A common theme kept popping up in the last three consultation scripts I’ve read. A theme so prominent in the screenwriting trade, its primary descriptor sends chills down screenwriters spines. I’m talking, of course, about THE CLICHE.
We’ve spoken generally about cliches in the past, and how to avoid them. If there’s a line or a scene or an idea that you’ve heard before, it’s in your best to interest to go with another choice.
But all that does is put the onus on you to think something up. And thinking stuff up is hard! The reason we come to Scriptshadow is so we don’t have to think! So that Carson can give us the answers that make screenwriting easy.
Okay, okay. My apologies. I’ve been slacking.
So here’s a more active way to solve the cliche problem. It came to me while reading a classic movie scenario. Two soldiers on a battlefield. One gets shot and he’s not going to make it. This is the final conversation they have before the injured soldier’s death.
In the scene, the writer wrote a beautiful interaction between the two characters, whereby they were each able to say the things they’d always wanted to say to one another. Time stopped so that this idealized exchange could continue unimpeded until the very last breath.
Which is the reason it didn’t work and felt so cliche.
It was at that moment I had an epiphany about what exactly “cliche” was. Cliche… is the absence of truth. Cliche is the idealized “movie logic” version of a moment. The lighting is perfect. The characters speak in poetic prose. It’s a romanticizing of what a real world moment might be.
To avoid cliche, you must turn to truth. And truth is messy. The lighting is never perfect in truth. People never say the perfect thing at the perfect moment in truth. Whatever you pursue in life never happens the way you plan for it to. To avoid cliche, look for the mess. Look for the things you DON’T want to happen. Not the things you do. Look for the things that will make the scene MORE difficult to write, not less. The more you mess things up, the further away from cliche you’ll be.
So let’s get back to that scene. We’re on the battlefield. One of two soldiers has been shot and they’re dying quickly. You could make the argument that this scene is doomed from the get-go. You’ve already created an idealized cliche situation. So it’s destined to be bad.
But that’s not true. In real life, we do have war. In real life, we do have soldiers who get shot and die in front of other soldiers. So there’s truth to mine from this situation. What you want to avoid is playing those last moments out in an idealized fashion. Instead, look for the mess.
And that’s not easy. Because unless your name is Ernest Hemingway, chances are you’ve never been on a battlefield. But that’s okay. You’re still a writer who’s capable of imagining a realistic scenario. So again, I’d ask you, look for the mess.
For example, let’s say these two characters do need to say some last words to each other. Let’s start by making that difficult. Maybe the Captain is off to the side, screaming to our hero, “LET’S GO LIEUTENANT! WE’RE GETTING PICKED UP IN 20! WE NEED TO LEAVE NOW!” And he doesn’t just say this once. He KEEPS yelling it over and over again. This erases any chance for a well-lit smooth uninterrupted final conversation. Already, the dialogue is getting messy. And as we’ve established, messy is good.
Maybe the hero wants to go for that big heroic moment and carry his friend back to safety. So he gets him under his shoulders, waits for the gunfire to stop, lifts him up and starts to run back for cover, takes two steps, collapses, and crashes back down. He’s not strong enough to carry his friend. THAT kind of shit is real life – when you realize just how heavy a man is when you’re exhausted and in the middle of a firefight.
Maybe, instead of our dying soldier begging our hero to tell his wife and kids that he loves them more than anything, he tells our hero that he knows of a secret massage parlor down by Lower Wacker and to ask for this woman named Cara, because she’ll do anything you want for a hundred bucks. That’s the kind of weird messy shit people really say when these once-in-a-lifetime moments happen. They don’t speak to each other in pre-rehearsed loving lines that make total sense.
Are you starting to get the picture here? Whenever you find yourself inside a moment that has the potential to be cliche, seek out the truth of the moment. And never forget that truth is messy.
Genre: TV Pilot – Sci-Fi/Drama
Premise: In the future, earth sends a small expedition to visit the origin planet of a strange musical signal, only for the mission to end in unparalleled disaster.
