Last month I was reading a script that wasn’t very good and I asked myself, what could make this script better? The answer to that question sounded something like this: more original characters, more active characters, characters with more depth, less on-the-nose dialogue, higher stakes, more unique choices, a better handle on structure, a second act that doesn’t repeat itself, more obstacles to overcome, a flashier villain… and the list goes on.
The point being, this writer needed to spend more time learning the craft.
So then I thought, well that’s kinda lame. I mean, yeah, they do need to learn this stuff. But what if there were some things they could do RIGHT NOW that could leave a big impact on their script.
That’s what gave me the idea for today’s article. There’s lots of screenwriting tips out there, lots of lessons, lots of tools. But what tools give you the BIGGEST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK? That means you don’t have to do a lot, and yet you get tons of upside through the application.
So after you read this, bust open that script you’re working on and incorporate a few of these immediately. And because I enjoy a flair for the dramatic, I’ll be listing our Bang For Your Buck tools in reverse order, with the best tip coming last. Here we go!
NUMBER 5: TICKING TIME BOMB (OR “TICKING CLOCK”)
I just completed a consultation script the other day that had way too slow of a second act. Months were going by with no end in sight. I was getting bored. And I thought, if only there was a ticking time bomb here, the story would feel so much faster.
A ticking time bomb is any looming moment that spells doom. And here’s something a lot of Scriptshadow readers don’t know. A ticking time bomb is not limited to the entire narrative. It can be used for single acts, single sequences, even individual scenes. If you’ve got a boring talky scene between two characters, add a ticking time bomb!
Let’s say you’re writing a teen comedy like The Edge of Seventeen and you have a conversation between your leads in one of their bedrooms that’s boring no matter how you arrange the dialogue. Pull the scene out and place it outside of school, five minutes before the first bell rings. Give the talk some importance (it’s a conversation that needs to be had), and make it so if the hero gets in after that bell, he gets detention all weekend. Watch that very same conversation come alive. Ticking time bombs give you so much for so little when you know how to use them.
NUMBER 4: UNDERDOG
Granted this is something you’ll probably have to do at an earlier stage in the writing, but underdog characters are so beloved by audiences that using them is almost like cheating. You barely have to do anything and the audience is rooting for your hero.
If you look at the 10 highest grossing movies of 2016, 7 of them are led by underdog characters (Rogue One, Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book, Zootopia, Suicide Squad, Sing). Not every story is right for underdogs (Batman vs. Superman), but it sure helps when they are.
NUMBER 3: SHOW DON’T TELL
Welcome to one of the most common mistakes beginner AND intermediate screenwriters make, and one of the easiest ways to identify a newbie. If a writer’s characters are always solving problems with what they say, rather than what they do, I know the script is in trouble.
But here’s the great thing about “show don’t tell.” It isn’t just about looking less newbie-ish. It actually MAKES YOUR SCRIPT BETTER. Even a lazy use of showing tends to outclass an inspired use of telling. It’s why one of the first tasks they have you do in film school is shoot a movie without sound.
I was watching the pilot for the British TV show, Utopia, last weekend. In the first scene, these thugs enter a comic book shop, and one by one, kill everyone in it. Then, just as they’re about to leave, one of the thugs bends down, and we see that a young boy is hiding under one of the stands.
We could’ve easily turned this into a dialogue scene. “What are you doing under there, little guy?” “Nothing.” “What comic is that you’ve got?” “X-Men.” “Yeah? You like X-Men?” And blah blah blah. But no, they don’t do that. The thug, who’s been working his way through a box of candy the whole scene, extends the box of candy out to the boy, a psychotic look on his face. And the last shot is of the boy reaching forward to take a piece. Then we cut out. It’s a much better scene because of the showing.
NUMBER 2: DRAMATIC IRONY
Ooh, this is a good one. Dramatic irony is the act of letting the audience know something the hero (or the key character in the scene) does not know, and typically that something is bad.
So let’s say a surgeon is doing a routine appendix surgery on a patient and the patient unexpectedly dies. We then cut to the patient’s wife, who’s casually reading a magazine in the waiting room. We stay on the surgeon, as he gulps, and slowly moves towards the wife to tell her the bad news.
