Genre: Period (Based on true events)
Premise: After a lifetime of failure, John Brown attacks the United States Armory at Harper’s Ferry in one last ditch effort to free the slaves.
Why You Should Read (from writer): In earlier forms, this script placed in the top ten in Final Draft’s Big Break, was a semifinalist in Page and received a “Consider” from Coverage Ink. I’ve worked hard on the notes I’ve received and I think I’ve made it better. I understand that it’s a period piece (but isn’t Catherine the Great?), however it’s a really cool moment in history that has been ignored on the big screen. I like to think of this story as the American version of Braveheart.
Writer: George Gier
Details: 110 pages
Little tip for those of you who want to be industry readers. Don’t watch a new Star Wars trailer 814 times and then try to read a slavery script. You kind of have to be in a certain headspace for slavery. And replaying Forest Whitaker saying, “If you continue to fight…” [wait, I forgot what he says next – an excuse to go watch the trailer again! – one second] oh yeah… “What will you… become?” When you get all warm and whitaker, it’s not easy to shift into slavery.
BUT I’M GOING TO TRY.
59 year-old Reverend Isaac Smith seems to be your average devoted man of God. His sermons are powerful and engorge local churchgoers with plenty of faith meals, important on the to-do list of most people living in 1859, especially since they didn’t have Uber Eats yet. But Smith has a secret. His real name is John Brown, an abolitionist on the lam, and he’s got a plan that’s going to change the United States forever.
Brown wants to invade a large armory in nearby Harper’s Ferry, steal all their guns, recruit local African-Americans to join him in his cause, then go from plantation to plantation to liberate those black men and women who are still being held by slave owners.
So Brown puts together a ragtag crew and heads to Harper’s Ferry. Here’s where things get dicey though. You see part of Brown’s plan is to simultaneously recruit local African-Americans while he’s taking over the armory. Without those men, he has nobody to carry out all those guns. So his plan is really two plans, and one will not work without the other.
Brown actually takes over the armory easily. But every local man his team tries to recruit tells them… well, they basically tell them to fuck off. In real life, the average person doesn’t want to join a revolution. They’d rather stick to what’s familiar, even if what’s familiar sucks. This recruiting delay allows a militia to sneak into town and challenge Brown, which, unfortunately, is something Brown’s not prepared for, and dictates the unfortunate series of events that follow.
You know, it’s funny. This setup is actually quite similar to Rogue One. A ragtag crew is thrown together to tackle an impossible mission. So maybe this wasn’t such a bad script to segue into after all. But there was a major difference. That was Star Wars. This was a period piece.
Today’s writer, George, seems well aware of the difficulties of writing period pieces, and I’ll get into one of the biggest challenges of tackling that genre in a second. But first I have to get this off my chest. When you write a script where race is a crucial component to the story, it is ESSENTIAL that you tell us the race of all the characters.
Because you know what? I didn’t know if John Brown was black or white! This in a story where it’s critical that I know the main character’s race. And it was a good 30 pages before I was able to guess.
This is a common problem, where the writer is so close to the material that they assume you know what they do. We don’t know. I mean, some people might know. But I didn’t. So I know other readers won’t either. And this kind of mistake isn’t forgivable. It’s a first class script-killer.
But back to period pieces. Here’s one of the reasons readers hate period pieces: They know they’re going to have to memorize 30 characters. And no one can memorize 30 characters. So one of two things happens. If the reader is considerate and has time, they’ll write down every character with a little description next to them so they can check back later if they forget who’s who.
Or they just keep reading and accept the fact that they’re not going to remember half the people they come across. This results in a strange pseudo-read, where the reader has a general idea of what’s going on, but all the subtleties and subplots are lost on them.
But even if the reader is taking notes, do you know how annoying it is when you don’t remember a character, and have to read back through a list of 30 people to figure out who they are? EVERY TIME you forget? Which is a lot? It takes the reader out of the script, which means instead of being fully immersed in your story, they’re playing “Who the hell is this guy again?” And that game’s only enjoyable when sex is involved.
This is one reason I encourage writers to read a lot of scripts. Once they’ve read a handful of huge-character-count scripts, they think twice every time they’re going to add a character to their own script. “Do I really need this character?” they ask. And often times they realize they don’t.
So what does this mean? Does this mean you can never write a script with a high character count? What if the story you’re telling naturally requires a bunch of characters? Yes, THERE ARE WAYS to make high character counts more palatable. I won’t go into all of them, but here are a couple. Develop a description hierarchy that you STAY CONSISTENT WITH. Big characters get longer extensive descriptions, medium characters get one sentence bare-bone descriptions, and small characters get one or two word descriptions. This is a nice subliminal way to indicate to the reader who they need to commit to memory and who’s okay to forget (if they must forget someone).
But the REAL key to making a big character count work is that when your characters are introduced, you need to introduce them with something MEMORABLE. If a character gets a distinctive memorable intro scene, I WILL REMEMBER THEM THE ENTIRE SCRIPT. If a character introduces himself with a nod, I will probably need to check who they are every time they reappear. And when I have to do that, I get really annoyed. And if I get annoyed a bunch of times, I take that anger out on the writer. I think to myself, “Why doesn’t this writer understand how to make characters memorable?”
Now you may say, Carson, I’ve seen plenty of movies where characters don’t have big memorable entrances. Shit, Neo is introduced in The Matrix sleeping in front of his computer. I’d say, first, a lot of those movies had smaller character counts. But second, you have to understand that THOSE WERE MOVIES. It’s a lot easier to remember a physical face. But we’re not seeing a physical face on the page. We’re seeing words. So you need to do other things to help us remember that face.
And that means, yes, you will approach your script differently than if you were writing an already-greenlit-movie. In fact, a lot of writers will write bigger memorable character intro scenes understanding that, once they film the script, they’ll likely get rid of that scene and bring the character in more naturally.
But getting back to John Brown’s Body as a story. I thought this had potential. You have a group of people with a clear goal and the stakes for that goal feel pretty high. But my big issue with John Brown’s Body was that John Brown’s plan kinda sucked. It didn’t seem well-thought-through at all. Other characters even tell him that. Which I guess is okay, but the thing is, it makes John look kinda dumb. If he doesn’t even know where he’s going to get his army by the time he takes over the armory, I’d say that most intelligent people wouldn’t go through with that plan.
This conceptual faux pas weaves its slimy tentacles throughout the rest of the plot. Because every thing that goes wrong reminds you just how ill-conceived this plan was in the first place.
So if I were Greg – and it seems like he’s open to criticism – that’s the first thing I’d fix. Give John Brown a stronger plan. The more solid the plan, the more delicious the drama when things start to go south. From there, I’d stop introducing so many darn people, especially since half of them never make appearances again. Place your focus on the key characters and make sure all those characters get the kind of memorable introduction a big character deserves. That’s going to help a lot of things here. I wish Greg luck. Many Bothans died to help this review get written.
Script link: John Brown’s Body
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Think of character introductions in terms of camera shots. If a character is important enough to get a close-up in the finished film, he/she’s important enough to get a proper description and memorable opening scene.