know here? Or is Rachel just a sad lonely woman who’s making this all up? Or is the answer much worse? Could Rachel somehow be… involved?
Whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, there’s one thing you’ll almost certainly need to succeed – and that’s a compelling main character. I don’t know if characters get more compelling than Rachel Watson. Imagine being inside the mind of a train wreck who does the most horrible things, but can justify each and every one of them, and maybe even convince you they’re not so terrible too.
At one point in the story, Rachel steals a baby. Let me repeat that. THE MAIN CHARACTER STEALS A BABY. And we still root for her!
Sound impossible? Well, there’s a bit of a trick going on here. In a movie, it’s hard to have a character do something like steal a baby and the audience root for them. That’s because we only see their actions. We’re not in their head with them. Girl On The Train has the advantage of placing us inside Rachel’s head. So when she explains WHY she steals the baby, it doesn’t sound all that crazy. I mean, she still shouldn’t have done it. But we can at least understand what she was thinking at the time.
This is why you’ll often hear voice over in movies when bad characters are the protagonists. The writers know you’ll never justify their actions from afar. But if you’re in their head with them, it’s possible to understand where they’re coming from. (House of Cards Season 2 spoilers). For example, in House of Cards, Frank Underwood is always talking directly to us, explaining why he’s doing the horrible things he’s doing. So even though we might not agree with him, we see where he’s coming from. When he throws Zoe Barnes into a train, killing her, a few words explaining how dangerous she was makes the pill a lot easier to swallow. And “Train’s” Rachel Watson benefits from this same “first person perspective” halo.
Another reason we’re lenient towards this character’s terrible tendencies is because she’s ACTIVE. Readers and audiences like characters who DO STUFF. Characters who are passive, who watch the world go by and do nothing, we have no patience for these wallflowers. But no matter how “bad” someone is, if they’re at least trying to do something, we’ll want to see if they succeed. And Rachel, while not exactly Sherlock Holmes, throws herself into this investigation with gusto. She wants to solve the mystery, so of course we want to see if she pulls it off.
In addition to this, Rachel is, at her core, doing a good thing. She’s trying to solve a murder. Sure she’s lying to everybody. Sure she steals babies. Sure she gets blackout drunk every night. Sure she stalks her ex-husband and leaves 20 screaming voicemails on his phone every night. But she’s trying to solve a murder and expose a killer.
As crazy as it sounds, I’ve read versions of this story where there is no killing. There’s just a drunk main character who stumbles around the city feeling sorry for him/herself the whole time. I’m much less inclined to root for that character than I am one who wants to solve a murder, who has an honorable goal to execute.
I don’t want to spoil too much here because the brilliance of this book is in its surprises, but I will leave you with one more thing. MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS LIARS. Everything becomes so much more interesting when people are hiding things. Part of the deliciousness in Girl On The Train is that Rachel lies to everyone. Seeing if she’s going to get caught is part of the fun.
For instance, when she approaches “Jason,” the missing girl’s husband, to let him know that she saw “Jess” with another man, she can’t tell him that she’s watched them every day for the past two years on the train. That would make her sound crazy, right? So she makes up a little lie about knowing “Jess” from her art gallery. Of course, as their relationship grows, Jason requires more information about her friendship with Jess, and Rachel is forced to add more to the lie. At a certain point, she’s locked into a story that’s completely made up. And when that story gets exposed to other people, like the cops, Rachel has to come up with more lies to explain away that lie.
I know a lot of you don’t have time to read books but this one reads like a screenplay. It’s really fast. And I highly recommend it.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Use LIES WITH LEGS over simple lies. A simple lie can result in a fun scene. Frank secretly takes some money from his wife to go gambling, comes home to see his wife home early, she asks him where her money is, and he makes up a lie. The lie doesn’t quite make sense to her, so she questions him about it. The suspense comes from whether he’ll talk his way out of the suspicion or not. But a much more powerful lie is a lie that has legs. It’s a lie that the character HAS TO KEEP BUILDING ON. That’s what’s so great about Girl on The Train. Rachel tells all these little lies. But they’re lies that matter in a detail-oriented missing-woman’s search. So they’re brought up again and again to her (How does she know “Jess” exactly?) and she has to come up with more lies to cover for her previous lies. That’s one of the areas where this book really shined. A lie was never just a simple lie. It was forced to keep growing.
