One of the things that separates professional writers from amateurs is character work. Their characters are deeper, more compelling, and overall more memorable. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for the amateur writer to understand WHY their characters lack these qualities. All they hear is, “The characters lacked depth,” or “The characters weren’t three-dimensional.” What the hell does that mean? How do I fix it? Even if you asked the person who gave you the note, they probably wouldn’t know. Creating rich compelling characters is the hardest thing to do in writing.
Luckily, you’re talking to the guy who’s read every script on the planet. And if there’s one thing I’ve discovered, it’s that when a character goes bad, it’s because the writer doesn’t understand the basics of character creation. They may have added a flaw, some inner conflict, a vice, and yet they keep getting the note that the characters don’t work. The writer points to his script: “But look! The proof is right there! I’ve added all the things I’m supposed to add. You’re wrong!” Sorry, just because you have bread, beef, and thousand island in your fridge doesn’t mean you know how to make a Big Mac.
I’m not going to give you ALL the ingredients to creating a great character. There’s too much. An extensive backstory. Approaching the character truthfully. Creating the kind of person who says interesting things and talks in an interesting way (which leads to good dialogue). And yes, strong flaws, some inner conflict, and a well-explored vice help as well. All of that takes years to master. But what I can give you is the base from which to start. If you can get that base right, all of the other stuff will come. How do you find this base? You ask a simple question: What’s their thing?
A character’s “thing” is the component that defines them within the construct of the story. Strip away the bullshit. Get to the core. What is the thing that defines them? Bobby Riggs’ “thing” in Battle of the Sexes is that he can’t handle being out of the spotlight. He’ll do anything to stay in the public eye. Liam Neeson’s “thing” in Taken is that he wants to make up for all the lost time with his daughter and is willing to do anything to get back in her life. Tommy Wiseau’s “thing” in The Disaster Artist is that he just wants a friend.
If you understand that beyond the bullshit, all that confusing flaw/conflict/vice shit, that a character is just looking for a friend, it becomes so much easier to write the screenplay because the majority of the scenes will involve challenging this premise. An example from The Disaster Artist would be when Tommy comes home after a long day and finds Greg in their apartment with his girlfriend, watching a movie. You can see the jealousy dripping off Tommy’s brow, and while he pretends to be okay with everything, there’s a sting to his words, a fear of betrayal. This man’s thing is that he just wants a friend. Here he is potentially about to lose one to this girl. That’s what makes a good movie scene.
If you don’t know your character’s thing, you can’t write a scene like this. I’ll give you an example, and it’s from my least favorite movie of last year, Beatriz at Dinner. The movie was about a poor masseuse/healer who gets stuck at her rich client’s home during an important dinner. The writer tried to get too cute and give the character too much going on. As a result, we had no idea who she was. And the choices that the story made were, predictably, directionless as well. At first Beatriz was a voice for the poor and overlooked. But then they introduced this thing about her loving animals and being upset that animals were being abused (what the fuck???). And then she becomes suicidal, which contradicted everything that had been set up about her. The character was a complete mess and it’s because they tried to do too much. They should’ve asked, “What’s her thing?” and stuck with that thing!
This is a huge problem with screenwriting in general is that writers think they have to get too complex. The solution is almost ALWAYS to simplify, not complexify.
To help you further understand this tool, here are 15 characters and their “thing.” A couple of points I want you to notice. First, take note of how SIMPLE they are. And second, remember how the majority of the scenes in the movie put that thing to the test. So with Mikey in Swingers, every scene either mentions Mikey’s ex or, if it doesn’t, deals with it indirectly. Mikey losing at blackjack is only made worse by the fact that he has no one to emotionally support him anymore. Okay, let’s take a look…
Peter Parker – Wants to save the world despite the fact that he’s not ready.
Mikey (Swingers) – He can’t get over his ex-girlfriend.
Jordan Belforte (The Wolf of Wall Street) – Craves excess. Always wants more.
