Okay folks. Doing something different this week. Many months back, I had people on my mailing list send me their best scenes from their current scripts. The plan was to read them all, then review the full scripts of the best scenes. Due to a couple of factors (the primary one being that I didn’t find anything that blew my socks off), I’ve changed my mind. Instead of reviewing the entire script, I’m only going to review the scenes. I realized that in all the reviewing I’ve done on this site, I rarely analyze and break down individual scenes. And obviously, with scenes being the primary building blocks of a screenplay, that’s kind of absurd! So this week, I’m going to review five scenes, and then, whichever one gets the best feedback, I’ll review the entire script. Let the fun begin!
Premise: (from writer) ALIENS meets THE MATRIX as a troubled soldier leads a group of mercenaries into a hostile, alien dimension to retrieve an ancient artifact. Against his wishes, his estranged father is along for the ride and is the only one that can lead them out.
Scene setup: The writer’s setup is too elaborate to include, but basically we’re in a gigantic alien hive lit by a river of flowing lava.
Writer: Logan Haire
Details: 7 pages
As I started reading the scenes for Scene Week, I learned the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in a long time. Let me set the scene (heh heh). I was at a café for reasons beyond my control, and so had to read some scene submissions in a busy place with people constantly walking in and out of the door just a few feet away from me. It was Distraction Nation. Which meant I had a hard time concentrating.
So I’m trying to read page after page but something’s always happening. A click. A bang. A loud laugh. Something always caused me to jerk up, to see what was going on.
That’s when it hit me.
When you write, you have to write in such a way that the reader CAN NEVER LOOK AWAY. You have to make it IMPOSSIBLE for them to look away, no matter what kind of distraction pops up.
I remember reading a book a couple of years ago – “Before I Go To Sleep.” It was told from the perspective of a woman waking up with amnesia who was in bed with a man she didn’t recognize. She was scared, confused. She needed answers. She realized this wasn’t the “long night out, wake up the next morning” type of forgetfulness. This was a deep forgetfulness. Something bigger and more terrifying. Then, when she walked to the bathroom, when she looked in the mirror, she almost fainted. She saw someone 15 years older than herself staring back at her. Why the hell did she look like this?? The scene continued like this and even though I HAD to go to sleep because I had a big day the next day, I couldn’t stop reading! I NEEDED to figure out what had happened to this woman.
I felt the same way when I read The Disciple Program and Django Unchained. Tyler and Quentin wrote these scenes that you just COULDN’T look away from, even if you wanted to. They pulled you in and never let you go. Sadly, I can’t say a single scene I read here (out of hundreds of submissions) compelled me to keep reading. Don’t get me wrong. There were a lot of SOLID scenes. There was a lot of professional-level writing. But again, there was nothing that made me want to read the entire script.
For that reason, I think it’s best to look at this week more as a learning experience than a “These are the best!” set of posts. The truth is, I haven’t spent a lot of time breaking down scene-writing on the site. So I’ll probably learn a few things myself.
As such, even though I know it will make the comments section messy, feel free to pitch your scene (and provide a link to it) if you felt like your scene was INDEED “Must Read” worthy. If a bunch of commenters verify that, yes, your scene kicked ass, I’ll be more than happy to review it. So again, I found about 20 decent scenes that were all of similar quality, and I’m basically picking at random between them for the 5 reviews.
For those who didn’t read the Harbinger scene, it’s basically about a group of military dudes who find themselves in some sort of alien hive. As they’re walking through this thing, they see the aliens (or demons, as they’re known) skittering through the hive walls, watching them. What starts as just watching, slowly evolves into an attack, and our guys start running and shooting in a desperate bid to save themselves. They even enact a “nano second skin” that can’t be penetrated as part of their defense. But with the demons are growing in number and with our team running out of solid ground, even that may not be enough.
I chose this scene because, while it didn’t do anything mind-blowing, it was a solid action scene that kept me entertained, that I could visualize, and that I could imagine on the big screen.
The first thing that stuck out to me is something that barely ANYONE did with their scene submission, and that’s create suspense. We see the shadows of these demons running through the hive walls as our military group is walking. We know it’s only a matter of time before they come out. So we’re on edge. That anticipation is getting us all antsy, scared of WHEN they’re going to attack. That’s how you want your audience to be. All antsed up! You never want them to be relaxed.
You know when you have one of those impossible days? You have to write, work, read a friend’s script, pick up your dry cleaning, get your girlfriend a card, pay a few bills, be home for the cable installation, etc., etc.? Add to this that you woke up late. So you’re already behind on the day. Just the thought of doing all these things in such a small amount of time stresses the hell out of you. I want you to imagine that feeling. That’s the kind of feeling you want your reader to have when they’re reading your script! They have to feel like there’s so much that needs to get done and there’s no way your characters can do it.
I also like how this scene builds. It progresses. It isn’t just stagnant and one note like a lot of the scenes I read. Aliens start slinking out of the hive, bit by bit. So the threat is getting more intense. In other words, the situation is DIFFERENT from how it was one page ago. And the threat will be even worse one page later, growing again.
I also like how when the action begins, it’s told inside 1-2 line paragraphs (with an occasional 3-liner). I see a lot of bad action scripts that pile in 3-4 line paragraphs one after another during huge action scenes. If stuff is supposed to be happening fast on the screen, shouldn’t it be happening fast in the reader’s head? To do that, you have to keep the lines short and sparse.
Likewise, Logan’s prose was very clear. And you may be saying, “Shouldn’t that be a given?” The answer is yes, but it’s something I saw a LOT of writers in Scene Submissions struggle with. And here, it’s INCREDIBLY important, because we’re talking about an alien world, an alien setting, multiple characters, and a lot of action. It’s easy for a reader to get confused if a writer isn’t doing his job.
My worry here is that the scene (and concept) is too familiar. It’s a lot like a video game (Gears of War for me, and of course, Aliens on the film side), and the lava stuff reminded me of the dreadful CGI ending to Revenge of the Sith. This kind of stuff seems like it shouldn’t matter. But it does. Anyone who reads your script is going to get a little weary if it’s too similar to something else. We want to see originality, something new and different, and that’s not what I got here. When I said earlier, “None of the scenes I read propelled me to want to read the scripts,” for Harbinger, is was that “too familiar” feeling that did it in. I’ve been in this world numerous times already. So why would I want to revisit it?
With that said, I might give it 10 pages. Logan has proven he can write a scene. And for that, I have to give him props.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read (barely made the cut)
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I didn’t see this in Logan’s script, but his sparse writing reminded me of it. — Isolate character names during big action sequences to create more of a “vertical” read. A “vertical” read just means that a lot of the text is near the left side of the margin and all the action lines are sparse, allowing a reader’s eyes to fly down the page “vertically”). I don’t like to see this used just anywhere in a script. But it’s a GREAT approach to adapt for action writing. For example, instead of:
Jetson lands hard on the concrete, shaking the room. He spins his gun out of his holster and shoves it into Frank’s face. Frank stares down the barrel of the gun, half an inch from his nose.
Lands hard on the concrete, shaking the room.
He spins his gun out of its holster, SHOVES it into Frank’s face.
Stares down the barrel of the gun, half an inch from his nose.