This is dramatic irony. We know the wife’s husband is dead before the wife does. This lets us play with the reveal, as the surgeon comes up and asks to speak with the wife. And the wife launches into an opinion about an ad in the magazine she’s reading. And the surgeon is looking for the right moment to butt in. And so on and so forth. And we just play that dramatic irony out.
Dramatic irony ALMOST ALWAYS WORKS. It’s really hard to fuck up if you know what you’re doing. (bonus tip: The more that’s at stake in the scene, the better the dramatic irony will play).
NUMBER ONE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK SCREENWRITING TOOL… SETUPS AND PAYOFFS
Not only are setups and payoffs one of the easiest things to learn, but they’re mind-bogglingly effective. You could introduce the dumbest plot beat ever. But if it’s a payoff to an earlier setup, the audience will gleefully cheer, “Of course! Because of the thing earlier!!!” There’s something about connecting two things on their own that sends audiences into a euphoria.
I divide setups and payoffs into two categories. Power setups and payoffs and Fun setups and payoffs.
Power setups and payoffs work by introducing something seemingly innocuous, not drawing too much attention to it, but just enough attention so that it’s remembered, and then later, have that seemingly innocuous thing be the solution to a key plot point.
One of the best examples of this is when the Crazy Clock Tower Lady in Back to the Future barges in between Marty and his girlfriend right before they’re going to kiss, and screams, “Save The Clock Tower,” before launching into the Clock Tower’s history, which includes it being destroyed when lightning struck it over 30 years ago.
Then, later, when Marty is thrown into the past and he and Doc are trying to find a substitute for nuclear energy and Doc confesses that the only thing in the 1950s that has that same kind of power is a bolt of lightning, but unfortunately there’s no way to tell when and where they’ll strike, Marty holds up the Save the Clock Tower flyer and says, “We do now.”
Fun setups and payoffs don’t affect the plot but never fail to leave a smile on the audiences’ face. Another example from Back to the Future is when, in the present, Marty’s mom throws a sheet cake down welcoming “Uncle Joey” back from jail. “We have to eat this ourselves. Uncle Joey didn’t make bail again.”
Then later, when Marty is in the past and visits his mom’s house, he sees Uncle Joey as a toddler in his playpen. Marty leans down, “Better get used to these bars, kid.”
Back to the Future is actually the best movie to watch to study setups and payoffs. But the point is, by setting something up early and paying it off later, the audience feels like they’ve been a participant in the movie, creating the illusion that they’ve broken through the fourth wall. It makes them feel good. And you barely had to do anything to get them to feel that way.
Genre: True Story/Drama/Love Story
Premise: Based on a true story, a young woman with barely any sailing knowledge, must navigate a handicapped boat back to land before her boyfriend succumbs to the injuries he sustained during a massive storm.
About: This project got all red hot recently and was finally purchased by upcoming financier/mini-studio STX. The flick will be a starring vehicle for Shailene Woodley, and will be directed by Everest director, Baltasar Kormákur. The writers, Aaron and Jordan Kandell, are fairly new on the scene, but did secure an impressive ‘story by’ credit on Moana. For those unfamiliar with what that means, here’s how the ‘story by’ credit came about. It used to be that an assembly line of writers would work on a script and the WGA would decide who had the most input and deem those writers the official writers on the project. Then someone said, doesn’t that seem strange? That the people who originally came up with the idea and wrote the first draft that every successive writer based the story on, didn’t get any credit? They finally said, “Yeah, that does make sense.” So now, the original writers on the script usually get a “story by” credit, to indicate their contribution at that crucial early stage.
Writers: Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell (based on the book “Red Sky In Mourning” by Tami Oldham Ashcraft with Susea McGearhart)
Details: 107 pages
When I first heard of this project, I thought, “Didn’t they already make this movie?” We had the lost at sea pic, “Life of Pi,” which was a great film. We had “All Is Lost,” with Robert Redford, which was also a good movie. You’re telling me we need a third lost at sea movie so soon after these two? What new angle were they bringing to the table?
