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.
TITLE: Eden Burning
GENRE: Horror / Psychological Thriller
LOGLINE: An ostracized teen struggles to clear his name of the grisly murder he allegedly committed as a child and clashes with a mysterious, malevolent entity hell-bent on stopping him.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ (from writer): “Eden Burning” has received attention from a number of small production studios — one of them refers to the script as their “The Butterfly Effect.” Honestly, I’m more concerned with developing my craft right now. I’m a longtime fan of ScriptShadow and I’ve dreamed of having the community dissect one of my scripts. Take a look, I promise you’ll be entertained.
TITLE: The Transit of Venus Jones
GENRE: Sci-fi / Thriller
LOGLINE: A woman discovers that her robotic boyfriend is a real man – a fugitive on the run – who will take her on the ride of her life as they battle the eerie technology of the not-so-distant future.
TITLE: The Intake
GENRE: Psychological Thriller
LOGLINE: Her once unflappable confidence shaken by a client suicide, a university therapist takes on a new young client who pushes her therapeutic and ethical buttons – with eerily accurate descriptions of murders that are not public knowledge.
TITLE: False Flag
LOGLINE: C.I.A. agent Sean Murray is ordered to carry out a false flag op on American soil. His life, and America, will never be the same.
LOGLINE: Drugged with a roofie at a fraternity party, an innocent freshman wakes up next to a murdered man. Now she’s on the run from the police, while she tries to outwit the spy organization that is framing her for the crime.
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) When the girl of his dreams is kidnapped by a legion of monsters and her sorceress-possessed father, a timid teen must rally his misfit friends and faithful mummy to save his crush before her sacrifice unleashes Armageddon.
About: Day 2 of The Smackdown is here. The rules are simple: Two scripts enter, one script leaves. Why is this happening? A couple of weeks ago, you guys voted on the best of the 5 Amateur Offerings. But the votes were too close to count. So instead of picking one, I decided to review both – The Turning Season was yesterday. And Monster Mash is today. Who’s going to win? That’s up to you!
Writer: Daniel Caporetto
Details: 102 pages
When I imagined the Smackdown in my head, it made a lot more sense. Two horror scripts duking it out for Week of April 8th supremacy on Scriptshadow. How could it go wrong? But now that I’ve read Monster Mash, I’m not sure I’m down with the Smackdown. These scripts couldn’t be more different. Turning Season bobs where this weaves. It ducks where this dunks. We’re comparing a heavy horror drama to a goofy horror comedy. Emotion vs. laughs. Can such a thing be done?
Well, let’s start by asking the big question: Was Monster Mash funny? Let me answer that question this way. If you’d told me this was from the same guys who wrote Harold and Kumar, I probably would’ve believed you. So that’s something. The problem is, lots of folks will say that that’s not a good thing. I’d respond by saying writing a goofy script that actually works is hard as hell. It’s such a fine line between funny and stupid. I mean we have zombies giving hummers and mummies RECEIVING hummers here. High-brow this ain’t. Yet for all its craziness, I think it achieves what it’s trying to do.
Our story begins back in the Egyptian ages n shit. No idea how long ago that was but we’ll say 3000 years, give or take like…3000 years. A Kim Kardashian-looking Egyptian princess, Manzazuu, is going about her daily routine, trying to sacrifice her daughter to the Gods for eternal power or something like that, when her hubby comes flying out of nowhere demanding she stop. She refuses so he chops off her head. Apparently domestic dispute laws were really lax back then.
Cut to the present where 18 year old slacker Will is trying to figure out a way to snag school hottie Sandra from her asshole jock boyfriend, Mark. It’s actually working, as Sandra seems to like him, but for whatever reason, he can’t seal the deal. The good news is, there’s a Halloween party tonight, and he, along with his best friends Chuck (vulgar asshole) and Dom (really long bangs) are going to go there to sort their female problems out.
Unfortunately, across town, a new package has just showed up at the museum. A package of DEATH!!! Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. It’s an Egyptian exhibit. But this exhibit is a teensy bit more interactive than the museum is prepared for. That’s because a couple of short mummies pop out, and a scepter-staff thing channels a long ago power that possesses an overweight worker named Tim. And guess who the possessor is? That’s right: Manzazuu! She’s back. In a severely out-of-shape man’s body!
