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The One Page Challenge Nov 25

First Impressions

Most people who read scripts for a living (producers, agents, managers, etc.) will agree — they can usually tell whether or not a script is any good by the end of the first page.

“What?! But my script really gets going around page 12!” you might say. Unfortunately, the reality is that scripts with poorly written first pages rarely improve.

In fact, if the first page doesn’t impress a reader, it’s more likely that the subsequent pages will be even more disappointing. Why? Because most writers will tweak and revisit their opening page again and again, fine tuning and improving it.

That’s why it’s so important to impress and grab a reader from the get go. For this reason, your first page is the most important page of your script.

Taking the Challenge

Last month, Mark M. — from my Linkedin network — asked me if I’d read the first page of his script and give him some feedback. I said I would as long as I could post my feedback here on Scriptwrecked.

Being the good sport that he is, Mark agreed. So without further ado, let’s dive into his script’s first page and see what we can discover.

MarkM-1

“FADE IN:”

Well, it’s left justified — a good start. But it also has two line spaces between it and the first scene heading. Ideally, it would be one line space. Many pros deviate from this standard, so it’s a minor detail these days… but a detail that still may bump some readers.

“EXT. PLANETS ORBIT.”

Hmm, unusual formatting with the period at the end of the scene heading.

“Five stellar remnants…”

The writing in this paragraph is actually quite good. Although, I’m having a hard time picturing a “stellar remnant” jutting out through a cloud. A plantary remnant perhaps, but a remnant of a star? Hard to picture that? Have I ever seen a stellar remnant? Aren’t stars contained fusion reactions? Don’t stars end up as black holes?

MarkM-2

“A jagged moon…”

I like how Mark has broken up the paragraphs into shots. He had provided a wider, general shot first, and is now focusing on one of the moons in the second shot.

Hmm. Is the blue dwarf sun one of the stellar remnants mentioned earlier?

“EXT. PLANET ATMOSPHERE.”

Now I’m confused again. We went from a general graveyard of stars and moons, then we focused on one of the moons, and now we’re suddenly in a planet’s atmosphere. Perhaps instead of “a blue dwarf sun” the moon should eclipse the planet we’re now looking at. Then it would flow better.

“appear’s”

Like an Engineer ship rumbling menacingly through my brain — these typos take me right out of the read! Should be: “appears”

“deep space”

If a ship has just left the atmosphere of a planet, how is it suddenly in deep space? Perhaps just “rumbles menacingly toward space.” Because if it actually made it into space, we wouldn’t hear any rumbling. (No sound in space.)

MarkM-3

“EXT. SKY- DAY.”

Oh no. So much for the hip new heading formatting I was starting to dig… Where’s the space after “SKY”? It should be: EXT. SKY – DAY.

If you’re going to use unconventional formatting (like a period at the end of a scene heading) everything else better be on point, otherwise it just looks sloppy.

“planets”

Another typo! Should be: “planet’s”

“early Earth purgatory”

It’s an interesting image… One that I have no idea what it looks like. Is “early Earth purgatory” an actual thing I missed in science class? Does he simply mean a primordial Earth? Or perhaps there’s some sort of new spiritual component he’s introducing here. Either way, it requires a more vivid, explicit description of what we’re seeing.

MarkM-4

“EXT. PLANET – DAY.”

I am so over the funky formatting with the period at the end. Perhaps if he went for something like: “EXT. PLANET. DAY.” I could probably get behind that for something innovative and consistent with the space/futuristic vibe. But even then, I would’t recommend it unless the writing is “stellar.”

“Black mountains jut out…”

Ohhh, using “jut out” twice on the same page in such close proximity. Tsk Tsk. To impress a reader, you need to demonstrate variation in your writing.

“… that covers the planet.”

Why are we getting this information. We already know from the scene heading we’re looking at a planet. What else would the ocean be covering? If the ocean completely covers the planet then the line should probably read: “… that covers the entire planet.”

Also, why is it “the” black ocean? It hasn’t been introduced before, so it should be “a” black ocean. And why use “black” twice in the same sentence? Black mountains and a black ocean. Surely there’s another word or words that can take the place of “black.”