It turns out they added a simple twist on the genre – a love story. And that’s what’s going to make this movie either a mega-hit or a mega-hit-by-an-iceberg. So which one do I think it is? Well, you’re talking to the guy who, after reading La La Land, thought the love story was boring, cliched, and uninspired. Newsflash: I heard that script was going to win an Oscar. So maybe I’m not the love story guru.
But I have some observations about Adrift, and I’ll get to those right after my synopsis…
23 year old Tami Ashcraft has woken up in the aftermath of a huge storm. She’s inside a boat, barely able to move, trapped underneath a shitload of shit, trying to find her bearings.
“Richard!” she screams.
Who’s Richard? We don’t know yet. But we’re about to find out. We shoot into the past, with Tami hanging out on a marina, where she meets the strapping 32 year old Richard Sharp. Richard is an adventurer, the kind of guy who when he says he’s going to go to Greece for the weekend, he goes.
This gets Tami all googly-eyed and goosebumped, since she’s lived her entire life in fear. She’s the kind of girl who TALKS about going to Greece, but never goes. The two engage in numerous flirtatious sparring matches, each trying to one-up each other, and each falling in love more after every line.
But before we can appreciate that love, we jump forward to the present again, where Tami somehow makes it out of the cabin and spots Richard on a distant life raft. Knowing little-to-nothing about sailing, she cobbles together a sail (using duct-tape!) and manages to get over to Richard.
Richard, it turns out, is in bad shape. He’s alive, but his back is probably broken. If they’re going to make it back to land, it’s going to be up to Tami. And that’s how the movie unfolds. We make a little headway in sailing back towards land, then jump into flashback to show the two falling in love, back to the struggling present, back to falling in love.
Will Tami get Richard back to safety before he succumbs to his injuries? You’ll have to ask Shailene Woodley (or go to Wikipedia).
It’s clear that Aaron and Jordan Kandell really love their subject matter. I could feel their passion for Tami’s story on the page, as well as Richard’s.
My worry is they loved them a little too much. Almost everything here in the present is solid. But once we go into flashbacks, the script starts to get shaky. That’s because the flashbacks aren’t so much a love story as they are a 1980s rom-com. While reading these passages, I thought I’d mistakenly stumbled upon the 1987 Kurt Russel Goldie Hawn script, Overboard.
Nearly everything in the flashbacks is a meet-cute scene. I’ll give you an example. Here’s an exchange from early on, when the two are getting to know each other:
“It’s hard to sweep a girl off her feet when you’ve got sea legs.”
“You don’t strike me as a girl who needs sweeping.”
“And you don’t strike me as a boy who gives up easily.”
Then, at the end of this conversation, she pushes him off the boat.
That’s EVERY SINGLE CONVERSATION they have. I understood one meet-cute scene. But 20 scenes full of rom-com zingers? It was in such stark contrast to the serious present-day stuff, where Tami is trying to stay alive. It felt like two different movies.
And when things did finally get serious in the past, we’d get scenes like Tami running away from Richard. He finally catches up to her, spins her around, and says, “Whatever you’re running from, it isn’t me.” Every line was either so rom-com’y or so melodramatic like this one, that it was hard to take the story seriously.
Another issue I had was the pacing. We’d have one scene in the present, then one scene in the past, then once scene in the present, then one scene in the past, then one scene in the present – you get the picture.
The problem with this is that it made the pacing too predictable. Once the reader gets ahead of you on anything, they start getting bored. If they know exactly where you’re going after this scene, and after the next one, and after the next one, they’re eventually going to tune out.
I was hoping for some variety in that pacing just so I could wonder what was going to happen next. I never wondered once. So hopefully that’s something they address in the film.
I will say this about the script. It has a good ending. And since good endings are hard to come by, it’s nice that these guys have that ace up their sleeve. But they need to rewrite this dialogue, like, yesterday. It’s so dated that it impeded upon my enjoyment of a story I desperately wanted to like. If I were these guys, I’d watch The Notebook. That script managed to capture two people falling in love without resorting to over-pasteurized dialogue (well, for the most part).
