I’m sure every one of you asks yourselves some variation of How the hell do I break in? on a weekly basis. What is the damn secret sauce?? If someone can just TELL ME what I’m missing, I’ll start doing it! I promise! Since every writer is different, I can’t give you a universal answer to this question. But after reading 250 screenplays and watching 225 of those fall by the wayside, I can tell you the biggest difference between the writers who made it and the writers who didn’t. This, my friends, is the secret to the next level. Are you ready?
The human condition.
That’s it. That’s the secret. Until you start caring about the human condition, about people, about what goes on inside a person’s head, about how people affect each other on a psychological and emotional level, your writing will never be up to Hollywood standards.
This is why you see a lot of good scripts for 25 pages, and then they fall off a Yellowstone-sized cliff. It’s not just that after 25 pages, your script moves into the dreaded second act. It’s that in the first act, you don’t have to get into your characters much. You set up their issues, you set up their situation, and you prepare us for their journey. But most of that stuff is skin deep. Once you move to the second act, you need to explore your characters on a much deeper level, and if you a) don’t know how to do this or b) don’t have any interest in doing it, your scripts won’t resonate with people. Because the scripts that resonate with people are the ones that hit readers on an emotional level. They move the reader somehow. That’s the only way to write something memorable.
And the good news? Doing this is actually easier than you think. As writers, we write from a place of omnipotence. We see and know everything, like God. If you want to write an emotionally affecting character, however, you must move away from this vantage point and place yourself inside the character’s head. Then ask yourself, “What is going on in my mind as I try and deal with this situation?” Once you find the dominant fear/conflict/obsession in that character’s head, you blow it up and make it the theme of your character’s journey.
So let’s take The Martian. After you’ve put together your outline or even written the first draft of the script so your plot is in place, put yourself in Matt Damon’s head and ask what he’s thinking about at this moment. What is a man stranded on a planet who can’t be saved thinking? He’s thinking about his mortality. He’s lonely. He’s afraid. He’s wondering if he can survive. We have several directions we can go here.
Ultimately, the movie chooses to focus on the survival aspect. How does someone overcome certain death? They fight until the bitter end. They try to survive until they have nothing left to give. And when we watch The Martian, which has a wonderful plot, the part of the story we relate to the most is actually the main character’s fight for survival. That’s the human element. This movie doesn’t resonate in the same manner if Matt Damon isn’t worried. If he isn’t fighting to stay alive in every single frame.
Let’s take another recent film – Deadpool. I’m picking this one specifically because it’s a high-profile studio release that you’d assume could care less about feelings and emotions. Oh but contraire mon frere. We’re going to approach this in the same way. Wade (Deadpool) has been tortured, his face burned beyond recognition. Put yourselves inside the head of that character. What are you most afraid about? The way people would look at you. Of always being considered a freak. Of never being loved again.
Ahhhh, that last one hits hard, doesn’t it? When you find something that hits extra hard, it’s a sign that you want to build your character around it. So it’s no surprise that Deadpool’s emotional through-line is built around Wade’s fear that the love of his life will never love him again. So he avoids her to spare both her and himself. This inner conflict drives him mad. And it’s why this movie made 350 million dollars when the studio thought it would make 80. Because it got beneath the audience’s skin and actually made them feel something.
Where do people go wrong with this process? Where do they screw up? A good place to look is Zack Snyder. Zack is like a lot of young writers in that he thinks you stir up emotion through melodramatic imagery. A slow-motion scene where a man visits his parents’ grave, for example. On the surface, this seems like it should work. We have dead loved ones, which everyone can relate to. We see how sad the character is, which we can relate to. Theoretically this should create sadness in us, right?
The reason it doesn’t, though, is because it’s a trick, a calculated equation inserted specifically to milk emotion from the audience. Audiences are too savvy for that. They know when you’re manipulating them. The way you make characters resonate is by exploring what’s going on inside of them throughout the entirety of your movie. Issues need to be embedded into the character, not given a 2-minute highlight reel.
