This is your chance to discuss the week’s amateur scripts, offered originally in the Scriptshadow newsletter. The primary goal for this discussion is to find out which script(s) is the best candidate for a future Amateur Friday review. The secondary goal is to keep things positive in the comments with constructive criticism.
Below are the scripts up for review, along with the download links. Want to receive the scripts early? Head over to the Contact page, e-mail us, and “Opt In” to the newsletter.
LOGLINE: A young Jewish woman in occupied France escapes the Nazis by changing places with a shop owner. But as her love grows for the other woman’s husband and child, so does her guilt.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ (from writer): My screenplay finished in the top 6% of last year’s Nicholls, perhaps you can tell me why it didn’t crack the top 5. It was also the Screenplay of the Month on both Zoetrope and TriggerStreet.
TITLE: A Call To Respond
LOGLINE: A first responder is the target of a madman, but his greatest enemy may be the public he vows to protect.
LOGLINE: In a world overrun with monsters, a futuristic city thrives behind a massive wall. But when a conspiracy threatens to destroy it all, the city’s last hope rests on the shoulders of a criminal in a stolen combat suit.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ (from writer): You mean besides the guy in the armor punch fighting monsters? Well. There is some solid character work, themes dealing with duty and what makes a hero, and a few twists and turns. It’s something that Hollywood flips for: something that feels familiar but isn’t.
TITLE: The Golden House
GENRE: Period Drama
LOGLINE: A young Roman risks his life and his friendship with the emperor when he secretly pursues a woman who has sworn allegiance to the cross, a crime punishable by death.
TITLE: Drug War
LOGLINE: A US Marine enlists the help of a Mexican journalist to rescue his father who is being held hostage by a powerful drug cartel.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ (from writer): I was a finalist in the Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest immediately following Tyler Marceca. I even had the same mentor. It wasn’t hard to accept that following Tyler’s path was a real long shot when hit by the reality of turning a solid 15 pages into my first full length script and juggling writing deadlines between the pull of work and family commitments. I learned a lot from the mentoring and script notes, but did not win. Based on the script I submitted, I knew the only way I would win is if the other scripts were not good. Seven months and several versions later, I believe it’s ready for an Amateur Friday review–comments and all.
Today we learn just how important structure is to comedy writing.
Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.
Premise: (from writer) Pink-slipped, a mailman and his eccentric allies embark on a quixotic quest to prove how much he and the mail still matter.
About: This script won the Amateur Offerings Weekend a couple of weeks ago.
Writer: Patrick Connelly
Details: 100 pages
You know, I always wondered why nobody made a comedy about the postal service. It seems tailor made for laughs. One of the greatest TV characters of all time, Newman, was a mailman. So clearly the job has plenty of funny going for it. Maybe producers are afraid of the cliché factor? They fear the only real joke here is a postman running from a dog? Hmm, how ’bout a movie where a dog and a mailman switch places! The irony of a dog needing to run from…a dog! Holy Schnikees, that is so not a good idea. Maybe it’s best to leave the storytelling up to Patrick – see if he can do what no one else has done yet with the postal industry. I wish him luck. Comedy is one of the hardest genres to get right!
Rollo is a mailman. Part of a dying breed. Yup. All those e-mails are finally adding up, making “real” mail an official thing of the past. And not even the seemingly unending stockpile of junk mail can save this 300 year-old staple of American society. Rollo, the bestest, most excited mailman you’re ever going to find, figures he’s immune from the biggest downsizing project in the history of the world though. I mean, this man LOVES being a mailman. And he’s never had a screw-up on the job. There’s no way they can fire him!
A couple of scenes later, Rollo’s boss gives him the heave-ho, slapping him with the dreaded 2-week pink slip. Rollo is so devastated that he teams up with another mailman (the one-armed army vet, Steve) and a homeless man (who goes by the name “Peachfuzz”) to remind the post office just what they’re missing. He figures he’ll simply read his customers’ mail, solve their problems, and fulfill their dreams.
Their first order of business is locating one of the women on Rollo’s route, the sweet old Mrs. Applebaum. The plan is to kidnap her and deliver her to her daughter and son-in-law on their vacation. Why? Because her daughter sent her a postcard that said, “wish you were here!” I’m not entirely sure how Rollo believes this is going to get him his job back, but he figures if he can pull off a few more of these, then back in the saddle he’ll be.