Or maybe I don’t know love stories and this dialogue is fine. With La La Land closing in on 250 million dollars worldwide, that could certainly be the case.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If I see any variation of “Are you stalking me?” in a guy-girl interaction in a script, I know the dialogue is in trouble. Any line that’s been used over 100 times in films is a line that should probably be avoided.
What I learned 2: Switch up your pacing! If a script has the exact same pace the whole time, the reader gets ahed of you and gets too comfortable. You want to keep your reader off-kilter. You never want them too relaxed.
What I learned 3: This is another example that studios are going gaga over true stories. So if you’ve found a great true story that nobody’s written yet, write it!
Premise: Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse battle it out to light the Chicago World’s Fair. The winner will end up lighting America.
About: Graham Moore burst onto the scene when he wrote The Imitation Game, a script that snagged the top spot on the Black List and then went on to surprising box office success. Moore would eventually win the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. The scribe, an admitted history junkie, did double duty this time around. He wrote a book about Edison and Westinghouse, then adapted it himself. The film will reteam Moore with Benedict Cumberbatch, who will play the prickly Thomas Edison, and director Morten Tyldum. The film will also star Eddie Redmayne as the main character in lawyer, Paul Cravath. (edit, oops! I got these two projects mixed up. Cumberbatch is appearing in The Current War. My fault!)
Writer: Graham Moore
Details: 134 pages
While everybody’s worked up about the upcoming Oscars, I’ve already moved on to next year’s Oscars! And today, we have what will surely be a major contender in the top categories.
Moore finds himself in a very enviable position. He’s a screenwriter who loves biopics living in the golden age of biopics. Outside of a couple of names (Aaron Sorkin comes to mind), there isn’t anyone better than him at it. And he’s proven that again, today.
26 year old Paul Cravath was only in law school two short years ago. Now he’s been tasked with telling one of his firm’s biggest clients, George Westinghouse, to give up his bid for lighting Chicago’s World Fair.
It’s 1888, a time when electricity is just starting to make its way into cities. Everyone knows that whoever can win this war will be rich beyond comprehension. The person leading the pack is Thomas Edison, who’s created a functional, if sloppy, light bulb.
George Westinghouse, on the other hand, has created a light bulb with the kind of warm dreamlike glow that leaves you feeling all fuzzy inside. The problem is that Edison came up with his bulb first. And he’s suing Westinghouse on a number of fronts to make sure he can’t light the fair.
Now that doesn’t sound fair, does it?
Westinghouse, against the advice of the firm, employs Paul Cravath to fight Edison tooth and nail. There has to be a flaw in his patent that will allow Westinghouse to win this battle. The problem is that Paul doesn’t have enough manpower to fight someone as big as Edison. There aren’t enough hours in the day.
So Paul invents the first ever hierarchal legal research system, employing associate attorneys who can do the medial work for him so he can focus on the big picture. Ironically, this system is as inventive as the light bulb, as it would become the operating foundation for every working law firm today.
But will that be enough to take out Edison? Only one way to find out.
I always find it interesting where a writer places his point of view. I mean, you have Thomas Edison. You have George Westinghouse. They are the “big picture” characters here. Yet Moore chooses to tell his story from a lawyer’s point of view. Was that a smart move?
Well, the core component of all drama is conflict. Where the conflict lies is where the entertainment is going to be. So Moore asked, where do these two titans meet? They meet at the point of this patent. And wherever there’s a patent battle, there’s a lawyer.
I probably wouldn’t have done this myself because when I think “lawyer,” I think “boring.” Especially a patent lawyer. But Moore treats his lawyer much like Tom Cruise’s part in A Few Good Men (not surprisingly, an Aaron Sorkin creation), where he plans to get Edison in court and force him to admit he cheated on the patent.
And that’s all well and good. But what I like about Moore is he has the ability to surprise you in a genre that’s plagued by its plainness.
Halfway into the story (spoilers), Westinghouse loses the patent battle to Edison. That’s right, HE LOSES. Not only is this a great plot beat (we’ve lost the battle with half the script remaining. Everyone’s asking, where do we go now??), but it allows Moore to introduce a third character.