So again, learn to put yourself inside your character’s head. Figure out what they’re thinking, what they’re scared of. When you identify what that is, blow it up and make it the theme of the character, taking it all the way from the beginning to the end of the movie. That doesn’t mean every single scene will deal with the issue. But the issue should permeate every pore of the character’s body regardless of whether they’re dealing with it or not. For example, Deadpool may not be stumbling around the city in every scene lamenting the loss of his girlfriend, but his overuse of humor when he fights the bad guys is clearly a defense mechanism to hide the pain he’s suffering. So even though the issue isn’t technically there, it’s still there.
Now get back to your latest script and beef up those characters!
Premise: A film scholar stumbles across an ancient print of a forgotten film, which he believes has the power to manipulate audiences into life-threatening violent episodes.
About: We got an interesting one today, guys. This is a Jim Uhls (the guy who adapted Fight Club) adaptation of a 1991 cult novel that… wait for it… Darren Aronofsky was going to direct. But as is the case with big time directors who have a lot of projects orbiting them, only the cream of the crop gets chosen. So Darren eventually moved on, leaving poor Flicker to fend for itself. Kenneth Branagh would later attach himself, but now the project seems to be without a captain.
Writer: Jim Uhls (based on the 1991 novel by Theodore Roszak).
Details: 117 pages (2011 draft)
Holy Moses of Mary Churchtree.
This was a bizarre one, dude. At times Flicker embraces the sophistication of a Quentin Tarantino production or a David Fincher flick, only to subsequently dip into The Ring meets Scream territory. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of a Nicholas Cage performance. You’re constantly asking: Is this genius or the worst thing I’ve ever read?
Since this is where the majority of great work lies, at the very least we’ve got something to discuss today. And since the only thing we have to discuss in screenwriting these days is how does Max Landis sell vomit drafts for 3 million dollars, I’d say that’s a nice change of pace.
Jon Gates may be the only 20-something guy on earth obsessed with film restoration. He currently works at the UCLA Film Preservation Project, spending the few hours of free time he has each night watching old films at his buddy’s private theater.
One day, while rummaging around the attic of that theater, Jon comes across a rotting print of one of his favorite films and takes it back to his lab to save it. When he gets there, he realizes there’s a different movie in the canister, a film from the 30s called “Judas Everyman” that was thought to have been lost forever.
Since this is the kind of thing film geeks live for, Jon puts together an impromptu screening with his friends, which includes a hot LA Weekly film critic he met named Claire Swann. After the film, everyone believes they’ve watched the most disturbing yet greatest movie of all time. But for some reason, they’re all in an incredibly violent mood. In fact, the youngest girl in the group gets so upset, she storms outside, where she’s promptly flattened by a truck.
Jon and Claire subsequently become obsessed with the film, along with its director, Max Castle. They find out that Castle made one other film, a sci-fi flick called, “Queen of Venus.” They go on an endless journey to find the film, learning some disturbing things about Castle and his movies along the way.
Castle was part of a cult called “Orphans of the Storm,” and this still-active cult has been obsessed with finding these lost prints, as they believe the films have the power to incite violence in audiences. If they can get these films screened, they can incite a revolution.
While Claire believes they’ve gone past the point of tin foil hats on this one, Jon is convinced it’s all real, and if they don’t get these stray films before the Orphans do, that the entire world could be in danger. Can they save the world from this film in time? Or, if not, at least save us from having to endure the next Adam Sandler movie? Read yourself some Flicker to find out!
Whenever you have an “out there” premise like this, you can take it in one of two directions. You can go further out there and be weird as shit (think “Fight Club” or “The Exorcist”). Or you can rein the weirdness in and embrace the more traditional trappings of a genre film.
Flicker takes the latter approach. This script starts off bizarre as shit. You have this weird film they’ve found. In it, mobs of people turn into demons and start killing each other. The director is using subliminal messages to incite violence in the viewer. I can only imagine what Aronofsky would’ve done with this.