Eventually, however, the postal inspectors get wind of the shady activity going on near Rollo’s route and send one of their weakest agents to the rescue, the stamp-collecting-obsessed Wally. It doesn’t take Wally long to figure out that Rollo is behind all this. But instead of busting him, he tells him he actually has a way to get Rollo his job back. All he has to do is sign for and deliver a very important package, making sure it doesn’t get tripped up by the post office’s many security measures. Desperate, Rollo takes the job. But he’ll soon have to decide if the package’s nefarious content is worth getting his job back.
Going Postal was a light breezy read. It had a lot of funny moments and unlike a lot of amateur scripts I read, there was nothing to gum up the plot. It was simple and easy to follow. However, that strength also ended up being the script’s big weakness. It was all a little too simple. But more importantly, I’m not sure Going Postal ever figured out what story it was trying to tell.
The goal stated was for Rollo to read mail and solve people’s problems. This, he hoped, would get him his job back. I know this is a comedy and therefore the motivations don’t have to be airtight. But they have to at least have air in them. I didn’t understand how Rollo could think that solving people’s problems that really had nothing to do with mail (outside of maybe being mentioned in a letter) would make anyone want to give him his job back.
Since this is the impetus for the movie, that means you’re placing the weight of your story on an extremely shaky foundation. Once you do that, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Because in the back of your audience’s mind, they’re constantly asking, “Wait, how does this help him get his job back again?” Every time they finish laughing at a joke, they ask, “Wait a minute, what’s the objective here again?” You don’t want your audience ever asking logic or motivation questions about your screenplay. That stuff’s gotta be the “given” part. Once you have the “given” in place, you can go out there and have fun.
I talk a lot about goals on this site – making sure your hero is always going after them – but maybe I’m not being specific enough about what a good “goal” entails. You want your story goal to be BIG and you want it to be LOGICAL. It’s gotta make sense. And I think we saw the result not having that when Rollo moves to the second person he’s helping, and it basically boils down to him yelling at one of his clients for cheating on his wife. I think that’s great. But I’m not sure what it has to do with the mail and why anyone would give Rollo his job back for doing it.
Actually, the goal that DOES carry weight and logic comes much later. It’s when Wally pops in, informs Rollo he knows what he’s doing, and tells him if he can deliver this very dangerous package, he can have his job back. This actually feels like a logical and strong goal. It’s mail-relevant and you believe that if Rollo achieves it, he’ll get his job back. If I were Partick, then, I would consider moving this up earlier in the story and making it the central goal. I’m talking right there at the end of the first act. The antics and the comedy, then, could come from Rollo and his buddies trying to get the package to the right place, with everything under the sun going wrong along the way. Yes, we have seen this type of plot before, but we could explore some new angles since we’d be telling it through the eyes of the people who are supposed to be the experts at delivering packages.
I think that’s the best way to go for Patrick. It will also help focus the story. Right now we feel like we’re going out on too many tangents, and many of the scenes go on for too long. This tends to happen when clear goals aren’t established. If the writer’s unsure what the immediate objective is, he stays in a scene for way too long, hoping he’ll figure out where to take his character next in the process. Get those goals in place and your scenes will be short and sweet, the way they’re meant to be.
Even if this script was a little messy, I have confidence in Patrick. He’s funny (the repeated cabana boy deaths were hilarious) and he knows how to keep the reader’s eyes moving down the page. The script really was an effortless read, and that will come in handy when he figures out the structural stuff. Good job to Patrick and hopefully this advice will help him take the next step as a writer.
Script link: Going Postal
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Comedies are typically the genre that require the most structure. They’re also the genre that would seem to require the least. Which is why we see so many sloppy comedies. The easiest way to nail your structure is to make sure you always have character goals in place (your hero is always going after something – and it’s clear to the reader how big and how relevant those goals are). Whether it’s The 40 Year Old Virgin trying to get laid or three drunken imbeciles trying to find their friend Doug after a crazy night out in Vegas. Structure is a comedy’s writer’s b.f.f.