“Seven ships rise slowly into orbit…”

When you’re establishing an environment, whether it’s a star system or a bedroom, you typically want to start with the high level stuff and then move in on the important details.

We started out pretty well going from space through the planet’s atmosphere and then down to the surface. But now we’re back up at the edge of the planet’s atmosphere with these ships rising into orbit.

Perhaps the writer believes that ships can orbit within a planet’s atmosphere. At any rate, it’s jarring to bounce around so much. Can’t the ships simply hover or rise into the air reeking of dread?

MarkM-5

“… retract into the ship…”

The writing is quickly deteriorating here…

We are told that the arms retract into “the” ship. Which ship is that? We were previously told there were seven ships. Better to use “one of the ships” or “ships” — plural — instead.

“a bellowing burble SLURPING noises”

Should that be “a bellowing burble of SLURPING noises”?

“A black syrup substance falls back to dead planet.”

There’s that word “black” again. And is it actually syrup or is it “syrupy” or “syrup-like”?

Shouldn’t it be falling back to “the” dead planet?

“ocean organism”

We were previously told that it was a “dead planet.” But now we’re being told that there’s an ocean “organism.” That’s confusing.

MarkM-6

“INT.ENGINEER SHIP LAB.”

More carelessness. Where’s space between “INT.” and “ENGINEER”?

“Vast corridors of darkness”

I like the image. But if we’re inside a lab, are we looking out at these vast corridors? How do we see more than one? Perhaps the scene heading should just be: “INT. ENGINEER SHIP” That would allow us to move from the corridors into the lab.

“A strange illumination glow emanates…”

“illumination glow” is redundant. It’s either an illumination or a glow, not both.

“a open doorway”

This should be “an” open doorway.

“A biology lab…”

We already know we’re in a lab and it’s really the hydrothermal vents that belch the blue mist (great verb usage). So the sentence might be better as: “Artificial hydrothermal vents belch blue mist over thousands of suspended LIFE FORMS.” It also eliminates that awkward “vents belches” construction.

MarkM-7

“Pristine machine BOTS tirelessly study their DNA.”

It sounds nice, but what are we seeing? Are the bots looking at DNA on a big screen? Are they examining blood samples? Reviewing hovering holograms? Hopefully the next sentence will help with the visual…

“The bots dissect each species entire building blocks.”

Nope. Again, I have no idea what I’m seeing. I’m picturing dissection, but how do you show the building blocks of each species? What are we seeing?

Also, there’s another typo — “species” should be written as: species’ (with an apostrophe at the end to indicate the possessive form).

“The door seals seamless to complete darkness.”

I like the visual of the seamless room, but does that mean we’ve exited the room? Or is it completely black on the inside of the room?

“Hyper-drive engine reverberates throughout the ship.”

Should it be: “A” hyper-drive engine? Also, why is this attached to the same paragraph? It’s a completely unrelated beat.

I like the verb “reverberates,” but is it being used correctly? The sound from the hyper-drive engine, or the hyper-drive engine noise, may reverberate throughout the ship, but I’m not sure if the engine itself does.

MarkM-8

“EXT. ENGINEER PLANET.”

Again, another sloppy mistake (missing space between “EXT.” and “ENGINEER.”

“The ENGINEER’s eyes glitter entirely black he surveys cold and detached.”

Oh boy, there’s that word again — black.

The sentence itself is also confusing. Perhaps if there was an “as,” or some punctuation between “black” and “he,” it would be more coherent.

That’s a lot of issues for one page!

As a script reader who is paid to give feedback, I’d be required to read the entire script. But a producer, agent or manager (that you’re not signed with) doesn’t have that kind of covenant with you, so it’s entirely possible they’d never make it to page two — nevermind that reeeeeally good part on page 12.

Hopefully Mark can correct these issues and allow the story to shine through. There are definitely some intriguing elements here that are, unfortunately, undone by the writing.

Would you have made it to page 2?

