Congrats to Mini-Shorts Contest winner, Nick Morris, for his short script, “DO NOT OPEN” It’s a fun little exercise in suspense. Nick wins a First Ten Pages consultation from me. I enjoyed doing this so much, we’re going to do another one next weekend. Stay tuned!
Premise: (from Black List) When futuristic technology renders the Federal Witness Protection Program obsolete, the U.S. Government begins using Time Travel to hide high-profile witnesses in the past. When a security breach occurs, a U.S. Marshal and her witness struggle to find their way back to the Present Day while evading assassins.
About: Writer Mark Townend has been writing and directing shorts for over 15 years. He recently had his biggest break yet, adapting Anthony Bordain’s novel, “Bone In The Throat.” That got him some attention, which allowed this spec to get in front of a lot more eyes, which helped it make the Black List, with 8 votes.
Writer: Mark Townend
Details: 106 pages
An unexpectedly busy weekend has kept me from baring witness to 200 blood-splattering murders.
I’m speaking, of course, about my inability to get over to Arclight and watch me some John Wick 2! I wanted to see dogs being kidnapped, John Wick getting angry, perfectly choreographed kills, and a Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne reunion dammit!!
Instead I was stuck staring at a computer screen all weekend.
So to say that I’m angry is a goose-down-filled-pillow of an understatement, muchacho. I knew, under such circumstances, that any script I reviewed had little chance with me. So I needed to tilt the odds in the script’s favor.
That meant NO BIOPICS!
It meant NO TRUE STORIES!
You guys know by now that when I want to be entertained, I need a good old fashioned high concept science-fiction script, like the kind they used to send out five times a week in this town!
Why am I using so many exclamation points!
I don’t know!
On to the plot summary!
It’s the year 2033. Manhattan. Katherine Teller is a US Marshall and a member of one of the most cutting edge projects of the time – Operation Bygone.
You see, in the future, it’s impossible to hide. Every step you take, every whisper you make, is recorded somewhere, logged to something, GPS’d to somewhere, and anybody with half-a-brain can download a hack-pack and find you.
This means that protecting criminals waiting to testify against high-profile gangstas is impossible. Well, it was impossible. Operation Bygone allows us to time travel into the past. A U.S. Marshall escorts the testifier into the past somewhere, where they hang out until the trial, then jump back to the present when it’s time.
Nick Prentis is a medium-level white collar criminal. When he’s caught for pulling a Jordan Belforte, the government tells him they don’t want him. They want the guy he reports to, top dog Leon Vasseur.
Nick reluctantly agrees to testify against Vasseur and is sent back to the year 1972 with Katherine. While at first everything seems fine, a mysterious tough guy named Corbin finds out where Nick and Katherine are staying and attacks.
This sends Nick and Katherine on the run, where they realize there must be a mole in the system. They ditch their trackers and enact the contingency protocol, a secondary system that only Katherine knows the location of. If they can get to it, they can get back to the future. If they can’t, they’ll be stuck here. With Corbin. And Corbin doesn’t like company.
One of the reasons they don’t make these movies anymore is because we no longer live in a high-concept driven marketplace. Audiences have moved on to SPECTACLE as the driving force behind their ticket-buying choices.
We can get plenty of high-concept stuff at home. Like the show I’m watching now, Utopia, about an unreleased comic book that has the potential to dismantle society. Very high concept, but devoid of spectacle.
Does this mean that high concept is dead? Of course not. High concept is still better than low or no concept, as it will create curiosity, which in turn gets people to theaters. The difference is that these movies can’t be bad anymore. They have to have the execution that backs up the concept. And most writers either don’t know how to do that, or don’t want to put in the work to do it. They figure, “My concept’s good, so I don’t need to nail the execution.”
In other words, the market doesn’t allow movies like Face/Off to do well anymore.