So the other day I was sent a link to Melissa Joan Hart’s Kickstarter project page. Melissa was high on the recent successes of fellow Hollywood middle-folk Kristin Bell and Zach Braff after getting their movies funded on Kickstarter. And hey, so were the rest of us! Movie-making was finally being decided by the consumer and not some dopey producer who didn’t know the difference between Dog Day Afternoon and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Yeah! Power to the people!
For those of you who think the internet is stupid and therefore haven’t used it this year, Kickstarter allows you to set up an online pitch, via text, video, pictures, valentine’s day cards, or whatever else you can think of, and then assign a target amount of money you’re trying to raise for your venture (in this case, a movie budget) and then let people send you money so you can try and reach that goal. Zach Braff, for example, who wrote and directed the indie mega-hit “Garden State,” has been frustratingly trying to raise the money for his new movie without giving creative freedom over to Generic Producer A-D, who would sell their left kidneys if it meant Zack casting actors like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez in key roles. In order to avoid those casting catastrophes, he decided to raise the money himself so he could have total creative emancipation. And he succeeded!
But here’s the thing. Zach Braff had all his cool funny friends appear on his video and for the most part, he was funny and cool, too. Melissa Joan Hart on the other hand…..? Not cool. Not funny. I mean she has her MOTHER in the pitch video with her. Rule number 1. When you’re doing a Kickstarter campaign, DO NOT INCLUDE YOUR MOTHER IN THE PITCH. You’d think that’d be obvious but I suppose the tool is new enough that people haven’t figured out all the nuances yet. For that reason, watching the Melissa video go down was sort of like watching a bad, slow-motion Gangnam Style impression. I mean here’s the logline she listed for the project, titled “Darci’s Walk Of Shame”: “An impulsive act has Darci face enormous hurdles to get back to her sister’s wedding & avoid her family witness her first walk of shame.” Umm, what does that even mean?
But it gets really bad in the “prizes” section, something Hart even promotes in her pitch video as being better than the wack prizes former successful campaigners Veronica Mars and Zach Braff promised. For $100, you get two of the cast members of Darci’s Walk Of Shame (people whose identities we don’t know yet) to follow you for ONE YEAR on Twitter. That’s right. You get two unknown struggling actors to follow you for one (AND ONLY ONE!) year on Twitter! The description of said prize makes it very clear, however, that one of those people will NOT be Melissa Joan Hart. Nope, she can’t be bothered to click a button on her Twitter feed that says “Follow.” Far too stressful. It’s no surprise that of the 2 million dollars Hart was trying to raise to make her movie, she only made 50,000.
Okay, you’re probably wondering why I’ve turned today into “Make Fun Of Melissa Joan Hart” day. Truth is, Melissa seems like a really nice girl who was a little misinformed about what kind of people and projects Kickstarter rewards, as well as how to put together a snazzy pitch. The reason I bring Melissa’s struggles up is because it got me thinking about screenwriting. Specifically how Kickstarter can help screenwriters. Now you’re probably thinking I’m going to go into this whole spiel about putting your script up on Kickstarter and trying to raise money for your movie yourself. No, I’m actually telling you to do the opposite.
You see, one of the most common complaints I hear from screenwriters is how frustrating it is to be on the outside. How producers keep rewarding these crappy screenwriters with produced credits, buying up project after project of theirs, while they’re sitting here with a much better new spec that (in their opinion) is worth a six-figure sale. Why won’t more people give them a chance? Read their stuff? Give them that money!? Why does Hollywood only play ball with their own players?
Well, let me ask you a question. Why haven’t you gone over to Kickstarter, my dear screenwriting brethren, and invested in any of these upstart movies people are putting together? I’m not talking about giving them a thousand dollars. Or even a hundred dollars. Why haven’t you given them, say, 10 bucks? I don’t read minds but I’m pretty sure your answer is something like: “Because I don’t know those people.” And for that reason, you don’t care about them or what they’re doing. I mean, who knows if they even know what they’re doing? Why would you shell out ten bucks for something so uncertain?
Ah-ha! Let that obvious stance sink in for a moment.