Genre: TV Pilot – Action/Apocalypse/Martial-Arts
Premise: A century after the fall of society, a large swath of land known as The Badlands is being fought over by bands of gangsters. Gangsters who know kung-fu.
About: AMC has only ordered three shows straight to series. Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead, and this one. The show comes from the unlikely duo of Al Gough and Miles Millar, who created Smallville, a very successful show, but not traditionally one that gets the ultra picky execs at AMC to go green-light crazy. It must have been the pitch of the season. The show is slated to come out this fall.
Writers: Al Gough & Miles Millar
Details: 59 pages
It’s Tuesday which means it’s Carson TV recap day. I finished House of Cards Season 3 this weekend and… wow. Can somebody tell me what in the Declaration of Independence happened to that show? What had previously been a masterfully crafted political expose about Machevellian manipulation covering a half-dozen captivating storylines devolved into a plodding mist of unfocused yuckiness.
You turn your ruthless main character – the whole reason we watched the show! – into a sniveling cajones-less whiner? You focus on macro plot elements devoid of drama (Will Russia be our friends??)? You change your minds throughout the season (Frank’s not running for president. Oh wait, yes he is!)? And you destroy the one relationship we love above all else – Frank and Claire? I think I speak for the people of America when I say: What the hell were you thinking???
The thing is, I’m actually a little relieved. The previous two seasons were so well written they made writing look near-impossible. If this was the standard amateur writers were being held to, they had no shot at breaking in. The way the show would deftly pay off in episode nine something it had set up in episode two showed just how much thought and effort went into the construction of this saga. Every single storyline and character had bite, had a point, had a say in the bigger picture. Shakespeare himself would’ve had a tough time making this writing staff. To see all that come crumbling down like – sorry, but I have to say it – a “house of cards,” proves just how difficult this craft is. There is no secret pill. Nothing comes easy. If you want to write something great, you must continue to work your butt off and push yourself.
Looking at the situation a little closer gives us more insight into what may have happened here. House of Cards was originally picked up for two seasons. It’s no surprise, then, that they wrote two seasons worth of great material. The third season was the first season they had to write on the fly. And that may be why they couldn’t even write their own John Hancock. I have more respect than ever for TV writers now, as House of Cards proves how difficult it is to keep the campaign afloat. The writers of Breaking Bad, Lost, The Good Wife – keeping the story compelling for that long and with that kind of consistency is a huge coup. Let’s hope House of Cards learns from its mistakes and rebounds for Round 4.
Speaking of good writing, there’s no other network that cares more about writing than AMC. They’ve been chastised for their gladiator style “bake-off” contest where in-development scripts battle for a shot on the channel’s roster. But what’s wrong with a little healthy competition, no? The channel has been aching for another apocalypse show (they wrote another one which I liked quite a bit – but it ultimately ended up being too weird for them), and this genre-friendly horse looks to be who they’re putting their money on. Let’s see if it’s worth the bet.
Who knows how long ago society crumbled? It doesn’t matter to these men. All that matters is the area known as the Badlands, a large expanse of dirt disputed by a handful of feudal-like lords known as Barons. The one we follow, a man named Quinn, is getting ready to transfer his town over to a new leader, either his temperamental biological son, Ryder, or his adopted son, Sunny.
It is Sunny who is out in the Badlands one day, checking on a slave transport Quinn sent out earlier, when he finds that everyone in the transport has been slaughtered. Sunny tracks down the rival gang who did it, and learns that, for some reason, they saved a single teenage boy (M.K.). In an epic martial arts battle, Sunny takes down the gang all by himself.
