Is anyone still here? I got a lot of comments yesterday from people saying they were never going to read Scriptshadow again. Because I gave Looper a bad review. I can’t help if I thought the writing was bad. Though I admit my morbid fascination with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face maaaaaay have prevented me from picking up on some key plot points early on, mainly about this Rainman character, who I’m still confused about. But we can’t go backwards. We must go forwards. And in going forwards, we must go backwards, back to 1867.
I soooooo wanted to love this script! It was not only my favorite first 10 pages of the Twit-Pitch contest, but the writer, Nikolai, is a hardcore Scriptshadow Twitter follower. The man retweets my tweets like cray-cray, and is a huge supporter of the site.
The problem Nikolai runs into with The Tradition is one I’ve become more and more familiar with over the last few months. Nikolai is an amazing writer. But he isn’t yet an amazing storyteller. What I mean by that is that the descriptiveness of The Tradition is TOP NOTCH. I can’t think of any other screenwriter who could make me feel like I was in 1867 London more than Nikolai. Take this simple description of a character as an example: “A fusty old SOLICITOR with great big grey pork chop sideburns and pince-nez glasses is shuffling through papers like a catfish.” I jumped to a random page and found that. That’s how everything is written in The Tradition. We are pulled into this world due in whole to the amazing writing. No question about it.
But pulling us into a world has nothing to do with telling us a story in that world. That’s a completely different skill. And unfortunately, there’s isn’t much of that skill shown in The Tradition. It feels like a story that could’ve taken place in 30 pages, stretched out to 116. That’s what was so frustrating. One of the reasons The Tradition got me in its first 10 pages was because something HAPPENED. A man is running from a mysterious tribe of Polynesian boys. He’s captured. Killed. It was an exciting first scene. But after that scene, shockingly enough, little to nothing happens for another 100 pages. It didn’t feel like a story was being told so much as a series of mundane events was being meticulously chronicled.
The Tradition starts off with that early great scene, then flashes forward 50 years to England circa 1867. A young and beautiful woman, IDA, has just buried her father, only to realize that he’s left her in a boatload of debt. Her once illustrious lifestyle is torn from her in order to pay this debt, and she soon finds herself slumming it up as a seamstress to make ends meet.
That job falls to the wayside soonafter, and Ida is less than a month’s rent away from seriously considering prostitution. So lucky her when she’s spotted by the son of a royal Lord, John, who asks her and her roommate to come work for him in the countryside. Away they go, along with many other women and children, and all of a sudden Ida has a job, a future…Things aren’t looking so bad!
In the meantime, we meet Arthur, John’s younger brother. Arthur’s the family outcast, mainly because he doesn’t agree with a secret tradition the family goes through every year. We’re only given vague hints as to what this tradition is, but it’s evident that wherever Ida and all these other women are being taken, it isn’t going to end well.
Which is strange because the mansion Ida and the others arrive in appears to be a dream come true. They get new clothes to wear, yummy food to eat, lovely beds to sleep in. The only downside seems to be that the Lord is a little sleezy and John is a bit of an asshole.
It’s at this point, unfortunately, where the script really starts to lose itself. The stuff that goes on at the house – which is essentially nothing – goes on forever. The story is relegated to people wandering through halls, occasionally bumping into each other, followed by some talking. Nothing is actually happening. Nobody’s trying to do anything. My guess is that Nikolai was trying to rest his story on this impending sense of doom in this house, and I admit to being a little curious as to where it was all going. But there was so little drama and conflict leading up to the final act that I became bored.
You need SCENARIOS in your screenplay. You need intriguing mini-stories with their own goals and complications and mysteries and conflicts and characters pushing up against other characters. For example, maybe Ida is given the job to prep each woman before taking them down to a mystery room. She has to make sure their dress is perfect, their make-up is right, that they look as good as they can possibly look. She does this. However, once she brings these women downstairs, a mysterious assistant takes them and she never sees them again. She begins to get suspicious and starts looking into it, putting herself in danger. Now, at least, we have a woman doing something as opposed to obvliviously stumbling around the castle hallways occasionally running into someone and talking to them.
That’s the difference between writing and telling a story. When you’re writing, you’re trying to think of the best way to describe what’s happening in the moment and figure out what each character is going to say to each other right now. When you’re storytelling, you’re looking to construct scenarios full of mystery and tension and drama and conflict and danger that extend beyond the immediate scene.
I started getting worried after those first ten pages. After we set up that Ida was on her own, it just took forever to get her to the castle. I don’t remember the exact page number but I’m pretty sure it happened after page 45. We should’ve been on our way to that castle by the end of Act 1, page 25. Remember guys, your story is almost always playing slower than you think it is. So while you think you need this long scene showing how difficult it is for your character to be out of a job, we’re waiting for the next interesting thing to happen. With The Tradition, I felt like I was always waiting too long for that next interesting thing to happen.
Character-wise, there wasn’t much going on with anyone other than Arthur, the black sheep brother who refused to partake in the tradition along with the rest of the family. I liked that Nikolai tried to create a flaw within him, that he was basically a coward. But the coward flaw is always difficult to execute because you risk the possibility of the audience thinking the character’s a p*ssy and being annoyed with him. I have to admit, that’s how I perceived Arthur. Instead of rooting for him to stand up for himself, I kept thinking, “Grow some balls, buddy. Jesus.”
The character we should’ve been exploring was Ida. She started out strong, with this crippling scenario of losing her father and her home, but there wasn’t enough going on inside of her to keep my interest after that point. We need some sort of conflict inside someone that needs to be resolved, whether it be a flaw or something from their past or whatever, and that wasn’t here. Jodie Foster had both a past and a flaw to overcome in Silence Of The Lambs, for example. She had the lambs. She also had an obsession to show that a little girl could do the job just as well as the big boys. Ida’s just sort of naively going wherever the story takes her.
For these reasons, I couldn’t get into The Tradition. But I have high hopes for Nikolai. He’s obviously an excellent writer who now needs to become a storyteller.
Script link: The Tradition
What I learned: Repeat after me – “Screenwriters are not writers. They’re storytellers.” ”Screenwriters are not writers. They’re storytellers.” ”Screenwriters are not writers. They’re storytellers.”