Now ask yourself the same question about your script, but from a producer’s point of view. Why should they read or buy your screenplay? They don’t have any inkling of whether you know what you’re doing or not. Why would they give you 2 hours of their time or 300,000 dollars of their money? You may say, “Well 2 hours is not a lot of time!” It isn’t? How long does it take before you’ve ditched one of those Kickstarter pages? 30 seconds? 20? I bet you’re not meticulously reading every little detail, going through every single prize, watching the pitch video from start to finish. Heck, chances are you made a ten second glance and you were out.
You see, with Kickstarter, we the people visiting these pages are the (potential) producers. We decide if something is worthy or isn’t. When someone like Zach Braff comes along, someone who’s proven himself by making a good movie, we’re way more likely to give him money because he’s proven he can do it. But when somebody we’ve never heard of before pitches us something, there’s no way we’re giving away our hard-earned money. We simply don’t know if this guy can pull it off.
That, my friends, is how producers are looking at you. Each individual script you write and send out there is like its own little Kickstarter campaign. And just like the Kickstarter campaigns you don’t give a shit about because you don’t know those guys, they’re doing the same. You can’t blame them because all they’re doing is what all of us do every day. We filter out the junk. We choose movies based on our familiarity with the people involved. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones and you get a producer to actually read your script and actually LIKE it, you still have no established record. So instead of going with you, the random guy, they bet on the sure thing – the previously successful book or graphic novel or video game.
Now you may think I’m trying to depress the shit out of you. As I read back through this post, it certainly sounds that way. But the truth is, the Kickstarter approach can actually help you write and market your next script. Ask yourself, what kind of Kickstarter pages (that DON’T have proven people at the helm) might get you to invest money? Probably people with a really put-together professional Kickstarter page for one, right? A clean synopsis. A well stated business plan. Someone with a really great movie idea. Someone who probably posts one of their previous short movies and it looks amazing, or they post some pre-viz work for this project that looks stunning – stuff that gives you confidence these guys are capable of making something great, right?
Well, why not take that exact same approach and apply it to the writing and selling of your current screenplay? 1) Choose an original marketable concept 2) Execute that concept 3) Write a query letter that excitedly teases your script and demonstrates your professionalism. If you fail on any of these fronts, it’s very likely you won’t sell your screenplay. So the next time you complain that Hollywood doesn’t care, hop over to Kickstarter and ask, “Why don’t I care about them?” Put yourself in those producer shoes and ask why you’re not contributing your hard-earned money to these people (i.e. the idea’s stupid, they can’t spell, they look unprofessional) and make sure you’re not making the same mistakes when you’re writing your script, pitching your script, or sending out query letters. I can’t promise this approach will end up in a sale. But I CAN promise it will give you your best possible shot at one. Good luck!
Amateur Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.
Premise: (from writer) In the year 2068, a rough and tumble Detective who moonlights for organized crime is forced to solve a series of crimes wherein android prostitutes have been killing their clients, before a zealous US Attorney succeeds in his mission to destroy him.
About: Rarely do I review an amateur script if it’s not Amateur Friday, but I have an unwritten rule that if you send me a kick-ass query letter or have the most amazing unbelievably awesome premise ever, I will review your script right away. Such was the case with James Thoo, who sent me this hilarious query letter, which I’ve included below.
Writer: James Thoo
Details: 101 pages
So this is the first time that I’ve had to come up with two stories to sell one screenplay. One for the screenplay itself, and one for me and the process behind the writing of the screenplay, to get you to read it. I think I have both though, so here goes.
I’ve actually sold work before. Bear with me though, because I’m still pretty sure I qualify for Amateur Friday. Mostly because I am a total amateur now with zero residual ties to the film industry remaining. I started out in film (ish) as a News Editor for JoBlo.com, which is a pretty major movie news website. I got that job when I was 18. People seemed to really dig my voice before I was fired two years later for taking a few too many jabs at Eli Roth – whom I loath and whose films I avoid like I would avoid fraternity rape – who in turn emailed my boss to tell him that he was tired of me “being a persistent asshole to him.”