He then takes M.K. back to town and places him in the Clipper program, a training ground for the town’s soldiers. Meanwhile, the town prepares for Quinn’s third marriage (polygamy in the future baby!) but Quinn’s given bad news that night. He’s got cancer. This means he’ll have to transfer his kingdom over sooner than he wants.
When Ryder gets this information, he knows he has a job to do. The only way he’s taking over the town is if he takes down Sunny. But he’ll have to do so in the shadows. He can’t risk being seen killing the chosen one. Public Relations 101.
The increasingly mysterious M.K. escapes town and is captured by Quinn’s rival, a ruthless woman named “The Widow,” bequeathed her position by killing her husband and all her children. Sunny and Ryder will need to work together to take The Widow down, but they’re surprised when it’s actually M.K. who saves the day. This is just the beginning of what will surely be an epic battle to control… the Badlands.
Let me start off by mentioning the action-writing style here, which was very unique. Typically, fight scenes are written in short staccato-like clips to keep the eyes moving down the page quickly – mirroring the pace of the fight. But these guys write in much bigger 5-6 line chunks, breaking them up with a single word, usually the name of a character (that the camera is focused on) before moving on to the next chunk.
It’s not something I’m used to but it was strangely pleasing. The blocks of writing were all so uniform, they created a balance to the page that grew on me. I’m not sure I would recommend anyone else trying this, but it worked in this case.
On the story side, Badlands uses a formula that’s been growing in popularity. We have the leader of an empire who’s getting ready to pass his empire down to someone new. This is the perfect plot point for a TV show because it packs a one-two-punch into the story’s longevity. The first season is about the young guys jockeying for position to take over the job (in this case, Ryder and Sunny) and the second season is the aftermath of the takeover.
Both situations can fill a season’s worth of material (of course, if you’re smart, you can extend it to three seasons by having the cancer go into remission for the current leader, allowing him to keep his spot for season 2) which is great. You’ve seen what happens when you don’t have a clear plan for a season (ahem, House of Cards). They’re doing this exact same thing on Empire and, if I remember correctly, they’re doing something similar with the FX show, Tyrant, as well.
Another teachable moment is how the writers handle the martial arts. Many amateur writers coming into this situation would have focused solely on writing great martial arts action scenes. Gough and Millar know that the martial arts scenes, just like the zombies in The Walking Dead, are secondary. They mean nothing unless you set up a compelling world first.
So this pilot sets up the mythology (the rules for the Badlands), it sets up Quinn’s town and how it operates, and it sets up the key relationships, such as the conflict between Sunny and Ryder and the bitter head-butting between Quinn’s multiple wives. These are the things you want to focus on when you’re writing a pilot. Not the action. Sure, you’ll write action scenes, but they’ll emerge naturally from the storyline.
Badlands is a pretty solid script. My only fear is that it may be too simplistic. JJ Abrams would not be a fan, as the number of mystery boxes here is limited. When I finish a pilot, I like to have 4 or 5 unanswered questions to look forward to. This script really only has one – the mystery of M.K. It feels like they could’ve gone a little further than that. Nonetheless, it’s a good pilot.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I don’t know if this lesson is specific to AMC or not. But it’s worth noting if you’re writing a pilot. I asked myself, why is it that AMC passed its beloved bake-off competition with Badlands and gave it only the second straight-to-series order for an original show in the channel’s history? The answer is the same reason that they greenlit The Walking Dead straight-to-series. Gough and Millar took a genre that’s been popular in the feature world but is yet to be translated into a television series – the martial arts flick. That was really smart. So if there’s a movie genre out there that’s never been turned into a TV show before, you might want to scout it out and see if it’s ready for a transition.
Hey everyone, Carson here. I’m out of the office today (found an amazing script and helping the writer get representation!) so I’m putting up a guest article from my friend, Phil Taffs. Phil is someone who has tried and been frustrated with the screenwriting game. After seeing all these book authors become superstars, both in the literary and film world, he decided to give novel writing a shot, and has finished his first book, The Evil Inside. I asked him to share his experience so here it is. Don’t worry. I’m not telling you to stop writing screenplays (case in point, finding that screenwriter above). I do think, however, that writers should keep all avenues open. Especially since I just read a GREAT novel which I’ll be reviewing Wednesday. In the meantime, here’s Phil!