Deadpool – Wants revenge.
Rick Blaine (Casablanca) – Doesn’t stick his neck out for nobody.
Luke Skywalker (Star Wars) – He dreams of making a difference and going off to do bigger better things.
Ferris Bueller – Just wants to have fun now, embrace the moment.
Furiosa (Fury Road) – Get these women to safety.
Harry (When Harry Met Sally) – Doesn’t believe men and women can be friends.
Officer Hopps (Zootopia) – Prove that anybody can do anything if they put their mind to it.
Mila Kunis (Bad Moms) – Sick of being perfect.
Robert Pattinson (Good time) – Will do anything for his brother.
Anne Hathaway (Colossal) – Can’t get her shit together.
Matt Damon (The Martian) – Methodically solve each and every problem one at a time.
Tommy (Dunkirk) – Survive by any means possible.
Carson does feature screenplay consultations, TV Pilot Consultations, and logline consultations. Logline consultations go for $25 a piece or 5 for $75. You get a 1-10 rating, a 200-word evaluation, and a rewrite of the logline. I highly recommend not writing a script unless it gets a 7 or above. All logline consultations come with an 8 hour turnaround. If you’re interested in any sort of consultation package, e-mail Carsonreeves1@gmail.com with the subject line: CONSULTATION. Don’t start writing a script or sending a script out blind. Let Scriptshadow help you get it in shape first!
Premise: (from Black List) The story of writer/director John Hughes, whose emotionally honest high school movies helped to define American culture in the 1980s–but who, at the very height of his success, abruptly abandoned filmmaking for reasons that have never been fully explained.
About: It’s back to the most recent Black List with today’s script, Hughes, written by Andrew Rothschild. Rothschild has been working his way up the ladder, writing a lot of short films and most recently developed the series “Zac and Mia,” about two cancer patient who fall for one another that streams on Verizon’s streaming service, Go90. Hughes received 13 votes on the 2017 Black List.
Writer: Andrew Rothschild
Details: 119 pages
Today’s script is about John Hughes, the legendary 80s writer-director who disappeared from Hollywood without so much as a goodbye note. How big of a deal was Hughes? I’ll let the title card at the opening of the script tell you…
“In the 1980s, John Hughes wrote, produced, and/or directed nine films, including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Together, those films comprise one of the most successful single-decade bodies of work in cinema history.”
As tired as I am of writer biopics, I’ll never tire of John Hughes. I think his story is fascinating. I love how he built his screenwriting model on advertising. Obscenely simple premises that are easy to market. I love how he moved teen flicks out of the ridiculous (Porky’s) and into reality. I loved how much fun he had with dialogue. And I’m as curious as anyone why he threw it all away. Or ran away.
Today’s script attempts to answer that question and does so controversially. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill writer biopic. It’s at times surprising, weird, even uncomfortable. However you want to categorize it, it’s different. And “different” is a dying art when it comes to this genre.
It’s 2001 and John Hughes is being interviewed by Elliot Gibbs, an eccentric Southerner who’s doing a profile in Premiere magazine on John’s son’s first film. Hughes thinks this will be a fluff interview where he can shower his son with compliments. But Gibbs has an ulterior motive. He wants to know why Hughes left Hollywood.
Hughes catches on quickly and tells Gibbs to leave. But Gibbs drops a bomb on him. He’s doing an unauthorized biography on Hughes. He threatens Hughes to either tell his story or let it be told for him. Hughes threatens to sue for slander but learns Gibbs has a legit shadow source. Hughes sets out to find who that source is.
We hop back in time to when John was 16 in the 60s and when he fell in love with a popular red-headed girl named Tiffany. Unfortunately, John was a geek, so while the two experienced a couple of great nights together, she eventually moved back to her own kind, leaving John broken.