Anything that isn’t spectacle-driven needs to be really good. Because word-of-mouth is the only thing that’s going to give these movies legs. A perfect example is Hidden Figures. That movie should not have done well by any box office metric standards, and yet it’s made over 100 million dollars.
So where does this leave Contingency Protocol? The script is pretty good. I don’t know if it crosses into “very good” territory though, which is where you need to be to have a successful film in this genre.
My whole question whenever I read a script like this is, “Does it exploit its concept?” Is it building its characters, its scenes, and its plot around the uniqueness of the idea?
For example, you have several chase scenes here through 1972 New York. Okay. But you could have a chase scene through New York in 2033. How are you taking advantage of your concept by writing that scene? It just being a different time period isn’t enough.
In Deja Vu, the highest selling spec script of all time, and a concept that also covers two time periods, they have a car chase where our hero, who’s in the PRESENT but wearing goggles that allow him to see into the PAST, is chasing a car from the past. There’s no car physically in front of him. He can only see it through the glasses. That’s a chase that takes advantage of its concept.
And that’s not to say that every scene needs to do that. But enough scenes need to do it so that it feels like you’re taking advantage of your concept. This is why Back to the Future is the gold standard in time travel high concept. There isn’t an element in the script that DOESN’T take advantage of its concept.
With that said, as Contingency Protocol goes on, we start to see more of a connection between the past and the present THROUGH THE CHARACTERS. There’s this whole plotline where Katherine’s future family is threatened by the fact that her husband’s grandfather is an ignorant cop who’s been assigned to stop them. If she hurts him, she completely alters her future.
There’s also the mystery of, “Who’s the mole?” I wanted to know who was selling these guys down the river. It’s funny how just one intriguing mystery can keep a reader turning the pages.
That kept me engaged enough to want to get to the end. Combined with the old school high concept premise, it placed Contingency in ‘worth the read’ territory. But I think if it’s going to be the kind of movie people recommend to others, it has to go deeper into its world and exploit its concept a lot more.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Could the scenes you’re writing take place in any other movie? If your scene feels too interchangeable, then you’re either not exploiting the uniqueness of your concept or the uniqueness of your characters. The opening of La La Land is a good example. Anybody can write a scene where the main character is stuck in his car, bumper to bumper traffic, going to be late for work or just wants to get home. I’ve seen that scene a million times before. But I haven’t seen all the characters all of a sudden step out of their cars and start singing and dancing. That’s a scene that’s specific to the concept of La La Land.
So as you know (or at least, you better know), the Scriptshadow Short Script Contest is happening as we speak! You have until March 12th to get your entries in. The winner gets their short film produced here at Scriptshadow and premiered here on the site. It’s going to be YUUUUGE.
But you know me. I’m impatient. I live in a world of instant gratification and I feel like being gratified. So we’re going to have a mini-short contest right here and right now.
Here’s how it works. Write a short that includes AT LEAST TWO of yesterday’s “Best Bang For Your Buck” tools. That is, in case you forgot…
1) setup and payoffs
2) dramatic irony
3) showing and not telling
4) an underdog
5) a ticking time bomb
Post your short in the comments (you can write it inside the comment or include a PDF link). Page count is open but I recommend staying under 5 pages.
Whichever short gets the most up-votes by Sunday 10pm Pacific Time will be the winner. That short will be officially entered into the contest free of the 2-shorts rule (so you can still enter TWO MORE shorts via e-mail submission).
You’ll get your short in front of our director. And to top it all off, I’ll give you a FREE FIRST 10 PAGES consultation on any feature or pilot you’re working on.
So get to work and good luck!
NOTE: MAKE SURE TO SORT COMMENTS BY “NEWEST” SO YOU CAN SEE ALL THE NEW SHORTS THAT COME IN.
Last month I was reading a script that wasn’t very good and I asked myself, what could make this script better? The answer to that question sounded something like this: more original characters, more active characters, characters with more depth, less on-the-nose dialogue, higher stakes, more unique choices, a better handle on structure, a second act that doesn’t repeat itself, more obstacles to overcome, a flashier villain… and the list goes on.