Manzazuu’s first order of business is to secure an army. So she raises the dead, infesting the local town with lots of zombies. She also sends out her wolf guards to find Sandra, as Sandra happens to be her great great great great great great great great great great great grand daughter or something, which means Manzazuu can sacrifice her to raise the serpent God of Death, who will, of course, help her destroy the world.
This means Will, Chuck, Dom, Dom’s crush (male-energy Lila), and one of Manzazuu’s zombies they’ve converted, must suit up, arm themselves, and get to the museum to stop this sacrifice, all the while working through their problems with each other.
If I worked at a production company and someone asked me point blank, “What did you think of Monster Mash?” my response would be something like, “It wasn’t bad. It moved quickly. It had some funny moments. The guy knows how to write. But it was just too goofy for my taste.” “My taste” is the operative phrase here. I’m not 21, though I have a feeling I’d be a lot more into this if I were. That’s the tough thing about judging a script that isn’t your cup of tea. You have to guess what the target demo will think of it. And my guess is that they’d like Monster Mash.
I mean there’s some funny stuff here. When Manzazuu comes back in the body of a middle aged overweight man, yet still dresses like Kim Kardashian… that was funny. When the Chubby mummy can’t talk and therefore communicates via charades…that was funny. The mummy getting sexually molested by the high school slut…that was funny. The script kept a good stream of laughs coming.
But in the end I just wanted more from these characters. I don’t even know if this feeling is relevant anymore because I DO see a lot of professional comedy scripts that ignore character development. But I’m of the belief that if you make us believe in and care about your characters, that their escapades are going to be that much funnier, because we’re always more emotionally invested in people we care about.
Caporetto DOES make some inroads into this department, or at least tries to. Sandra’s dealing with the loss of her mom, for example. But for the most part, it was a bunch of surface level kids without a care in the world. If you look back at The Hangover, you’ll notice how intensely the stakes were set up. That wedding meant everything to Doug’s fiancé. And it meant everything to Doug himself. So when Doug gets lost, we know how important it is for them to get him back to his wedding on time. It’s not like Doug woke up in the opening scene trashed out of his mind with two hookers on his side. That scene might’ve been funny, but it doesn’t make us care about Doug. You’re just playing with fire when the pillars of your story are jokes.
On top of that, those pillars need to be clear. For example, I couldn’t figure out the relationship between Sandra and Will. She clearly likes him. There’s even an implied history there (they used to be together??). Yet he’s afraid to tell her he likes her? Why would he be afraid when she’s practically throwing herself at him? That whole relationship just needed to be better defined. I probably would’ve had Sandra more openly rejecting Will, making his job a lot tougher.
I also don’t like when different relationships in a movie tackle the same problem. Will’s wondering if Sandra likes him. And Dom’s wondering if Lila likes him. It’s the same thing and therefore lazy. Have Dom’s problem be something different. Maybe he’s trying to BREAK-UP with his girlfriend of two years, but she won’t let him. Anything so that two of your main characters aren’t tackling the exact same issue.
Some of this laziness crept in to other parts of the script as well (two of our main four characters have parents who work at their high school). It’s a little too neat, too cozy. And it’s not to say these things are script-killers. But they’re things experienced readers notice. They want to know that you, the writer, have exhausted every choice before deciding on one. And if the parents of two of your main characters are both teachers, that implies you’re not really trying that hard.
Monster Mash is one of the better scripts I’ve read in this genre in awhile, which is a tough genre to write. But personally, it was too goofy (and not deep enough) for me. I wanted to latch onto these characters as opposed to simply observe their antics. What did you guys think? Am I being too harsh? Should I not take this too seriously and loosen up? Oh, and which script won the Smackdown?? It was close, but I’d cast my vote for The Turning Season.
Script link – Monster Mash
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Make sure each character has a problem independent of the story. In other words, if none of these crazy mummies and zombies had showed up, would your characters still have an issue they had to overcome? The answer should be yes. Here, Will is trying to get Sandra. That’s his problem he needs to solve. It’s not done very well because Sandra appears to already like him. But the idea behind it is good. Try to do this for EVERY character. Give them a problem independent of the story. That way, parallel to solving the giant overall goal, they’re trying to conquer these smaller more personal goals.
Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF 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 will be posted if reviewed. 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) A mother grieving the loss of her son becomes obsessed with a runaway boy who turns out to be vampire.
About: That’s right. It’s back from the dead. The Gauntlet. Except I’m changing the name to The Smackdown. Because amateur smackdowns are badass. The rules are the same: Two scripts enter, one script leaves. Why is this happening? A couple of weeks ago, you guys voted on the best of the 5 Amateur Offerings. But the votes were too close to count. So instead of picking one, I decided to review both – The Turning Season today. And Monster Mash tomorrow. Who’s going to win? That’s up to you!
Writer: Monique Matta
Details: 91 pages
I looked over at my assistant after reading this and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to write about this.” The Turning Season is a sharply written horror script that actually emphasizes the emotional component, something I rarely see on the amateur front. It has a few intriguing mysteries driving the story and contains little, if any, fat in it. The characters are well-rounded. There’s lots of depth. The dialogue’s solid. For all intents and purposes, it displays a very professional polish.
But I’m not quite connecting to the story and I’m not sure why. I’d point out that vampires aren’t my thing, but a lot like “Let The Right One In,” this isn’t really a vampire movie. It’s more of a small town drama procedural, with a little vampire thrown in for good measure. Could that be what’s bothering me? I can’t identify what the movie is? Or maybe it’s missing that elusive X-Factor. I haven’t figured it out. Maybe by going through the synopsis, I’ll find the answer.
40-something married couple Joe and Emily Hollis have lived in the aftermath of their son’s disappearance for seven years now. Each of them handles it differently. Joe (police chief of this small town) focuses on work, on the present, on the things he can control. Emily, on the other hand, can’t go a minute without thinking about her son. She lives in the past. This provides plenty of conflict in the Hollis household, conflict amplified by Emily’s obsession with this being her fault. She’s the one who lost her son in the crowd that day. She’s responsible for this mess.
This situation becomes even more discombobulated when a lost boy shows up at their door who looks like their son. But their son seven years ago. Not their son now, who would be 16 years old. Because of the resemblance, Emily takes a liking to the boy, insisting to her husband that they let him stay the night. But in the middle of the night he runs away. Emily tells Joe to get the station after him, but the little boy becomes the least of Joe’s worries when one of his cops, Caleb, is killed.
But not just killed – sucked dry of his blood. And he’s not the only one. There are a few local cows in the area that have been sucked dry as well. I guess they didn’t moooo-ve fast enough. But shit gets REALLY real when Joe’s mistress is killed. Now the local cops have the state crawling up their asses, trying to figure out what’s going on.
Amongst all of this, our little lost boy hides out in Joe and Emily’s barn where he feeds off of the rats. Or I should say, feeds off of their BLOOD. (not-so-surprising spoiler if you’ve read the logline) Yes, it turns out the reason all these human and animal carcasses are “sans blood” is because our little runaway is a vampire. But the real question is, what’s his connection to Emily? Why is he so obsessed with her? And how does he know things that only her son could know?
Okay, after laying out the synopsis, I think I understand what bothered me. This script isn’t enough about Emily and the boy. I mean it’s right there in the premise. A mother becomes obsessed with a runaway boy who looks like her son. I like that premise. I want to see that premise explored. But that premise really isn’t what this is about. We get to know the boy in that early scene where he comes to the house, but then he disappears and doesn’t come back until the end of the story.
Typically, the way these kinds of movies work is the boy will move in. They’ll clean him up. He’ll adapt. Everything’s perfect. But then creepy weird things start happening. He starts acting weird. Evilness tends to happen whenever he’s around. And eventually, the parents learn the kid is a dangerous mother*cker.
This formula allows you to build plenty of scares into the story AND explore that emotional component between the child and the parent (see “Mama”). We can see Emily become obsessed with the boy, start believing (against all reason) that he’s her son. We can see the love build between them. We can see her getting too attached. We can question whether she’s going mad or if the boy might actually be her son. And then it all goes to hell in the end.