But while that opening held promise, this becomes more of a traditional thriller/horror flick where our hero goes searching for the origin of the dangerous film (we even get the horror trope of Jon visiting an insane asylum to talk to a crazy old character who may have information they need), and for that reason, it feels more like a February release than a November one.
And herein lies the age-old question in screenwriting. Do you stick with one of the most time-tested formulas in history – the straight 3-act structure? Or do you ignore it, along with many other screenwriting “rules,” and do whatever the fuck feels right in the pursuit of coming up with something truly original?
Taking the latter route certainly gets you cool points. But it’s also infinitely harder. Everyone loves celebrating the Pulp Fictions, the Social Networks, and the Revenants of the world. But they don’t see what I see – which is the hundreds of scripts that aspire to be the next Pulp Fiction, Social Network, or Revenant. When those scripts are bad, they are worse than any script you could imagine.
That’s because many writers (typically newer writers) erroneously believe that as long as you’re weird and a little bit talented, you can do anything in a script and it will turn out genius. But the truth is, even the weirdos have a solid grasp on how to tell a good story. Tarantino may be nontraditional, but there’s no one out there who can build suspense into a scene like he can. And that’s a big reason why we stay so engaged in a Tarantino film.
On the flip side, you have movies like Rocky, Up, or The King’s Speech, which are simple 3-act screenplays, and proof that you’re not selling out when you go simple. You can still write an amazing film, even if it’s a little more predictable.
With that said, one should always take into consideration audience expectation. When you tell someone your idea, think about what kind of movie they’re expecting to see. If you pitch a producer a really fucked up premise then deliver a straight-forward 3-act hero’s journey, they’re probably going to be disappointed, right? With a fucked up premise, you want a fucked up execution.
One of the most famous cases of this is the still unmade “The Sky is Falling,” about a couple of priests who discover irrefutable proof that God doesn’t exist and go on a crazy drug-fueled killing spree as a result. Are you going to tell that story in a straight-forward manner? I hope not. You’re probably going to want to jump around in time a bit, throw in a series of unexpected twists, give us non-traditional heroes, etc.
However, if you’re pitching me a movie about a boy who befriends an alien, I’m totally fine with that being a simple 3-act story.
Getting back to Flicker, I think the script has potential. But it needs a fresh voice. It needs to be modernized. And it needs to stay away from the kind of second and third acts that you’d see in movies like Scream or The Ring.
This film, like The Exorcist, needs to embrace just how fucked up it is and stick with that. I mean, there’s a scene where Jon and Claire watch Queen of Venus, a film Castle designed to trigger the carnal side of the brain. So the two immediately start fucking like animals while an old man in a wheelchair (the one who showed them the movie) watches while attempting to jack off.
It’s one of the moments where Flicker truly embraces the absurdity of its premise. The next draft of this needs to do more of that, but not just in the individual scenes. It needs to do it in the way the script is structured, in the way the story is told. This really could be great under the right direction. But right now, it leaves you wanting more.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Make sure you’re giving the reader the movie you pitched them in your logline. I read a lot of bait-and-switch scripts where the logline promised me something unique and challenging, and instead I got something simple and formulaic (and vice versa!). Always be consistent with what you pitch.
Genre: Film Noir
Premise: A knife-thrower uses the unique talents of his circus co-workers to track down the organization that killed his sister.
About: So in the wake of the Scriptshadow 250 top 25 being released, I thought I’d review the winner of another major screenwriting competition, the 2014 Page Screenwriting Contest. Matias Caruso’s “Carnival” won the competition, then went on to finish on the bottom half of last year’s Black List. Let’s take a look!
Writer: Matias Caruso
Details: 111 pages (undated)
No matter how hard I try and get into Film Noir, I can’t seem to embrace its idiosyncrasies, specifically the artificiality of a beaten down detective giving you a monotone play-by-play of his every move via voice over.
And maybe my screenplay education plays into that. One of the first things you’re taught as a screenwriter is to never repeat what the audience can see for themselves. So if your hero hits a bully to teach him a lesson, you don’t have him then say, “You realize I had to do that to teach you a lesson, right?” The action already implies that.