The point being, this writer needed to spend more time learning the craft.
So then I thought, well that’s kinda lame. I mean, yeah, they do need to learn this stuff. But what if there were some things they could do RIGHT NOW that could leave a big impact on their script.
That’s what gave me the idea for today’s article. There’s lots of screenwriting tips out there, lots of lessons, lots of tools. But what tools give you the BIGGEST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK? That means you don’t have to do a lot, and yet you get tons of upside through the application.
So after you read this, bust open that script you’re working on and incorporate a few of these immediately. And because I enjoy a flair for the dramatic, I’ll be listing our Bang For Your Buck tools in reverse order, with the best tip coming last. Here we go!
NUMBER 5: TICKING TIME BOMB (OR “TICKING CLOCK”)
I just completed a consultation script the other day that had way too slow of a second act. Months were going by with no end in sight. I was getting bored. And I thought, if only there was a ticking time bomb here, the story would feel so much faster.
A ticking time bomb is any looming moment that spells doom. And here’s something a lot of Scriptshadow readers don’t know. A ticking time bomb is not limited to the entire narrative. It can be used for single acts, single sequences, even individual scenes. If you’ve got a boring talky scene between two characters, add a ticking time bomb!
Let’s say you’re writing a teen comedy like The Edge of Seventeen and you have a conversation between your leads in one of their bedrooms that’s boring no matter how you arrange the dialogue. Pull the scene out and place it outside of school, five minutes before the first bell rings. Give the talk some importance (it’s a conversation that needs to be had), and make it so if the hero gets in after that bell, he gets detention all weekend. Watch that very same conversation come alive. Ticking time bombs give you so much for so little when you know how to use them.
NUMBER 4: UNDERDOG
Granted this is something you’ll probably have to do at an earlier stage in the writing, but underdog characters are so beloved by audiences that using them is almost like cheating. You barely have to do anything and the audience is rooting for your hero.
If you look at the 10 highest grossing movies of 2016, 7 of them are led by underdog characters (Rogue One, Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book, Zootopia, Suicide Squad, Sing). Not every story is right for underdogs (Batman vs. Superman), but it sure helps when they are.
NUMBER 3: SHOW DON’T TELL
Welcome to one of the most common mistakes beginner AND intermediate screenwriters make, and one of the easiest ways to identify a newbie. If a writer’s characters are always solving problems with what they say, rather than what they do, I know the script is in trouble.
But here’s the great thing about “show don’t tell.” It isn’t just about looking less newbie-ish. It actually MAKES YOUR SCRIPT BETTER. Even a lazy use of showing tends to outclass an inspired use of telling. It’s why one of the first tasks they have you do in film school is shoot a movie without sound.
I was watching the pilot for the British TV show, Utopia, last weekend. In the first scene, these thugs enter a comic book shop, and one by one, kill everyone in it. Then, just as they’re about to leave, one of the thugs bends down, and we see that a young boy is hiding under one of the stands.
We could’ve easily turned this into a dialogue scene. “What are you doing under there, little guy?” “Nothing.” “What comic is that you’ve got?” “X-Men.” “Yeah? You like X-Men?” And blah blah blah. But no, they don’t do that. The thug, who’s been working his way through a box of candy the whole scene, extends the box of candy out to the boy, a psychotic look on his face. And the last shot is of the boy reaching forward to take a piece. Then we cut out. It’s a much better scene because of the showing.
NUMBER 2: DRAMATIC IRONY
Ooh, this is a good one. Dramatic irony is the act of letting the audience know something the hero (or the key character in the scene) does not know, and typically that something is bad.
So let’s say a surgeon is doing a routine appendix surgery on a patient and the patient unexpectedly dies. We then cut to the patient’s wife, who’s casually reading a magazine in the waiting room. We stay on the surgeon, as he gulps, and slowly moves towards the wife to tell her the bad news.
