Premise: New York, 1910. When a group of starving female workers strike against the most powerful garment manufacturer in America, they turn to a clever young reformer who must lead them in a fight for human dignity before winter — or worse — takes their lives. Based on actual events.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free, however, to use an alias and fake title).
Writers: Patrick McNair & Eric Thompson
Details: 115 pages
This is going to be one of the tougher reviews I’ve ever had to write. Because I know Eric is a big fan of the site and he’s been pushing me to review this script for a long time. So I really really wanted to like it. That’s what kind of sucks about Amateur Friday. Is that the people who send their scripts in are usually the biggest fans of the site. And the last thing I want to do is tear their baby apart. But part of the journey of screenwriting is learning to take criticism and using it to come back bigger, faster, and stronger with your next script. And that’s going to be the theme of today’s notes.
Of all the genres you have to choose when writing a spec, a slow-moving period piece puts you in the worst possible position to succeed. So normally I BEG – literally get down on my knees and BEG – writers not to write period pieces. Production company pays you 50 grand to rewrite one of their own period piece properties? Yeah, do that. Spend 1-2 years of your life writing a period piece from scratch when you don’t have any pre-existing knowledge from agents or producers that they are looking for this kind of script? Honestly? It’s career suicide. Except before your career’s even started. It’s pre-emptive career suicide.
And the thing is? Today’s writers seem to know this. This is what Eric had to say to me in his e-mail query: “My writing partner and I messed up. Royally. We should have written a comedy about immature men or a taut thriller about a victimized woman in perpetually wet clothing. We should have written about things that blow up. God help us, we should have written a coming-of-age teen dramedy instead of writing what we did. We… we wrote a period piece. I know, I know, but that’s not even the worst of it. *Sigh* There are multiple protagonists (and half of those blend into each other), it would cost a fortune to make and no one would go see it because it looks to be about “issues.” Hell, it doesn’t even have a dog. You get the idea.”
That he acknowledged the difficulty in writing this type of screenplay gave me confidence that he knew how to make up for that somehow. That he’d need to write a dramatically compelling conflict-filled rip-roaring story with amazing characters and intriguing plotlines. That was my big hope when picking up The Triangle. A hope that was dashed pretty early in. The Traingle is so dense with characters, so information packed, so heavy with words, that by page 50 my attention was shot. I’d spent so much energy trying to keep up with all the characters and all the situations, all while nothing exceptional or interesting was really happening, that by the middle of the script I was toast. I felt the way you feel after cramming for a test all night. At a certain point, the words on the page just stop making sense. So if my summary is a little off, I promise you, I did my best.
It’s 1909. Immigrants are arriving in New York. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company is renowned for taking a lot of the poor female Jewish immigrants from these boats and putting them to work for ridiculously low wages and under less than stellar working conditions.
Frances Perkins, an educated woman from Philly, is looking to better the conditions for these women and women everywhere. Though because this is a man’s world from the top down, she’s encountering a lot of resistance.
Meanwhile, the girls at the Shirtwaist Company are sick of being treated like dogs and decide to unionize. But Max Blanck, the powerful and heartless Russian owner of the factory, tells his workers that if they join a union, they will lose their jobs.
The girls strike anyway, and Max ignores them, simply hiring new fresh-off-the-boat girls to take their places. To make matters worse, a band of wild hookers attack our striking workers for seemingly no reason. The Shirtwaist workers are sent off to jail, where they realize the hooker attacks were a scam perpetrated by Max to stave off the bad publicity he was receiving from the strike.
We keep cutting back to Frances, who’s slowly making her way through a gaggle of politicians, getting closer and closer to seeing her “Improved Working Conditions” bill passed. But it looks like it’ll be too little too late.
Max’s deplorable working conditions end up causing a giant fire and because one of the key exit doors was locked, over 100 women were burned alive trying to get out of it. A tragedy that could’ve been avoided, but because of arrogance and a basic ignoring of human rights, many people died instead.
When you give a script to somebody, you’re making a deal with them. You’re saying, “You give me two hours of your time and I’ll entertain you for those two hours.” That’s what people receiving your spec script are looking for. They’re looking to be entertained. When you give these same people a period piece, the phrasing of that deal changes. You’re now saying. “Look, I know it’s a period piece. I know most period pieces are really long and really dense and really dull. But I promise you, this isn’t going to be one of them..” But it doesn’t matter. They’re already on guard. Period pieces are always the hardest screenplays to read and for that reason, readers hate them. Here’s a list of six things readers are terrified of encountering when they read a period piece.
1) That there will be an endless amount of characters they have to remember.
2) That the story will move at a glacial pace.
3) That they’ll need to memorize a bunch of time-specific details in order for the story to make sense.
4) That the writer cares more about the history of the event than how to DRAMATIZE the event.
5) An unfocused narrative that jumps around to too many disparate story threads.
6) Thick never-ending chunks of text.
The Triangle violates pretty much every one of these, handicapping its story so severely that it’s basically reader kryptonite. Let’s take the first fear, character count, and see where The Triangle falls.
There’s your character list for The Triangle. Okay, I’m going to say this next part as kindly as I can.
One of the jobs of a writer is to know how much information a reader is capable of handling. Readers are not geniuses. They are not human computers. They do not keep assistants on hand to write down and recite back character names when they can’t remember someone. I mean writers have to be honest with themselves. How is reading something enjoyable when every two pages the reader has to stop, check their notes, recall the character, then go back to reading again? And that’s IF they decided to keep notes in the first place. If your reader is not taking notes? This script is toast by page 20. They will not remember anyone and therefore every single scene will be confusing. There is no way to save a screenplay once that happens.