Flashforward a couple of decades and John is a hot writer who wants to make his first movie, Sixteen Candles. One of the first things we learn about John is that he was intensely difficult to work with. The studio wanted to cast a star in the lead role. But John wanted a nobody actress who he’d never even seen act (he’d only seen her headshot). That actress was a teenaged Molly Ringwald. We see Molly come in to audition only for John to hand her the role to not just that movie, but “the next five movies” John was doing. A confused Molly agrees, but even at that young age knows something is off. Who gives five movies to an actress he’s never seen act??
Turns out John was less interested in making movies than he was hanging out with his actors and having fun. His sets were long drawn out improv sessions filled with goofs and gaffs. In addition to this, John was drawn to Molly. And the crux of Gibbs’ book seems to imply that there was more that meets the eye when it came to their relationship. Once John realizes that it’s this salacious story Gibbs is after, he curses him out, claiming none of it is true. But that’s not what Gibbs’s source says.
Which leads us to our third act, where John finally figures out who’s been feeding Gibbs this information. It is a stunning betrayal, but not an unexpected one. The revelation forces John to face his biggest flaw, the fact that he never wanted to grow up, and that once Hollywood made him, there was no reason left to stay.
Whenever you write a biopic that starts in the present day, you need to identify a framing device. A framing device is the story that sends you back into the past to tell your protagonists’s story. One of the most popular framing devices occurs in The Princess Bride, where to get to the story, a grandfather must read his grandson a book.
Most writers don’t think the framing device is important. But I think the more clever the framing device, the more horsepower your story will have. And this one is clever. A mysterious source close to our hero is selling secrets and Hughes has to figure out who it is. This had me just as interested in the present-day storyline as Hughes’ past. And that’s the way you want it. If all your framing device is doing is providing exposition, those sections will be snore chores.
As for the rest of this script, I don’t know what to make of it. I’m glad it didn’t go the way I expected it to (Ferris Bueller isn’t riding shotgun with Old John Hughes wherever he goes, giving him life advice). But it’s a bit of a “be careful what you wish for” scenario. I got my darkness. I got to peak under the hood of Cameron’s Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider. But maybe I didn’t like what I saw.
The story uses John Hughes’ obsession with Molly Ringwald to drive home his Peter Pan syndrome. His movie productions were basically an opportunity to experience all the fun he never got to experience in high school. The relationship between Hughes and Ringwald gets uncomfortable at times. The script always walks a tightrope with it, never committing to the idea that anything happened, but regularly implying it could have. And while that implication made for some solid dramatic conflict within the movie-making sequences, there was this innate feeling that you wished it wasn’t there.
Also, the pervasive thought with John Hughes leaving Hollywood is that Hollywood was too tough for him. That it beat him up and spit him out. But “Hughes” flips that idea on its head and says that maybe it was the other way around. According to Rothschild, Hughes could be a tyrant, taking advantage of his power to play by his own set of rules. It wasn’t uncommon for him to do 50 takes, carelessly burning studio money, simply because he was having fun hanging out with his actors. And we all know that once those number 1 box office weekends stop, studios are a lot less tolerant of that behavior.
Look, I don’t know how much of this is true. The script starts out by saying, “What follows is speculation.” So I’m not going to treat it as gospel. But from a storytelling point-of-view, this unexpected take on a Hollywood legend kept me interested.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I still think the John Hughes model can work in 2018. Find a high school concept and create a very simple container for it. With The Breakfast Club, it was one day in detention. With Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it was one day ditching school. There’s something about a tight time frame coupled with the unique potency of being a teenager that will always work as long as you don’t screw it up. Man, this is making me want to go write one of these scripts right now!
Genre: Cop Drama
Premise: Two rookie Chicago cops find themselves embroiled in a multi-gang heroin war.
About: This script finished in the middle of the pack on the 2009 Black List. The writer, Justin Britt-Gibson, has written on some high profile shows, including “The Strain,” “Banshee,” and “Into the Badlands.”
