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.
Alright, so the top 25 scripts in the Scriptshadow 250 Contest have been announced. And while I’m sure many of you are happy for the finalists, let’s be honest. You want to know why the hell your script didn’t make the list. I’ve already seen people complaining about the loglines. “This is it??” they’re saying, forgetting that we’re not running a contest for best logline here. If we were, yesterday’s list would be a lot different. We’re looking for the best scripts. And because of that, a lot of the best loglines fell by the wayside. Believe me, I was pulling for them. The holy grail is the great concept WITH the great execution. But those scripts are like unicorns, appearing once or twice a year.
But let’s get back to that question: Why didn’t I make it? In some cases, the answer was specific to the script. I had one script that didn’t advance because the character naming was so ridiculous, it became impossible to take the script seriously. Imagine someone named Clarkwardenfall. IN A DRAMA. Then multiply that by 20 characters. But for most of the misses, there were patterns. The same issues kept coming up. Maybe by highlighting these issues, I can help you do better in your next contest.
1) LACK OF CREATIVITY – By far, the biggest issue was a lack of creativity in the storytelling. Everyone’s writing the same scenes, the same characters, the same plot beats. Nothing fresh or creative or unexpected or unique is happening on any level. I was a million pages ahead of writers on so many of these scripts. This is why the industry values “voice” so much, since voice is the antithesis of this. Writers with voice are constantly making unexpected choices that are keeping the reader on their toes. But you don’t need to be blessed with a unique voice to thrive in this area. Creative choices can be learned. You have to a) be more aware of how original your choices are and b) hold yourself to a higher standard once you recognize low-quality choices (by digging in and coming up with something better). Be brave. Do a few things that surprise even you when you tell a story.
2) TOO MUCH CREATIVITY – There’s a type of writer who writes in the opposite manner to what I just described. They don’t see behind or in front of them, but focus only on the present, writing their stories “off-the-cuff.” Because of this, their screenplays keep the reader guessing (unlike the uncreative folks). But since the writer possesses no plan, their choices usually lead you down paths to nowhere. These writers need to learn how a story is structured (beginning, middle, and end) and they need to spend more time outlining, so that their choices contain a plan behind them. As soon as I realize you don’t have a plan or as soon as things get too scattered or unfocused, I’m out.
3) LACK OF SOPHISTICATION – In a good 20 of the scripts I read, writers tackled subject matter that was well beyond their level of sophistication. For example, a writer might have written about a tragic World War 1 story, yet the writing was simplistic, lacked detail, and didn’t possess the proper mood or tone to capture the period. If you’re going to tackle weightier subject matter, make sure you possess the writing skills to do so. If you want to get better in this area, read strong literary material, carry a curiosity for vocabulary and grammar, and practice your ass off.
4) SECOND ACT BLUES – There are still too many writers who don’t have a clue of what to do once they reach the second act. One of the scripts I read was cruising through its first act. I was like, “This might make the top 5!” And then the writer spent the first 25 pages of his second act giving us extensive background on his 12 main characters. The screenplay lost all its momentum and never recovered. The second act should be doing three things. 1) Every scene should be moving your hero closer to his goal. 2) The second act should be exploring the major lines of conflict between your key characters, and 3) The second act should be placing obstacles in front of your characters so that they have things to overcome in order to achieve their goal. The second act is the act of “conflict,” so every scene should contain conflict on some level. Even if it’s just two people in a room, there needs to be something unresolved there, something that starts off negative and poses a problem that must be solved, for one or both of the characters.
5) ROSES ARE RED, PROSES ARE DEAD – I read three scripts from writers who may have made the top 25 if they didn’t grind their scripts to a standstill with walls of text. And guys, just because you divide 50 lines of description into 3 and 4 line paragraph chunks? THAT’S STILL A WALL OF TEXT. I’ve found that these writers fall into two categories. The first is the “need to impress” category. These writers tend to be young and believe it’s their job to impress you with their word-skills. The second is the “show-off” category. These are writers who are genuinely talented writers and want to show that off, but don’t realize their scripts aren’t being read in a breakfast nook with a blanket and a hot coffee, like novels are. Screenplays are meant to be read quickly, in a high-pressure industry where people are constantly asking for the new hot thing. So fair or not, it feels like WORK if we’re reading a lot of words to describe simple things. Once your script starts feeling like work ON ANY LEVEL, you’re done.
6) LACK OF NUANCE – There were a lot of scripts where writers weren’t nuanced in their writing. So a character would be really angry one second, then really nice the next, with no insight into why their mood changed so suddenly. Or a character would wake up in the middle of the night, walk outside, and all of a sudden be fighting a bunch of bad guys. How did we get here? Where did these bad guys come from? How did this character even know to wake up and check outside in the first place? There was a TON of this, and I call it “In Your Head Writing.” “In Your Head Writing” is when you’re thinking about what makes sense TO YOU (in your head) and not someone who will be reading this for the first time. To you, you may have thought, “My angry character is done being angry, he’ll be nice now,” so you make him nice. But you never shared with us (the people outside of your head) why that transition took place. If you’re being told that your writing is confusing a lot, step outside of your head and see if your writing makes sense from a third-person’s perspective.