Not only does this direction give us more bang for our buck, but it also stays true to the logline. I mean at a certain point near the middle of the script, I think 30 pages had gone by since I’d last seen the boy. I just don’t know if you’re getting the most out of your idea by dumping him in the background. Then again, that’s just my interpretation. Monique may have been going after something different here. Though I’d be interested to see if she ever considered this route, and why she chose not to pursue it.
There were a few small things that threw me as well. Initially, it was unclear if the woman in the beginning was Emily Hollis or not. Her name’s not given, but a couple of scenes later, we meet Emily, presumably a few years after the scene. It’s mentioned that she lost her boy years ago. Naturally, I made the connection, then, that she must have been that woman from that scene. It’s eventually cleared up, but you never want your reader thinking anything you don’t want them to think, even if it’s just for a few scenes. Always clarify things that could be confusing.
Speaking of, I didn’t know this was a snowy town in the middle of winter until way too late. This seems to be a key atmospheric detail Monique wanted to convey. A cold dreary snowy town has a different vibe from, say, a hot sunny one. But If you don’t make clear the season in your script, the reader usually assumes summer. Snow isn’t mentioned until page 40 here. It should’ve been mentioned right off the bat. These are little things. But the details matter when writing a script. The details are often what turn a good script into a great one.
In the end, I think more emphasis could’ve been put on the boy and Emily. That’s where you’re going to get your most scares and that’s the relationship that’s going to pay off the most. Still, this was very professionally written, so much so that I almost recommend it for that alone. But I just needed more from the story side to take this to “worth the read” level. Here’s hoping Monique will get there with the next draft. ☺
Script link – The Turning Season
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: WHERE you place something along your timeline can significantly alter the way the drama plays out. Near the end of The Turning Season, Emily finds out that her husband, police chief Joe, has a mistress, Nancy. Soon after, Nancy is killed. There’s nothing wrong with the placement of these events. But let’s take a look at what could’ve happened if we’d placed Nancy’s murder earlier. Now the cops have to do an investigation into Nancy’s death (where she hangs out, the men in her life, etc.) and Joe doesn’t want that information to get out, since his affair with her would be discovered and his marriage potentially ruined. This forces him to lie, which hampers the investigation, potentially leading them away from the real danger here, the mysterious homeless boy. I’m not saying this is the “better” way to go. I’m just pointing out how severely it changes the dramatic impact of the event. So always ask yourself that question: How does it change things if I place this key event earlier (or later)?
Today’s writer found a way into the business writing in a genre he was passionate about, despite that genre being a tough sell. Should you do the same?
Premise: How a young unemployed Marlon Brando got his breakthrough role in the classic Tennessee Williams play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
About: Recently, unknown screenwriter Tom Shepard, who worked as a waiter, secured an assignment on one of the bigger projects in town, a biopic about Al Capone starring Tom Hardy (I erroneously listed this as a biopic about Al Pacino in my newsletter – now that would’ve been interesting). The details of the story are listed at Deadline. Basically, while he WAS a repped writer, Shepherd had yet to do anything in the profession. Then he wrote this script on spec, which got onto last year’s Black List, and I suppose they saw a complexity in the way he explored Brando they thought he could do the same for with Al Capone. We’ll have to wait and see if he got it right!
Writer: Tom Shepard
Details: 123 pages
I don’t know about these biopic scripts. I just don’t. I mean, it seems kind of like cheating. You just pick a famous figure in history and tell their story. Assuming you tell it competently, fans of that person will want to read it. I won’t want to read it. I need more to enjoy a biopic. In addition to a fascinating character, I need a fascinating story. Yet most writers writing biopics aren’t telling stories (which takes skill), but recounting a life (which takes only research). So I see this logline and I think….ehh, I already know what this is. I already know where this is going. Write a script about Michael Jackson, about Jim Morrison, about Gandhi, about Bruce Springstein. All you have to do is research the people you have yourself a script. But where’s the drama? Where’s the story?
Waiter Tom Shepard wisely took another avenue. He decided to tell the STORY of how Brando got his famous breakout role, the part of Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It wasn’t a biopic biopic. It was a sneaky biopic focusing on a pivotal moment in the character’s life. Which, in my opinion, is the best way to do it. But did it succeed? Unlike 42, where I already knew the broad strokes of the story and was therefore never surprised, I have to admit I know nothing about Brando’s early acting career, and even less about how he got the role that turned him into a star. To be honest, I didn’t even know this WAS his first major acting role. So I was kinda curious how that all played out.