About: The Sparrow is one of those projects that’s been mired in development hell for almost 20 years now. And when you familiarize yourself with the subject matter, it ain’t hard to figure out why. This isn’t a simple story to tell. It’s an incredibly introspective (and weird) exploration of aliens and religion that’s unlike anything you’ve read before. They tried to turn it into a movie for a decade. And it was only in 2014, with this iteration, that they went the TV route, which is a way better medium for the complex character-driven tale. The draft was written by Michael R. Perry, who wrote one of my favorite scripts ever, The Voices. But it seems to have been jettisoned by AMC since. Sparrow was probably a few years too early. Nowadays, with everyone desperate for content, I find it difficult to believe that Sparrow can’t find a home. Maybe it’s time for Hollywood to get its bird call on.
Writer: Michael R. Perry (based on the novel by Mary Doria Russell)
Details: 57 pages (Revised Writer’s Draft – Sept. 30, 2014)
I’ll read any popular science-fiction novel. In fact, if you have any recommendations for sci-fi novels I haven’t read yet, by all means, suggest them to me in the comments. I read The Sparrow at least a decade ago, and found it to be one of the most challenging science-fiction novels I’ve ever read.
You have to understand that my blueprint for science fiction up to that point had been stuff like Independence Day and Men in Black. Big, loud, and obnoxious. Well, The Sparrow’s DNA is quiet, introspective, and creepy.
Despite that, I felt that the bones were there for a good adaptation. They would definitely need to deviate from the source material in places, though. Some of the plot points here are so non-commercial they may as well have been cooked up in Pyongyang. To turn this into a movie or TV show, an awesome writer would be needed. Knowing what Michael Perry was capable of, I felt this pilot had a chance. Let’s find out if he cracked it.
The year is 2089. We’re in the Vatican. A man in his 50s, Emilio Sandoz, is being kept there after some harrowing event, as we can see from his heavily bandanged body. Outside, a huge crowd is growing, throwing rocks at his window, calling him a rapist, calling him a murderer.
Cut to 20 years earlier. Sandoz is part of an exhibition to a faraway planet. The 7-man crew is being guided by Jesuits, the result of the unique signal that was sent to earth – a melody that many believe contained religious undertones.
The key members of the crew besides Sandoz are Father Roubidoux, the captain, Sofia Mendes, a linguist, and Sam Hawkins, a brilliant science professor and the only member of the crew who doesn’t believe in God. Sofia and Hawkins are married. And we find out early on that Sandoz isn’t a big fan of their relationship. That may be because he secretly loves Sofia.
Once on the alien planet, which is strangely devoid of obvious intelligent life, the team begins a weeks-long waiting period so the ship can measure the safety of the atmosphere. However, just a couple of days in, everyone wakes to find out that Hawkins has snuck out onto the planet.
Sandoz and Sofia go after him, and Sandoz eventually finds him looking out over a cliff. As Sandoz tries to persuade Hawkins to come back, Hawkins slips. Sandoz grabs him. But the question is, how hard did he really hold on? Because Hawkins slips from his grip and falls to his death.
Sandoz must break the news to Sofia and the rest of the crew. However, we get the sense that Sandoz is secretly happy. Sofia is finally his alone. Err, not so fast Sandozy. In a truly miraculous turn of events, Hawkins shows up at the ship the next day, perfectly fine! He also admits to something that would’ve been unthinkable just a day earlier – He saw God, and he now believes.
My big worry with an adaptation of The Sparrow was that much of the book was about thoughts and debate and religion and themes… all stuff that’s terrible for movies and television! There wasn’t much of an engine pushing the story along. And the characters were all rather restrained, or worse, droll.
Perry seems to have recognized this and smartly implemented a wonderful device to jump start a story.
Before we get into what that is, this is a good time to remind you that when it comes to visual storytelling, you want to make things ACTIONABLE! All that means is you want to introduce things that get your characters out there doing things, as opposed to staying in small rooms discussing things. Discussion has its place in storytelling. But it should never be the primary driving force of your narrative.
The quickest way to make a story actionable IS TO INTRODUCE A PROBLEM.
I was pretty bored throughout the opening of The Sparrow. But I can tell you the exact moment when my interest was jump-started. It’s when the crew woke up to find Hawkins gone. Now you had a problem. They needed to find Hawkins. That whole sequence was one of the best of the pilot. And it’s not because of any magical writing trick. It was simply that a problem was introduced, which meant our characters had to become ACTIVE to solve it.
Another great thing about making things actionable is that, usually, it leads to other interesting story developments. The thread where Hawkins comes back from the dead could’ve never occurred had Perry not created a problem in the first place. So if you ever feel like your story is slowing down, throw a problem into the mix. I guarantee you your characters are going to become more interesting, at least until that problem is resolved.