This is dramatic irony. We know the wife’s husband is dead before the wife does. This lets us play with the reveal, as the surgeon comes up and asks to speak with the wife. And the wife launches into an opinion about an ad in the magazine she’s reading. And the surgeon is looking for the right moment to butt in. And so on and so forth. And we just play that dramatic irony out.
Dramatic irony ALMOST ALWAYS WORKS. It’s really hard to fuck up if you know what you’re doing. (bonus tip: The more that’s at stake in the scene, the better the dramatic irony will play).
NUMBER ONE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK SCREENWRITING TOOL… SETUPS AND PAYOFFS
Not only are setups and payoffs one of the easiest things to learn, but they’re mind-bogglingly effective. You could introduce the dumbest plot beat ever. But if it’s a payoff to an earlier setup, the audience will gleefully cheer, “Of course! Because of the thing earlier!!!” There’s something about connecting two things on their own that sends audiences into a euphoria.
I divide setups and payoffs into two categories. Power setups and payoffs and Fun setups and payoffs.
Power setups and payoffs work by introducing something seemingly innocuous, not drawing too much attention to it, but just enough attention so that it’s remembered, and then later, have that seemingly innocuous thing be the solution to a key plot point.
One of the best examples of this is when the Crazy Clock Tower Lady in Back to the Future barges in between Marty and his girlfriend right before they’re going to kiss, and screams, “Save The Clock Tower,” before launching into the Clock Tower’s history, which includes it being destroyed when lightning struck it over 30 years ago.
Then, later, when Marty is thrown into the past and he and Doc are trying to find a substitute for nuclear energy and Doc confesses that the only thing in the 1950s that has that same kind of power is a bolt of lightning, but unfortunately there’s no way to tell when and where they’ll strike, Marty holds up the Save the Clock Tower flyer and says, “We do now.”
Fun setups and payoffs don’t affect the plot but never fail to leave a smile on the audiences’ face. Another example from Back to the Future is when, in the present, Marty’s mom throws a sheet cake down welcoming “Uncle Joey” back from jail. “We have to eat this ourselves. Uncle Joey didn’t make bail again.”
Then later, when Marty is in the past and visits his mom’s house, he sees Uncle Joey as a toddler in his playpen. Marty leans down, “Better get used to these bars, kid.”
Back to the Future is actually the best movie to watch to study setups and payoffs. But the point is, by setting something up early and paying it off later, the audience feels like they’ve been a participant in the movie, creating the illusion that they’ve broken through the fourth wall. It makes them feel good. And you barely had to do anything to get them to feel that way.
Genre: True Story/Drama/Love Story
Premise: Based on a true story, a young woman with barely any sailing knowledge, must navigate a handicapped boat back to land before her boyfriend succumbs to the injuries he sustained during a massive storm.
About: This project got all red hot recently and was finally purchased by upcoming financier/mini-studio STX. The flick will be a starring vehicle for Shailene Woodley, and will be directed by Everest director, Baltasar Kormákur. The writers, Aaron and Jordan Kandell, are fairly new on the scene, but did secure an impressive ‘story by’ credit on Moana. For those unfamiliar with what that means, here’s how the ‘story by’ credit came about. It used to be that an assembly line of writers would work on a script and the WGA would decide who had the most input and deem those writers the official writers on the project. Then someone said, doesn’t that seem strange? That the people who originally came up with the idea and wrote the first draft that every successive writer based the story on, didn’t get any credit? They finally said, “Yeah, that does make sense.” So now, the original writers on the script usually get a “story by” credit, to indicate their contribution at that crucial early stage.
Writers: Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell (based on the book “Red Sky In Mourning” by Tami Oldham Ashcraft with Susea McGearhart)
Details: 107 pages
When I first heard of this project, I thought, “Didn’t they already make this movie?” We had the lost at sea pic, “Life of Pi,” which was a great film. We had “All Is Lost,” with Robert Redford, which was also a good movie. You’re telling me we need a third lost at sea movie so soon after these two? What new angle were they bringing to the table?