And I will tell you right now. Whoever plays this part is going to be a breakout star (unless he’s already a star). Moore goes so kooky with Tesla that you can’t look away from him. There’s a great little screenwriting tip here. Give a character a DEFINING ACTION, and if that action is strong enough, we’ll know exactly who that character is for the rest of the script. Moore focuses on Tesla’s “weird wave.” He keeps making this weird uncomfortable wave around people, and it perfectly embodied his oddness.
Tesla’s created a different kind of electricity that would not be bound by Edison’s patent. But Tesla’s a wild card. He’s got zero infrastructure. So Paul tells Westinghouse, who does have infrastructure, to team up with Tesla on his bid. The two become an unlikely pair with a common goal. Take out Edison.
Whenever you write biopics – hell, whenever you write a script – you need CHARACTERS. This is something it took me years to figure out. I was always a plot junkie. I thought fun stories, cool twists and great set pieces were the key to writing a great script.
But, in reality, it’s the characters. Because characters are interesting on their own. You can place a good character in a mediocre scene and we’ll still be drawn to him. Thomas Edison is a great character. He’s a fucking asshole. He’s full of himself. The man SUED HIS OWN SON! Whenever you put that guy in a scene, we pay attention.
Nikolas Tesla is a great character. He’s quirky, he’s weird, his mangled English leaves you scratching your head every time he speaks. The surprise element of Tesla makes him a fascinating character to watch as well. We never know what he’s going to do next.
Now here’s where the character argument gets interesting. Somebody in your script has to be the straight man. They’re the person who grounds the script. In most cases, this will be the hero. As a result, your hero ends up being the most challenging character to write. How do you make this person as interesting as an asshole, or a weirdo?
This is where a screenwriter earns his mettle. Because it isn’t easy. However, there are little things you can do to make us care. For starters, you can make your hero extremely determined. Audiences love determined people. You can make him an underdog. Audiences love rooting for the underdog.
Admittedly, these are “straight man interesting traits,” and therefore will never be as fun to watch as an outlandish part. But played right, we’ll be invested in the character’s journey. You can then use the orbiting characters to add a dose of spice to the story.
Of course, you don’t HAVE to make the main character the straight man. Alan Turing in The Imitation Game was offbeat. The same thing can be said for Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street and John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. So it’s all a matter of whose story you’re telling and who’s point of view you want to tell it from.
As for the rest of the script, Moore includes some classic screenplay elements. We have a ticking time bomb – everything must be done before the World’s Fair. We have the “impossible task” (we’re told at the beginning that Edison’s lightbulb patent is one of the most airtight patents in history). We have that conflict I referred to. You can feel the weight of these two titans crashing down on the plot at all times.
The only problem I had with the script was the beginning. I didn’t understand why the heads of the firm were trying to get Westinghouse to pull out of a legal battle with Edison. Since when has a law firm ever turned away the money of its rich clients? That felt a bit forced to me.
But outside of that, this script was as bright as its subject matter. Moore has proven, once again, that he’s a hell of a screenwriter.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Make sure to remind your audience that your hero’s task is impossible. Hearing someone say, “Edison’s patent is the most airtight patent in history,” prefaces just how difficult the journey will be. Had this line not been written in, I wouldn’t have realized just how much of an uphill battle this was.
You got this one right, Scriptshadow Nation. What a script!
Genre: Historical Biography
Premise: The incredible true story behind one of America’s founding myths. After being kidnapped from his lands as a child, the Patuxet Indian Squanto spends his life fighting impossible odds to return home, setting in motion a series of events that changes the course of history.
About: The horse that led the race from start to finish, “The Savage.” Number 1 seed in The Scriptshadow Tournament, and now the champion!
Writer: Chris Ryan Yeazel
Details: 116 pages
Within a couple of pages I knew. I just knew why this won.
Within ten pages, The Savage had placed itself so far above the competition, I’m surprised any other scripts got votes against it.