Why not turn your screenplay into a novel?
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know: There’s a certain inevitable cookie cutter-dom that comes with writing – then trying to sell – your precious screenplay.
Cue Nazi Commandant accent: “IT MUST HAVE: 120 pages; present tense; snappy (and now often ho-hum wise-ass) dialogue; 3 distinct Acts; clear character arcs; broad brushstrokes scene-setting…”
As you know – from all those hundreds of screenwriting books you’ve read and dozens of seminars you’ve attended – it’s a “formula”. And with all those baking instructions, it’s very hard to make your screenplay turn out any different, better or tastier than any other screenplay in your genre.
And unless you have a high-powered agent or a ton of studio contacts, getting past first base is far from a sure thing.
So here’s a wild thought: could your hot new (but indistinguishable) screenplay become a hot new novel instead?
For a start, with a novel, length can be as long or as short as a piece of string: from 1400 battle-scarred pages of War & Peace to the short and savage In the Cut or Less than Zero. From the doorstop Dystopia of The Passage to the lightweight but still heavy-hitting 1984 or Bright Lights, Big City.
Then within those highly flexible pages, you can write whatever you goddamn want! If you’ve already developed a good story for your screenplay, why not let it out of its 120-page cage and encourage it to roam free and frolic?
Because if you’re writing a novel, you can now extend and embellish those descriptions; deepen and refine your characterizations; play more games with your plot; (like introducing some more nifty sub-plots); key in more surprises and/or suspense; indulge in a little more lyricism; and in general just feel a whole lot more liberated and open-minded about your story.
Tired of living in the eternal present tense of your screenplay? In a novel, you can play around with the present, the past, the future, the pluperfect, future perfect, the imperfect…. The novel is a time machine and it’s heaps of fun to pull the levers up and down.
As long as you have a great story – this is the key – then with some extra effort and ingenuity – it’s possible to skin it either way: as a script or a novel.
(Or maybe even something else again: Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom was a hit play in 1984, a great film in 1992 and now it’s a super-successful 2015 musical.)
As the brilliant novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter John Irving said: writing is rewriting. The more you’re thinking about and refining your story, the better it will get.
No matter what form it ends up in.
What’s to lose?
You already have your screenplay – it’s not going anywhere.
So you can still try to sell that while turning it into a novel. And while you’re working on the novel, you’ll probably think of ways of improving your story that you can then also retrofit back into your screenplay as you go along… It’s a win-win.
Two years ago, Australian writer, Graeme Simsion, wrote a comic screenplay called ‘The Rosie Project’ – about an eccentric university professor who takes a left-field approach to finding love.
He decided to refashion it into a novel. The publisher sold world rights for $1.8 million dollars, Bill Gates gave it a blurb and Sony Pictures have just optioned it.
Like his character, Simsion’s left-field approach has paid off big-time.
A novel will become your calling card.
If you do manage to write and get a novel published then that’s going to help you sell your next screenplay.
Because hey, unlike all the other wannabe hacks out there, this guy/girl has actually written a book! So they must know about story. So it’s probably worth reading their new script as well…
With a novel under your belt, you immediately sound more impressive and credible than the thousands of other screenwriters you’re competing against.
So your next script is far more likely to get read and noticed.
Change horses for the hell of it.
You’ve already written one or a number of scripts – you know what that feels like.
Got a great new story idea? This time, why not try writing it as a novel instead?
Just for the experience. Just for the hell of it.
Even if the novel doesn’t pan out, you can always refashion it into a screenplay. Think of it as a longish first draft!
Writing a novel is great practice for scene-setting – always important for your future screenplays.
You might write a scene or sub-plot that becomes a whole other script.
It’s all good practice.
Grist for your artistic and commercial mill.
How I did it
Now I’m not for one second suggesting that writing a novel is any easier than writing a screenplay. And it’s definitely not any quicker.
