Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The “Crossroads” Review

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.

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 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…


Matt Spira said...

Gotta love the tough love approach.

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Excellent critique MM. It reminds me of so many that I've gotten and have given back in the day. Actually, the script sounds almost like a Star Wars without Luke, or a Road Warrior without knowing why Max was mad. LOL.

This review spoke to me because I've also been building a complicated world and plot line in a recent novel, and it's been too easy to get wrapped up in those details and forget the real heart of the story. Without knowing why, it was blocking me.

So, good timing and thanks!

Mim said...

It's always nice when you finally convince somebody to stop banging his head against a wall.

Mystery Man said...

Hey Matt - I'm posting a free will on TS today or tomorrow and then I'll start plowing through your Chinese scripts. I'm really looking forward to reading them.

Ann - Ya know, it's so easy for anyone, even if you usually know what you're doing, to get lost in a world you've created. Even the masters fail, which is in part what makes reviewers and critics somewhat essential to the whole process. I've been working on an article called "The Relevance of Critics." Did you see my Star Wars article? This script actually reminds me so much of Lucas' first draft, which was also lost in that world he created.

Mim - I was there once.


bob said...

That's good that he embraced the challenge, that's good!

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Yeah, MM, I did see your Star Wars article a while ago. That's probably why I thought of it when I read this review.

It does show the importance of critique, and also the importance of patience. Of not being in such a rush to sell that you ignore the fact that some stories need time to, um, rise I guess.

There ya go. Some stories are like bread! LOL. Although unlike stories, bread can be good flat.

Christian M. Howell said...

Wow, MM, I have a post on my site that this guy should read called "Logistics, location and logic." I di dmy obligatory four reviews on TriggerStreet but I got tired of seeing these wildly fantastc worlds that have no real "popular relevance."

That's nto to say that I'm the world's greatest but my advice to EVERY NEW WRITER is:

Put five people in a house and have them go through a triumph or tragedy. Nothing extravagant, just people experiencing life and love or death and hate if you desire.

I read one about a society high up in the mountains, one about Abe Lincoln possessing the body of an actor and fighting terrorists.

I'm like Aaaaaaah. (Yes, that was a scream).

My first script is set at a college and revolves around a near-rape. I do have a "fantasy world" script but it's about humans colonizing the other planets, sort of. It's actually a love story in the midst of a war.

Anyway, great review. Hopefully, you'll enjoy mine. I mean beautiful women knocking people out is great for me. Especially if they are hot dancers.

GameArs said...

Pure gospel. Preach, brother.

Joshua said...

I keep saying, and I believe it, but no matter how visual a story is, it doesn't matter if we don't care WHO it's happening to . . .

Character is story. Whether new worlds or old, if we don't have a character that draws us in, it's all useless.

Consider Star Wars IV (the first one) - the handle on it was Luke . . . if we didn't meet Luke and if Luke hadn't worked as a character (he did, regardless of Hamil's performance, the character was our window into the world we were entering) than the movie would never have worked.

Great visuals, great stories, great supporting characters (ObiWan, Han, R2D2) and a great vision for a new world.

But without the characters and a believable journey for them, nothing.

Luke IS Star Wars. He's the farm boy who finds his destiny, a destiny that takes him out and beyond and challenges him. He has obstacles, it's not easy.

He ends up different at the end of it because of all he went through (which is not to say every movie needs a character arc, but this movie is about Luke's journey, it's about his arc, same for Empire, the best of the series).

Luke is the movie.

Compare that with Star Wars I (Phantom Menace). Arguably much more ambitious in vision and scope.

Who's the main character? Anikin, right? Little boy who's supposed to learn the force, except . . .

He doesn't, he just does things, and does them easily with no challenge. And he's not believable, nor are any of his supporting characters (filled with great actors with nothing to do) they go through the movie like a pinball in a machine, none of their choices effect what happens or doesn't happen to them.

I'd dare say that few of us can really recall the main events in Phantom, while all of us immediately recalled the prime events of Star Wars for days after we first saw it . . .

Because of character.

Character IS story.

My advice, chuck the McKee book (I know folks love him, but really, chuck that shit) and pick up King's ON WRITING.

Bar none, the VERY best book on writing story, the best. He focuses on fiction, of course, but I think how he constructs a story is worth it.

First thing anyone should ask while writing a screenplay, in my small opinion, isn't what will happen but WHO is this happening to?

Because without that, without someone to be the audience's sponsor, you're fucked. You can have more than one, you can put the job on an ogre or a rabbit, but they have to be who it happens to and they should either be A) the best possible person to be in that situation or B) the worst possible person to be in that situation.

B) is usually more fun, you know?

And while I had my problems with Jeff Kitchen's book, I'd say his post on the Dilemma of the protag is worth the read if character is a problem for anyone.

Okay, I'm ranting. But you know how you feel, MM, whenever you read a good script by someone who just thought screenplay structure didn't really matter (and we know it does)?

I feel that way whenever I read a script regarding believable and interesting characters . . . and I'd offer up that the majority of the time, the structure works better than the characters do.

Okay, cut me off, bartender.

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

*applauding Josh*

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, guys.

Christian - great article. I loved this quote: "Go for the small movie. Show you can write characters and dialog rather than sweeping descriptions that may never happen because there is no place with a waterfall next to town." Couldn't agree more.

Carl - Thanks, man. Is that you in that picture?

Josh - Beautiful post, man. Couldn't agree more. In the argument - story vs. character, I would always say "character," because people will forgive a lot of story/structure flaws if they love the characters. But it sounds like it would just be more accurate to say "Character IS story."


Christian M. Howell said...

Thanks, MM. I get such tidbits of wisdom in my internet travels, I think it's only fair to pass on what I've learned.

It even helps me as vocalizing something helps you to put it together in your own mind.

And speaking of character, I've got a short little article on character juxtaposition as a dramatic tool.

I love it as you really only need to flesh out your protag and everyone else is a contrast or comparison to that personality.

Like in one script, I use to guys who illicit a different reaction from the protag which helps to explain why she doesn't like the one guy.

It's actually a common tactic - in my mind - for every buddy movie: good cop\bad cop as it were.

Joshua said...

Actually, I don't mean character story . . . what I mean is that without character (well executed and conceived) you don't really have a story, not really.

Like I said, there are some films put together pretty well and then you see and completely flat and unbelievable character and the whole thing falls apart.

Character is more important than spectacle.

Mystery Man said...

Christian - I'll have to check that out. Thanks.

Josh - Well, I completely agree with you. I rank character above everything.


Mystery Man said...

Ya know, Joshua, I think my disgust with flashback structures came around the time "On Writing" was published. I completely agreed with King when he railed on the "passive voice" and I think, in cinematic / narrative terms, that's what the passive voice is. You care less BECAUSE it happens in the past.