Script Notes – July Sale! Jul 07

Script Notes - July SaleA July 4th sale is good, but a month-long July sale is even better. So that’s what I’m cooking up this month — a discount on script notes!

Whether you’d like an insightful written critique of your script, or a more interactive verbal critique (or both), you’ll get $25.00 off through the month of July.

Script not quite done? No problem. Purchase the script notes for the reduced rate in July, and you can send me your script later, when it’s ready.

Please visit my script notes page for more information and to order.

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10 Page Torture Test – Open To Submissions Jun 11

10 Page Torture TestThere are many writing achievements that I’m proud to have accomplished: placing in/winning script competitions… having my first script optioned… getting my first paid writing gig…

And now I’ve been asked to be the first guest script reviewer for the 10 Page Torture Test!

While my previous achievements were grand, I can say without hyperbole that this one is at least a billion times better than the others. ;)

What is the 10 Page Torture Test?

It’s a site where a mysterious and talented guy, who goes by “Pitchpatch,” takes the first 10 pages of mostly amateur scripts, and digs deep into their nooks and crannies. In doing so, he offers fantastic (and hilarious) insight into what works, and what doesn’t, complete with suggestions for improvement.

And what’s more, he does it for free! All for the love of screenwriting, and the recognition of the importance of the first 10 pages of a script. As you should know, if your first 10 pages don’t impress, the reader will likely have permanently checked out by page 11.

How good is this guy, Pitchpatch? Here’s a hint: Guess who I beg for notes when I need one of my scripts critiqued?

Send me your scripts!

For the next edition of the 10 Page Torture test, I’m going to take the reins and provide the feedback.

But I only get to choose one script. So if you’d like the first 10 pages of your script critiqued publicly, FOR FREE, send it to me, with its associated logline, by Friday, June 20th at Midnight.

I’ll be choosing the script based on two things:

  1. The intrigue of the logline. (Is the concept compelling? Is the movie marketable?)
  2. The potential for readers to learn from my notes. (Are there things the writer has done really well? Are there common mistakes to point out?)

It should hopefully go without saying by now, but any constructive criticism will be provided with an aim to enlighten — not embarrass.

So send me your script (and logline) for consideration!!!

Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest – Reader Submission Nov 05

Disgruntled

A few months back, a reader of my blog (Danny), posted a comment on one of my articles about the Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest. He was “disgruntled” and more than a little baffled as to why his 15 page script didn’t make the cut — especially when he felt he was just “an inch away from opportunity.”

Seeing a chance for fans of my blog to learn from his experience, I got in touch with Danny and promised to take a look at his submission, if he allowed me to post my critique publicly on my site. I’ve been busy for the last couple of months, but finally had some free time this week, so I dove in.

While I can’t speak to the exact reasons the contest judges chose not to select Danny’s entry as one of the finalists, I can certainly offer my opinion based on my years of experience as a script consultant.

First Impressions

Question: Typically, how many pages does it take for an experienced script reader to rule out your script as a prospective contest winner?

Answer: One.

Yup, one page.

Why? Because most scripts are really poorly written — right from the get-go. If the writing is bad on page one, it rarely gets better by page 10. After all, if you’re going to make any single page in your script shine more than the others, it should be page one. That’s the critical page. That’s the page that solidifies the readers’ first impressions.

But first impressions begin with the title page itself. In Danny’s script, there were three things I highlighted on the title page alone. That’s a huge red flag.

Danny's Title Page

(Click to Enlarge)

Do you see the issues?

  1. Danny put the genre next to the title. That’s highly non-standard.
  2. The “Based on” sentence has an awkward construction. It’s not even necessary to put this line on the title page.
  3. The title page is not the place for links to social media pages. Just provide the contact information. That means an email address and maybe your phone number.

So we haven’t even gotten to the first page of the script and there are 3 issues. Not a good sign.

But what does the first page look like? I think the best way to illustrate this is to show you a different one first.

This is the first page of the script that ended up winning the contest for that cycle, written by J.R. Phillips. Like I did, you can download it here. Her script is entitled: THE BADLANDS: DEAD GIRLS DON’T CRY. (By the way, her title page was clean and flawless.)

