Due to my impending death, I couldn’t get a full post up today. The good news is that a new Scriptshadow Newsletter is coming out within the next couple of days! In it, I’ll be reviewing another hot trend – studios buying specs to adapt into already-owned franchises. This one is a small but intense spec that a major studio purchased to jump start an early 2000s franchise that could’ve been awesome, but they screwed it up big-time (for those guessing, I’ve talked about the film here within the past year). So make sure you sign up for the newsletter if you’re not on it already. Just send the word “NEWSLETTER” to Carsonreeves1@gmail.com
Now on to today’s tip, which is actually inspired by yesterday. In the number 1 Blood List script, Orb, I discussed the notion of exposition in scene-writing, with backstory being a part of that. Backstory is any information you include about your characters or plot that occurred before your story started. If your main character’s mom died during child birth and you have one of your characters tell us this, or even jump back in time and show it? That’s backstory.
So today’s question is, when should you include backstory? The quick answer is: ALMOST NEVER. Seriously. Screenplays work best when they’re dealing with the present moment. Therefore, characters talking about the past or us going into the past is moving away from the strength of the medium. However, sometimes you need to add context to your plot and your characters and backstory is the only way to do that.
That leads us to the more involved answer: If the audience can approximately fill in the backstory themselves, you don’t need to include it.
“Approximately?” What the hell does that mean, Carson? Say we meet a Marlon Brando-like blue collar character who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Just from his weathered eyes, his defeated demeanor, some scars on his back, we know this dude had a rough life. Therefore, including a scene where he tells his girlfriend that his dad used to beat him up every Thursday after drinking with his buddies, doesn’t add anything to the narrative. We figured something like this must have happened, and this daddy abuse sounds about right. So it comes off as redundant.
However, if “Marlon” informed his girlfriend that, at one time, he was a chess prodigy ranked #3 in the world? That’s something we wouldn’t have guessed. This makes him a bit more interesting to us, and builds an extra layer into the character. Therefore, the argument for including this piece of backstory is much stronger.
Keep in mind, though, that as with any information you bring into a script, your backstory needs to be relevant to the story. If you’re going to tell us your character was a chess champion, that should pay off or slide into the story later. That doesn’t mean Marlon has to enter a chess tournament. But this “hidden intellect” might serve him well in a Good Will Hunting “How do you like them apples?” kind of way.
Backstory is a tricky monster that should mostly be avoided. But if you are going to use it, make sure it tells us things we wouldn’t have guessed ourselves. Or else what’s the point?
Premise: Inspired by a true story, after a young couple finds a strange orb in the forest, they learn that it may have come from another world.
About: It’s Halloween folks! So what better way to celebrate than reviewing the number one script on Kailey Marsh’s Blood List! Oooh-oh-ah-ah-ah-ahhhhh (those new to the site, this is my go-to Dracula impression). Writing team Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman are quite new on the scene and have, thus far, written and directed a few short films.
Writer: Steve Desmond & Michael Sherman
Details: 98 pages
I’ve had a weird week.
I’ve been on my death bed with some rogue illness that I’m convinced will eventually turn me into a Walker. I’ve noticed that when you’re sick, everything in your life falls part. Your place goes from sparkling clean to a pig sty within a matter of hours. Your friendships come next, dissipating by the end of the day. And work becomes nearly impossible. I’d read a script for an hour earlier only to look up and see that I was on page 4.
It hasn’t helped that my Chicago Cubs have sucked worse than a Ron Howard movie. However, they somehow won last night’s game to keep their hopes alive. How is this relevant to today? Well duh. The Cubs are in the midst of a 108 year curse. And it’s Halloween. So, like, curses are what today’s all about.
The good news is, this idea is right up my alley. So if there’s anything that’s going to knock my flannel Cubbie socks off today, it’s going to be Orb. Let’s see if it succeeds!