More importantly, halfway through this script, I wasn’t even thinking about how it was the winner of the Scriptshadow Tournament. I was just lost in the story. I mean this is crazy! I’m not sure how true-to-history Chris’s adaptation was. But I never knew the story of Squanto. I know this though. Somebody needs to make this movie.
13 year old Native American, Squanto, a member of the Patuxet people, only wants one thing. To be a warrior. But when he’s stolen away by an Englishman sailing up the coast, every goal he’s ever known changes.
Squanto is whisked off to England, where he’s placed in the care of the eccentric governor, Ferdinando Gorges, a nobleman who funds the occasional trip to the Americas.
9 years later, and now fluent in English, Squanto hooks up with John Smith, he of Pocahontas fame. John is heading back to the Americas where he plans to establish a colony or two. He’s going to need a translator to deal with the natives, though. And Squanto looks like just the guy.
His payment for helping, Smith promises, will be to go back home. Thrilled, Squanto signs up. But Smith’s second in charge, Thomas Hunt, never trusts him. After taking care of business, Smith makes the mistake of allowing Hunt to escort Squanto home. And instead of delivering Squanto, Hunt kidnaps dozens of his people, takes them to Spain, and sells them off as slaves.
Forced to work the mines, Squanto eventually escapes with the help of some nearby monks. He becomes a monk himself, before finally heading back to England, where he gets a second shot to sail back home. It is there where he’s met with a truth so shocking, it will test him to his very core. Squanto will be forced to decide what life is worth, and if he can still contribute something good to a world that has only ever shown him cruelty.
The first thing I noticed about this script was the sophistication in the writing. Here’s a sample character description: “A gregarious, pompous ox of a man, Gorges does not speak so much as pontificate with operatic abandon.” That line doesn’t come from somebody who started screenwriting yesterday.
Something I commonly run into during reads is when the subject matter is above the writer’s current writing ability. They’re basically a 12 year old girl wearing mommy’s dress. No matter how hard they try, they don’t look like a grown woman.
This was the opposite of that. Everything from the action to the dialogue was so strong, I wasn’t even thinking about it. It was just doing its job telling the story. I mean, here’s a sample dialogue exchange.
That last line alone is heads and tails above anything I read in this tournament. The easy line would’ve been something like: “You sound just like the man that owns you.” And believe me, I see that kind of line often. To rearrange the words into a clever insult, then tie that to a zinger paying off an earlier reference – that kind of thing doesn’t just happen. It demonstrates a writer who’s dedicated and on his game.
And there were a lot of clues here as to the high level of writing. For example, there’s an early slow scene where 12 year old Squanto is sharing a moment with the girl he loves, Hurit. It’s this beautiful little moment between them. Then, just as it’s coming to a close, we see warriors running through the forest. One. Then two more. Then two more. We realize a giant ship has arrived at sea and they’re all going to check it out.
The takeaway here is that Chris didn’t linger on this scene. He knows that readers are impatient. If you’re going to slow things down, you want to follow that up with something flashy. But not just that. You want to camoflauge the moment by using the end of the current scene to transition into the following scene. So we’re not just going from slow to fast. We’re doing it seamlessly.
Chris also exploits the use of dramatic undercurrents. An undercurrent is anything that’s occurring underneath the surface level of the story that creates a sense of interest, curiosity, or dread. It’s a trick to double or triple up the reader’s interest level.
An example would be Thomas Hunt, the evil second-in-command on John Smith’s voyage. Every moment that Squanto and Smith share, you see Hunt nearby, clenching his teeth. He hates this savage. And we know that he’s going to do something about it at some point. And that’s where the undercurrent is happening. Until this conflict is resolved, it’s in our heads, keeping us curious. Keeping us TURNING THE PAGES.
Here’s my only beef with the script, even though I understand why Chris did it. The script doesn’t build throughout its second half. There isn’t this big giant goal that Squanto has to take care of, like, say, the last gladiator event in Gladiator. Or the wife being taken in The Last of the Mohicans. Squanto is basically trying to stay alive. And while that’s compelling, it prevents the story from building up, which is how most people like their stories told.