The average length of a script is 95-125 pages whereas the average length of a novel is 80,000 – 95,000 words – or 300 to 400 pages.
That’s a whole lot of extra words, scenes, characters, themes, issues, challenges, and complexities to deal with.
Not to worry: the more you write, the better you’ll get – whether you’re working on a novel or your next script… again – what’s to lose?
The road to getting my novel published is a story in itself: I began writing my psych-horror ‘The Evil Inside’ in 2003. After writing more than ten separate drafts, I was rejected by more than 70 publishers across three continents.
In desperation, I decided (kicking and screaming) to self-publish. After selling all of 30 copies to family and friends, I invested USD $425 in getting an independent Kirkus Review. (Even though you pay for the review, they are very well-respected because the reviews are more often critical than praiseworthy.)
The gods must have been smiling: I got a great review and used that as ammunition to approach a new batch of British publishers. One of whom – Quercus, publishers of the famous ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ series – took the bait and signed me up.
Now of course your road to publication will undoubtedly be different to mine. But there are a few handy hints you can draw from my experience:
1 Think laterally: you’re very unlikely to get picked up by the first, tenth or even hundredth publisher you submit to.
2 Follow up any lead you get from anyone: determination is the bedfellow of luck.
3 Never, ever give up.
4 Never, ever give up. (That’s really worth repeating.)
No less a luminary than Cate Blanchett suggested I turn ‘The Evil Inside’ into a screenplay instead as I was still writing it…
But I have to tell you: the Elf Queen was wrong. As an unknown quantity as a writer, that screenplay would never have got up…whereas my novel is now selling solidly across a number of continents.
And now US producers are considering it.
Sorry I gotta go: I hear the phone ringing…
Philip Taffs has worked as an advertising copywriter in his native Australia for over twenty years. – He is a PEN prize-winning short story writer, and lives in Melbourne with his wife and his two sons. – The Evil Inside published by Quercus Books UK is his first novel.
Genre: Sci-fi Thriller
Logline: When a group of dysfunctional teenagers are thrust through a gateway into a dangerous alien world, they must race to escape before the gateway closes forever.
Why You SHOULD Read: So this is screenplay number 12 for me. Needless to say, I’m really hoping this is the one. It’s the product of just over a years work. I’ve stressed and struggled to deliver an adventure that not only makes the audience clinch at their armrests, but allows them to watch relationships develop against the theme of perseverance. Thanks and good luck to the other writers.
Title: The Runner
Genre: Action / Adventure
Logline: Back-stabbed by his employer and marooned in Mexico, a tough, drug-running pilot struggles to fly himself and the family that rescued him back to America alive.
Why you should read: Growing up on the border, there are lots of crazy stories you hear about trafficking (mostly from your friends that are doing it). With this story I wanted to take a lot of that raw material and structure it with an action adventure spin and a solid protagonist while still having some of the authenticity of experience. It was a trickier line to walk than I imagined, but I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about the script so far so something must be working. I’m excited to see what the SS readership thinks (and if they think I pulled off the balancing act) and I’m pumped to use any and all feedback to keep improving the writing!
Title: The Demon Within
Genre: Horror / Psychological Thriller
Logline: After witnessing the brutal massacre of her family and undertaking years of institutionalized psychiatric treatment, Karen Reed returns to her secluded childhood home where she discovers her parents may be involved in a devilish secret.
Why You Should Read: I’m a self-taught writer that enjoys old fashioned horror movies. I was a horror geek as a kid back in the 80′s. I used to visit the old VHS video stores, staring at the beautiful covers on display but never having enough money to pay for them, or being old enough to rent them for a night or two. When my dad would allow me to see them, he’d pay the rental fee and that movie with the awesome movie cover was mine. — The Demon Within is a throwback in someways to those moments and a homage to the 70′s ABC movie of the week. It’s House Of The Devil meets Amityville. It’s Crowhaven Farm catching up with Burnt Offerings and then inviting Rob Zombie over for a glass of wine. Get to the ending. You’ll see.