“Orb” follows David and Claire Morgan, a young couple who are trying to put their lives back together after tragically losing their child.
Claire used to play piano professionally and David is a professor at the local University. Despite the loss, he’s moving up the ladder quickly. And he’s excited by the prospect of Claire finally moving on from the loss, possibly even looking to have another baby.
After a meteor shower, Claire goes for a stroll in the woods, and that’s when she finds a bowling ball-sized orb. She takes it home, only to realize that when she plays piano, it can mimic her.
She excitedly shows David, who’s also intrigued by the prospects of this thing, and the two discuss bringing it to the local scientific community. However, the orb starts communicating with Claire, telling her it doesn’t want to go anywhere.
To sweeten the pot on that request, it promises Claire that it can bring her baby back to life. That’s when David realizes this thing is dangerous, and begins concocting a plan to destroy it. But the orb is one step ahead of him, and will do anything… TO STAY ALIVE.
This was an interesting one. Orb starts off too breezy. A couple finds an orb and it starts acting weird. It’s like the adult version of E.T. without the benefit of a cute alien to fall in love with. It all seemed rather simplistic.
But once Claire started getting attached to the orb and became convinced it was going to bring her baby to life, it brought back shades of Rosemary’s Baby, that sort of dark “am-i-losing-it” tone centered around the love for a child that made that 70s film and others like it such classics. I was back in.
With that said, I want to use this review to talk about scene-writing, since good scene-writing is an essential skill for all screenwriters. And I’m going to highlight a scene early on in the script to make my point.
Now I don’t want you to think that all the scenes in the script were like this. Actually, the scene-writing gets really good as the script goes on. But I’m highlighting this problem because I see a lot of writers make the same mistake in their scripts and IT’S GOT TO STOP.
It’s got to stop people.
The scene takes place on page 12, following our introduction to Claire and David. It’s the next day and David is at work at the University. While he sits in his office, his friend Josh peeks in. Josh makes a comment about David being newly promoted, then indicates that the two have been friends for awhile, then David updates Josh on Claire’s well-being, filling us in on a little more of the backstory between David and Claire. And then the scene ends.
So what’s the problem here?
This isn’t a scene. Newish writers believe this is a scene because characters are talking to each other and a few jokes are being made. But nothing ACTUALLY HAPPENS during the scene. There’s no drama. There’s no conflict. No problem. Nobody’s trying to accomplish anything. It’s purely a collection of expositional snippets designed to fill us in on relevant story and character information.
So how would we make this a scene? Well, for starters, I don’t think we have to. Since all this is is information, we can simply get rid of the scene and insert those pieces of information in other already-established scenes in the script. For example, in the scene we learn that Claire used to play for a symphony but doesn’t anymore. However, in the very next scene, we see a montage of Claire, at home, teaching a series of students how to play piano. With a little extra info, we could easily convey Claire’s history with the symphony here.
That should always be present in your mind. Sometimes when you’re trying to make a scene work, the answer might be to get rid of the scene completely.
But we do have to introduce Josh, the friend, somewhere, so let’s say we needed a scene, at the very least, to accomplish that. One thing to keep in mind is that the exposition-driven conversation between characters should almost never be the primary engine driving the scene. Some form of drama should be driving the scene and the conversation should be sitting shotgun.
One of the easiest ways to turn a non-scene into a scene is to add a problem.
I’m reminded of the way the two main characters meet in my favorite film of the year, Swiss Army Man. The boring way to write their introduction would’ve been for Hank to be walking on the beach, find Manny’s dead body, and merely drag it up onto the sand and start their friendship.
Instead, the writers create a problem. Hank is trying to hang himself. And he spots Manny’s dead body just as he’s about to do so. He slips, accidentally choking himself, all while the first person he’s seen since he got stranded on this island is merely 100 feet away. But he can’t get to him because he’s choking to death!
