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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?

Category: Script Notes, Writing  | 4 Comments
Script Notes: THE USUAL SUSPECTS 2: BEAR TRAP Apr 06

The Usual Suspects 2?An Official Sequel Script?

No.

A while ago, I posted an article discussing the protagonist of The Usual Suspects. In the comments section, a “couple of people” had written about a sequel script that was “leaked from CAA.” So I became curious.

As suspected, both comments were written by the same individual trying to promote his own unofficial script. Can’t blame a guy for trying, but it reminded me of all the times I’d heard from amateurs who’d written a script based on someone else’s material (without permission), who were actually hoping to sell it.

It’s not gonna happen.

Anyway, the author of The Usual Suspects 2: Bear Trap (who goes by the pseudonym: “Blink”) had a special kind of moxie, so I decided to contact him. He turned out to be a good sport, who fully admits that he never expected anything to come of his script, and that it was mostly written for fun.

However… Here’s where it gets interesting

He claims that his script, as a writing sample, landed him a six figure step deal to write another script!

BOOM! (That’s the sound of my head exploding!)

Yup, according to Blink, his unorthodox approach landed him a professional writing gig.

Now, of course, I can’t confirm there’s an actual deal in place. And the pseudonym doesn’t help. He claims the pseudonym is being used out of fear of being sued for using characters he doesn’t own. Personally I don’t think he needs to worry on that front. As long as he doesn’t try to sell the script, it’s just fan fiction. I think he’s probably more concerned about the spurious claims of his script being “leaked from CAA.”

But if it’s true, congratulations! It was a bold ploy (or a whimsical pursuit) that seems to have paid off big.

I don’t recommend anyone else follow his lead though, as you’re much better off focusing your efforts on an original feature film spec. If you knock it out of the park, chances are you’ll sell or option it — AND find yourself in contention for writing assignments.

Script Notes and Thoughts

Regardless, Blink seems pretty open about his script and marketing efforts. He even agreed to let me publicly critique the first few pages. I thought it could be a very worthwhile exercise to show screenwriters what runs through the twisted minds of script readers (or at least mine) while they’re reading your  script.

I’ve included images of each page, so you can play along…

Remember, these are all things that I’m thinking in my head, and wouldn’t necessarily cite in my official script notes.

Cover Page

Yes indeed — the mental critique starts on the Cover Page! First impressions can often be quite revealing.

The Usual Suspects 2: Bear Trap - Cover PageCover Page
(Click image to open/enlarge in a new window)

THE GOOD

  • I really like the subtitle of the script — “BEAR TRAP.” (Note: If this were an original spec script, it’s rarely a good idea to use a subtitle.)

THE QUESTIONABLE

  • “Screenplay by Blink” is not centered correctly. It looks like there’s an extra space or two in front of Blink which is throwing off the symmetry. [Sloppy? Intentional?]
  • The revision number. Unless you’re writing a shooting script, never put the revision number on your script. Producers, agents, managers, etc. know your script has gone through many iterations, but they still need to believe it’s a fresh script that’s hot off the presses. It’s a weird thing, but trust me on this one.

After the cover page, we’re already inside threat level 2. Let’s see how the first page goes…

Page 1

The Usual Suspects 2: Bear Trap - Page 1 Page 1
(Click image to open/enlarge in a new window)

THE GOOD

  • An exciting pirate attack to kick things off!
  • Decent use of verbs and evocative language (e.g. churns, scramble, scuttle)

THE QUESTIONABLE

  • Why doesn’t the quote have a period at the end of it?
  • “T-MINUS 976.54.02″ — What does that mean? 976 days? 976 hours? 976 minutes?
  • A monster sentence right out of the gate! — ”Three modern 15 meter open launches, bristling with deck mounted cannons and machine guns, and black men dressed in singlets, assault rifles, and ammunition belts, power through the water towards the container ship about 1000 meters away.” — Perhaps it can be broken up a bit, to give emphasis to the different shots that would no doubt be used. It also took me a second to know that we were now looking at separate boats, and not part of the container ship. Maybe if the phrase “15 meter open launch boats” was used instead of “15 meter open launches” then dummies like me could more readily visualize things.
  • A quick scan shows a 6 line paragraph. That’s probably a couple lines too long for an action sequence.
  • There’s duplication of action. In the 6 line paragraph, there’s this sentence: “Others stand observing in-board navigation and GPS screens, holding on tight as the vessels crash through the water.” But then in the next paragraph we repeat the information: “Onboard the lead launch, the men are intense, but calm, as they watch the screens on the dashboard, or tightly grasp their weapons as they brace themselves on the squabs.” We already know they’re watching screens and bracing themselves.
  • In the action lines there are a couple uses of single dashes (-) instead of double dashes (–). It’s something you commonly see in amateur scripts, and rarely in professional scripts.
  • The last sentence of the opening scene: “A few crew members scuttle for cover on the deck, as shells continue to spray the vessel.” — I thought the use of the word “spray” was an odd choice for cannon fire. How fast and frequently can these cannon’s fire? Perhaps there’s a better word. “Bombard”? Or perhaps changing the sentence to: “… as shells, bullets continue to spray the vessel” would work better.
  • The first sentence of the second scene: “The 60 meter luxury super yacht, the ‘ISIS’, lies moored, inconspicuous amidst the indulgent opulence all around it.” — I’m being told that there’s “indulgent opulence” all around the yacht. But what does that mean? Are there obese men in floating lounge chairs eating caviar in the water? Is it referring to the opulence of Monaco? The other boats? How is it opulent? What are we seeing? Be careful when using vague conceptual descriptions.

Okay, let’s see where we’re at after page one in my mental and completely subjective assessment:

Uh oh. It’s creepin’ up (and so is the length of this post)! I think that’s enough for today. I’ll look at a couple more pages in the next post.

In the meantime, if you’d like to take a peek at Blink’s unauthorized sequel script in its entirety, you can find it here: The Usual Suspects 2: Bear Trap (302 KB PDF)

Do you find this kind of critique helpful? Let me know.

Category: Script Notes  | 5 Comments
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