Genre: TV Pilot – Period/Drama
Premise: (from AMC) Set in the summer of 1778, “Turn” tells the story of New York farmer, Abe Woodhull, who bands together with a group of childhood friends to form The Culper Ring, an unlikely group of spies who turn the tide in America’s fight for independence.
About: “Turn” is a new show that premieres on AMC this April. For those hardcore fans of Billy Elliot (“Go Billll-ly!”) who are waiting for that Kickstarter campaign to fund a sequel, here’s a consolation prize. Billy Elliot himself, Jaime Bell, is starring in “Turn” as the main character, Abe. Writer Craig Silverstein has written on shows like Bones and Terra Nova.
Writer: Craig Silverstein (based on “Washington’s Spies” by Alexander Rose)
Details: 60 pages – 11/01/12 draft

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One of the things I’m still trying to figure out is if it’s harder to sell a feature script or harder to get a TV pilot on the air. The more I look into it, the more I’m finding that it’s really hard to get a show on the air. When you’re outside of it, and you see new shows on TV all the time, you just assume everyone who wants a show gets one.

But I suppose that’s the same way I saw movies before I moved to LA. There were so many of them, I erroneously assumed that all you had to do was write something reasonably competent and you could start planning your red carpet poses. Once you entrench yourself in the industry, however, you realize how few of those coveted golden tickets are being handed out.

Personally, I think the TV industry is about to enter a tough phase. Everything’s looking rosy now, but what everyone’s finding out is that just because you come up with a hip unique idea, it doesn’t mean people are going to watch it. The competition is so fierce and spread out amongst so many platforms and channels, that more and more shows are arriving with a thud. AMC found that out when they premiered Low Winter Sun.

I mean what if I told you that JJ Abrams was producing a supernatural show and Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron was going to direct the pilot episode. You’d say, “Home run,” right? Well, I don’t know if you saw the pilot or not, but Believe is a lot closer to a strike-out than a home-run. And that gets you thinking – if THOSE GUYS can’t create a sure thing, then who can??

Well AMC takes a lot of pride in their development style and their shows, so let’s see if they’ve gotten back on track with a formula.

It’s Connecticut, 1778. Now my history is a little rusty. But I thought that was 2 years after American gained independence. That doesn’t appear to be the case though, as Connecticut, as well as many other states on the East Coast in “Turn,” appear to be under English rule. Maybe we only signed our Declaration of Independence in 1776, but it took us a few more years to actually get everyone else to realize it?

Jesus, I couldn’t even tell you what year Scriptshadow started. Why am I trying to give you a history lesson about America?

Anyway, a young farmer named Abraham Woodhull is struggling to get his cabbage crop ready to sell (everyone knows, if you need quick drama, add cabbage), but it turns out half of it is rotten. Woodhull’s forced to sell the remaining cabbage on the black market, where he can get a higher price, but while he’s away, a key British general is killed, and he’s blamed!

Luckily, Abe’s father is in tight with the British (he even lets them stay at his house!) and convinces them to let his son go. Since Abe’s father’s maid knows how to cook a mean pulled pork sandwich, the British figure they’ll overlook Abe’s errant ways and blame some other innocent soul.

This would end up being costly, however. Soon after, Abe’s approached by the rebellion (sorry, I only know how to use Star Wars terms sometimes) and asked to start SPYING on the British so the Yanks can get a leg up on when and where they’re being targeted.

To complicate matters, Abe must include his secret childhood love interest in the ruse, even though both he, and her, are married to other people! Scandalous! With his lover’s house being at the top of a hill, it’s viewable by all, and therefore the perfect hill to send messages from.

His lover starts using special laundry drying combinations to alert the Americans when and where the British are going to attack next. Can you believe that! We’re alive today because of somebody’s laundry! Which reminds me that I have to do my laundry. Hmm, I wonder if my laundry will save someone someday.