It turns out they added a simple twist on the genre – a love story. And that’s what’s going to make this movie either a mega-hit or a mega-hit-by-an-iceberg. So which one do I think it is? Well, you’re talking to the guy who, after reading La La Land, thought the love story was boring, cliched, and uninspired. Newsflash: I heard that script was going to win an Oscar. So maybe I’m not the love story guru.
But I have some observations about Adrift, and I’ll get to those right after my synopsis…
23 year old Tami Ashcraft has woken up in the aftermath of a huge storm. She’s inside a boat, barely able to move, trapped underneath a shitload of shit, trying to find her bearings.
“Richard!” she screams.
Who’s Richard? We don’t know yet. But we’re about to find out. We shoot into the past, with Tami hanging out on a marina, where she meets the strapping 32 year old Richard Sharp. Richard is an adventurer, the kind of guy who when he says he’s going to go to Greece for the weekend, he goes.
This gets Tami all googly-eyed and goosebumped, since she’s lived her entire life in fear. She’s the kind of girl who TALKS about going to Greece, but never goes. The two engage in numerous flirtatious sparring matches, each trying to one-up each other, and each falling in love more after every line.
But before we can appreciate that love, we jump forward to the present again, where Tami somehow makes it out of the cabin and spots Richard on a distant life raft. Knowing little-to-nothing about sailing, she cobbles together a sail (using duct-tape!) and manages to get over to Richard.
Richard, it turns out, is in bad shape. He’s alive, but his back is probably broken. If they’re going to make it back to land, it’s going to be up to Tami. And that’s how the movie unfolds. We make a little headway in sailing back towards land, then jump into flashback to show the two falling in love, back to the struggling present, back to falling in love.
Will Tami get Richard back to safety before he succumbs to his injuries? You’ll have to ask Shailene Woodley (or go to Wikipedia).
It’s clear that Aaron and Jordan Kandell really love their subject matter. I could feel their passion for Tami’s story on the page, as well as Richard’s.
My worry is they loved them a little too much. Almost everything here in the present is solid. But once we go into flashbacks, the script starts to get shaky. That’s because the flashbacks aren’t so much a love story as they are a 1980s rom-com. While reading these passages, I thought I’d mistakenly stumbled upon the 1987 Kurt Russel Goldie Hawn script, Overboard.
Nearly everything in the flashbacks is a meet-cute scene. I’ll give you an example. Here’s an exchange from early on, when the two are getting to know each other:
“It’s hard to sweep a girl off her feet when you’ve got sea legs.”
“You don’t strike me as a girl who needs sweeping.”
“And you don’t strike me as a boy who gives up easily.”
Then, at the end of this conversation, she pushes him off the boat.
That’s EVERY SINGLE CONVERSATION they have. I understood one meet-cute scene. But 20 scenes full of rom-com zingers? It was in such stark contrast to the serious present-day stuff, where Tami is trying to stay alive. It felt like two different movies.
And when things did finally get serious in the past, we’d get scenes like Tami running away from Richard. He finally catches up to her, spins her around, and says, “Whatever you’re running from, it isn’t me.” Every line was either so rom-com’y or so melodramatic like this one, that it was hard to take the story seriously.
Another issue I had was the pacing. We’d have one scene in the present, then one scene in the past, then once scene in the present, then one scene in the past, then one scene in the present – you get the picture.
The problem with this is that it made the pacing too predictable. Once the reader gets ahead of you on anything, they start getting bored. If they know exactly where you’re going after this scene, and after the next one, and after the next one, they’re eventually going to tune out.
I was hoping for some variety in that pacing just so I could wonder what was going to happen next. I never wondered once. So hopefully that’s something they address in the film.
