I hope you guys know that we are not here to embarrass aspiring writers but to study the craft and we cannot always do that without learning from scripts that fail. With that said, I’m going to share a recent (critical) review and some comments by the author afterwards, because... it’s pretty funny.
On TriggerStreet, I was asked by an aspiring screenwriter to review a draft of a script he wrote involving a character living in a giant biosphere (the earth had turned into a great wasteland due to our environmental negligence). Everyone is attached to these virtual reality devices and he rebelled in search for a super man. It was stunning in its visuals. Yet, I told him he needed a page one rewrite:
“My first reaction is that an extremely intelligent, literate, and visually-oriented mind is hard at work behind this script. And this could very well turn into one of the most visually stunning movies ever filmed. (That is, of course, if you can find someone with about $100-$150 million to dole out.) At the same time, I think this very intelligent mind is still in need of discipline and experience in the fine art of storytelling and screenwriting, which, mixed with great ambition plus the desire to prove how brilliant he is and add a dose of well-meaning but misguided emphasis on setting over story, you have a spec that shot off like a rocket in the wrong direction to the point that I don't believe any reader could access this story enough to want to buy it or film it or watch it. I completely agreed with Matt Bujinkan's review when he wrote, ‘you need to find the relatable within that bizarre. And the writing just doesn't let the reader in. The writer really needs to give concrete descriptions of some of the bizarre elements - such as the nanotechnology. The tone was also in question. For a script with Albert Einstein's head on Schwartzenegger's body, this one takes itself a little too seriously. And this is where the heart of its problems lie, I think. It's got too much of an ecological/philisophical axe to grind - one that grinds away any character or story.’”
Time passed. The script was rewritten. I agreed to review the new draft. Here’s the review:
You're at a crossroads, my friend.
It's not very often you see across-the-board "good" ratings with a "pass." How can this be? If this is a good writer who did well in all of these categories, how can they "pass" on the story? Well, the community IS right, of course. This seems to be a capable writer. He thinks big, uses big words (to the point of overreaching intellectually from the norm in filmmaking). He comes up with names that feel fairytale-like, such as The Fifth Wind, The Forbidden Forest, The Seven Beauties, etc. He thinks up interesting visuals, but in this case, it is to the detriment of a story. Unfortunately, you're trying too hard to create some semblance of a story to justify the visuals when, in fact, the story should come first and the visuals should support the story. (The giant Paul Bunyan statue that glides behind trees still has me scratching my head.) The vast range of elements in this script never come together into one cohesive whole of a story that an audience can get behind. The title, Teotwawki, like the rest of the story is simply too expensive to make and too inaccessible to audiences. "Teo-what? Let's go see Batman."
My apologies, Michael, I'm going to get tough on you now. Did you or did you not read my last review? You obviously didn't read my notes because you made many of the same format mistakes that you made the last time. With respect to story, you may recall that I quoted Matt Bujinkan who wrote (correctly) "It's got too much of an ecological/philosophical axe to grind - one that grinds away any character or story." I went on to emphasize STORY, PLOT, and the PROTAGONIST'S JOURNEY over visuals and environment and philosophy. What did I write? "Let's just forget all this stuff about the environment and this post-apocalyptic world and the moral lessons you're trying to teach. What's the story? Why should we care about these characters? What are you going to do to make us feel empathy for them? What is it that they want or need that we should be rooting for?" And here we are with a new draft and THIS is the synopsis you give us: "The End Of The World As We Know It: TEOTWAWKI. Over five centuries ago mankind drew straws for seats on lifeboat Eco Stasis: self contained biospheres warehousing a million humans each, depopulating Earth, leaving the land to heal, and avoiding the total failure of Earth's ecosystems. But something is happening in the domes. An unknown force or instinct beckons mankind back to the forest, compels him to flee a technological Eden into an Earth renewed by his long absence. Can this brave new world survive? Or will we simply return to the same old mistakes? An encounter with 'dead enders' from the brutal old world may tell the tale."
What does this synopsis tell us about STORY, PLOT, or the PROTAGONIST'S JOURNEY? Clay isn't even mentioned once, nor any other character. The synopsis, just like the script, is a variation of all the same problems that we had before. You're at a crossroads, my friend, and you have 3 choices:
1) If you want to create vast new worlds, that's perfectly fine. There's nothing wrong with that. But you'll have to give up screenwriting and pursue a career creating those new worlds for something else, like, the gaming industry.
2) Write novels where you'd have more liberty to de-emphasize plot and characters in order to explore philosophy, science, and all those ecological axes you wish to grind.
3) Seriously address your weaknesses in the art of screenwriting.
If you're decision is number 3, then this is what you have to do. You have to walk away from this story completely. You are so far gone into this whole world you've created that you've lost all sense of objectivity about how to provide a good, accessible plot within the context of your big sci-fi world. You need to take a break and study the craft of screenwriting and what that craft is REALLY about. Read these books:
Story by Robert McKee
Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick
20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias
Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D.
How NOT to Write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn
Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer van Sijll
The Story of Film by Mark Cousins
And so you'll have good formatting:
Screenwriter's Bible (fourth edition) by Dave Trottier
I don't want an email telling me "I've already read those books." Read them again. AFTER you've read all those books, THEN you should start a new, SIMPLE story that won't cost $200 million dollars to produce. Forget about a sale, too. Just focus on honing your craft. Create a simple setup (NOTHING sci-fi or fantasy - just a drama and something you like but you're not so in love with it that you're not able to be objective about the plot). Make the setup and plot rooted in your characters and create a protagonist with an inner need who pushes the plot forward in order to accomplish X. Create a character development sheet for your protagonist and your antagonist. (I wrote about it here). And then, within those 120 pages, follow the common three-act structure. Forget about philosophy or worlds or fancy prose in the action lines - aim for clarity in action. Focus on the protag's journey, the character arc, and escalating conflict. People are more concerned by what happens and how a conflict escalates and how characters act over how fancy you've written the action lines.
I will not read another story by you (freewill) unless you've followed all of my advice exactly. I certainly won't read another variation of TEOTWAWKI either, at least not for a long time after you've clearly shown an improvement in the craft through new stories.
My notes below are not really designed to help with revisions but to show you that I did, in fact, read your script. I don't want explanations, either, for all the times I wrote, "I don't understand." At this point, it doesn't matter. You have to start anew. Good luck with your choice, man.
Okay, well, about a week ago, the author forwarded an email receipt from Amazon.com. He ordered every single book on the list.
He copied me on an email to another TriggerStreet member and wrote, “I really appreciated your comments on Triggerstreet. Don't know if you read the other reviews but you and Mystery Man really nailed it. (don't know who that guy is or thinks he is but if he wasn't so right, I'd hunt him down and kill him).”
The thing is, he’s so smart and such a great visual thinker that when he really gets it, when he really embraces the craft and tries to master it, he could be (like so many others I know) unbelievably great, one of the best. And we’ll say we knew him when…