How will Abe justify a life where he’s lying to the person he loves most in the world (his father) and loving a woman who he can never have in his life (his childhood sweetheart), all while trying to run a business and not allow anyone – his wife, his friends, the Redcoats – to find out that he’s helping America win their independence? You’ll have to watch Turn to find out.

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Despite being off my rocker, I knew I was going to like Turn within a couple of pages. It had a really good opening scene specifically because it said “f*ck you” to the period piece.

What I mean by that is, when a reader opens a period piece, they’re expecting boring men in costumes to talk about politics and the latest price of silk. Your job is to let them know that you’re not going to be that writer. You want to tell a story. Doesn’t matter if it’s 1778 or 2278. You’re going to give them a compelling dramatic scene that could work in any script.

So here, we’re coming in just after the British have massacred a group of American soldiers. The liefeless soldiers are on the ground, and a British soldier is going to each one and PLUNGING his bayonet into them to make sure they’re dead. But we learn something early on that the British soldier doesn’t know (dramatic irony!). The final American soldier is still alive!

The British soldier gets closer and closer. When he gets to our soldier, he JAMS his bayonet down, only for the American to spin out of the way and stick his own knife in the British soldier’s groin, then killing him soon after.

But there’s another problem. The rest of the British soldiers are up on a nearby hill, waiting for this soldier to finish the job. So our American must discreetly switch uniforms with the Brit. When he stands, he’s immediately spotted by the other soldiers, but since he’s facing the other way, they assume he’s still their soldier.

They ask him what’s taking so long, and in order to sell the ruse, he has to go back through all of his soldiers, soldiers he was fighting with 15 minutes prior, and stab them one by one with his bayonet.

It’s a wonderful scene, and it draws its power not from anything distinctly “period,” but from a clever use of suspense and dramatic irony. A lesser writer might not have shown that our soldier was still alive as the bayonet got closer. They might have waited until the British soldier tried to stab him before revealing the American was alive (there goes the suspense!). They also might have had the American run for it right afterwards. But Silverstein knew he had a great scene in the making and so he milked it, creating a SECOND leg to the scene where our American had to pretend to be a British soldier. It was really good stuff.

“Turn” is also a show that utilizes one of the most powerful storytelling techniques in our writing arsenal – the secret. Give your character a secret and make the stakes of revealing that secret HIGH (such as death), and you can captivate an audience for hours.

This is why spy films and TV shows (Alias, for example) do so well. The main character is usually hiding something from everyone else, which means there’s subtext built into every scene they’re in. When Abe is forced to lie to his father in front of the British, we feel his struggle. We could never feel that if we didn’t know he was lying, or if there was no lie to be told in the first place.

Go ahead and try it. Give one of your characters in your current script a big lie, then put him in a scene with people who would be negatively affected by that lie, if it came out. I bet you you’ll have a pretty good scene.

There were simple other things that worked too. People didn’t say to each other on-the-nose lines like, “Oh, the crops are rotten again.” We SHOWED Abe bend down and check his cabbage, only to find maggots on it. By disgustedly hurling the cabbage into the field, that’s all we needed to know the cabbage was rotten. Much more effective than a dialogue line (always SHOW, don’t TELL).

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Silverstein also avoided a common period piece pitfall, one that many amateurs make – slow plodding scenes they believe are excused by the fact that it’s “period.” Despite it being 1778, most scenes here were taut, driven by some urgent need from one character or another.

For example, when Abe goes to his old girlfriend’s place (Anna) to set up their first signal, Abe isn’t allowed to just sit down, have a lemonade, and talk about whatever comes to mind, no worries in the world. He had to be quick. He couldn’t be seen with Anna, less others get suspicious. So the two are trying to talk about a million different things at once, but Abe must leave, terrified that the British could be back at any second. There was never a “safe” feeling in this script. Everyone was always looking over their shoulder, worried about something. And those are the things that elevate a script, that give it that next-level dramatic punch.