Title: Mad Muses
Logline: A group of troublesome psychiatric patients band together to destroy their sadistic android nurses.
Why You Should Read: I’m in desperate need of honest criticism. I’m surrounded by non-readers or family/friends who are completely love-biased and only provide encouragement and compliments which is wonderful for my ego but doesn’t aide in my progression as a writer. Mad Muses is a lighthearted and witty depiction of mental illness, the focus is placed on character relationships and action so that even non sci-fi fans will be able to enjoy this story.
Logline: When a sister he never knew existed claims equal rights to their deceased father’s house and promptly moves in, straight-laced Jake is determined to do whatever it takes to get his childhood home back, while the presence of his out of control sister puts pressure on his marriage and threatens his dream of the perfect family.
Why You Should Read: I’m gonna keep it short. This is what I believe to be a fun and simple story in the same comedy sub-genre as “What about Bob?”. — I was fortunate enough to have it read by a story analyst at Universal (mentorship through school) and, along with some great notes for improvement, he wrote: “What’s most impressive is that you’re genuinely funny – you’ve got that essential thing: the comedy gene.” — That’s only one man’s opinion, so make of it what you will, but this section is for me to convince you to read it, so I’ll use what I have. — I’m a frequent reader of the site and have the utmost respect for you and your knowledgeable community, and I would be honored if you would read it and help me improve this screenplay, as well as my overall writing.
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): A brainwashed young woman, conditioned to track and kill the remaining members of her parents’ cult, must outwit a relentless small-town Sheriff and regain her true memories before she kills her next target – the man she loves.
Why You Should Read (from writer): I submitted my last script, The Dark Parade, to Amateur Friday almost a year ago to the day. Whilst I had some great feedback and insight from the SS community (and the script got a few manager reads) – no one was gonna would splash down $150m on a VFX-heavy vampire spec from an unknown writer.
Writer: Paul Friend
Details: 101 pages
The voting for last week’s amateur offerings was once again close, which left it up to me to decide which script got reviewed. The leading contenders appeared to be “To Dust” and “Vickie.” So how does one decide on which script to read? A good old fashioned First Page Showdown!
When all else is equal, let the first page tell you which script to devour. So what led me to choose “To Dust?” First, the writing was leaner. Short to-the-point paragraphs. On the first page of Vickie are two five-line paragraphs. That tells me this is going to be a bulky read.
Next, there are two separate underlined sentences on Vickie’s opening page. Underlining is clunky and, for the most part, distracting, and two separate incidences of it on the first page imply there’s a lot more to come.
But the thing that really did it in for me was the flashback 16 lines into the story. If we’re flashing back on line 16, why not just start the story in a flashback? It seems weird to take us through 20 seconds of the present to then flash back – unless there’s a notable piece of action that implies the flashback is organic and necessary. But that wasn’t the case here. All that’s happening before the flashback is that our main character is in a room.
These may seem like minor nitpicks but the first few pages are always the most heavily-scrutinized pages of a script. You’ve heard how readers are looking for any reason to say no. But this goes beyond readers. NOBODY has patience for something they’re not enjoying or that they don’t trust. So you need to ROPE THEM IN from the first page, the first paragraph, the first word and you do that by keeping things compelling and easy-to-read.
So, after that whole rant, maybe it’s time we review a script today, yeah? Let’s do it!
Ellie’s a little weird. But don’t be Judger McJudgems. You’d be weird too if you grew up in a cult and, at age 6, the police raided your compound, took you away from your parents, threw some pills at you, and wished you good luck in the real world.
21 now, Ellie’s life is complicated by the memories of debauchery and horror she experienced as a cult child. As much as she wants to be normal, those memories refuse to leave her, and this twisted view of the world manifests itself in her sexual desires. Ellie spends her evenings seeking out sexual targets. It doesn’t matter who they are – men, women, couples – as long as she can drink, forget, and fuck, she’s happy.