Unfortunately, film noir was built on top of this repetition philosophy. Your hero sneaks into the bad guy’s house to search for evidence while we hear him tell us, in mechanical voice over, “I snuck into Bob’s apartment hoping to find the smoking gun. Instead, I found the dame with a hole in her head.” Yeah, we know! We’ve been with you this whole time!!
I suppose it’s a taste thing, not unlike the difference between film and digital. Different strokes for different folks. And I will say that Carnival takes the genre on in a unique way. But it was going to have to do a lot to make me forget all of those film noir trappings.
20 year-old Shiv is a knife-thrower in the circus (or the “carnival,” depending on how you view these things). Shiv is a brooding angry youngster who lives for two things – his co-worker and all around wonderful sister, Ayleen, and Zodiac, the hot fortune teller who also happens to be the carnival whore.
So when Shiv finds Ayleen dead one day, you can bet your ass he’s going to find the killer and make him pay. But first he’s gotta convince Tigress, the tough-as-nails head of this operation, to give him some time off. Tigress gives Shiv access to several of the carnival’s players, including Dante (the fire-breather), Goliath (the strong man), and of course, a resistant Zodiac.
This misfit team of super-frenemies heads to Babylon, which is like a smaller nastier version of Vegas, to seek out The Black Rose, a gang of unsavory folks who perform most of the drug-running around town. If someone was killed, The Black Rose probably had something to do with it.
During this pursuit, Shiv falls in love with Zodiac, who, because of her ability to see into the future, allows their underdog team to survive where many others would’ve failed. But no matter how hard Shiv pushes for love, Zodiac keeps rebuffing him for a mysterious reason we won’t find out about until later.
If you’ve watched any film noir, you probably know where this is going. It turns out The Black Rose is tied back to Tigress, and that Tigress probably had something to do with Ayleen’s death. And that maybe the cover-up goes even further than that with people involved who are even closer to Shiv (hint hint).
Despite this, Shiv still has to kill the head of The Black Rose. With his knife-wielding skills and the backing of fire-breathers and strong men, he just might do it. But what does it matter if his only place of sanctuary – the carnival – is poisoned beyond repair? Where will Shiv take the next chapter of his life?
If screenplays were just about great storytelling, a lot more movies would be made. But a screenplay is divided into two halves. There’s the “play” part, where the story is told. And there’s the “screen” part, which is where your story will end up.
Even if you’ve written a great play, if that story won’t look good on screen, it’s going to have a tough time making fans. For example, if you write something like Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room,” where everything takes place in a room, that’s not going to look great onscreen.
But if you wrote something similar that took place in a beautiful East Coast harbor town, that movie’s going to look better, right? And if you write something like Carnival, that has fire-breathers and goliaths defending their turf against mobsters, that’s going to look A LOT BETTER, right?
And there’s no doubt that that’s Carnival’s biggest strength. It would create the kind of trailer that would have movie geeks salivating.
Yet still… I couldn’t get past the film noirishness of it all. One of the things that absolutely kills me about this genre is the exposition. It seems like the plot becomes deliberately dense just so characters can explain to other characters (and the audience) how everything is connected. So you get a lot of stuff like (my made up version): “You were in cahoots with Red Face. And Red Face wanted to take down Flower Pot… So you used your sway with the Money Men to attack them on the backside. But you never predicted we’d have Barnaby Bilkes in our back pocket…”
I like it when a story comes together in a way where it doesn’t have to be explained. To me, that’s the beauty of storytelling. The audience gets to put 2+2 together instead of someone explaining Goldbach’s Conjecture to them.
Also, film noir has the most artificial dialogue of any genre. It’s all about quips and comebacks and clever observations. I like naturalism. I want to believe what’s happening, and if people are speaking in a way that normal people would never speak, it’s hard to do that.