For example, when Squanto finally gets back from the mines, he learns that Thomas Hunt was killed a long time ago in a random altercation at sea. It would’ve been so much better had Hunt gone back to the Americas and set up a colony where he was in charge, and when Squanto got back home, he learned of this colony, and went to enact revenge on him.
Or, a big chunk of the story goes to Massasoit, the leader of Squanto’s rival tribe. Massasoit captures a young Squanto in the opening after Squanto steals something from him. Massasoit is pissed, but he basically laughs it off and lets Squanto go.
Then, in the end, our ending revolves around Massasoit once more, as he doesn’t like that Sqaunto has become chummy with the new English neighbors. The reason why this sequence didn’t carry a lot of weight was because Massasoit was never that bad. He was nice enough to let Squanto go in the beginning.
If this man would’ve been responsible for the eradication of Squanto’s tribe, now we have the potential for a lights out ending. If this man would’ve been the embodiment of evil, now we have an impending showdown that we’re looking forward to.
But we don’t get anything like that, and it keep the last 30 pages from building.
With that said, after reading the final pages, I understood historically and thematically why Chris did what he did. However, I wonder if there’s a version of this out there that could have that bigger satisfying ending yet still keep the essence of what Chris was trying to do.
Either way, this was a hell of a read. I mean, what a life this man lived. It’s incredible. And thank God someone as talented as Chris was responsible for telling us his story. He really did it justice.
Script link: The Savage
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Going back to the Thomas Hunt undercurrent conversation… In general, anything that’s unresolved is something that is captivating your reader. That’s why you want multiple unresolved threads in your story at all times. You can get that through unresolved conflicts between characters. You can get it through multiple unresolved plot goals. There’s no limit on how many pieces of your story can be unresolved. So take advantage of that. A lot of beginner writers only see the final goal as their unresolved thread. So a newbie writer would’ve gone with: “Squanto tries to get home” and that’s it. But that’s not enough to keep our interest. You need to add extra unresolved storylines to keep us engaged. If you think about it, this is the essence of drama. If it’s resolved and cozy, there’s no reason for the reader to worry. And if we’re not worried about anything, we’re probably bored.
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: A heartbroken woman, employed to test men for fidelity by their concerned fiancées, finds her world turned upside down when she falls for her latest target.
About: I continue my reviews of the Top 4 scripts from the Scriptshadow Screenplay Tournament, a tournament that started with a challenge to write a script in three months, resulting in over 500 entries, which I then vetted into 40 scripts to compete in the official tournament. I then let the readers of the site vote on which scripts advanced through each round. Billie’s script here finished in SECOND PLACE. You can read the first two semifinalist reviews here and here. Stay tuned, cause tomorrow I review the winner!
Writer: Billie Bates (story by Michele Mathis & Billie Bates)
Details: 101 pages
When exactly did the romantic comedy die?
I’ll tell you. Because I know exactly when the last true romantic comedy hit occurred. It was 2009. The Proposal. And really, the rom-com was dead way before that. The Proposal was able to squeeze the last remaining juice from an orange that had been dry for a good 5 years.
It was four things that killed the rom-com. The first was Adam Sandler. He dumbed down romantic comedies to a level that they had never been dumbed down to before. And because his brand was so big, he sucked up any opportunities for other rom-coms to break out.
The second was the holiday-themed rom-coms (New Year’s, Mother’s Day, Christmas), which were less stories, and more a marketing gimmick to get a bunch of familiar rom-com faces together in order to get butts in seats. Gone were real concepts. Replaced by a holiday. While some hard-core rom-com lovers bought in. It was a white flag to the casual rom-com client. These movies screamed out, “We’re not trying anymore!”
Then there was Judd Apatow. Apatow found a way to give audiences a little bit of romance wrapped inside a meaty crunchy manosphere container. Once men got a taste of this, they refused to go back to the lighter fluffier rom-coms of old, even if their girlfriends begged them to.
This may seem like I’m burying rom-coms for good, but that’s not the case. Anybody who knows Hollywood knows that everything that’s old becomes new again. Remember the 90s when we were convinced there would never be a big Hollywood musical again? Not long after that, musicals hit a hot streak.