It’s 1947 and 24 year-old Marlon Brando is more focused on where he’s going to get his next meal than how he’s going to find his next role. And here I thought “Starving Artist” was just a little phrase actors liked to joke about. Apparently there REALLY ARE starving artists. Like they’re desperate for food. Such was Brando’s life at the time, where he was seen as a young talented actor, but also misguided, a bit of a mumbler, and a little strange.
In another part of New York City, director Elia Kazan is trying to put together a cast for Tennessee Williams’ amazing play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It’s a tricky proposition because his boss, the witch-like Irene Selznick (divorced wife of David O. Selznick) doesn’t want Kazan to direct. The only reason he’s on is because Tennessee likes him. But Irene is only allowing the two to have so much fun. She’s got one major rule for this production: Kazan has to cast a star in the role of Stanley. If that doesn’t happen, he’s getting fired.
The thing is, Kazan doesn’t like any of the stars Irene’s throwing his way. Burt Lancaster sure is a heartthrob and fits the look, but the part of Stanley is way more than looks. We have a man who rapes the female lead. There has to be a darkness to him, troubled eyes that make you believe in a moment like this. And Kazan is having a hard time finding that quality.
That is until he hears about Brando, for all intents and purposes a bit of a doof, but a doof that runs through women faster than a German Blitzkrieg. And yet no matter how many of these women he fucks over, they all want to come back to him. They all want more. THAT’S the quality Kazan needs, so he comes to Brando’s home and asks if he’ll give him an audition.
Kazan falls for Brando immediately but knows that if he’s going to slip him past Irene, he’s going to need Tennessee’s blessing. Tennessee is a piece of work himself. Famously gay, he had Brando come over and do the rape scene, with HIMSELF playing the role of Blanche (the rape victim). The scene turns out so hot that Tennessee is all in for Brando. But now comes the real test – seeing if the snobby Braodway crowd will accept this unknown in such a big part. Brando will have to channel the man he equally loves and detests the most, his heartless father, to play the role in a way that will make it work, a tightrope that may be too thin to navigate when it’s all said and done.
“Hey Stella” was a fairly decent screenplay. What I liked most about it was its portrayal of Brando. Everyone knows this guy had some serious issues, and by exploring his relationships with his mom, father, girlfriend, lover, best friend, and acting teacher, we get to see how all those issues came about. You feel like the weight of the world is on his shoulders whenever he wakes up in the morning. There’s a happiness you’re desperate for Brando to achieve, even though deep down you know it’s impossible. That this is a broken man who cannot be fixed. It’s the reason why he was such an amazing actor, but also why he was so terrible at life.
This reminded me that a great way to explore the depth of a character is to see him through multiple relationships. Each one peels back a layer that we couldn’t have seen through any of the other relationships. His relationship with his father taught us how important it was for him to please this man. His relationship with his mother taught us how much he wanted to be loved. His relationship with Ellen, his girlfriend, taught us how destructive he could be towards others. His relationship with his best friend and roommate, Wally, taught us how loving he could be. His relationship with Stella, his acting coach, taught us how dedicated he was to the craft of acting.
I so often tell young writers that their stories and their characters lack depth. Well, using relationships to explore different sides of your character is one way to fix that.
Much like “42,” “Hey Stella” doesn’t just focus on Brando’s coming out party, it also leads us into Kazan’s, the director’s. Kazan has the perfect wife, and yet he constantly cheats on her with his mistress. His battles with Irene and desire to get the right actor to play Stanley are all fairly interesting. But truth be told, his life wasn’t nearly as compelling as Brando’s, and therefore whenever I was with him, I wanted to get back to Brando.
The script moves along at a nice clip, with the goal of Brando trying to get the part of Stanley keeping us invested. But instead of the drama of getting that part ramping up in the final act, it seemed to dissolve. Instead of Irene slamming her fists down and demanding she get her way with the star actor, she just sort of accepts Brando and fades into the background. This wasn’t true to her character and it made for a lazy ending that ran out of steam. We needed the stakes and the conflict at their highest in the third act, for Irene to be more present and dominant as she tried to stop the play. Instead we get the opposite.