Writer: Justin Britt-Gibson
Details: 110 pages
If you take anything from today’s review, let it be ELEVATION.
More than EVER you need to elevate your ideas. You’re no longer competing with E.T. and The Mask. You’re competing with superhero movies that all have 200-300 million dollar budgets. So if you’re not elevating your ideas to bring something new to the table, you’re going to get swallowed up.
Don’t write a drama about the difficulties of a two-race relationship. Write Get Out.
Stay too close to the template of a genre and I’m telling you, you’re toast. You have to add something more.
William Finley is a fresh-faced African-American cop on the Chicago police force, and on his first day of duty, he’s teamed up with fellow rookie James McCoy, an alcoholic dick who’s been sent here by his rich father as punishment for being such a fuck up in life. The two are tasked with escorting a medium-level thug named “Q” across town.
Meanwhile, a wild card crime boss named Hanson steals millions of dollars worth of heroin from former kingpin Frank Russo. I say “former” because Hanson kills him. Hanson then pulls a Joker, recruiting all the big gangs in Chicago, and tells them that he’s now the top drug dealer and all of them have to buy from him.
Finley and McCoy are so incompetent, Q escapes, which means they have to go looking for him. They eventually find him dead, shot execution style, and tab Raymond Priest, Nu Country Gang Leader and just released from prison, as the likely killer. So the guys go looking for Priest, who turns out to be connected to Hanson.
But that’s when the cops discover the capper. Hanson is connected to the cops. Which means it’s the CHICAGO PD who really took that heroin and are selling it. Poor Chicago. Can’t seem to shed that corruption label ever since Capone. Anyway, once Finley and McCoy know the truth, they’re targeted by their own, and must not only survive, but figure out a way to take out the snake inside the organization they work for.
The reason I read Streets on Fire was because it was set in Chicago and I thought it’d be fun to read something about where I’m from. Fail.
Here’s the thing, guys. If you’re going to write in a 100 year old genre – Cops and Robbers – you better think long and hard about how you’re going to bring something new to that world. And if you can’t? Don’t write it. Because nobody wants to read a generic cops chasing bad guys movie.
One of the only ways you can still write in this genre is to world-build. Treat your cop movie like Star Wars. Or Harry Potter. I don’t mean make it a fantasy. I mean wherever it’s set, build that world up so that we FEEEEEEL the mythology of this place you’re telling us about. The Godfather is a great example. There’s no other movie in history that gave me a better feel for the Italian mafia than The Godfather. Sicario is a solid example, too. That one didn’t get AS MUCH into the mythology of border patrol as Godfather did the mafia. But it did enough so that I felt like I was in a unique world learning new things.
I grew up in Chicago. And there wasn’t anything in here that reminded me of the city. The fast food. The crazy weather. The racism between white cops and the black populace. How every single street is filled with potholes. How much the town loves its sports. In other words, this could’ve been set anywhere. And once that happens, you’re writing a generic cop drama. And this isn’t 1983 anymore. Those don’t sell. You need to give us more.
And, to be honest, mythology and world-building should be your last option. You should be looking to elevate the genre in some way. Or go with more of a high-concept hook, like Safe House or The Equalizer. You can also get way with cop period pieces, which gives the genre an, ironically, fresh feel.
After I finished this, I thought to myself, why would anyone write this? Even in 2009, this genre was dead. And then the genius of this spec hit me. This is the PERFECT spec to write if you want to work in TV. The majority of TV is built around the procedural format. So if you can write a good cop flick, you’ll be in high-demand on the TV market. And that’s exactly what happened with Britt-Gibson. He’s worked steadily on some high-profile TV shows.
And maybe that’s the big lesson for today. Selling a script is hard in these times. So play the long game. Make your script a resume for whatever you want to write in. Whether it’s television or a certain movie genre, whatever. If you can execute an idea well, you can get work writing similar ideas.