After that I was approached to write a screenplay by a small studio in LA, who optioned it, but never made it. I was sad about this for a while. That was kind of parlayed into being hired to write a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello for a Malaysian film studio (where I went to school; my dad moved around a lot). I had some meetings set up in LA but I declined them because I really wanted to do something in Malaysia. I had gross delusions of grandeur wherein I changed the face of the infant film industry over there and local government declared a James Thoo day and elderly women and small children alike high-fived each other amid tears of pure joy. Virgins were offered up and I chose which ones I was interested in with the flick of a cane fashioned for me from pure gold and unicorn bones. I’m sure you can imagine.
So I signed to make the Othello movie. Which would end up being perhaps not the, but certainly one of the biggest crimes perpetrated internationally, ever, and not just in film: in general. Good lord was this film an abomination.
As I mentioned, the film industry in Malaysia isn’t very developed and so there are a lot of restrictions. One of which is on run time, which shouldn’t really be a problem, but quickly becomes one when your director (who has final cut) has been subsisting for the past month on a steady diet of marijuana, self-praise and Terrence Malick films. As such the film was an unmitigated disaster. Back story and some pretty substantial plot points were extradited for inconsequential, self masturbatory lingering shots of snakes and foliage and shit. The producer also pulled a Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li and added in some voice-over that he had written himself, which was also added to all promotional materials, because, you know, why not?
Beyond all reason the film actually won a couple of awards and got an extended cinematic run but I was so disillusioned with the whole thing that I tried to take a page out of Tony Kaye’s book and change the writing credit to Humpty Dumpty. When I couldn’t make that happen I never wrote again. There was a funny instance of me picking up a film magazine one day and flicking to the review section where I went straight to the verdict and saw four out of five stars. I was pretty proud. And then I glanced over at the next page and saw Alvin and the Chipmunks. Five stars. There’s probably some similar stories to mine floating around, but I should point out that all of this happened when I was 22 years old. I don’t think that there are many people you meet who effectively, completely burnt out as writers by the age of 22. That was over 5 years ago now.
So yeah, I’ve been working since, as Editor in Chief of an online news portal in Malaysia, which consists largely of curating news aggregation and editing for a team of mongoloids who wield the english language with the kind of accuracy a drunk shows a urinal. These guys are like the anti-grammar. It is mind numbing. Up out of nowhere, 6 months ago I started writing again. I had a sudden bout of genuine inspiration. And I found my passion again. Maybe it is totally misplaced and whatever minor talent I once had is long gone, and whatever I came up with this time around is total garbage, but here it is nonetheless. I’d truly appreciate it if you would take the time to read my screenplay and then decimate it publicly on your blog.
In all honesty, I’m not an every day reader of Script Shadow, but I do check in a couple of times a week. I really think you’re doing a wonderful job, and I hope my relative lack of dedication to your lessons does not preclude me from writing a script that you appreciate. Or don’t hate. Let’s see…
You can’t read a query letter like that and not think, “This guy’s gotta be good.” I mean he obviously has a natural ability to tell stories and be funny, and if you have that, you’ve got a shot. But then I opened the first page of “Keep Us Safe.” My heart sank. James’ intro page suffered from “Wall of Text” syndrome. It’s a disease that’s commonly found in young writers who are still learning the craft. Their main source of reading entertainment up to this point has been books, so they start off writing their scripts like books, packed with way too much description.
And readers HATE this. They hate it. I hate it. Because it’s going to tack 45 more minutes onto my reading time. Which would be fine if those minutes were spent word-smithing together an enhanced story. But 80 out of 81 times, the opposite is true. The excessively long passages gum up the story, making the script the literary equivalent of the 405 at 6pm on a Friday. However, I still had some confidence in James. I knew he could write. Yeah, the first page was wordy, but it wasn’t “I can’t string a sentence together” wordy. The descriptions painted a strong picture. So I figured – Let’s still give this James guy a shot, Carson.
The year is 2068. The location is Los Angeles, CA. Shades of Blade Runner abound. Also some shades of A.I. In fact, if I were to describe “Keep Us Safe,” I’d say “It’s Blade Runner meets A.I meets I-Robot.” Tommy Patterson is a crooked cop for hire. The man can be bought for a 5 dollar footlong (or a 50 dollar footlong in the year 2068). However, despite being described as such, he seems to be very un-crooked in his policing – as we meet him chasing down a nasty drug dealer. Which was confusing. If you’re introducing a character who’s dirty, you probably want to show him doing something dirty. And if Patterson IS doing something dirty here, it isn’t clear.