Now whether you like that moment or not, you have to admit that you’ve gone from NO SCENE to SCENE. Something is HAPPENING. There’s a PROBLEM that needs to be OVERCOME.
Take another film that had the job of introducing two characters who were long-time friends, just like David and Josh: Ferris and Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Imagine if that movie would’ve introduced those two with Ferris and Cameron recounting old times together while setting up relevant exposition regarding the school and the other characters they’d be hanging out with. Boring, right?
Instead, the introduction to their relationship plays out in a series of scenes where Ferris is trying to get a sick Cameron to come over and ditch school with him (by the way, one of the best uses of irony in a movie ever – the guy ditching school is perfectly healthy, while the friend he forces to ditch with him is legitimately sick). That’s the problem that needs to be solved. That Cameron doesn’t want to come.
But honestly, it doesn’t even need to be that involved. Getting back to Orb, maybe someone Josh gave a failing grade to is causing a shit-storm and David and Josh are trying to figure out how to resolve the issue. While they’re talking about that, they’re dropping bits of relevant exposition. By creating this simple problem, the exposition will be more invisible than before, when it was the primary focus of the scene.
Outside of that issue, Orb was a fun script. It was a late-bloomer. I wish it’d been less predictable throughout its first half. But once it hits that midpoint, it turns into an entirely different screenplay that takes way more chances. It’s worth reading for that second half alone.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: To figure out if you have a scene or you’re just using a scene to convey information, imagine that scene playing as a short film, with none of the movie playing before it or after it. Would it be entertaining to an audience? I know that most scenes in a film rely on context that’s been set up beforehand. But ignore that for a second. Does the scene play out in a dramatic interesting way that would work on its own? If so, you’ve got a scene. If not, it probably means you need to add something extra (a problem, conflict, a goal, drama).
THE WINNER OF THE FINAL WEEK OF ROUND 1 HAS BEEN LISTED BELOW
It’s the FIIIINNNAL WEEK for the first round of the Scriptshadow Tournament!. The Scriptshadow Tournament pits 40 amateur screenplays against each other that you, the readers of the site, will vote on. Ultimately YOU will decide the winner. Today we have the last group of entries. Here are the previous weeks where you can find the 7 scripts that have already advanced…
As you make your way through the final batch of entries, make sure to vote for the week’s winner in the comments section. Although it’s not required, your vote will carry more weight if you explain why you chose the script (doesn’t have to be elaborate, just has to be convincing). I say “carry more weight” because a vote for a script without any explanation from an unknown voter may be seen as fake and not count towards the tally. I will announce the winner of this week here, in this post, on Sunday, 10pm Pacific time. That script will then go into the quarterfinals.
WILD CARD ROUND – So next week, we’ll be highlighting eight ALMOST MADE IT screenplays. Four of those will go through to the quarterfinals. I haven’t fully decided on how I’m going to choose those yet but I’m leaning towards Scott’s suggestion of highest percentage of votes. We’ll see though. For everyone who finished SECOND or A CLOSE THIRD in their respective weeks, feel free to send me an updated draft to email@example.com by this coming Wednesday. Yes, I realize that those in later weeks won’t have as much time to rewrite as the early weekers, but those are the breaks when you’re a wild card.
Onto today’s scripts!
Title: The Attacker
Logline: After scoring the winning goal of a match by cheating, a soccer player has to go searching for his brother in the most dangerous neighborhood of the town that has just lost.
Writer: Jean Roux
Title: Brick House
Logline: An ex-hitman must protect a child when his old gangster boss seeks retribution for a botched assignment.
Writer: Jason Prugar
Title: The Cheater
Logline: A PI who specializes in helping AND exposing cheating relationships must navigate a business venture while juggling two lovers.
Writer: Evangelos Banks
Genre: Horror, Coming-of-age
Logline: After his great-grandmother’s death, ten-year-old Felix is troubled by a potentially haunted family heirloom and his father’s increasingly strange behavior.