That’s until she goes home with a doctor and wakes up to find him stabbed to death. She could, of course, pull the denial card here. The problem is, she taped herself doing it on her phone! Siri, how do you dispose of a body? So Ellie gets the hellie out of that house, just before the police show up and start looking into what happened.
In the meantime, Ellie’s surprisingly well-adjusted older sister, Tilda, who was also part of the cult, tries to get Ellie’s priorities in order. And it looks like Ellie’s about to do just that when she officially meets her long-time crush, Greg. But it turns out Ellie’s midnight killer instinct wasn’t a one time deal. Siri, what is that liquid they use to dissolve people in bathtubs? This leaves Ellie, who clings to her sanity, to try and find out why she’s doing this and why she can’t seem to remember it. The answer, as you might expect, is going to shock us all.
To Dust is a pretty solid script. It achieved the most important thing a script is after, which is making me want to read til the end. I was definitely curious about if Ellie was killing these people. And if she wasn’t, who was? I also enjoyed becoming familiar with the term “frog-marched,” which I suspect may be Paul’s favorite word.
Now since we were talking about second acts yesterday, and specifically inter-character conflict, I should point out that Paul did a good job of that here. Ellie and her sister, Tilda, had an unresolved conflict in that Tilda was the grown up one paying for everything and cleaning up all the messes, while Ellie was the one who did whatever she wanted and refused to accept the consequences. Those clashing philosophies allowed Paul to write some nice scenes between the two in the second act.
The problem is, Paul is playing with fire here. Which everybody knows leads to ashes. Which everybody knows leads to dust. Whenever you’re writing the “murky” thriller, where everyone’s motivations are shrouded in mystery and nothing is as it seems, the script can easily become frustrating, as the reader often feels like they’re working hard and not getting rewarded for it. How many times is it okay to show Ellie do something horrible followed by her looking confused and scared? Sooner or later, the reader wants to know what the f&%$ is happening.
Indeed, the big problem here for me was repetition. Once we got to the midway point, I felt like the script wasn’t evolving. It wasn’t giving me anything new. So while the writing was still solid, I was losing interest.
Part of the problem may have been that Ellie plays a reactive (borderline passive) role in the story. She does something bad and then just hopes that they don’t catch her. For all the confusion we see her go through, she never actively does much about it.
I wanted to see her be more proactive at some point. And we get a little of that, like when her and Greg go to her old home. But with this being one giant mystery, you probably want your main character to be active in solving it.
The whole way through this, “To Dust” was hanging onto a “Worth the read.” Fingernails were scraping, and there was a lot of looking back to see how big the drop was, but I knew it was going to hinge on the ending. When you play “everything’s a mystery” until the very last scene, then your last scene better be fucking jaw-dropping.
To Dust didn’t have a bad ending. But it was kind of predictable and not as earth-shattering as I would’ve hoped. Also I wasn’t even 100% clear on what happened (Were her sister and the Sheriff working together? Why did they want Ellie to kill people again? What did that accomplish? I’m not sure I ever got an explanation there).
So this one didn’t quite make it to the finish line for me. But there’s still some really good writing on display here. This is the kind of script you read and say, “Okay, his next one might be the one that breaks him in.” But you got to pick the right concept. I’ve seen a lot of writers who I thought were ready to take the leap with their next script cripple themselves with lousy concepts. Maybe we can help Paul find a great idea because he’s a writer who should be working soon.
Screenplay link: To Dust
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This lesson is a reaction to “Vickie.” “Clean eating” is all the rage these days. Well let’s apply that rage to screenwriting!!! Try to keep your script-writing as clean as possible. Underlined words, long paragraphs, clunky punctuation (lots of ellipses) – they all have their uses. But they should be used as little as possible. Try to have just words on your screen if you can. Think about it. What’s an easier sentence to read?
The ninja warriors dash across the lawn and LEAP onto the roof with trained precision.
The NINJA WARRIORS dash like TIGERS… FWOOSH! They’re in the air now… MOON-light glinting against THEIR swords… … … THEY LAND on the roof without a sound…–!
Keep your sentences naked of excess so they’re clean and easy to move the eyes through.