In the end, this was a neat little script with some nice info on how Brando got the part in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But outside of Brando’s character, everything and everyone was a little too soft, a little too blasé, a little too light on the drama. The script suffered the consequences of this issue most in its final act, when the story faded away harmlessly. I think “Hey Stella” is worth reading because of the Brando element. I just wish the story had a little more kick to it.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: We all know I’m not a huge fan of biopics. Or I should say, I’m not a huge fan of the way most biopics are written. I think they’d be better off if the writers approached them as a story instead of a documentary, which “Hey Stella” did a fairly decent job of. Regardless of all that, this reminded me that you should write in the genre that you want to spend the rest of your career writing. The specs themselves may not sell, as was the case here, but it got Shepherd paid work on his genre of choice, the biopic, since he’d proven himself in the genre already. I still think you should always give yourself the best opportunity possible by making your script as marketable as it can be, but in the end, you should be writing in the genre you feel the most passionate about.
John Carter is one of most extensively developed projects in Hollywood history. You know how non-Hollywood folks are shocked when you tell them that a movie took ten years to get to the big screen? Try 80 years! While it’d take forever to go through the details of all this development, more recently the project saw itself as a Go picture when famed Aint-it-cool-news film lover Harry Knowles came on as an advisor. Through his influence, “The Cell” and “I Am Legend” screenwriter Mark Protosevich was brought on to write the script. Harry showed the finished draft to his buddy Robert Rodriquez, who then signed on to direct the film. But everything fell apart when Rodriquez angered the Director’s Guild (and the Hollywood community in general) by giving the directorally uninvolved Frank Miller a co-directing credit on his film Sin City (the Director’s Guild hates giving out co-credits in general. They’d prefer every movie be directed by one person). Forced to drop out of the Director’s Guild, it became difficult to clear certain production hurdles without a guild signatory. Rodriquez dropped off the project and a slew of new writers came in over the next seven years (as well as the project going back to Disney), until we got the current draft, written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon. The film went on to dramatically underperform at the box office ($73 million domestic on what was reportedly a $250 million dollar budget), resulting in the ouster of Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross. For all these reasons, we’ll be studying John Carter for how NOT to write a screenplay. The biggest problem with the story is clearly its overly complicated plotting, so that’s where I’ll be spending most of my focus on.
1) Concepts need to make sense, even in the sci-fi world – Your concept has to make sense, as it is the pillar responsible for holding your entire story up. John Carter is about a guy who magically travels to Mars where he becomes mixed up in an alien war. Except everyone on Earth knows that Mars is dead. There’s no air, no water, no alien factions running around. So we know this couldn’t happen. Since we know this couldn’t happen, we never believe in or care about anything that happens after it.
2) The more overly complicated your world, the simpler your plot should be – Star Wars may be a complex world, but it always kept its plotting simple. They needed to get the stolen plans to the good guys. The bad guys were chasing after them to stop that. John Carter has a complex world AND a complex plot – a deadly mix. There are parallel storylines in John Carter, four different planetary factions (two human and two alien), a weird sub-race of cloaked bald men, a secret arm weapon, something called “helium” that’s dying, a princess refusing to get married. We never really know what anyone is trying to do. Most sci-fi movies that succeed, even if they have extensive world building, counteract that complexity by having very simple plots.
3) There’s a fine line between intrigue and confusion– This is a mistake I see amateur writers make way too often. They’ll introduce a ton of weird stuff, but be unclear what the weird stuff is or why it’s being included, indicating that if you “stay tuned,” you’ll find out. Here, the weird bald-headed dudes who can shape-shift into different people (for no reason) hand Angry Flying Ship Guy a laser-wrist cannon. It’s supposed to be this huge moment, but the writer doesn’t imply why or how this changes anything besides the fact that Angry Flying Ship Guy can now shoot people with his wrist in addition to shooting people with his ship cannon. The writer mistakes this as “intrigue,” a curious twist in the plot that the audience will want to know more about. But the audience instead is confused by it, which leads to annoyance and eventually, rejection of the story. Intrigue is often simple (what are these mysterious plans inside R2-D2?). Confusion occurs when you try to cram too many jumbled elements together.