So I know romantic comedies are coming back at some point. The question is, in what form? Will it be the old school way? Or will someone find a clever new angle into the genre?
Michele does the kind of job that most girls would be scared to hire someone to do. She seduces your fiancé. The idea here is that if she can make him cheat, he was never right for you in the first place. In that sense, Michele’s doing a good thing.
Unfortunately, that “good thing” doesn’t pay the bills all the time. So Michele has to do side jobs to pay the rent. On her most recent job, she’s doing the make-up for a modeling shoot when she tells the buff photographer, Brad, that he’s being inappropriate with the models. Brad promptly tells her, “Ya fired.”
Down in the dumps, and down in the finances, Michele’s about to give up until she gets a new Cheat request. A bitchy young woman, Tanya, wants to make sure her fiancé won’t cheat on her. So after the forms are signed, Michele heads off to find her next victim, only to realize it’s… you guessed it, Brad!
The thing is, Brad doesn’t like Michele from the start, which means none of her trusty tricks work. But Michele’s no quitter. She puts everything she’s got into seducing Brad, even if 90% of it fails. Finally, he starts to come around. Which is great, right?? Not exactly. Because it turns out Michele is falling for him as well.
I’ve read four Billie Bates scripts now and I can proudly say that each one has gotten better than the last. The Bait is easily the best script of hers that I’ve read.
There’s a lot of good here. For example, the setup is strong. You have this woman who desperately needs money. She then gets a job where the only way she gets paid is if she succeeds. That stabilizes the stakes for the movie right there.
Then, her job is hampered by the fact that her target hates her. So as an audience membe we’re going, “Oh no. This is the worst possible guy she could’ve been assigned to.” So of course we want to keep watching to see if she can pull this off.
And Billie has one of the cleanest easiest-to-read writing styles on the site. It’s effortless to read through her scripts.
Here’s the thing though. The last reason the rom-com died was because it was the most formulaic genre of them all. And that formula proved to be impossible to break out of. Therefore, no matter how well you wrote a rom-com, it was still constrained by those plot beats that everybody already knew were coming.
And that’s how The Bait played out to me. I was always 30 pages ahead of the story. Which is why it’s imperative that you break formula as opposed to follow it. Because every beat a script hits that’s familiar is one more reason for the reader to start drifting. Why would they continue to pay attention if everything’s playing out exactly like they expect it to?
For example, of course Brad’s going to resist her at first. Of course he’s eventually going to like her. Of course she’s going to fall for him too. Of course she’s going to lose him. It’s a strange thing, screenwriting, because it’s begging you to follow it along the obvious path. That’s because the obvious path makes the most sense.
But the only reason for someone to keep reading a script is because the writer is ahead of you. They’re outthinking you as opposed to you outthinking them. And I didn’t see enough of the writer attempting to outthink me here.
I contend that the solution to bringing the rom-com back is doing something unique. Billie’s shown that she can hit the proper beats here. She’s followed the rules of this genre. Now she needs to write a rom-com where she breaks the rules. Where up is down and left is right. I honestly think it’s the only way to get any attention in these overly sterile genres.
And she can do it. She’s proven that she’s gotten better every time out.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: A screenplay is like a war between the writer and the reader. The reader comes into the war saying, “I know what you’re doing here. And it ain’t going to fool me.” The writer then says, “You know what? I know exactly what you think I’m going to do. So I’m going to do it differently.” Now the reader’s like, “Hmm, okay, you got me there. That just means I have to pay closer attention. But I’m still smarter than you.” And the writer’s like, “I know you think you’re smarter than me. That’s why I’m going to hit you with the exact opposite of what you thought was going to happen.” And so on and so forth. I’ll give you an example. The Break-Up. I never knew what the hell was going to happen in that movie because everything was reversed. Instead of the couple trying to get together, they were desperately trying to stay apart. The point is, you have to get into the reader’s head and ask what it is they expect to happen. You then need to continuously surprise them with your choices. That’s how you’ll win the war of expectation.