There will be challenges ahead if this pilot gets made. Mixing religion and aliens is a bit like mixing peanut butter and mayonnaise. I’m not sure the two sides believe in one another. It’d be like making a show about an NRA spokesman who preaches for more safe spaces. But that could also be the ace up The Sparrow’s sleeve, what makes it different from everything else out there. And we are in the Golden Age of television. You’re telling me you can’t greenlight The Sparrow when you’ve got stuff like The Orville on the air?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Here’s a way to further take advantage of an ACTIONABLE sequence. Let’s say you need your characters to have a touchy-feely heart-to-heart, or a debate about religion. Do NOT write the scene in a room, with your characters sitting down statically. Instead, introduce the PROBLEM – in this case, Hawkins leaving – then SAVE that conversation for when your characters – in this case, Sandoz and Sofia – are on their way to solve the problem (in this case, finding Hawkins). The dialogue is going to play a lot better underneath the anticipation of solving something.
Genre: True Story – Thriller/Comedy
Premise: (from Black List) The unbelievable true story of a family man from Alaska in the midst of a midlife crisis who embarks on what he hoped would be a dream sailing vacation but ends up shipwrecked in the Atlantic Ocean with a charming but psychotic sea captain who has decided to stop taking his medication
About: Today’s script finished in the Top 15 of last year’s Black List! The spec script was picked up by LD Entertainment, who most recently handled Oscar contender, “Jackie.”
Writer: Ben Bolea
Details: 110 pages
I’m running the name through my head over and over again: “Bolea…Bolea…Bolea.” Where have I heard that name? It sounded familiar. Finally, I plugged it into the Scriptshadow Search Machine and, lo and behold, look what came back. Bolea co-wrote the runner-up script in my first ever Scriptshadow Contest!
That script, about a group of Alaskan high school seniors facing their impending life after high school, was a big favorite of mine. I LOVE when this happens – seeing screenwriters who keep at it. It goes to show that when you’re dedicated and work hard and write your ass off, eventually, good things will happen. And it’s great to see that Ben’s still writing about Alaska! Write what you know, people!
“Burt Squire” starts off with a simple creed from Bolea:
I met Burt Squire at Floater’s Bar in Big Lake, Alaska. He heard what I do for work and said he had a story I would like. He was right. A week later I received a package containing a journal.
This screenplay is taken from those pages.
Burt was on his way to the adventure of a lifetime in 1996 – a dream trip to Sydney, Australia – when he found out his girlfriend, Mel, was pregnant. That trip had to be axed, and after having one beautiful son, Wyatt, and later another, Trevor, Burt eased into the family life.
17 years later, on the eve of his 40th birthday, Burt’s wondering how it all went by so fast. Instead of traveling the world going on adventures, the native Alaskan travels to schools and side roads, plowing snow every morning.
So when Burt’s boss offers him a chance to go on a sailing adventure with an old friend, Burt doesn’t have to think twice. The old friend, Vernon J. Knux, is on the other side of the country, in Rhode Island, and needs someone to help him sail his boat to the Caribbean. No experience needed! Which is important, since Burt doesn’t know Jack about sailing.
Knux acts exactly how his name sounds. He’s a weirdo to the nth degree, babbling on in every-sentence-contradicts-the-last homeless-person speak. But Burt chalks it up to the eccentric nature of a real live sea captain. And soon they’re sailing into the Atlantic, destination, Bermuda, where Knux is delivering the boat to his son.
Almost immediately, Burt realizes something ain’t kosher. Knux encourages pissing your pants over using the lavatory, has a penchant for Viking pornography, performs naked Yoga on the regular, only eats cream of mushroom soup, and sings Taylor Swift songs on his ukulele.
Burt can deal with Knux’s eccentricities. But he can’t deal with him disappearing into the cabin for days at a time while he, someone who’s never been on a boat in his life, is left in charge of sailing it. This plays out in predictable fashion, with Burt navigating the ship into a giant storm, which rips their sails, rendering them immobile.
As Burt turns to Knux for help, Knux spins into insanity, breaking the GPS so they can’t be located, before it’s revealed that this isn’t even Knux’s boat. He stole it from some rich guy. At a certain point, Burt realizes that surviving this inconceivable dilemma is all on him. To live, Burt will have to become the captain now.