And I understand it’s part of the stylization of the genre. I guess I just don’t respond well to it. It’s hard for me to embrace one line like, “She’s the Reaper’s eyes tonight and I am his Scythe. I want this dance to last forever.” Much less an entire script full of them.
Also, I’m never a fan of psychics pushing plots forward. It’s the crutch of all plot-building devices. Whenever you’re stuck, you just have your psychic say, “I have a vision that Evil Bad Guy is at Location X right now. We need to go there!” It’s unnatural and lazy and if you use it too much, your characters never have to work for the information they get. They just wait for Psychic Character to come up with their next plot destination.
Okay, I’m just piling on now. But these are the things keeping me from loving this script. And the thing is, it’s got a lot going for it. It’s got clear GSU, like any murder-mystery does, and it’s strongly-structured as a result. This would look amazing on the big screen with the right director. It’s a new way into the genre, with the carnival angle. I just can’t look past my issues with film noir. But I’d be interested to hear what fans of the genre think (calling Poe!), as I’m guessing some of you might dig this.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Words matter. Make sure the words you use represent exactly what you want the reader to see. One misuse of a word can send your reader into imagining something completely different from what you intended. The opening of “Carnival” starts with (italics are mine):
A CIRCUS FLIER
Floating in the night air like a falling Autumn leaf.
“Shiv” is the name of the KNIFE THROWER, written in sharp, gleaming font. A stylish illustration depicts a hooded man hurling knives at us, blades reflecting a cheering crowd.
A sharp WHISTLE – the poster TEARS as:
I read this assuming “flier” meant a circus acrobat who was “flying” through the air. As such, the Shiv paragraph didn’t make sense. Was Shiv the circus flier? He was flying through the air while hurling knives at us?? A simple switch from “flier” to “poster” would’ve resolved any confusion. So really think about how your reader is receiving the words you’re writing and make sure there are no key words that could be misconstrued. Especially if it’s the beginning of your script.
Premise: A young man raised by his overbearing father in a remote forest is forced to reevaluate everything he’s learned when his father goes to jail and he’s introduced into society for the first time.
About: This script finished low on the most recent Black List. Not much is known about the writer, Jacques Edeline, other than that he’s spent the last few years writing and making short films.
Writer: Jacques Edeline
Details: 98 pages – undated
As we come off a weekend where Batman vs. Superman, a film some believed would be the biggest movie of all time, was dethroned in only its third weekend by a second-tier Melissa McCarthy comedy, we have to ask the question: Are audiences finally getting tired of superhero films?
A producer was trying to convince me of this a few months ago – that once these superhero movies started to run up too close to each other, audiences would bolt. For the record, I told him he was crazy. Remember, people have been announcing the end of superhero films for almost a decade now. Director Matthew Vaughn famously predicted that his film, X-Men: First Class, would be one of the last superhero films. But the damn genre is like alien teflon – it doesn’t just repel. It grows stronger!
However, as I watched recent trailers for Suicide Squad and Captain America, I noticed a new feeling bubbling up inside of me. It wasn’t hate. It wasn’t apathy. It was exhaustion. I know I will see these movies. But I’m not sure I’m looking forward to them anymore. There are only so many colors you can use for a cape.
Make no mistake, there would be SO MANY PEOPLE in Hollywood THRILLED by this news. Contrary to popular belief, that all Hollywood cares about is moola, the creative side of the field – the people who love the process of making movies – they’re DONE with superheroes. They’re praying every day that they die.
And maybe if that happens, we’ll get more movies like today’s, a script I went into with zero expectations, and came out of with a giant smile on my face. Which is kinda disturbing once you hear what it’s about.
42 year-old Charlie Nasy lives out in the Appalachian wilderness with his 15 year-old son, Will, a young man who’s basically a clone of his father. And what a father that is. Charlie’s life is that of a “prepper” on steroids. They farm the land, they kill their own food, they read, they stockpile, they train.
As you’d expect, Will’s perception of the world is a little warped. Charlie’s taught him that society is evil, that everyone’s a puppet, that all people want to do is manipulate you, that you should never trust anyone about anything.