But the biggest thing, guys, is to keep practicing. As hard as this is to hear, you may not be ready yet. I know that sucks but you may need to work more on structure or character development or dialogue. All that stuff takes time to grasp. So keep writing, keep reading (scripts), and keep studying. I’d even add “get more feedback” to that list. How can you know if you’re writing “in your head” if you don’t have a third party giving you feedback? Now get back on the horse and write something great.
Here they are folks, in no particular order, the top 25 scripts from my contest. Congrats to to the finalists. I’ll be announcing the Top 5 in a couple of weeks. If you didn’t make it, don’t fret. That next script could be the one. Keep fighting!
Logline: The Dark Ages, 865AD, Britain: A sheltered scholar must unite his people and defeat the Viking invasions to become the first King of England: King Alfred the Great.
Writer: Blaise Hesselgren
Title: Fourth Time’s a Charm
Logline: Tom is a thrice-divorced marriage therapist seemingly destined to repeat a Sisyphean cycle of superficial romances. But when a blind date with an uncouth woman named “Angus” highlights everything missing from his past courtships, Tom must choose between perpetuating his hollow past, or taking a walk on the wild side. The thing is, Angus might not give him a choice.
Writer: Steve Dente
(obviously submitted long before this year’s Oscars)
Genre: Dark Comedy
Logline: When Leonardo DiCaprio believes he’s finally found the script that will win him an Oscar, he travels in secret to visit the unknown writer. What he finds instead is a serial killer, who keeps him captive with a group of other A-list victims, all tempted by the same script. Will Leo escape and, more importantly, will he get to make the movie?
Writer: Sam Boyer
Title: 19 Floors
Logline: Against military orders, a Special Ops Sargent attempts to rescue his wife from a quarantined tower infested with monstrous creatures. He has 19 floors and 19 hours.
Writer: Lee Brandt & Christopher Lawrence
Title: This Close
Logline: Jeremy Pearl intends to shoot up his high school and take his own life. He comes ‘this close’ to proceeding, but the plot is thwarted before he can act. Seven years later, after coming out of prison a repentant man, Jeremy returns to his hometown to try to make a normal life for himself.
Writer: Randy Steinberg
Logline: A drone pilot in the Mojave Desert begins to question his strike orders when evidence begins to pile up of a government conspiracy to inflame tensions in the Middle East.
Writer: Justin Perry
Title: Jack Curious
Logline: A legendary but drug-addicted cop tries to solve a murder using time travel.
Writer: Bryce McLellan
Logline: Upon realising she is reliving the last day of her life, an injured SWAT officer must protect her family from the dangerous cult that want them dead.
Writer: Paul White
Title: Lies, Blackmail, and other Egregious Behavior
Genre: Dark Comedy
Logline: When Sarah, a strong willed Pastor’s wife thinks her husband is cheating on her, she enlists the help of a charming young man to find out. When he catches the pastor cheating, he blackmails him behind Sarah’s back.
Writer: Aaron Brooks
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Logline: A recluse who suffers from random episodes – in which he commits violent acts without remembering them – is forced to babysit a neighbour’s 8 year-old daughter for an afternoon. After suffering an episode, he wakes to find the girl has disappeared – a violent wreck in her wake. With himself as the only possible suspect, he must retrace his footsteps to find the girl.
Writer: Zed Warren
Logline: Seen through the eyes of a mechanic as he makes his way through a Terraforming facility, with the help of his girlfriend by headset, after a malfunction has turned the crew mad.
Writer: Ellis Ripley
Title: The Passage
Logline: Back in small-town Maine to bury his estranged father, a young man discovers the drawbridge his family tended is a gateway to the afterlife for spirits lost at sea. After a historic ghost ship wrecks on his watch, he and a few friends new and old must find passage for one of its crew before a malevolent spirit aboard can get in their way.
Writer: Paul Marchant
Title: Wars of Eternal Spring
Genre: Martial Arts/Period
Logline: A rebellious-minded woman in ancient China seeks the help of Shaolin Temple to save her family and village from a love-obsessed General and his bloodthirsty Captain.
Writer: Elizabet Barilleaux
Logline: An ex-con reconnecting with his fourteen-year-old daughter is forced to take a job as a getaway-driver to pay off prison debts when he gets hijacked mid bank-robbery by a mysterious caller who threatens his family.
Writer: Jeremy Rush
Title: Ghosts of Dickens
Logline: Crushed by financial burden, evaporating success and increasing depression, Charles Dickens struggles to piece together A CHRISTMAS CAROL to regain his fleeting fame.