A couple of things I want to mention off the bat.
Bolea does a good job setting up his main character, Burt. If possible, you want to introduce your protagonist in his everyday world. This not only allows us to get to know him in his natural environment, but it helps to create contrast with the extremes we’ll see him in later.
For example, if we hadn’t met Luke Skywalker fighting a life of boredom on Tatooine before blasting off on his adventure across the galaxy, we wouldn’t have appreciated the character as much. We needed to see him roll his eyes while drinking blue milk and change power converters to truly understand how crazy it was to be shooting at tie-fighters from the Millennium Falcon.
I’m a big believer in using CONTRAST whenever possible. If you’re going to show your character on a boat in the middle of the ocean during a beautiful summer, it’s a great idea to start as far away from that as possible. And what’s further away than plowing snow in Alaska?
I also noticed that “Burt Squire” was about escape. Which was the same theme Bolea explored in his Alaska high school script. Kids wanting to get out of this place and go do exciting things with their lives. I bring this up because wanting to break out of a mundane life is one of the most universal themes there is. People relate to that. And if they’re relating to that, they’re relating to your hero. Which means they feel like they’re a part of your story. That’s a powerful tool when you know how to harness it.
Where “Burt Squire” hits choppy waters is in its tone. The situation Burt’s been placed in is harrowing. He’s a non-sailor stuck in the middle of the ocean with a guy who’s so crazy he’s sabotaging their rescue.
However, Knux is so funny, so out there, you can’t stop laughing at him. That humorous component gave me a sense of security that everything would be okay. That was my dilemma. I never feared for Burt. And I think you have to fear for your main character in a script like this.
The good news is, actors are going to be jumping over each other to play this character. Knux is such a weirdo. I could see Jim Carrey playing the part. He’s crossed over into Crazyville anyway. This role wouldn’t be much of a stretch.
The project also benefits from the fact that there’s nothing else like it out there. As much as we talk about Hollywood remaking the same stuff over and over again, the truth is actors and directors ALWAYS want to do something different. So if you can get them to believe in your project, they have the power to push it through a resistant system.
“Burt Squire” was fun! I think it needs to decide if it wants to be more comedy or drama. But either way, it was an enjoyable read.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There’s something about putting characters on a boat in the middle of the ocean that I like. There’s nowhere to go. And if you can introduce some compelling conflict into that mix, you’ve got yourself a movie, because the characters have no choice but to hash things out. Remember, guys, movies are conflict. Find the most intense conflict-laden situation you can think of and the story will write itself.
I originally planned on reviewing Mayhem today. But then I watched it. And the movie is a borderline disaster. It’s one of the most overwritten over-directed movies I’ve ever seen in my life. I then rented the movie Columbus. That movie is like a delicate slice of cinematic sweetbread. It’s also one of the most underwritten under-directed movies I’ve seen in my life. So I thought it’d be fun to review these two contrasting pieces of entertainment together.
And here’s the funny part.
I’d tell each and every one of you to write the abysmal Mayhem over the brilliant Columbus.
For those who don’t know, Mayhem is about a company attacked by a virus that makes its victims succumb to their worst impulses. If you’re an angry person, it makes you extremely violent. If you’re slightly manipulative, you become a sociopath. If you’ve got sex on the brain, it turns you into a walking sex machine.
When their building is placed on an 8 hour quarantine, a recently fired employee, Derek, enacts revenge on everyone who screwed him over, teaming up with a former female client the company also screwed over, to do so.
I expected to LOVE this movie. I thought the premise was fun. It was a way to make a zombie film without making a zombie film. It had that “familiar but different” thing Hollywood’s so keen on.
But the execution was too over-the-top, as subtle as your loud inappropriate drunk uncle. On the screenplay side, half the script is dedicated to explaining the virus. Even though the opening montage is specifically built to explain every nuance of the virus, we’re still being given virus rules 40 minutes later.
Here’s something to keep in mind for new screenwriters. Exposition (the process of explaining things so that your story makes sense) is fought on two fronts. The front everyone focuses on is the “How to Limit My Exposition” front. You’re trying to minimize how much you explain everything. Which is good. You should be doing this.