Afterwards, Patterson’s told by his boss, Police Chief Martin Deinard, that the newspapers know he’s dirty and are going to destroy his reputation. Which means Deinard has to demote him (I was a little unclear on why he didn’t just fire him), giving him, in his words, the worst jobs in the precinct. Strangely then, Patterson’s placed on homicide for a string of cop murders perpetrated by a rogue android prostitute. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the coolest assignment ever!
Patterson’s case takes him to the maker of these prostitute-bots, Lux Kubotu Robotics, where he learns that a high-profile employee recently quit. It’s the CEO’s belief that the employee may have implanted some code that made the robots killers. So he bounces around from bars to nightclubs, talking to a lot of seedy folks, trying to trace down this dude, eventually learning that someone HE knew actually sent this robot into the red light district to take down Patterson himself, who was known to frequent the area. Patterson will have to go back into his own ranks, then, to take this asshole down.
I’ll be the first to admit this summary may not be 100% correct but that’s only because I couldn’t always tell what was going on. And this takes us back to all that text I was complaining about earlier. You see, many writers believe that writing a ton of description gives the reader MORE information. However it often works the opposite way. The reader’s focus starts drifting. Or meaningless things (like the smell of the air) are highlighted, imposing on the reader that he doesn’t need to read all the text as it doesn’t contain relevant information, resulting in him starting to skim. Or the plethora of words start to get jumbled around, confusing the essence of what the writer is trying to say. Let me give you an example. Here’s the beginning of an early scene in the police chief’s office…
Patterson slumps into a leather couch that occupies the far corner of the office. He rests his head in his open palm and leans into the shadows.
On an extravagant mahogany chair in front of the main bureau sits a man, broad, rough around the edges but trying to make clean: D.A. HENRY CAHILL. He turns his seat to face Patterson, who nods familiarly in his direction.
POLICE CHIEF MARTIN DEINARD is all business. He wears a flawless pinstripe suit with a transparent brace around his neck the catches hair as his PERSONAL BARBER trims at the grey, close around his head.
He stands by the window of his office and looks down at the city. He sighs and turns to Patterson with a TABLET PC in his hand. The Barber follows his every move. He tosses it into his lap and Patterson caches it instinctively, twisting it to read what is being shown.
The image rotates to fit the screen and he sees a middle-aged man, thin, strong, definite jawed, no-nonsense, like he was carved from granite. If anything, maybe like a younger more idealistic Deinard himself.
Holy Word Explosion Batman! Here we have five huge paragraphs (note that the paragraphs have been thinned out due to the format change: they are 3, 4, 4, 5, and 4 lines respectively in the script) to set up a scene. We never need this many paragraphs to set up a scene unless extremely complicated and/or relevant things are going on. Honestly, this is how I would rewrite it…
Patterson slumps in a leather couch. He’s surrounded on either side by D.A. HENRY CAHILL, a slimy crooked type, and POLICE CHIEF MARTIN DEINARD, who’s being tended to by his personal barber.
The chief stares out at the city, cutting off the barber momentarily to hand Patterson a tablet PC. On it is a middle-aged man, a no-nonsense type, who looks like Deinard may have looked like 20 years ago.
Now I understand that you want to convey SOME atmosphere and description in your writing, but you want to do so in moderation because this is screenwriting, not novel writing. Check out The Equalizer or When The Streetlights Go On to see writers convey atmosphere yet still keep their prose sparse.
Because “Wall Of Text” Syndrome has a trickle down effect. It leads to what’s known as “Reader Mind Slip.” This is when a reader’s mind gets overloaded with unimportant information, so they stop paying attention. When this happens, they can’t keep up, as they’re constantly having to re-read paragraphs that they only sorta grasped the first time, which leads to frustration, which leads to them eventually saying “Fuck it” and charging through, even when they don’t entirely understand a scene. From that point on, they’re operating in “Murkyville” territory. They sort of understand what’s going on, but don’t get all of those finer points you’ve meticulously plotted in there. Which is why it’s so important to keep your prose sparse and only tell us what we need to know. You want to avoid “Reader Mind Slip” at all costs.