Writer: Casey Giltner
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Superhero
Logline: After a botched heist bestows a group of friends with superpowers, they decide to use them for their own personal gain, putting them in the crosshairs of both a ruthless villain and the organization of superheroes sworn to protect the city.
Writer: Patrick G. Emralino
WINNER OF WEEK 8: “The Attacker” by Jean Roux. Awesome job, Jean. The best concept doesn’t always win the week, but today it did. I’m excited to see how this one does moving forward. And let that be a reminder to all you second and third place finishers – send me new drafts by this Wednesday. The wild card round will consist of 8 scripts, 4 of which will be chosen to move on. Then we get to the nitty-gritty, the QUARTER-FINALS BABY! Can’t wait!
I’m a big believer in getting the most bang for your buck out of your screenplay. In many ways, a screenplay is an exercise in maximizing entertainment value. You take what, initially, feels like an average moment, and figure out a way to double, triple, even quadruple the entertainment value of that moment.
The most common example of this is the Hitchcockian break-up scene. Write a five minute scene between a man and a woman, then at the end of it, have her break up with him. While the break-up surprises the reader, and is therefore entertaining, that entertainment value lasts for all of five seconds.
On the flip side, you can inform the reader before the scene starts that our woman plans to break up with the man, and the exact same scene entertains the reader for five minutes instead of five seconds. Why? Because now we’re anticipating the dumping, curious how its going to go down and what the aftermath will be.
This leads me to today’s topic: scene-prepping. Scene prepping isn’t exactly like the Hitchcockian break-up, but it operates under a similar rule-set. The idea behind scene prepping is that instead of throwing us into a scene cold, you prep us for it beforehand.
The effect this has is two-fold. First, it makes the target scene bigger when it arrives. Think of it sort of like pre-game hype. You know how ESPN talks endlessly about what’s going to happen between LeBron James and Steph Curry when the two finally square off in the NBA Championship? We’ve been hearing about that match-up for so long, that by the time the game rolls around, we’re bursting at the seams to see what happens.
But there’s actually a more important effect to scene-prepping, and it dates back to the break-up example. By prepping us for a scene, say, 15 minutes down the road, you’re now entertaining us for 20 minutes (15 minutes prep + the 5 minute scene) instead of the only 5 minutes had you not prepped the scene at all.
Think about that for a second. You’re building up anticipation. And when your reader is anticipating something, they’re ENTERTAINED.
You may not know this, but you already do a form of scene-prepping without realizing it. Your entire script is one big scene-prep for the climax. Everything is gearing us up for that final showdown. Look at Swiss Army Man. The majority of that film is geared towards our lead character wanting to get back to the love of his life. This desire to see him make it home to be with her again keeps us more entertained than if there were no girl at all. Also, when they do reunite, it plays out with the weight of the world on it, since we’ve been prepping for this moment the entire movie.
A great example of scene prepping dates back to one of the best thriller scripts ever written – Die Hard. The entire opening sequence – before we get to the building – is one big scene prep for McClane seeing his wife. When McClane is in the limo talking to the driver, their primary discussion revolves around McClane’s troubled marriage. We learn that his marriage is on the rocks and this trip is his last chance to save it.
Again, this does two things. For starters, we’re now interested in what will happen when he sees his wife. The writer has looped an anticipation lasso around us, ensuring that we’re stealth-entertained until that meeting occurs. Second, when the two finally do see each other, the scene is much more powerful due to the fact we’ve been waiting for it. We know the key details. We know what’s at stake. So the scene plays like gangbusters.
I want you to imagine, if you can, how this scene would’ve played out if it weren’t prepped. Let’s say McClane got off the plane, took an Uber, said very little to his driver, showed up at the building, and then started arguing with his wife. We would’ve moved through the story quicker, sure. But we probably would’ve been like, “Where is this coming from? How did we get here?” The scene would’ve slammed into us. And by the time we caught up with it, it would’ve been over.