But the other front, the one nobody talks about, is to simplify your plot and rules in the first place! If you build your story on top of a simple premise and simple rules, you won’t need to explain as much! By making this virus, this company, the people within this company, and the laws governing this virus, so complicated, they had no choice but to use up half the movie on exposition.
On the other end of the spectrum was Columbus.
Columbus takes place in the titular town of Columbus, Indiana, a hidden goldmine for some of the most beautiful architecture in the country. When a visiting professor of architecture falls gravely ill, his son, Jin, must fly in and wait for the doctors to figure out what to do with him. In the meantime, he meets a townie, Casey, with the potential to do something great in the world, but who’s sacrificed that opportunity to take care of her addict mother.
Talk about completely opposing plots, right? Whereas every second of Mayhem is dedicated to explaining something or killing someone, you might go 3-4 minutes at a time in Columbus without a character saying a word.
The movie is one of the most beautifully shot I’ve ever seen, so much so I tracked down interviews with the elusive director, a 50-something Korean man named Kogonada (who up until this point had only done video essays and never been on an actual movie set). Listening to him discuss his film was fascinating. His entire approach to filmmaking is to prioritize form over plot. To him, the perfect shot (of a building, a character, a lone room in a house) was far more important than two characters conversing. It’s pretty much the antithesis of what I preach. And yet it worked brilliantly for the film.
Granted, Kogonada has a filmmaking eye like no other. Every frame of his is a painting. Therefore, had a less talented director tried to do the same thing, I’m sure I’d have been chastising him for not focusing more on story.
With that said, Kogonada still finds a story that resonates. Remember, you can get away with simple plots as long as the themes are universal, as long as the issues are relatable. Both Jin – working a soulless corporate job that’s desensitized him to the world – and Casey – being stuck in a small town instead of going out and following her dreams – are universal conflicts that many people can identify with.
And unlike Mayhem, where the plot had to be jammed in our faces every five seconds, Kogonada used the most minimal plot device possible – a sick father who was keeping our main character stuck in town. It was a big reason why the story worked so well. The plot point that placed our characters together was borderline invisible.
With all that said, if you’re choosing between writing a Mayhem or a Columbus? I’ll tell you to write Mayhem every time. It’s got a fun hook. It’s marketable. You can imagine the movie when someone pitches it to you. It’s going to get priority over a “Columbus” like idea in every production room in town.
Not to mention, the prestige Straight-To-Digital release is an emerging avenue for spec screenwriters. I say “prestige” so it’s separated from the abysmal D-Movie efforts that Nic Cage and John Cusack star in. These prestige digital offerings are cooler, hipper, the kind of stuff that’s going to get play on movie web sites. But that means your idea needs to be cool and hip. It cannot, sadly, be Columbus.
With that said, Columbus is the perfect vehicle for a writer-director. If you have something that isn’t sexy on the page but you KNOW is going to look great on film, directing the movie yourself is the way to go. Realistically, nobody’s going to be interested in your small personal movie but you. And that’s okay. Cause plenty of these personal writing-directing efforts turn out to be great.
But if you have no interest in directing? Come on. Be smart. Write something with a hook like Mayhem.
That’s right. No Amateur Offerings this weekend.
I’m playing with this idea of doing it every other weekend, making it more of an event. But that could change at any moment. Also, for those interested in contributing to Monday’s review, I’m watching “Mayhem.” The well-reviewed film is out in theaters and on Digital. So you can rent it right now. I think Mayhem represents a new tasty avenue for spec screenwriters.
Meanwhile, they’re making a NEW Star Wars Trilogy with Rian Johnson. As in, NO SKYWALKERS.
Disney must loooooooove The Last Jedi. Either that or this is the reward for being the only Star Wars director that Kathleen Kennedy actually liked. I have to admit, I’m skeptical. The biggest achievement of Star Wars was its world-building. It created an entire galaxy of planets and ships and aliens and cool characters. To try and do that all over again from scratch is a huge undertaking.
When I watch The Last Jedi trailer, I don’t see any world-building at all. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before. I’m hoping Disney got brave and they’re hiding all the new stuff for the film. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me. Whatever the case, this upped my interest in The Last Jedi ten-fold. An entire new trilogy is resting on it. Talk about stakes. Rian Johnson said it best on his Twitter. “Obviously I hope you like The Last Jedi. But man now I REALLY hope you like The Last Jedi.”