The only bad thing I have to say about “Turn” is that I could care less about the Revolutionary War! Go Paul Revere. Go Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan. I love all you guys. But when I have free time, I’m not checking out how many soldiers got knee wounds in the Battle of Terre Haute. It just isn’t my thing. And as I’ve stated before, a script can only wow you so much if the subject matter isn’t your cup of tea.

So I’m afraid some of my rating has to be dumped along with that tea into the Boston Harbor. And just a day after St. Patty’s Day. Still, this was a really well-written pilot. Definitely worth checking out if you can find it. Or just wait until April.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Sometimes the threat of danger is more compelling than danger itself. Anna was living alone until a slimy nasty British General was positioned at her home. You knew this guy was bad news, that it was only a matter of time before he did something awful to Anna. But the thing was, it never happened. It didn’t have to. Just the THREAT of it happening was enough to put us on edge. Writers are so obsessed with having something terrible happen, that they forget the IMPLICATION that something terrible is going to happen can have so much more power.

What I learned 2: When in doubt, add cabbage.

  • JW

    C, I believe what you’re talking about here is tapping into “universal” themes. Something that appeals to a large number of people at the same time and looks to be as original as possible. Why didn’t Need for Speed do well at the box office? Because, to the general public’s credit, they saw it for what it was, a different name for The Fast & Furious franchise, and they basically stuck up a middle finger and said, “we’d rather watch Honey Boo Boo”. Walker’s death may be impacting a bit as well. Nonetheless, originality with a universal theme is what it’s all about. And, really, you should write about this because I do see this on here quite a bit — a very, very, very specific set of circumstances for a very, very, very specific character(s) and the universality of that is extremely small, leading to a small target audience. Usually this happens when the writer is in love with something specific that applies to the writer and no one else. Writers may want to punch people who talk about the 4Qs, but you can write great stuff even when starting your thought process from inside of that box.

    • Citizen M

      On the other hand, there’s a saying, “The more personal, the more universal.” i.e. Although the circumstances might be specific to a single individual, the emotions he or she feels are universal and we can all relate to them.

      • JW

        Yes, and no I would say. And, this is where people get caught up. The story is very “personal” to them and they think it’s going to resonate with everyone because of that. You can see it in the loglines posted here a lot of the time where it’s, “When a computer geek with bad hair left by his father at a bus stop finds himself alone in the middle of the Arizona desert, he befriends a cactus and falls in love with a lizard in order to keep his sanity and make it to Los Angeles for his one shot at stardom, an audition for The Voice.” You’re right in that there are universal themes in love, loss, triumph, etc… but, when you start to get TOO specific you then remove the “universality” of the theme and I think that’s what most people can fail to understand.

  • Rzwan Cabani

    Another pilot week is well overdue C — I think a gem is waiting to be discovered. A WHERE ANGELS DIE/THE DISCIPLE PROGRAM scenerio for TV is in your near future. I can see it.

    • garrett_h

      Seconded. Someone mentioned this in the comments yesterday.

      Also, it’s almost Staffing Season, so it’d be perfect timing. Who knows. Some lucky SS reader could get a job this year based on a strong Pilot Week showing.

      • Brainiac138

        This is a great idea. I remember many a time when something went horribly wrong during staffing season and everyone scrambled back to square one to see if a pilot could be found that fit the pieces that were already assembled.

  • Eddie Panta

    What I learned: Sometimes the threat of danger is more compelling than danger itself

    This is a great “what I learned”. This week’s AOW writers should pay strict attention.
    Don’t shroud all your moments in mystery. Establish the threat, be clear that… it’s coming.

    • Jonathan Soens

      There’s a lot of potential when you’re willing to let the audience sit and stew in the tension of something they think/know is going to happen.

      • Eddie Panta

        Keyword here is “know”. What does the audience know… nothing?
        Why is every little thing a some AOW scripts mystery?
        The fear of being “on the nose” turns into an avoidance.
        It’s not compelling me to read more… to find the answer. It’s making me think the writer has no answer.

