Wednesday, December 14, 2011

First Ten Pages Week - The Oswald Solution (3rd Place)

Genre: Drama
Logline (3rd place): When a prison guard falls in love with the wife of a death-row inmate, he's forced to choose between his love for her or reveal the discovery of crucial evidence that will save her husband's life.
About: Welcome to the first annual “First Ten Pages Week.” What I did was have readers send in loglines then vote on their favorites. The top five loglines, then, would get their first 10 pages read this week. With any of the five reviews, if the comments are positive enough, I’ll review them in full on an Amateur Friday.
Writer: David Birch

I think The Oswald Solution may have the best *crafted* logline of the Top 5. Why? Well, there’s a clear and compelling dilemma at the heart of the idea. Would you save a man’s life if it meant losing the woman you love? That’s a question I’d want to find out the answer to. So I went into this one with a lot of hope.

The first 10 pages of The Oswald Solution introduce us to the Governor, Lamar Snyder, rejecting a stay of execution for a man named “Jefferson,” a former member of his organization. This leads the media to believe that there are ulterior motives going into Snyder’s decision. We then meet an alcoholic correctional officer named Melvin Delray who is sent to pick up Jefferson from the courthouse. When his car is attacked by a mob of ferocious protestors, however, he heads back to the jailhouse where he convenes with a bunch of fellow employees.

The Oswald Solution starts off bumpy. I don't understand why writers refuse to describe their characters. If someone is out there telling you that you shouldn't describe people because you don't want to limit your casting options, don't listen to that garbage. Right now, all that matters is you paint a picture of your story for the reader. And that means telling us something about your character when they're introduced so we get a sense of them. Lamar might as well be invisible because I have no idea what he looks like or what kind of person he is.

A page after Snyder is introduced, I see him talking in front of a cluster of microphones as if he's the Governor or something. Wait a minute. *Is* he the governor? He certainly wasn’t introduced as the governor. I went back to see if I missed something. I notice that in the slugline it says “Governor’s Office.” So technically I should be able to draw the connection between, “This is the governor's office,” and "This is a man in the governor's office.” Therefore he’s probably the Governor.

But “Governor Office” is sometimes used to refer to an entire building, so even though that's a clue, it doesn't definitively tell me anything. The bigger problem here is that we’re introduced to “Lamar Snyder.” We're not introduced to “Governor Lamar Snyder.” Just that one single word could've taken care of this confusion. In fact, “Governor Snyder” is used one page later. Why would we do that *after* he's introduced as opposed to *when* he was introduced?

You may think this kind of stuff doesn't matter but TRUST ME, it does. The fact that I've already had to go back and check something two pages into the script is a tell-tale sign that I’m in for a bumpy ride.

On the second page, we use “anyone” instead of “any one.” Quickly after, a young reporter asks: “Jefferson was a high ranking member of your political organization, how do respond to the reports that he is requesting you attend the execution?” Not only is there a missing “you” in there but the comma after “organization" should be a period. An isolated mistake every 30 pages can be overlooked. It’s when mistakes compound that I get worried.

We then shift out of the office and meet correctional officer Melvin Delray. As he's driving, he's drinking from a flask. This was the first good moment in the screenplay. That's an action that tells me immediately who this character is. This is someone in an authoritative position who’s drinking on the job. I like the irony. I like the complex character.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how Melvin was affiliated with any of this and where he was driving his car. We get a really confusing scene where he and his partner hear a bunch of sirens and then simply crash into a pole. I know he’s drinking but if you’re a professional driver, is it that hard to pull off to the side of the road? He's then attacked by the giant mob right in front of the courthouse, and in the middle of this terrifying situation, we simply CUT to the jailhouse. Wait a minute. What just happened?? Did they get hurt? Did the crowd break in??

It was only afterwards that I figured out they were going to pick up Jefferson and it all went wrong. However, it looks like Jefferson was still transferred to prison. But how if these guys didn’t do it? I’m not sure since we cut away from that mob scene.

A lot of this confusion could've been avoided by Melvin making a call a block away from the courthouse and saying something like, “Pickup for Jefferson a block away.” But that still doesn't explain to me who the police cruiser and ambulance were. Were they just a random police cruiser and ambulance speeding by? That’s kind of coincidental. With this huge mob scene, I’d think that if anything was speeding anywhere, it would be to here.

We then get back to the correctional facility and proceed to meet a dozen correctional officers within two pages. Names were coming at us faster than Trajent Future insults. This is almost always a bad sign. Professionals know that a reader only has so much space in their brain to remember people. On top of that, they know to never throw a ton of characters at a reader all at once because they’ll be lucky if the reader remembers 25% of them. Indeed, I’d forgotten over half these names less than a page after I’d read them.

In addition, the script doesn't seem to be going anywhere anymore. We're stuck in this correctional facility with a bunch of people talking. There is only so much time in your first act. Every scene needs to be pushing the story forward. You don't have time to dwell on insignificant people and insignificant moments. And unfortunately, that's what I'm seeing here. We're just stuck in this place trying to remember people, trying to figure out who's who, trying to figure out why we're here.

These first 10 pages suffer from the same thing a lot of scripts suffer from - a lack of clarity. It feels like David understands what he's trying to do, but he doesn't understand what he needs to put on the page so that we understand it as well. David gives us clues and generalizations and pieces of what we need to know, but not enough for us to breeze through the read with no questions asked. These pages need to be cleaned up, streamlined, and clarified. Currently, it’s too much of a jumble.

WOULD I KEEP READING? – Unfortunately, no. Too many characters. Too confusing. Too many grammar and punctuation mishaps.

Link: The Oswald Solution (first 10 Pages)

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Clarity is such an issue for new screenwriters because they're simply unaware of the fact that the reader isn’t in their head with them. They just assume that because it's clear to them, it will be clear to everybody else. For that reason, it's a good idea to take a chunk of your screenplay, say 10 pages like this, then give them to a friend and ask, “Is this clear?” “Do you understand everything that's going on here?" “Did you have to reread anything to get it?" What you'll find is that you actually have to give the reader more information than you think you have to. Now it's a balancing act because you don't want to burden your script with too much explanation. But you want to make sure that every key moment is dead clear on the page, or else you’ll lose your reader.