Friday, September 23, 2011

Amateur Friday - Influence

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: (from writer) A marine biologist, up to her ankles in oysters, flounders on Capitol Hill trying to save the Chesapeake Bay from a silk suited, Republican lobbyist.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.
Writer: Montana Gillis
Details: 96 pages

Montana is probably one of the nicer funnier guys who e-mails me. He just seems like a real genuine person interested in bettering his craft. He also has an interesting backstory, in that he was a Marine, if I'm not mistaken. Which makes this review all the more difficult. Like every Amateur Friday screenplay I pick up, I want to love it. And while Montana can definitely write, I think he gets in his own way at times. This script is really dense, which isn't what you want if you're writing a romantic comedy. The number one thing I want to say to Montana going forward is: less is more. Everything needs to be pared down and the story itself needs to come to the forefront. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Dr. Turner Dixon, a 30 something "fresh-faced shapely stick of dynamite" is doing her best to try and save the Chesapeake Bay. Like a lot of bays in the US, this one is being polluted to the point where all the marine life has disappeared. So Turner is trying to pass a bill on Capitol Hill that will get all these greedy corporations out of the water.

In the meantime, we meet Jack Ward, 39, roguish, and very handsome. A lobbyist, Jack owns a breathtaking boat (the "Influence") that he takes a lot of political bigwigs out on, presumably to wine and dine and get his way from.

Anyway, Dr. Turner is that annoying thorn in all the Senators sides, always pushing one of those liberal "save the world" agendas that will destroy the very economy allowing the town she lives in to thrive. So when Turner heads to a big Capitol Hill party and starts talking up the Senators to vote her way, she's pawned off to Jack, who just the other day nearly killed her when his boat almost slammed into hers.

Naturally, the two get to talking, one thing leads to another, and the next thing you know they sleep together. It's only after this, of course, that Turner realizes Jack is a lobbyist for the bad guys, and therefore her enemy. There’s also a group of shady characters behind the curtain who are aggressively trying to get rid of this annoying Turner and her stupid bill - the very people who allow our Jack to live such a wonderful life. So at some point Jack will have to decide between the cushy life he now lives or the woman he has fallen for.

Okay. I'm going to prep this critique by saying I know very little about how things work on Capitol Hill. So while this script is titled "Influence," you might be able to title me "Ignorance." I just don't know how lobbying and all of that other backroom stuff works. So at least some of my confusion regarding this plot has to do with that. Having said that, I don't think this story is nearly as clear as it needs to be.

Let's start with one of the main characters, Jack. I originally read the logline for this eight or nine weeks ago. So when I picked Influence up the other day, I didn't remember exactly what it was about, which is how I like it, because I want the script to speak for itself. However, I had absolutely no idea who Jack was for half the screenplay. It was only after I went back to the logline that I realized he was a lobbyist. One of the things I just pointed out yesterday was you have to make it clear who your character is as soon as possible.

So how is Jack introduced? He's introduced on a boat barely saying or doing anything. The entire scene focuses on the other character on the boat, the senator, leaving me with no idea who Jack was. In fact, his entrance was so weak, I just figured he was the driver of the boat and therefore a character we’d probably never see again. If the reader thinks one of your two main characters is nobody important in their introductory scene, you're in trouble.

But this continues on for the rest of the script. Jack barely ever says anything. He doesn't have any defining characteristics. He never does anything unique. It was impossible to get any sense of him at all. I mean take the first scene with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. You see him in a big business meeting. You see that he's frustrated. You see that he wants to get away from this world. You see that he's been so pampered his entire life, he doesn't even know how to drive a car. I mean we learn so much about that character in that first sequence. And I don't know anything about Jack after this entire screenplay.

Personally, I think the big mistake here was making him a lobbyist. It just doesn't have any "oomph” behind it, particularly because he never seems that interested in lobbying. In fact, I don't remember a single scene in the entire screenplay where I see him lobbying for anything. That's awfully strange for a lobbyist, don't you think? Why not just make Jack a Senator? It would instantly give him more clout and clarity as a character. It would force him to be more active. The stakes would be higher since he’d have more to lose. It just seems like the much more powerful choice. I guess the lobbyist angle could work, but not as it's currently constructed, with a weak character who doesn't seem interested in lobbying and isn't active in any sense of the word. Still, I would strongly consider the Senator option.