I will say this about the script. It has a good ending. And since good endings are hard to come by, it’s nice that these guys have that ace up their sleeve. But they need to rewrite this dialogue, like, yesterday. It’s so dated that it impeded upon my enjoyment of a story I desperately wanted to like. If I were these guys, I’d watch The Notebook. That script managed to capture two people falling in love without resorting to over-pasteurized dialogue (well, for the most part).
Or maybe I don’t know love stories and this dialogue is fine. With La La Land closing in on 250 million dollars worldwide, that could certainly be the case.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If I see any variation of “Are you stalking me?” in a guy-girl interaction in a script, I know the dialogue is in trouble. Any line that’s been used over 100 times in films is a line that should probably be avoided.
What I learned 2: Switch up your pacing! If a script has the exact same pace the whole time, the reader gets ahed of you and gets too comfortable. You want to keep your reader off-kilter. You never want them too relaxed.
What I learned 3: This is another example that studios are going gaga over true stories. So if you’ve found a great true story that nobody’s written yet, write it!
Premise: Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse battle it out to light the Chicago World’s Fair. The winner will end up lighting America.
About: Graham Moore burst onto the scene when he wrote The Imitation Game, a script that snagged the top spot on the Black List and then went on to surprising box office success. Moore would eventually win the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. The scribe, an admitted history junkie, did double duty this time around. He wrote a book about Edison and Westinghouse, then adapted it himself. The film will reteam Moore with Benedict Cumberbatch, who will play the prickly Thomas Edison, and director Morten Tyldum. The film will also star Eddie Redmayne as the main character in lawyer, Paul Cravath. (edit, oops! I got these two projects mixed up. Cumberbatch is appearing in The Current War. My fault!)
Writer: Graham Moore
Details: 134 pages
While everybody’s worked up about the upcoming Oscars, I’ve already moved on to next year’s Oscars! And today, we have what will surely be a major contender in the top categories.
Moore finds himself in a very enviable position. He’s a screenwriter who loves biopics living in the golden age of biopics. Outside of a couple of names (Aaron Sorkin comes to mind), there isn’t anyone better than him at it. And he’s proven that again, today.
26 year old Paul Cravath was only in law school two short years ago. Now he’s been tasked with telling one of his firm’s biggest clients, George Westinghouse, to give up his bid for lighting Chicago’s World Fair.
It’s 1888, a time when electricity is just starting to make its way into cities. Everyone knows that whoever can win this war will be rich beyond comprehension. The person leading the pack is Thomas Edison, who’s created a functional, if sloppy, light bulb.
George Westinghouse, on the other hand, has created a light bulb with the kind of warm dreamlike glow that leaves you feeling all fuzzy inside. The problem is that Edison came up with his bulb first. And he’s suing Westinghouse on a number of fronts to make sure he can’t light the fair.
Now that doesn’t sound fair, does it?
Westinghouse, against the advice of the firm, employs Paul Cravath to fight Edison tooth and nail. There has to be a flaw in his patent that will allow Westinghouse to win this battle. The problem is that Paul doesn’t have enough manpower to fight someone as big as Edison. There aren’t enough hours in the day.
So Paul invents the first ever hierarchal legal research system, employing associate attorneys who can do the medial work for him so he can focus on the big picture. Ironically, this system is as inventive as the light bulb, as it would become the operating foundation for every working law firm today.
But will that be enough to take out Edison? Only one way to find out.
I always find it interesting where a writer places his point of view. I mean, you have Thomas Edison. You have George Westinghouse. They are the “big picture” characters here. Yet Moore chooses to tell his story from a lawyer’s point of view. Was that a smart move?
Well, the core component of all drama is conflict. Where the conflict lies is where the entertainment is going to be. So Moore asked, where do these two titans meet? They meet at the point of this patent. And wherever there’s a patent battle, there’s a lawyer.