There are other problems here as well. The story played out too predictably. I felt like I’ve seen it before. The love story comes in too late, making it feel like an afterthought. But if I were James, I would just focus on thinning out his prose for now. Learn how to say a lot more in a lot less. Because obviously, James can write. I mean he can string a sentence together. Even though the writing was thick, it was never bad. And a lot of the dialogue was right up there with professional-level dialogue. But none of that stuff matters unless the story is easy to grasp, and right now all this text is getting in the way.
Also, I have a personal plea for James. Write a comedy script! From your e-mail, you obviously have the chops for it. It seems like it suits your sensibilities better anyway. In fact, write about that experience you had going to Malaysia. It sounds hilarious. I’ll be the first in line to read any comedy you write. And don’t let this review get you down. You seem a bit sensitive. You obviously have talent, I just think you need to tweak your writing approach a little. I wish you luck my friend.
Script link: Keep Us Safe
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Your query letter is a key part of your marketing. The tone should reflect you, but more importantly, your script. So if you have a heavy drama, be professional and serious in your query. If you have a comedy, be funny! By the same token, try not to act one way in your query then give a script that’s completely the opposite. After James’ hilarious query, I was hoping for a comedy. So it was a little confusing getting a dark sci-fi script.
What I learned 2: Beware pages that look like walls of text. Beware multiple pages in a row that look like walls of text. But most importantly, beware of a FIRST PAGE that looks like a wall of text. It will put your reader off right away.
Remember a couple of years ago when every other spec was a contained thriller? Well, believe it or not, the sub-genre got its start a lot earlier than that. In fact, author Stephen King loved writing contained thrillers, with Misery being his most famous. The movie is the result of three artists at the top of their game. Rob Reiner (who directed the film) had just kicked ass with another King adaptation, Stand By Me. King’s books were being adapted every other day in Hollywood, including the recent hit, The Running Man. And Goldman had just come off The Princess Bride. Misery is built on an old writing adage – Place your hero in the worst situation possible, then watch them try to get out of it. It also operates on the notion that you want to torture your main character as much as possible. Some would argue that King went a little too far in that capacity, but it’s hard to argue with the end result. Misery is also a study in how to write a great character, as Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates – who won an Oscar for the role) is one of the most unforgettable villains of all time. It should also be noted that I could TOTALLY see one of these middle-aged Twilight moms doing this to Stephanie Meyer today. So we may get a Misery re-imagining soon!
1) When you write a movie that takes place in a contained area, the most important tools at your disposal are suspense and conflict. - In a contained thriller, you must continuously imply that something bad is going to happen (which is typically done in the first act), and almost every scene after the first act should be steeped in some sort of conflict. Annie being angry at Paul for writing a bad chapter (conflict), Annie telling Paul he needs to burn his manuscript when he doesn’t want to (conflict), Paul telling Annie his new writing setup isn’t good enough (conflict). Conflict and suspense. Suspense and conflict. They are your saviors in contained thrillers.
2) The most interesting battle is often the battle within a character – We were talking about this yesterday with Gatsby and I think it’s important to note here as well, as we see it with Annie. Conflict WITHIN a character often leads to most entertaining type of character. Annie is both loving and kind, but also manipulative and hateful. She wants to be good, thinks of herself as good, but is in fact a monster. Watching her battle this is both fascinating and horrifying. We’ve seen this with Darth Vader, Michael Corleone, Bruce Banner. It’s why Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde still survive as one of the most memorable characters in literary history. The more intense the conflict is within one’s self, the more interesting the character tends to be.
3) Try to write career-making roles – When you read Misery, you just KNOW that whoever plays Annie – it’s going to change her life forever (as it did for Kathy Bates!). That’s how complicated and interesting and unexpected and crazy and scary and challenging the character is. You would’ve seen the same thing for Hans while reading Inglorious Basterds, or Ferris while reading Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Look at your script. Are there any career-making roles in there for actors? If not, maybe reevaluate your script and see if you can do something more compelling with at least one of those key characters.
