Premise (from writer): Fleeing a violent past, a mechanic relocates to the anarchic edge of civilization to build a new life, and a new body, for her teenage son.
Why You Should Read: I’m a longtime reader, first-time submitter to your site, currently living in Vancouver and working hard on breaking into the industry. I’ve won a few national awards for my stage plays and now I’m finally at the point where I’m feeling confident enough in my screenwriting work to start submitting to competitions.Transference is my latest feature-length screenplay, which my table-reading group said has some strong Mad-Max-meets-Westworld vibes, and I wanted to throw this into the mix with the other Amateur Offerings to see how it stacks up in comparison.
Writer: Andy Garland
Details: 91 pages
As savvy veteran screenwriters have already discussed, Transference was up against the gun from the get-go. This logline had major issues, the biggest of which is that it doesn’t state the central source of conflict in the story. A woman goes to build her son a new body. Where’s the conflict there? It sounded more like a vacation.
Conflict comes from the “but then.” A woman goes to build her son a new body… BUT THEN. But then she encounters resistance from the increasingly hostile locals. Now sometimes, writers are just bad at loglines. I get that. Loglines are weird. Despite being so small, they’re unnecessarily confusing to construct. However, in my experience, when one doesn’t know how to add conflict to a logline, they don’t know how to add conflict period, leaving their screenplay devoid of tension or struggle. Let’s hope that’s not the case with Transference.
The surface of the earth is cooking. We’re somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and as a character will later tell us, because of the last generation’s idiot mistakes, the rest of us are suffering through one continuous bout of really bad sunburn.
Due to the increased temperatures, food has become scarce, and having children is akin to murder. Who would willingly bring a child into a situation where they’ll most certainly starve to death? Or worse. This has led a lot of people transferring their children’s consciousness into robotic bodies.
That’s where our hero Hailey is at. Hailey shows up in some dying bumblefuck town, buys an old shack, and starts using scrap parts to build a body for her son, Jacob, who’s currently living inside an old smartphone.
The plan is to lay low. But law enforcement gets wind of Hailey’s arrival and wants to know what’s up. Hailey keeps them at bay with a payout, but they remain curious, especially when a mysterious new fella rolls into town – Willis. Unlike everybody else in this world, Willis looks like he just rolled off an assembly line. Maybe that’s because he did. Willis, it turns out, is a robot.
And he’s in town looking for Hailey, willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. When Hailey learns that Willis is nearby, she goes full Gepetto, speeding up the process of building her son’s body. The closer Willis gets, the more we learn about why Hailey has to transfer her son, which brings to light a horribly selfish decision she made when she was younger, a decision that would’ve kept her son human.
When you finish a script, you place it in one of three mental categories. Yes. No. Maybe.
Transference falls into Maybe. However, I’m not sure if it’s a Maybe with potential. Or a “not bad” Maybe, the kind that fades from memory after a couple of days.
Transference in an intriguing cross between History of Violence, A.I., and Mad Max. It’s got an extensive badass mythology and some memorable characters to boot. However, it installs a plot mechanism I’ve never liked: Sitting your characters down into a single location and waiting.
Now, it’s not that this setup can’t work. If you keep the conflict coming at your characters and set up some looming danger they’ll have to deal with, you can build enough suspense and intrigue to keep us invested all the way through. The problem, unfortunately, is that because this narrative device is so static, it’s always on the verge of becoming boring, which means you have to be vigilante in constructing plot points and story threads to prevent even the slightest lull.
It’s different than something where characters are always on the move. The ever-changing environment ensures that new dangers and challenges could appear at any moment.
Some of this can be alleviated if your main character has a strong goal and remains active. Mad Max takes place in one location, but Max had a clear goal. Get himself enough fuel so he could be on his way. Transference has a goal as well – Hailey wants to rebuild her son. But there’s a slight problem with that. Her son is alive and lucid from the get-go. He just doesn’t have a body yet.
The reason this is an issue is because it isn’t clear what’s gained from Hailey completing her goal. If she isn’t able to build a full body for Jacob to inhabit, then what? She can still talk to him. He’s still “alive.” This goes back to the age-old screenwriting dilemma of stakes. What are the stakes of your character not achieving her goal? They don’t seem to be much in Transference, as far as I can tell.
With that said, I liked the mystery behind Hailey’s past. What is Hailey running from? Who’s chasing her and why? Seeing Willis come into town with Hailey in his sights infused Transference with some much-needed energy. This is the “looming” I referred to earlier. Whenever you have these stuck-in-one-place plots, “looming danger” is your greatest ally.
My other main problem with Transference is that the mythology, while cool, wasn’t as clear as it could’ve been. I wasn’t clear on why children were being turned into robots. Was having a child illegal to the point where the government would execute it? Was placing them inside a robotic body the only way to save them? Then there’s this curious rule that adults can’t transfer into robotic bodies. Only kids can. Cause their minds are still developing or something. But Willis had been transferred hadn’t he? And he was an adult. We also eventually find out that Jacob is now 20. Isn’t that an adult? So how is Hailey transferring him?
When you write a science-fiction (or fantasy) story with an elaborate mythology, the story relevant parts of that mythology must be explained clearly to the reader. Too many writers make the mistake of assuming the reader will just “get it.” But you have to remember that we haven’t spent the 50-some hours with you putting your mythology together. All we have to go on is the environment and the allusions to the rules you tell us.
The good news is that that isn’t a huge fix. It seems like Andy knows his mythology. He just hasn’t made it clear enough to us.
I’m more worried about the static location and the vague stakes. This script will live or die on the emotional impact of its mother-son relationship. To that end, we need to raise the stakes there somehow. Maybe you build something into the story where Jacob’s current hard drive is dying. Hailey needs to transfer his consciousness soon or lose him forever. That can be the last stage of the body building. And it’s a super fragile process. One mistake during the transfer and Jacob could be lost forever. This provides a ticking time bomb AND stakes.
I’d also recommend bringing Willis in a teensy bit earlier. Right now he hits us at the midpoint. I don’t think enough is going on in the first half of the script to keep us invested until that point. By introducing the looming threat of Willis earlier, we achieve more intrigue from the reader which should get us to that killer Willis bar scene (no pun intended!).
This script needs work but it’s pretty good! Definitely worthy of winning last week’s showdown.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Remember that time in reading is relative. It goes by slower if the reader is bored and faster if the reader is engaged. A great 130 page script will read exponentially faster than a shitty 90 page script. The good news is, you have plenty of tools at your disposal to manipulate time. One of those is a ticking time bomb. If you imply that time is running out, it creates the illusion during the read that time is moving faster. So if you have two scripts, both 100 pages, one with a ticking time bomb and one without, guess which one reads faster? If Hailey is in need of a part – the “brain” she must transfer Jacob into – and she only has a certain amount of time to find it or Jacob’s current “brain” will die out? You’re manipulating time. I’m not saying that this choice is the best for the story. Only that it and other decisions to manipulate time should be considered. If you’re not manipulating time on some level, your script is going to read like a textbook on the history of Siberia.