In my experience, a lack of scene prepping is one of the easier ways to spot amateurs. That’s because the pillars of scene-prepping – outlining and rewriting – are two areas amateur writers famously resist. To prep something takes planning, and good planning comes through outlining. Or, it comes from realizing a scene needs prepping after the fact, and going back and adding it through a rewrite.
An example of how a lack of scene-prep can hurt you occurred in The Force Awakens. Who was the weakest character in that film? I would argue that it was Maz Kanata, the alien tortoise thing that ran that little getaway bar. Now Maz had problems that went well beyond scene prepping. But the lack of scene-prep didn’t help. Do you remember how much time was spent getting us ready for Maz? About two seconds, when Han Solo looked back to Rey and Finn just before they walked into her place and said, “Oh yeah, Maz is a little weird so be ready.”
I mean, compare that to the scene prep of Hannibal Lecter, where we’re given a backstory on him, we’re going down a series of stairways and checkpoints and being warned by multiple people, we’re being shown pictures of what Hannibal has done to his victims.
The key term you want to familiarize yourself with here is ANTICIPATION. Anticipation is a storytelling turbo boost that excites the reader and encourages them to keep reading. You create anticipation by prepping what’s to come. If you don’t prep us and we just stumble from one scene to the next, only catching on to where we are in the moment, the audience never feels satisfied. To be satisfied, you need things to look forward to.
With that said, scene prep is one storytelling tool of many. You’re not going to use it in every scene. But it should definitely be utilized on multiple occasions in every script that you write. Go through your latest script and see if you’re prepping. If not, now you know how to do it!
Premise: When her husband goes missing, a woman investigates the cult who may have taken him, only to find that they’re involved in something way beyond basic brainwashing.
About: He’s baaaaaaack. The man who’s written one of my top 5 favorite scripts (The Brigands of Rattleborge) and the film with the most harrowing death scene ever (Bone Tomahawk) comes at us again with one of his many sold spec scripts – They Repair Us! In fact, Zahler has spoken openly about the fact that he’s sold or optioned 21 different screenplays, and until Bone Tomahawk, none of them had been made. Now that Zahler has a produced credit under his belt (he also directed Tomahawk), I’m sure that will begin to change. I’m also hoping that the success of The Magnificent 7 will help get Rattleborge made.
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Details: 125 pages – undated
Yesterday (my post went up late, so check it out if you missed it), I was complaining about the lack of originality I’ve seen in the screenwriting community lately. So when I was choosing a script to read for today, I knew there was one writer I could turn to who would guarantee a unique read.
S. Craig Zahler, baby.
You see, there’s one element that, when it comes to originality, transcends concept, and that’s voice. Someone with a unique voice can take even the most mundane topic – say, living in Suburbia – and because they see that world in such a unique way, write something that feels wholly original (American Beauty, by Alan Ball).
This is why “voice-y” writers have such an advantage in this business. With everybody writing the same damn shit over and over again, the writers who can stand out in any way feel like superstars.
Now does that mean you should write like Zahler? 10-line paragraphs on the regular? A deep description of every room, every character? Taking “slow-build” to the next level? No. This is ZAHLER’S style. You need to find your own. Whether it be a relentless millennial pace like Max Landis. A weird comedic irreverent style like Brian Duffield. Or an “each-scene-is-a-mini-movie” approach like Quentin Tarantino. Find what works for you and embrace it.
Okay, now let’s check out some Repairing, shall we?
38 year-old Gail Linder, a violinist, has been struggling lately. Her husband, Emmet, has gone missing. While this has shattered Gail’s reality, it’s not completely unexpected. Gail and Emmet recently lost a child, and Emmet’s been unable to move on.
The police have discovered that Emmet may have turned to a shadowy cult for solace. The problem is, they don’t know anything about the cult. So when Emmet finally reappears, bald and a borderline vegetable, Gail becomes determined to find out what happened to her husband. Maybe whoever did this to him can get him back to normal.