But yeah, this kind of thing is so not for me. It actually pains me when I have to read stuff that’s this generic. It’s writing, guys! Your job is to ELEVATE! Give us something bigger than the norm.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Whatever qualities you give your characters, you have to then figure out WHY they have these qualities. You can’t just make a character an asshole “because.” McCoy is the best thing about this script. He’s the character who sticks out the most. Also, he’s entitled and a dick. So you have to explain, at some point in the movie, WHY he’s entitled and a dick. Britt-Gibson eventually reveals that McCoy’s dad always bailed him out of trouble, he was a star athlete, he’s lived a charmed life, never had any responsibility. Of course he’s a dick. When you do that extra work, your character feels MORE TRUTHFUL because his behaviors are based on a real past as opposed to a couple of adjectives.
Premise: When a man goes rock climbing with his friend, he’s abducted by aliens and inexplicably turned into a giant rock creature.
About: Concrete was a cult comic book in the late 1980s, birthed out of the Dark Horse comic book label. The creator, Paul Chadwick, has worked in comics forever and, in 2005, became a key creative force behind The Matrix Online, a multiplayer game set up by the Wachowskis to continue the Matrix storyline. I knew nothing about this comic but became interested when I looked at the comic’s art, which has a haunting quality to it.
Writer: Paul Chadwick (writer of the screenplay and creator of the comic)
Details: 107 pages (undated – but somewhere in the 1990s)
I have an intriguing question for you. How would you rank individual superhero properties at this moment? Batman used to have a stranglehold on the top position. But I don’t think he does anymore after these DC disasterfest flicks. You could argue that Batman might not even be in the Top 5 anymore. Deadpool. Wonder Woman. Iron Man. Spider-Man. Captain America. Who do you think owns the sandbox?
The question has me wondering what makes a comic book movie stand out these days. There are SO MANY that simply having a dude with a gruff voice and a bat-mask isn’t enough anymore. Either you have to find a comic that explores the genre in a unique way (Deadpool) or, if you already have an established property, you have to find a director who’s going to add a stylistic flourish that gives that property a fresh feel (Thor: Ragnarok).
The Concrete art has me hoping we’ll get a little of both here. Let’s take a look.
I know a script is in trouble when the writer doesn’t make clear what the main character’s job is. When we meet Ronald Lithgow, he’s in a senator’s office writing down notes as the Senator speaks. Does this make him his assistant? A co-worker? Someone who works alongside the Senator and is merely keeping notes for himself? We’re not given a clear answer, and this becomes an issue throughout the script.
And, actually, it’s a problem a lot of new screenwriters have. It’s not that they don’t tell you what the main character’s job is. It’s that unclear details become a pattern throughout the script, leaving the screenplay feeling like you’re squinting at it through a set of foggy glasses.
Anyway, so Ron goes on a vacation with his good buddy, Michael, to do some hardcore rock-climbing. However, when their curiosity gets the best of them and they explore a cave, they find some terrifying rock creature aliens waiting for them, who knock Ron and Michael out, and then when they wake up, they’re in an alien rock cave lab, having been turned into giant rock creatures themselves.
Michael is killed – RIP Michael – but Ron escapes, and when a local town reports a Sasquatch-like creature hopping around the premises, the NSA swoops in, and an evil dick named Joe Stamberg, brings Ron to an NSA lab so he can study him. It’s there where Ron meets the beautiful Maureen, a scientist who has a jonezing for rock men. Ron seems perfectly fine with being treated like a guinea pig for some reason, but breaks out when it’s revealed that Maureen has been removed from the project.
Once out and spotted, Ron becomes an instant celebrity, and that’s when Stamberg realizes he can make some money off this thing. So he pulls a George Lucas and and sells Concrete’s rights to comic book and toy companies everywhere. Concrete starts making appearances on news shows. Everyyyyyybody loves Concrete.