BADLANDS: DEAD GIRLS DON'T CRY (First Page)

(Click to Enlarge)
First page of J.R. Phillips’ Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest winning script BADLANDS: DEAD GIRLS DON’T CRY

Impressive. Only one technical issue! ONE! And even then it’s nitpicking.

The “rule” is that if you’re going to capitalize sounds then you should capitalize the sound AND the thing that makes the sound (i.e. “The WOODEN FURNITURE CREAKS”). Again this is a minor peccadillo on an otherwise brilliantly executed first page. It certainly isn’t anything that distracts from the quality of the writing or the story itself. And this “rule” is violated all the time in professional scripts these days.

Now let’s look at Danny’s first page…

Danny's First Page

(Click to Enlarge)
Danny’s First Page from his script entitled FIONA

Yikes! See the difference?

I annotated this script, like I do with my script notes service, and it’s riddled with problems. I’ve written fifteen different notes for dozens of issues — all on page one.

Let’s take a look from top to bottom:

  1. If you’re going to use “FADE IN:” it should be left justified. Bonus marks: Only use one line space underneath. Not two.
  2. For the SUPERIMPOSE line — the use of single and double quotes is odd. I get that he wants the line to appear in quotes, but it’s better to just  show what you want to appear.
  3. Why doesn’t the Matthew 13.10-16 reference wrap around normally onto the next line?
  4. “OVER BLACK:” — Aren’t we over black at the outset? What does the superimposed text appear over?
  5. “EXT.  UGSTON” — Be consistent with your spacing. One space is preferable after “EXT.”, but if you’re going to use two spaces, then make sure you do that throughout your script.
  6. Scene heading modifiers like DAWN, DUSK, MORNING, etc. are rarely a good idea to include in your script. Try to stick with DAY and NIGHT. The audience doesn’t get to see the word “DAWN.” They interpret the time of day by what they see in the scene. So based on what you describe in the scene, we’ll know it’s dawn — not in the scene heading.
  7. What’s up with all the unusual capitalization? It makes for a jarring, peculiar read.
  8. ” ‘Giant Jets of Water’ ” — why is this phrase (and others) in quotes?
  9. “Sharp Rock and massive Boulders…” — Formatting issue. He’s missing a line space here… Or he’s accidentally hit enter.
  10. Be wary of underlining too many things in your script. Underlines should be used sparingly for very important elements that you need to highlight. Use underlining too much and it loses its impact (and brands you as an amateur). Note: Underlining scene headings is an entirely different issue — and it works.
  11. Whenever I see writers use slash and two descriptors (e.g. “Bank/Mound”), I think that they couldn’t make up their mind as to which one to use. If both are necessary, use a comma.
  12. Third paragraph from the bottom — isn’t Fiona already at the edge? How can she heave herself at something she’s already at? Perhaps he means that she tries to climb onto the bank and slips or something? Also — “heaves herself out” could imply that she’s pushing away from the bank. If this expression is to be used, I think it needs to be qualified as “… heaves herself out of the water.”
  13. Same paragraph… It’s eight lines long! It’s not technically a mistake, but it’s a big red flag. Typically, 3 or 4 lines max — especially for scene description in an action sequence.
  14. “Drape” and “draped.” It’s best not to use the same word in such close proximity. Same with “heaves” and “mangled” for that matter. Variety is the spice of life… and of good writing.

It came as no surprise to me that things did not improve on pages 2 through 15.

What About the Story Itself?

It doesn’t matter.

Again, I can’t speak for the Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest judges, but here’s the thing… Even if the underlying story is fantastic, there’s no way I could present this as an example of finalist-quality writing. It is, after all, a writing contest. Having a good story is only one piece of the puzzle. Great writers can:

  1. come up with a compelling story
  2. write it well
  3. demonstrate a command of the rules particular to screenwriting.

One out of three isn’t going to cut it, especially when there are thousands of entries to choose from.