        • Nate

          Villain reveals are the main offender for this. You wanna provide the reader with a mystery ”who is the killer?” but most of the time the answer isn’t very satisfying. So sometimes it’s best to just tell us who the killer is right off the bat. It adds tension to the scenes they’re in.
          There was an amateur script not too long ago about a homeless man investigating several murders (the one where his daughter is revealed to be a boy) and the killer ended being up his old police captain. I just couldn’t help feeling that the writer was saying ”Remember this guy? No, well he’s the killer”. Thing is I forgot all about him so it seemed like it came out of nowhere.
          In my latest script I plan on revealing the villain to the reader at around the midpoint shift, but the protagonist won’t have the slightest clue who he really is until he reveals himself.
          I personally think dramatic irony is much better than a reveal. If we know that the protagonists father isn’t really his father then we keep reading until he finally knows. You have to milk it for all it’s worth.

          • Eddie Panta

            Right!
            I’m repeating myself here, but it continues to apply…
            We know Mr Ripley is the killer in talented Mr. Ripley.
            The other characters don’t know what the audience knows.
            The audience has to know something.
            A character acting with intention creates tension.

            True Detective uses a distraction villain to lure you along, so you have something to follow until the main villain arrives.
            This is not uncommon on TV cop shows. A distraction villain is also utilized in the PRISONERS movie.

            In TD The audience learns things at the same time, rate, the characters learn them.

            But in a lot of AOW scripts, the characters know things we don’t know. All the suspense seems to be derived from the characters / the writer withholding information.

          • Citizen M

            As a general rule, the audience should know the same or more than the characters. If they know less, it is a potential source of audience annoyance and frustration.

          • JakeMLB

            As a general rule sure, but it often works wonderfully in reverse. When a character knows more than the audience it allows the audience to be surprised. It’s actually more common than one might think (e.g., any thriller where the villain or hero is one step ahead of their opposition).

        • http://www.twitter.com/esporter Evan Porter

          God I’m so glad you said this. A HUGE mistake a lot of amateur writers make (and I make it quite often) is being so afraid of ‘on the nose’ that everything ends up being vague and confusing.

          No one ever seems to want to admit it but characters quite often say exactly what they’re thinking in most great TV shows and movies. Picking your spots where you want to be more subtle is a good thing, but having a bunch of baffling scenes where we don’t know what people are talking about, or too many corny scenes where the characters are talking about their meal but they’re “really” talking about their relationship… it’s just annoying.

          • Eddie Panta

            You’ve hit it right on the nose.

    • John Bradley

      I’m not in danger, I am the danger!

    • JakeMLB

      It’s the same idea behind not showing the monster. Our imagined threat of the monster is often times scarier than the monster itself.

      • gonzorama

        That’s why Jaws worked so well.

        • Eddie Panta

          What was on the poster. A shark. What’s on the page… SHADOWS, some mangled shrouded mess or some unknown hideous beast not nearly the same.

      • Eddie Panta

        THis only works for awhile in a throw-back sort of way. The Blist script EXTINCTION the aliens that are only described as masked shadows.
        But isn’t that really a cop-out, a lack of imagination on part of the writer.
        Are we asking too much from the audience.

        ALIEN without the detailed concept of the Alien, how it breeds, eats, works.. is just 10 little Indians.

        You need to create own your character, the villain or beast, design what attributes it has, what principles it exists under, otherwise what do you really have to copyright.

  • ximan

    It’s time for me to do my laundry too, C!
    *sigh*
    …We have so much in common XD

  • Kirk Diggler

    >>>It’s Connecticut, 1778. Now my history is a little rusty. But I thought that was 2 years after American gained independence.<<<<

    Wow. Your history isn't a little rusty. More like the floorboards have rot and termites are moving in for the kill.

    That said, this looks incredibly interesting to me based on the promotion AMC has done and xx Worth the Read is an encouraging sign that this could deliver the goods.

  • Nicholas J

    I had a simple dinner scene in my current script that was feeling flat, so I added cabbage into the soup my protag was eating, and as it turns out, he’s deathly allergic to cabbage. Now my protag is dead and I’m only on page 32, what do I do? Please advise!