But Stamberg wants to take things further, and when there’s an incident at a mine where dozens of miners are trapped, he sends Concrete there to save them. Pump up his celebrity even more. But Concrete screws up the dig and, as a result, men die. Is the Concrete love now over? Will the world turn against him? And if so, what else is there left for a man trapped in a 12 foot tall body made of rock?
Right, so, I’m not going to mince words. This was a mess. I’m guessing that while Chadwick was an accomplished comic book writer, this was an early foray into screenwriting. There were too many Screenwriting 101 problems.
For starters, the celebrity sequence – where Concrete becomes a worldwide celebrity – it lasts 30 pages! I mean, I can see a 7 page montage TOPS. But it just went on and on and on. And this isn’t what screenplays are made for, giant 30 page sections with good vibes and zero conflict. You can’t be that friendly for that long without the audience getting bored. This comes down to a basic understanding of how screenplays are paced. It’s okay for good things to happen for a scene or two. Maybe even three. But then you got to start throwing conflict at the main character.
And that was another problem. Ron had zero issues with being imprisoned by the NSA. His attitude was, “Yeah, whatever you need.” And since that section ALSO went on for a long time, that was another area that got boring.
Then there was Ron himself. For such a cool looking character, there’s nothing going on with him. One of the things you need to do early on in a script is establish who your main character is BEFORE THE TERRIBLE THING BEFALLS HIM. If we don’t know who he is, then what happens to him feels empty.
I’ll give you an example. If we’d been shown, early on, that Ron was always getting overlooked, that he wanted more attention, that he was invisible at work, NOW when he becomes this huge celebrity, it has more weight. Because it’s tied to something that we’ve established he wanted. Then you can go into a “be careful what you wish for” story.
And I’m not saying you had to go that route. I’m saying you had to go SOME route. And this script gave us no route early on. By not establishing who the hero was… EVER… we never knew what the main character’s journey was supposed to be.
The problems don’t stop there. Concrete doesn’t encounter his first opportunity at heroism – saving people in the mine – until page 80!!! This is a superhero movie. The first big heroic act should not be occurring 80 pages into the story. Sure, if this is a more cerebral character-based superhero movie, I’d understand the lack of big set pieces. But we just established there’s nothing going on with this character. I don’t have any idea what I’m supposed to be thinking about him. As far as I can tell, he’s a guy who’s relatively happy to have been turned into a giant rock man. Which is a leap you have to explain to the reader. But we never get any explanation.
To be fair, an entire superhero renaissance occurred between the time this script was written and today. The bar has been raised considerably. If they’re going to still develop this project, I would go 100% away from the celebrity stuff and focus more on the turmoil of what it’s like for this man to live like this. Those are the most arresting images from the comics and the far more interesting theme. This long drawn out rise to fame is the last thing that’s going to interest people about a rock dude.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Whatever big themes you’re exploring in your movie, you have to build a bridge between those themes and your character. There’s no reason to make celebrity a giant theme in your story if your main character doesn’t have opinions or conflict about celebrity. A big component of Iron Man, for example, is his ego. So when he makes the decision to tell the world he’s Iron Man and become this celebrity, that decision is tied to his character in a clear way.
No Amateur Offerings this weekend, guys and gals. I’m going to review Levres 2nd Place script next Friday. If you want to be included in NEXT WEEK’S batch of Amateur Offerings and compete for that review on the site, send me a PDF of your script, along with the title, genre, logline, and why you think people should read it (your chance to really pitch your story). All submissions should be sent to Carsonreeves3@gmail.com.
In the meantime, use this thread to keep yourselves accountable for the year. Remember, you should be shooting for 15-30 hours of writing a week depending on how busy your schedule is. The idea here is to be truthful about the amount of work you’re putting in. Also, be supportive and encouraging to others. Writing is a lonely endeavor and it’s nice to know people are there for you. Basically, these accountability posts are meant as big buckets of motivation. If you guys continue to find these posts helpful, I’ll keep posting them. Happy writing!