The truth is, even beyond all of the technical mistakes, the writing isn’t very strong. I only mentioned a few things that stuck out. If I were editing this first page, there would have been many more notes.

Danny seems like a friendly, eager screenwriter, and I wish him all the best. In time, he may be able to better his writing to the point where he starts to place in contests, etc. But he’s not there yet.

The first thing I would recommend to him, and frankly any screenwriter out there, is to read and absorb a screenplay formatting book like David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, or  Christopher Riley’s The Hollywood Standard.

Proper script formatting won’t make your story any better, but it will let your writing stand on its own merits. And that’s all you can hope for.

Any other issues with Danny’s script that bear mentioning? Who can tell me why his main character introduction doesn’t work?

Script Notes: THE USUAL SUSPECTS 2: BEAR TRAP (Part 2) Apr 17

Recap

In Part 1 of my review, I discussed this unofficial sequel script’s spurious providence and mysterious writer. I also started off with a critique of the cover page and page one.

To reiterate, these posts are meant to be educational for writers to see what goes on in the minds of script readers (or at least mine) while they’re plowing through your script. Most of the comments I post here are meant to convey what I’m thinking and wouldn’t necessarily be included in any official script notes that I provide.

So with that out of the way, let’s see where we stand at the end of page 1.

At this point we’ve seen some heavily armed pirates attack a container ship. Some decent action, but due to some formatting and stylistic choices, I already have a few indications that the writer is an amateur. Let’s see if that holds steady or changes on page 2…

Page 2

Page 2
(Click image to open/enlarge in a new window)

THE GOOD

  • A nice metaphor: “All the monitors are alive with data…”
  • I like the evil Unseen Woman. Why don’t we get to see her full face? It’s interesting and sets up a mystery that my brain wants to solve. We’re also seeing a glimpse of the antagonist or co-antagonist, I assume.
  • On the previous page, the action broke off abruptly. I like how we get to find out how the events play out, but from a different, unexpected vantage point.
  • I’m not particularly fond of this sentence: “The early dawn casts eerie shadows on a still dark sky.” However, it certainly gives me a sense of the tone that the writer is going for.
  • The page ends with me wanting to find out more about the two “out of place” individuals. [Note: At a recent gathering with my professional screenwriting friends, we all compared notes as to what our primary mandates were when writing a script. I said, “To make every scene entertaining or engaging in some way.” One of my friends said, “To end each page with a hook, so they want to see what happens on the next page.”]

THE QUESTIONABLE

  • There’s an odd extra line space above the line: “The woman’s lips.”
  • Jumping Jehosaphat! What’s up with the irregular dialogue formatting?! A big red flag just got raised. I mean, come on, this is version 10 of this script and there’s still such an obvious, basic formatting issue? In a 133 page script, where you should be desperate for places to trim your pages down, it’s simply unacceptable.
  • Speaking of this dialogue block, why do we have both a parenthetical and a line description telling us to focus on this woman’s lips. In a script, redundancy = bad.
  • While we’re on that parenthetical, why isn’t it offset from the dialogue margin?
  • Paragraph 4: “It’s” — An incorrect homonym error. Should be “Its.”
  • Second to last paragraph: “A hand, extended from the wheelchair.” I like the direction of the shot (to focus on the hand), but why can’t that be written in the active present tense? That is, “A hand extends from the wheelchair.”
  • Same goes for the sentence that follows. “An expensive gold watch on the wrist, holding a passport, outwards, towards the face of the waiting, indifferent, female IMMIGRATION OFFICER.” It’s also a bit clumsy because the way it’s written, it seems that the gold watch is holding the passport.

Amateur Suspicion Level 4.2

Whoa boy! We’ve shot past threat level 3 and have jumped to “Confirmed!” That dialogue formatting faux pas was huge. Remember, this isn’t the first draft of this script. This is version 10.3. (Have I mentioned before why it’s a terrible idea to put a version number on a spec script?)

There are also a bunch of “little” issues with this page, which I’m mentally combining with the “little” issues of the last pages. Collectively I can say with certainty that these “little” issues don’t happen with such frequency in professional scripts. Especially not in the first few pages which are vitally important for impressing your reader.