I probably wouldn’t have done this myself because when I think “lawyer,” I think “boring.” Especially a patent lawyer. But Moore treats his lawyer much like Tom Cruise’s part in A Few Good Men (not surprisingly, an Aaron Sorkin creation), where he plans to get Edison in court and force him to admit he cheated on the patent.
And that’s all well and good. But what I like about Moore is he has the ability to surprise you in a genre that’s plagued by its plainness.
Halfway into the story (spoilers), Westinghouse loses the patent battle to Edison. That’s right, HE LOSES. Not only is this a great plot beat (we’ve lost the battle with half the script remaining. Everyone’s asking, where do we go now??), but it allows Moore to introduce a third character.
And I will tell you right now. Whoever plays this part is going to be a breakout star (unless he’s already a star). Moore goes so kooky with Tesla that you can’t look away from him. There’s a great little screenwriting tip here. Give a character a DEFINING ACTION, and if that action is strong enough, we’ll know exactly who that character is for the rest of the script. Moore focuses on Tesla’s “weird wave.” He keeps making this weird uncomfortable wave around people, and it perfectly embodied his oddness.
Tesla’s created a different kind of electricity that would not be bound by Edison’s patent. But Tesla’s a wild card. He’s got zero infrastructure. So Paul tells Westinghouse, who does have infrastructure, to team up with Tesla on his bid. The two become an unlikely pair with a common goal. Take out Edison.
Whenever you write biopics – hell, whenever you write a script – you need CHARACTERS. This is something it took me years to figure out. I was always a plot junkie. I thought fun stories, cool twists and great set pieces were the key to writing a great script.
But, in reality, it’s the characters. Because characters are interesting on their own. You can place a good character in a mediocre scene and we’ll still be drawn to him. Thomas Edison is a great character. He’s a fucking asshole. He’s full of himself. The man SUED HIS OWN SON! Whenever you put that guy in a scene, we pay attention.
Nikolas Tesla is a great character. He’s quirky, he’s weird, his mangled English leaves you scratching your head every time he speaks. The surprise element of Tesla makes him a fascinating character to watch as well. We never know what he’s going to do next.
Now here’s where the character argument gets interesting. Somebody in your script has to be the straight man. They’re the person who grounds the script. In most cases, this will be the hero. As a result, your hero ends up being the most challenging character to write. How do you make this person as interesting as an asshole, or a weirdo?
This is where a screenwriter earns his mettle. Because it isn’t easy. However, there are little things you can do to make us care. For starters, you can make your hero extremely determined. Audiences love determined people. You can make him an underdog. Audiences love rooting for the underdog.
Admittedly, these are “straight man interesting traits,” and therefore will never be as fun to watch as an outlandish part. But played right, we’ll be invested in the character’s journey. You can then use the orbiting characters to add a dose of spice to the story.
Of course, you don’t HAVE to make the main character the straight man. Alan Turing in The Imitation Game was offbeat. The same thing can be said for Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street and John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. So it’s all a matter of whose story you’re telling and who’s point of view you want to tell it from.
As for the rest of the script, Moore includes some classic screenplay elements. We have a ticking time bomb – everything must be done before the World’s Fair. We have the “impossible task” (we’re told at the beginning that Edison’s lightbulb patent is one of the most airtight patents in history). We have that conflict I referred to. You can feel the weight of these two titans crashing down on the plot at all times.
The only problem I had with the script was the beginning. I didn’t understand why the heads of the firm were trying to get Westinghouse to pull out of a legal battle with Edison. Since when has a law firm ever turned away the money of its rich clients? That felt a bit forced to me.
But outside of that, this script was as bright as its subject matter. Moore has proven, once again, that he’s a hell of a screenwriter.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Make sure to remind your audience that your hero’s task is impossible. Hearing someone say, “Edison’s patent is the most airtight patent in history,” prefaces just how difficult the journey will be. Had this line not been written in, I wouldn’t have realized just how much of an uphill battle this was.