The idea in any screenplay is to make us care about the characters so we care about what happens to them. But how are we supposed to care if we only spend a couple of minutes with each character every 20 pages or so? How do we get to know these people? Huge character counts KILL a screenplay because the reader can’t latch on to anyone. Titanic (which I’ll reference here a lot since it’s both a period piece and has a tragic ending, like The Triangle) had a big character count but 90% of the time we were with Jack or Rose. The biggest character The Triangle focuses on is Frances, and she’s not even involved in the fire! Guys. You have to write smart! Limit your character count to JUST the characters that matter. Keep us with the most interesting of those characters 70% of the time AT LEAST.
Next thing I worry about with period pieces is glacial pacing. Let’s recount what happens in the first half of The Triangle. Women hate their job. They want to unionize. They go on strike. Another woman lobbies the senate for better working conditions. That’s pretty much it. In screenplays, INTERESTING THINGS NEED TO HAPPEN FREQUENTLY. Nothing really happens in The Triangle until the fire. It’s just a bunch of people talking about unions or getting bills passed. The one memorable moment is the hookers attacking the strikers and that moment was so strange (the image itself is actually quite comical) that it didn’t play the way it was intended to.
You have to keep us entertained. Even if it’s a “slow-moving” period piece. Things need to HAPPEN. It would be like if Titanic, instead of focusing on Jack and Rose, focused on the politics of how the Titanic sunk.
This led right into problems 3, 4 and 5. The Triangle is basically a history book. It’s a retelling of events. Which is not what movies are about. Movies are about finding drama in situations, not recounting said situations. You do this with your characters. You focus on them and then you tell the story of the historic event through their eyes. Is Titanic about how the ship sunk? No. It’s about two people falling in love. THAT’S what we remember.
What The Triangle needed was two or three characters we could latch onto who were experiencing some sort of conflict with each other. It doesn’t have to be a love story. It can be a brother and sister. A mother and her daughter. Any two people that have some unresolved issue. Make us care about that issue and we’ll end up caring about the building they work in that later catches on fire. The unions and striking and lobbying should all be secondary to that relationship. Like, WAY SECONDARY.
Outside of that, this script just needs a great big shake-up. It needs more energy. It needs more surprises. It needs more drama. It needs more conflict. It needs a quicker pace. It needs more humor. It needs more edge. It needs more interesting situations. It needs to be focusing on a core group of people. One thing I see with a lot of period pieces is that the writers who write them LOVE history so much, that that’s all they focus on, is the history of the event. Giving us the cold hard facts. There’s a specific line in The Triangle where I officially gave up on the script being able to entertain me. Here’s the line, which comes on page 39: “Let us know as soon as you possibly can if you would be willing to form an Employers Mutual Protection Association….”
This is indicative of the mindset of the script. We’re focusing on “Employers Mutual Protection Associations.” I don’t care if you’re Aaron Sorkin. There is no way in the world that you can make “Employers Mutual Protection Associations” interesting. There may very well have been an Employers Mutual Protection Association during that time. But readers don’t care about that.
Your job is not to retell history. Your job is to DRAMATIZE THE EVENT. In Titanic we have Jack saving Rose from suicide, we have them sneaking around behind her fiance’s back, we have a man looking for the biggest diamond in the world, we have classes clashing, we have a mother forcing her child to marry a man she hates to save the family, we have forbidden love. THAT’S how you dramatize an event. Anybody can read up on the Titanic and give you a play by play of how it sunk. What I want to know about is the PEOPLE who were victims of that mistake.
And that brings us back to the character count. This is where The Triangle burned itself. Remember, if you don’t have a few core people the audience loves/wants to root for, every single thing that happens from that point on doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter if it’s the most interesting plot in the world. We don’t care about the characters? We don’t care about the world they live in. When you blanket your script with an endless character count, you prevent the reader from latching on to anybody. If there’s a priority of things to fix in this script, that would unquestionably be number 1 on the list.
I realize these notes are harsh but one of the best things a reader can do for a writer is tell him when something isn’t working. So many writers just write in circles cause they never get any real feedback. In the few instances that a prodco agrees to read their work, they often never hear back from them, or get a stock “pass” e-mail, leaving them with no idea what’s wrong with their screenplay. Do they write another draft blindly? Do they guess what’s wrong? It’s an agonizing process.
In order for The Triangle to work, it would likely need a huge rewrite that focuses more on the characters and less on the mundane details of unions and strikes. And the problem is that even if Eric and Patrick nailed that rewrite, they’re still trying to pitch producers on a period piece, which means they’re getting about 1/10 the reads that you’d normally get (and you’re normally not getting many reads). There’s nothing wrong with the writing here. In fact, I don’t recall a single typo. If you read this script, you can tell the writers put a lot of time and effort into it. But it’s so difficult of a sell. And I know how nice of a guy Eric is. I wouldn’t try to break in with this script. If you really really really love the subject matter? Save it for when you become big time. But trying to break in with this is like trying to walk into North Korea draped in an American flag. It’s just too damn risky.
Script link: The Triangle
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Don’t write a period piece on spec. Just don’t do it. It really is suicide. The only exceptions are if you’re doing it for practice or you don’t really care whether you succeed or not. Where do all the period piece movies come from then? They come from pre-existing properties. They come from book adaptations. They come from in-house production company ideas. They rarely, if ever, come from spec scripts. If you still refuse to ignore this advice, then at least make your period piece exciting. Limit the time frame. Add revenge to the mix. Keep the story simple. Create impossible odds for your hero. Give us a COMPELLING SCENARIO. For example, Odysseus sold a couple of years ago and that script met all of that criteria. I just hate to see writers waste their time on impossible pursuits. You’ve already chosen the most competitive field in the world. Why voluntarily make it harder for yourself?