Writer: Matt Bishop
Title: The Coyote
Logline: An ex DEA agent turned Coyote is blackmailed to take on his toughest job yet; smuggling the man who killed his partner across the Mexican border.
Writer: Nir Paniry
Title: A Quickening
Logline: A woman working as a surrogate for a powerful New York couple gets treated like dirty laundry, until the couple’s marriage falls apart and they ask her to abort the pregnancy, leading her to turn the tables on them and blackmail her way to the American dream.
Writer: Jacob Albert
Title: Seventy Times in Black
Genre: Crime Thriller
Logline: In the jungle-like heart of Arkansas, a resourceful young woman’s coming-of-age tale makes a terrifying descent into survival. Stripped bare by her own paralyzing fears, she must confront the deranged, familial obsessions of a rogue lawman, whose unchecked savagery threatens everyone close to her.
Writers: Kyle Rynicki & John Rodgers
Title: The Man Who Killed Samuel Lodge
Logline: As a gang of outlaws chases him, a lawman with a mysterious past reluctantly partners with a headstrong widow so he can cash in the bounty for the man he killed.
Writer: Zac Lovelace
Title: Miss Universe
Logline: A vapid beauty queen is abducted by aliens who think her title means she’s Earth’s ambassador to the universe.
Writer: Colin O’Brien
Title: The Watcher
Logline: A middle-aged voyeur named Roman Powell witnesses his new tenant, young Jane Gordon, commit a grisly murder and struggles through his own urges of going down the evil path by being drawn into the murders himself.
Writer: Michael J. Klassen
Title: Liberty Island
Logline: When domestic terrorists seize control of Liberty Island during July 4th celebrations and threaten to blow up the Statue of Liberty, a lone New York City cop trapped on the island must save his hostage-held family and foil a presidential assassination.
Writer: Jared Sandman
Title: The Pyre
Logline: A fragile young mother has three days to get the body of the immigrant she killed from the bottom of a deep dangerous lake and cremate it on a pyre, before its spirit destroys her.
Writer: Caroline Carver
Title: The Nothing Man
Logline: A secret Government crime solving division clones America’s most wanted criminal to be able to get into his mind and his memories to predict his future actions while being teamed up with the FBI Agent who has been hunting him for years.
Writer: Brian Penn
Logline: Randy had it all–a loving family, a dream job. But after a long, hard fall from grace leads to deadly consequences, he’s forced to relive his life backwards. Yesterday by yesterday, Randy tries to understand where it all went wrong, and how he can possibly put things right in a world where tomorrow never comes.
Writer: John Bradley
We’re almost there, my friends. And I have to say, this has been one crazy journey. At times frustrating, at other times maddening, but ultimately, it’s been incredibly rewarding. As I transition into the producing side of things, I expect these writers to be the collaborators who help me cross over. I’m sure you’re wondering what kind of scripts got through? Well, for the top 15, it was easy. There was no doubt in my mind with these scripts. From there, things got a little tougher. I’d have to make judgment calls that weren’t easy. Some scripts had great concepts, but the execution wasn’t there. Some had solid execution, but the concept wasn’t marketable. There was one script with a concept so amazing, but whose execution was just average, that I agonized over for days. I suppose these are the same thoughts that go through producers’ minds all the time. Weighing the pros and the cons. What I’m most excited about, however, is these writers. I know that all of them, regardless of whether these specific scripts do well on the market, have a future in this business if they want it. I’ve been on the phone with agents and managers getting them psyched up for these new potential clients, so the opportunity will be there for them. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Good luck to all!!!
I will be announcing the TOP 25 scripts from my contest this Wednesday!
And as we get closer to the big day where worlds will be moved, lives will be changed, I can offer some thoughts on the process, a process that has given me even more insight into the system than ever before. The biggest takeaway I’ve gotten so far? That it takes a long time to get this craft right. Almost inevitably (with a few exceptions), when I like a script and go back to read the writer’s pitch e-mail, I see it mentioned that the writer has been at this for 7 years or 8 years or 9 years. Screenwriting, unlike any other form of writing, has a mathematical component. You’re supposed to hit beats by certain pages, divide things up into acts, keep the script under a certain page count. To get used to that restriction – to be able to write freely within those guideline – takes time and practice. And you can feel it on the page. You can feel that ease, that lack of fear. With new writers, they’re mostly just writing whatever comes to mind at the time. Filling up pages, hoping to have enough before they write “The End.” The stories feel unformed, random, like we’re on a bus ride to nowhere. This doesn’t mean you’re screwed if you’re new to this. But if you’re going to compete with these people, you’re going to need to work a hell of a lot harder. READ, STUDY, WRITE. That needs to be your life. READ, STUDY, WRITE. If you’re not doing one of those three things, you’re not catching up to the people who have been doing this so much longer than you have.
TWO DAYS LEFT!