So Gail follows the few clues that she has, eventually tracking the cult’s supposed gatekeeper, Alain Bertrand. Unfortunately, when Gail follows Bertrand to a hotel, she gets too close. Bertrand is able to turn the tables on her, and the next thing Gail knows, she’s in a strange holding room all by herself.
Since this script works best if you don’t know what happens next, I suggest you download and read the script yourself. Moving forward, there will be spoilers. So anyway, Gail is told that this is a place where they “repair” people. If you’ve lost someone close to you, or you’re a pedophile, or a murderer, they have a machine that goes into your brain on a sub-atomic level and erases the place that’s hurting you.
In Gail’s case, if they’re going to allow her back into the world, they’re going to have to erase the part of her brain that despises their “cult.” Otherwise, she will expose them. To that end, Gail will need to go through the same procedure her husband went through. And my friends? That’s where things get really fucked up in They Repair Us.
I wanted originality in a screenplay. I got it in this final act. It’s weird, it’s fun, it’s polarizing. And it was a great reminder that there are still strong screenwriters taking chances out there.
Reading today’s script was a lesson in confidence. When a writer has confidence, everything about the read changes. What is “confidence” in writing? It’s a few things. But the main one is that the writer has a plan. He knows where he’s going.
I remember yesterday, when I read that script, that the writer seemed to be making stuff up as they went along. You could see them searching on the page. “Hmm, I wonder where this will take me.” Since you could tell that she didn’t know, you weren’t convinced she would take you to the right place.
With They Repair Us, I knew Zahler always had a plan. And his confidence resulted in my confidence in him. Even when the script was taking its time through that first half, I never doubted that Zahler was taking me to a good place.
And if there’s anything I’m taking away from this script, it’s that. If you’re a slow-burn type writer, like Zahler is, YOU MUST WRITE WITH CONFIDENCE. That’s the only way we’ll stick with you. If you’re a slow-burn writer and we suspect you don’t know where you’re going with your story? Forget about it. We’ll give up on you long before we get to the good stuff, assuming there is any good stuff.
They Repair Us is also the PERFECT EXAMPLE of the mid-point twist. Remember that a mid-point twist is something you add near the midpoint so that the second half of the script feels different from the first half. Otherwise, you have one entire script that feels exactly the same.
In They Repair Us, literally RIGHT AT THE MIDPOINT, Gail wakes up in the underground facility where the “repairing” takes place. This ensures that the second half (escape the facility) is different from the first half (find the cult). I thought that was really clever.
Another choice I liked about that second half was adding a fun character. Sometimes what happens when you’re writing a deep and dark screenplay is that every choice you make is also deep and dark. There’s no contrast. And when there’s no contrast, things become too predictable, too monotone. Zahler introduces a doctor, Doctor Howard, who’s fun and jokes around a lot, and who therefore added some much needed contrast to the situation, some levity. It broke up the monotony and kept things fresh.
The only thing I didn’t like about They Repair Us was some of the third act technobabble. In my experience, readers/audiences don’t like to know the micro-details of what’s happening. It’s similar to the blowback George Lucas got when he added midichlorians to the Star Wars lexicon. We don’t need to know exactly how this brain-scanning thing works on a micro-level. We’re always going to be more interested in the drama of the situation.
It’s nice to read some good thinking man’s sci-fi again. If Arrival does well, someone should come and give They Repair Us a shot. It doesn’t have quite the hook that Arrival does. But there’s a good story here, it wouldn’t be expensive to make, and there’s nothing else out there like it.
They Repair Us should be easy to find on the internet. Check it out if you have the time!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you don’t have a unique voice as a writer, you must work hard to create ORIGINAL CONCEPTS. Because if you write something that’s unoriginal AND you sound just like every other writer out there? Forget about it. Your scripts will never stand out.