4) The more you set up a scene, the more powerful that scene will be – For a scene to really pack a punch, it needs high stakes. And high stakes only come through repeated set-ups. One of the best scenes in Misery is when Paul plans to poison Annie with the powder from all the pain pills he’s saved. We watch him meticulously hide and hoard these pills over time. This way, when he invites Annie to dinner and secretly poisons her wine – there’s SO MUCH riding on the moment because we know how much effort Paul’s put into this. It’s also why, of course, when she accidentally spills the wine, we’re devastated. There was SO much on the line since it took him SO long to save those pills. This scene does not work if there’s no setup, if we don’t’ see Paul hiding those pills over time. Continuous set-up results in higher stakes results in bigger more intense scenes.
5) When you’re stuck in a room with a lot of dialogue, you have to look for ways to change things up so the dialogue remains interesting. – Too many writers don’t put enough energy into thinking how they can change the feel or tone or undercurrent of a scene. Note the scene near the 30 minute mark where Paul has to pee in a bedpan while talking with Annie. It’s embarrassing and weird, but most importantly, it gives the dialogue a different twist. There’s a different undercurrent to their conversation because of the awkwardness. This is SO important when you have a bunch of talky scenes in a single location. Keep changing up the feel in the room!
6) Go the opposite to be scary – The scariest things usually aren’t obvious and in your face. They’re reserved or the opposite of what you’d expect. Instead of someone screaming at you, it might be that they talk very quietly and rationally. Instead of someone beating you up, it might be that they’re overly, almost oddly, kind to you. We see this with Annie in her language. She doesn’t believe in swearing, so that when she’s upset, her rants are almost comical. But it’s that lack of the obvious that actually makes these rants so scary. “I thought you were good, Paul, but you’re not good, you’re just another lying old dirty birdie and I don’t think I better be around you for awhile.” Had Annie yelled instead, “Fuck you you asshole. I fucking hate you!” It just wouldn’t have had the same eerie effect.
7) No choice in your script should be random – Every choice you make in your story, there should be a reason behind it, right down to the smallest detail. Take what Annie does whenever she’s outside of Paul’s room, for instance. She watches her favorite show: “Love Connection.” That’s no coincidence, as this theme of Annie being in love with Paul is established throughout Misery. Had she been a huge fan of, say, the sitcom “Taxi,” it wouldn’t have fit into the story as nicely.
8) If you jump into your story right away, your “first act break” has to work like a mid-point. – Typically, in a regular story, the first act break is when the hero begins his journey (like Luke, in Star Wars). But in Misery, Paul is captured by page 5, and has been kept in this room for 20-25 pages already. If you continue on with this setup without any significant changes, the audience will get bored. So you almost use your first act break as a mid-point, as a way to twist the story, up the stakes, and set us off in a new direction. That occurs here when Annie finds out Paul killed her favorite character, Misery. She freaks out and threatens Paul, letting him know that she’s controlling this show and he’s her fucking slave from this point forward (note: you will still use a REAL mid-point break later as well).
9) Most heroes should come into a story trying to make some sort of change in their lives – Change is what makes characters and stories interesting. If all anybody’s trying to do is live the exact same life and do the exact same things they’ve always done, how interesting is that going to be? Therefore, Paul isn’t working on Misery 11 when we start the story. He’s just written his first non-Misery novel in a decade. It’s a huge risk for him, a big CHANGE in his life. And it’s what makes his character more interesting than if he was just trying to do the same old boring thing.
10) Each scene must push the story forward, not repeat the story. – A big mistake I see in these kinds of scripts is that each successive scene isn’t really different from the previous one. For example, a bad writer would have Annie be mean in one scene, and the next time she comes around, she’s mean again. Maybe mean about something else, but still mean. In other words, you’re not evolving the story. You’re repeating yourself. Instead, every time Annie comes in the room, she should have a new agenda, a new goal. First it’s to meet her favorite writer. Then it’s to ask about his new book. Then it’s to talk about her dislike of the new book. Then it’s to introduce her best friend (a pig). Then it’s to yell at him for killing off Misery. Then it’s to have him burn his manuscript. It is SO EASY to repeat scenes in contained thrillers because of the limited location. Don’t fall into this trap. Do something new with each scene.
These are 10 tips from the movie “Misery.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Aliens,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!