    • Citizen M

      A handsome doctor at the dinner party runs an allergen laboratory and offers to cryo-freeze the hero while he perfects his cure. In reality, he has no cure, he just wants to get into the dead hero’s fiance’s pants, which he does. But there’s a power cut. The hero unfreezes and comes to life as a zombie and hunts the pair down. The finale is a big cabbage fight in a farmers market.

      • Nicholas J

        Question: Do zombies retain the allergies they had while they were alive? I’m envisioning the woman killing her dead fiance by shoving cabbage down his throat as a strong representation of their crumbling relationship.

        • klmn

          Zombies only eat humans so a cabbage allergy doesn’t enter into it.

    • Randy Williams

      All that had gone on before in your script was just a reflection on the surface of that soup. Those bits and pieces of cabbage, corned beef swimming in grease.

      The reality is much deeper.

    • NajlaAnn

      Lol!

    • Breezy

      You need to get serialized and animated. By page 32, that’d be the end of the show. Cartoon logic brings our hero back to life in the next episode, with evolved cabbage withstanding powers.

  • fragglewriter

    I’m not interested in this period piece as it seems boring, but Jamie Bell is a great actor. The premise is interesting but with the backdrop, I don’t know if I can make it through the first episode without falling asleep.
    What I Learned Tip: Great tips spread throughout this article, but definitely the being in threat is exciting. From reading this article, I did find a way to make one of my character’s interesting, which in-turn makes my story more interesting.
    Thanks Carson.

  • Tailmonsterfriend

    What do you mean, “What do we need a colony for?” Why in the hell do you think we just spent all that money on these troops? The whole purpose of occupying their homes in the first place was to get the ladies nice and tipsy topside so we can take them to a nice comfortable place below deck, and, you know, they can’t refuse. Because of the IMPLICATION.

  • JakeMLB

    Hey Carson (and others),

    Not sure if you saw this but you reviewed a script back in 2011 called GRAND PIANO.

    I remember reading it too, came off as kind of silly but had some interesting elements. It was just released and to glowing reviews. Might be a nice case study on rewriting or on the impact of strong acting and direction. Haven’t got a chance to see it but it’s a great “break in” type script being a contained thriller…

    http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/grand_piano/

    • Citizen M

      It was a fantastic script. One of my favorites that year.

      • JakeMLB

        I’ll have to read it again. I loved the hook but remember it being tough to buy into.

  • ripleyy

    I added cabbage to a script I was having major problems with and now it’s near-perfect! I added cabbage in every scene that lacked urgency or stakes and it worked! Amazing!

  • Logline_Villain

    RE: “It’s a wonderful scene, and it draws its power not from anything distinctly “period,” but from a clever use of suspense and dramatic irony.”

    Therein lies the danger of taking the motto “Arrive Late, and Leave Early” too much to heart. Many writers might have, as Carson suggests, opted for the default of having the “American run for it right afterwards.” In order to mine a scene for maximum gold, it’s not always necessary to leave (as) early (as possible)… it’s worthwhile to take the time to explore novel ways in which a particular scene can maximize dramatic impact.

    • Eddie Panta

      Yes, but only If you’re in a dramatic scene, and not making a sandwich, or pouring tea. Unless what you’re doing is trying to distract the audience.

      Either way you need to orchestrate the moments so that the audience / reader knows which ones are important. If all moments are treated the same, the script becomes flat, and the reader gets tired.

      • Logline_Villain

        You took the “caveat” right out of my mouth… agreed, and hopefully we’re all striving to avoid an overabundance of “sandwich-making” scenes.

        • Em

          Unless… we’re making cabbage coleslaw to go with that sandwich. ;-)

    • Ambrose*

      In L.A., “Arrive Late, and Leave Early” is an apt description of most spectators at Dodgers games and other sporting events.

  • Panos Tsapanidis

    “…slow plodding scenes…”

    Isn’t the word “slow” redundant?