The next huge issue here is the writing itself. It's way too dense. It seemed like every single scene was over-described. It felt like there was a line of description or action between every single dialogue utterance. There was just way too much writing going on here. We only need the essence of the scene, just enough to fill in the rest of the gaps ourselves. Let me give you an example. Here's a paragraph from the script:

"A four story behemoth rises up behind Turner as she stands at the curb. Bright sunlight reflects off car windows and the white stone building. Turner pulls a small purse out of her large bag. She sets the bag down on the edge of the street as she digs in the purse."

The paragraph should probably read closer to this:

"A four story behemoth rises up behind Turner. She digs her purse out of a large bag then places the bag on the ground."

Actually, I probably wouldn't even mention the building, as it's not a necessary component to understanding the scene. I'm going to tell you why this is such a problem. When every single description is a bunch of details that don't matter, that aren't essential to understanding the story, the reader starts skipping over them. So after reading 20 paragraphs like this, I just started skimming because I just assumed all of them weren't important. Then, when you actually do have a paragraph with some important plot information inside of it, the reader’s going to miss it. It's the screenwriting equivalent of crying wolf.

I would try to cut down the amount of description by 50 to 60% here. That's not an exaggeration. Everything needs to be pared down. Not just big paragraphs, but all of the needless descriptions in between the dialogue. Not only would this be a problem in a normal screenplay, but this is a romantic comedy, which should be one of the lightest flowiest screenplays out there. It should be the essence of minimalism. And yet the approach here is the opposite. So I’d definitely encourage Montana to fix that.

There were a lot of little problems here as well. For example, we have a scene where Turner gets out of a car and bumps into Jack. Okay. We create a little conflict between the characters. That's fine. Except then we also have a scene where Jack's boat almost runs over Turner's boat a scene or two later. Why do we need two separate scenes showing the exact same thing?

Also, never give your female character a male name in a romantic comedy. It's too cute, every beginning writer does it, and it drives readers nuts. I mean I've seen readers explode over this because it's done so often. But even besides that, it's confusing. It always takes me 5 to 10 pages to get used to associating a female with a male name, so even if you don't care whether you get the reader upset, you should care that it hurts the reading experience, which is the last thing you want to do in a screenplay.

Lastly, I don't think this script is fun enough. This is supposed to be a romantic comedy and yet the majority of the script focuses on boring backroom politicking. I'm not saying that that stuff can't be interesting, but it's false advertising. People don't come to a romantic comedy to learn the specifics of what goes on behind the pushing of a bill. They come for romance and they come for laughs, and both of those things take a back seat to a lobbying plot here. To use Pretty Woman as an example again, it would be like if they erased half the scenes of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and replaced them with the details of Richard Gere's business deal. So unfortunately, even though I love Montana, these issues really affected my enjoyment of the script.

Moving forward, I would focus on a few things. First, pare all the description down. You have to make this script more readable. Second, go back over yesterday's article, specifically how to introduce characters, and make sure we like these characters right away. I never ever felt like I knew Jack and a big part of that was the way he was introduced and the lack of characterization. He just didn't have any defining characteristics. Finally, I would cut out 75% of the bill plot. We only need the key scenes revolving around that plot. If you want to get into the details of that kind of story, I would recommend writing a drama or a thriller. But here, people are going to be more interested in the romantic comedy aspects of a romantic comedy. This was a fun exercise Montana. Hopefully you don't hate me after this review. All I care about is making the script better. :)

Script link: Influence

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

What I learned: I want to introduce a new term: Readability. As writers, it's our job to get carried away with every detail. We want to make sure we get this important plot point in and that this character arcs correctly and that our theme is consistently hit on. We become so consumed with all the minutia of our script, that we lose the ability to perceive it as a whole. When this happens, we're not able to judge how readable our script is. So after you're finished with your screenplay, you need to ask, "Is this readable?" Not, are all the plot points in the right spot and are all the characters perfectly drawn? But simply, when somebody sits down to read it, is it easy to read? I'm not sure that question was asked here. So save a couple of passes at the very end of your process just for that question. If the read is taking too long or you're not flying through it, ask why? It might be that your description is too thick. It might be that you have too many needless lines gumming up the spaces between the dialogue. It might mean you have scenes that don't need to be in your screenplay. But this is a question that definitely needs to be asked because it's not just about getting everything into your screenplay, it's about how quickly the reader’s eye moves down the page.