So when the cops show up one day and take Charlie away for a lifetime of not paying the tax man, Will’s placed in a temporary foster home, where an older couple watches over him. Will goes to school for the first time, and despite being miles smarter than everyone else, plans to lay low until his father gets out in a year.
That plan is thrown into disarray, however, when he develops a relationship with an offbeat artsy stunner, Renee. Renee starts to show him another side to life – namely that you can have fun – an activity Will’s never been privy to.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Charlie is way worse than being an overbearing abusive weirdo, and has actually been planning a series of terrorist attacks against the U.S. Call it serendipitous then, that Will is encouraged by Renee to try out for the Presidential Scholars Program, a program whereby if you win, you get to meet the president himself.
Charlie flips when he hears this, and through their weekly prison visits, comes up with a plan for Will to kill they president when they meet. Will is totally down at first, but as he falls deeper and deeper in love with Renee, he begins to question not just the plan, but everything he’s ever known about his father.
So before committing to this script, I actually read the first few pages of four other Black List scripts. I said to myself, whoever had the best first-3-pages would get the read. Homegrown won because it introduced me to the most interesting character of the bunch – Charlie.
Why was he the most interesting? Simple. The make-up of Charlie’s character brought conflict into every scene he was in.
Conflict, my page-filling friends, is the magical pixie dust that brings scenes alive. So you want to look for it wherever you can. We talk about goals, stakes, and urgency. But remember that the right dose of conflict can power a scene that doesn’t contain any of those elements.
This is actually what TV does. TV can’t always give you that strong goal, those high stakes, and that impending urgency, because the story needs to last for years. If you GSU the shit out of every scene, you’re going to burn the reader out. So how does TV keep you entertained? That’s right: CONFLICT. Find the conflict in the scene and you will have an entertaining scene.
What Jacques does here is he embeds resistance into the core of his co-lead, Charlie. Charlie hates people. He despises happiness. He’s always an ill-timed tap on the shoulder from snapping. So what happens when you place that kind of person in a conversation? There’s conflict! Right? Because he doesn’t want to be in the conversation.
We spot this mechanism in action right off the bat. Charlie’s forced to sell fish at the farmer’s market for extra dough. A flirty woman approaches him and asks him questions about his fish, about his process for catching them, and Charlie just shuts her down. We feel the tension in the conversation. We feel the conflict between them. It acts as current to electrify the scene.
And conflict’s important because the script doesn’t have urgency. “Homegrown” takes place over an entire year. It’s a reminder that screenwriting is a lot like cooking. You don’t always have the ingredients (in this case, urgency). But that’s okay. Because you can compensate by adding more of another ingredient (in this case, conflict).
Another thing I liked about Homegrown was that usually in these localized character-driven scripts, the stakes are low. I mean sure, the personal stakes are high. If the characters don’t get over their haunting pasts, they’ll never be whole again. All of that is wonderful and liberating. But what if you could do that AND make your story feel big at the same time? You can. Add a story element with high-stakes.
When we find out that Will could actually assassinate the president of the United States, this story goes up a level. Now there’s something on the line here. This kid could change the course of history. That was a clever addition.
And finally, this has such a nasty villain – Charlie. He’s easily the most vile character I’ve read all year. And I always say, if you can write one character into your script that the reader won’t forget any time soon, you’ve succeeded. Because most writers can’t write a character the reader will remember five minutes after they put the script down.
Homegrown is a great “break-in” script. It shows that the writer can write on a character level but also incorporate that bigger storyline Hollywood likes. And on top of all that, it makes you think. It’s a really smart screenplay.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Writers think that to pull a reader in at the beginning of a script, you need to do it with a murder, or a mystery, or a flashy scene. But don’t rule out hooking the reader with a unique character. That’s what drew me in here – Charlie coldly dismissing a beautiful woman hitting on him. Charlie depriving his son of any happiness or connection with the outside world. I wanted to know more about Charlie. That’s what pulled me into this story.
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.