I know there are many people who don’t get all worked up about “little” formatting or stylistic problems in their writing. But if you don’t realize how important it is to avoid these issues, you have a steep uphill climb ahead of you if you want your work to be taken seriously, and get noticed (in the right way).

Remember, readers are looking for any reason to discount your script. Don’t hand them any! These types of issues are easy to fix. They just take some care, and learning.

Maybe things will turn around on the next few pages…

Page 3 – 11

While it’s easy to dismiss a script because of its many “amateur moves,” it’s also the job of the reader to determine whether the story has merit. Now that I’ve established a baseline technical skill level, I can relax about the “little” issues and focus more on the overall set up. So I’m going to critique pages 3 through 11 collectively.

Usual Suspects 2: Bear Trap - Pages 3-6     Usual Suspects 2: Bear Trap - Pages 7-11

Pages 3-6 and Pages 7-11
(Click images to open/enlarge in a new window)

THE GOOD

There were a lot of things done right in the first 10 or 11 pages, and the setup itself is good!
We were introduced to the key antagonists in interesting ways:
  • A mysterious female character (there was only one key female character in The Usual Suspects, so if I’m right, I’m not sure how mysterious she is — but still, a cool device).
  • An old man — is this Keyser Soze? His disguise at the airport (while it didn’t fool the person watching for him — if that was his intention) is an interesting scenario.

We were also introduced to the intriguing protagonist, who is whisked away in a helicopter to start his mission. He’s not the first choice for the mission, which gives him something to prove at the outset and makes us more likely to root for him.

The catalyst for the movie is quite clear — a nuclear bomb may have been loaded onto an airplane — whose pilot may be a Syrian terrorist! Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious ship that’s being pursued.

THE QUESTIONABLE

I don’t know any other way to say this — the writing was not of a professional caliber, and it’s hard to ignore. Everyone starts as an amateur, and this writer obviously has some good instincts, but a lot more care needs to be taken to elevate the material to the next level.

  • Learning when to start and end a scene is a critical skill for screenwriters to learn. If you can, always try to end your scene on a “button.” For example, here’s an excerpt from the top of page 3.

IMMIGRATION OFFICER

Good morning Mr. Walker. Welcome to the United Kingdom. May I ask the purpose of your visit.

OLD MAN (O.C.)

I’m here to set the world on fire.

IMMIGRATION OFFICER

(laughing)

And what’s the real reason for your visit to the UK sir?

The extra line at the end with the Immigration Officer weakens the power of the Old Man’s great line. And why on earth is the old man off camera during that terrific moment?!Note: The way the scene ends on page 11, is a great example of  ending the scene on a button (so it’s hit and miss in this script).

  • In a recent article I talked about the importance of sentence variety in your scripts. On page 4, take a look at the last scene. 6 out of the 8 sentences start with “The.” Also on this page, the phrase, “Misty forest” is used twice in close proximity. And the word “misty” is used a third time after that on this page.
Honestly, I could point to something different on every page of this script, so there’s no need to belabor the point here. The writer’s skills are still developing.

Summary

If you’re going to write a sequel (to a script you have no rights to),  as a spec writing sample — your writing better knock the reader’s socks off. You already have one strike against you by even writing an unauthorized sequel (because it’s a common amateur move). So you had better wow the reader with your writing abilities.

There are a ton of rules that you have to learn to write scripts proficiently. And there’s almost always a correlation between the lack of these core writing skills that you see right away, and the bigger structural and plot issues that will manifest themselves later in the story.

At this point, I’ve seen enough problems to make me not want to spend my time reading the remainder of the script. However, if you’d like to read the latest version of the script in its entirety (we’re now at version 11.1), please do and let me know what you think.

In the meantime, I wish Blink well. He’s a good sport, and like I said, he’s got some good instincts. He just needs to keep writing and shore up his writing skills a little. I look forward to hearing about his developing projects and will personally be cheering him on.

Do you find this kind of critique helpful?

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Category: Script Notes, Writing  | 4 Comments