4) There is often a single dominant problem in a bad script that is leading to all its other problems. Find the problem and the other issues disappear – Here, it’s the over-plotting. There’s just too much damn plot. Had they fixed that, maybe focused exclusively on John Carter trying to get home, it would’ve erased so many of the script’s other issues.
5) Beware Unclear Urgency – If you’re going to write a sci-fi spec, it’s preferable that urgency is woven tightly into the plot. Star Wars has its heroes being chased throughout. District 9 had its hero turning into an alien, giving him only a few days to stop the transformation. John Carter of Mars has no urgency because its focus changes so many times. Without urgency, a story slows to a crawl, and you can’t get away with that in a summer action film. We need to feel like time is running out, that objectives need to be reached RIGHT AWAY. John Carter never achieves this, which led to one of its biggest criticisms – that it was “way too slow.”
6) The more convoluted your plot, the more scenes of exposition you will have. The more scenes of exposition you have, the more boring your script will be — John Carter suffers greatly from this. It has multiple plotlines (Helium being needed, alien baby harvesting, princesses who need to get married, multiple aliens, a confusing war, a character who needs to get home, etc). This puts a lot of stress on the writer to keep all this stuff clear for the audience, which means constantly stopping and reminding them what’s going on via exposition scenes. Which of course leads to boredom. Keep your sci-fi plot simple, as it allows for more time spent entertaining your audience.
7) A dramatic score isn’t going to magically fix a scene that isn’t working – I think us writers get carried away, imagining our key scenes on the big screen with that epic swelling score playing. When we do this, the amazing music starts to cover up all the problems inherent in the scene, problems we then become blind to. There’s this ridiculous scene in John Carter where he jumps into a group of 500 warrior aliens and, with the score rising dramatically, starts killing all of them. Uhhhhh, what??? Our hero can kill an entire army on his own??? Errr… no. But it sure looks like the writer thought it worked, as the score is practically willing us to believe. Stop using future scores to solve your issues and solve them on the page instead.
8) Reactive characters result in “yanked around” stories – Remember, reactive characters are pushed and pulled, yanked this way and that, slaves to the actions and desires of others. Therefore when you tell a story with a reactive hero, we feel the same way, like we’re being pushed and pulled, yanked and tugged, a slave to something beyond our control. While skilled writers can sometimes make this work, it more often results in a story that feels unfocused and all over the place. So it’s no surprise that’s how John Carter feels. Carter is reactive for most of the story, being pulled along by one alien faction or another, told what to do most of the time. As a result, the story never quite gains a foothold on what it wants to be. An active character on the other hand, one who chooses his own destiny, often results in a clean, focused, easy-to-follow story. This is why I think they should’ve made the plot much simpler here: John Carter tries to find his way home. That way he always stays active. He always drives the story.
9) When building your set-pieces, don’t try and survive on spectacle. Instead, rely on cleverness – For all its huge budget, there really isn’t a single memorable set-piece in John Carter, and that’s because the set-pieces amount to a bunch of basic fighting sequences. Oftentimes, a clever offbeat set-piece can be a thousand times more interesting, such as the simplistic trash-compactor scene in Star Wars.
10) Don’t construct your set-piece scenes before the movie and then fit your story around them. Create your story first, and let your set-pieces emerge naturally from that story – There’s a trailer-friendly set-piece where John Carter is pulled into an arena and must fight against two giant alien apes to the death. Problem is, it’s forced into the script unnaturally. John Carter is captured by a random “bad” alien and the next thing we know he’s being tossed into an arena to fight for his life. Why this is happening is beyond us, but it feels like someone said they wanted a “Giant Ape Fighting Arena Scene” and were going to get it into the movie through hell or high water. Yes, you want trailer-friendly scenes, but not at the expense of taking the audience out of the story. They must fit into the movie organically. To achieve this, focus on your character’s goals and where they take you, then look for set-pieces to emerge naturally through that journey. Whenever you’ve thought of a set piece ahead of time and try to unnaturally squeeze it in, it always feels out of place.