  • Nathan Labonté

    Here we go:

    A struggling cabbage just out of college is trying to balance his/her professional, social, and personal life, all while trying to write a sellable screenplay.

    • Linkthis83

      Had you included a title of the screenplay and it was called “Lettuce Rejoice” then I would’ve been all in.

      • witwoud

        Mine’s a chiller about a cabbage that turns into a psycho killer after losing all its leaves. I’m calling it ‘Stalk’.

    • Citizen M

      Our cabbage gets an offer to pitch his script. Bright and cheerful, he enters the production building. THE DOORS CLANG SHUT behind him. He turns, to find himself facing… the human centipede!

  • JakeMLB

    Well that settles it. Unless someone else who loves pianos happens to like it…

  • Randy Williams

    Reminds me of this video. The pianist expects the orchestra to play a certain concerto. During the performance they begin a different one and she has to perform.

    • sheebshag

      Wow. Thanks for sharing. Poor pianist. Great recovery.

  • Gregory Mandarano

    I had onions featured in my book, and after taking Carson’s advice I’ve switched to cabbage. Now the scene really shines!

  • Nate

    Fair enough. They both have their uses. I was a bit hasty saying dramatic irony is better. But I think the keyword there is ”good’. You rarely see any ”Usual Suspects” reveals anymore.
    It all really depends on the story and genre and how the reveals are executed. I think the reasons the reveals you mentioned work so well is because never in a million years would we have expected them. They completely blindsided us.
    If you look at a movie like Scream, you knew that the killer was obviously gonna be someone close to Neve Campbell so it doesn’t impact you as much when Skeet Ulrich is revealed to be the killer.
    I think if the writer revealed to us early on that Matthew Lillard was the killer, we’d actually fear for Neve’s safety when she was with him, but they still could have used the two killers reveal which is actually quite good because you never expected it. If we know that Lillard is the killer then we’ll stop suspecting Skeet and when the writer hits us with the reveal we’ll be like ”fuck, they totally pulled a fast one on me”.
    But if you look at Mission: Impossible, the reveal that Jon Voight is actually the bad guy doesn’t have any impact at all because you could see it coming from a mile off. I mean we never actually see him die at the beginning of the movie.

  • Breezy

    Alright, I think I want to join this band of Cabbage Patch Kids
    *Ahem*
    Here’s one for the Crimea issue:
    In Soviet Russia, cabbage add YOU…

    yeah, I like my cabbage with extra “cliche”, thank you very much.
    Before I get one thrown at me, If anyone has this script, I would be very grateful if you could send it my way please with a cabbage on top… rumandwords@ hotmail.com

  • Franchise Blueprints

    Oh Savoy, I’ll just Romaine silent due to no one up-voting my Star Wars puns.

    • Citizen M

      Time to turn over a new leaf.

      • Gregory Mandarano

        All these jokes are corny and it really shucks.

  • carsonreeves1

    that’s a good point. sometimes I forget that JJ is fallible.

    • Eddie Panta

      But are these “failures” or just the harsh reality of how the pilot season works? Aren’t they baked into the process?

  • Citizen M

    Rendition ended with a big reveal, and I was thoroughly annoyed by it. I felt duped and cheated. It was as if the director (a fellow South African, I cringe to say) was having a laugh at the audience’s expense. The story could easily have been told without the reveal. It was not central to the viewing experience. It was false and manipulative.

  • Gregory Mandarano

    I dunno. I’m a huge star trek fan, and I thought Into Darkness was awesome. I mean granted it’s not the old style of star trek, which would be better, but it’s its own beast and has to be appreciated as such. They’re the only star trek movies that don’t have a tv series with the same actors contributing to chemistry and familiarity. They went the reboot angle and its pure action movie from the get go, but it never pretends to be anything else, and was great for it.

  • Eddie Panta

    But isn’t that just the way the pilot season works… Throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks. Is that really failure or just part of the system?

  • drifting in space

    The implication of danger:

  • Ken

    How many times did the British burn down the White House?