Friday, March 2, 2012

Screenplay Review - Flat Pennies (Amateur Friday)

Day 2 of The Gauntlet is here! Yesterday, we looked at a contest winning script. Today, we look at the contender!

This is the second day of "The Gauntlet." The Gauntlet is when an amateur script takes on a pro script to the death. Yesterday’s script was the Amazon Studios Contest winner. Robert’s script, Flat Pennies, did not advance in the same competition. But that didn’t affect Robert’s belief that his script was better. And he was willing to put it up here for all of you to see to prove it. Once again, you can download the winning script here and today’s script, Flat Pennies, here. For future Gauntlet challenges, e-mail me at You must take on a script that has not yet been reviewed on the site. Be sure to include the genre, title, logline and a pdf of your script. Keep in mind your script WILL be made available in the review.

Genre: I would say it’s a drama but Robert characterizes it as a “Psycho-noir.”
Premise: A troubled teen becomes the errand boy for a former train engineer living in a world of heroic fantasies and untold guilt until a revelation ends it all.
About: Robert’s script didn’t advance at Amazon. But that doesn’t mean it can’t advance in the minds of Scriptshadow Nation! Seeing the way a lot of you reacted to Origin Of A Species, it might actually be a close competition.
Writer: Robert Ward
Details: 116 pages

There are two words every screenwriter dreads: “Nothing happens.” Of course “happens” is a relative term. As long as you’re writing about a character doing something, something is “happening.” Even if he’s just reaching for a beer. So maybe the more appropriate phrase should be “Nothing interesting happens.” And in my opinion, nothing interesting happens in Flat Pennies for way too long.

Now here’s the funny thing. You could make the same argument for yesterday’s script, Origin Of A Species. We meet some people. Some dogs escape. There ain’t a whole lot going on there. So how come I liked yesterday’s script so much better than I liked this one? Read on and find out.

Flat Pennies introduces us to Alex Rutledge, a 17 year old kid, kinda hip-hoppy, drunk on whisky, yelling at some train tracks about how his life sucks. From what we can gather, Alex has been adopted and he’s pissed off that his real parents left him. He wants some answers dammit!

Across town we meet Ian Crocker, a recluse of a man who spends his days working on an elaborate model train set inside of his apartment. Ian used to be a train engineer but was injured during a massive crash, relegating him to a wheelchair. Now he collects disability and uses the money to buy new pieces for his set. But all is not well in Ian’s hermetically sealed train station. Looks like they’re cutting down his disability. Which means his train set is at a standstill.

Despite household budget cuts, Ian needs a new errand boy and guess who gets the job? That’s right, our booze-loving teenager, Alex. After a rocky start, the two begin an awkward but fulfilling friendship.

The thing is, they don’t really do much. They mainly sit around and talk about their lives. Alex, at every opportunity (and I mean EVERY opportunity), brings up how his birth parents left him. And Ian keeps going back to that damn train crash. It so bothers him that he’s plagued with strange daydreams, many of which revolve around people dying. As we choo-choo towards their final destination, it becomes evident that their meeting was not by accident, and that the two have more in common than they ever could’ve predicted (no, Ian is not his father).

I already contacted Robert and told him some of my problems with Flat Pennies and I’m going to repeat those here. The script’s biggest problem is how on-the-nose everything is. And its second biggest problem is how melodramatic everything is. Both of these things are HUGE amateur tells. So you want to avoid them at all costs.

Let’s listen to some of Alex’s dialogue in the opening scene, where he’s drunk near some train tracks, yelling to himself. “Why did you pound me into a pile of dirt!” “I’m not even worth a mosquito’s ass.” “There was no reason for what you did. No reason!” “Was I a piece of litter to throw away?” “How could you…leave me, the boy who made the papers?! I was such a good boy. Should’ve never abandoned me.”

First we have melodrama. A drunk guy crying about his life. Ehh, not good. Then we have loads of on-the-nose dialogue. Alex says no less than five times, directly to the reader, that he’s been left. This is the equivalent of lacing your screenplay with anthrax. You don’t want ANY of this stuff in your script. Ever.

And yet it continues. On page 21, Alex picks up a puppet and has a conversation with it where he asks, “Why did my parents desert me?” and the puppet replies. “Alex, you weren’t worth keeping.” Whoa.

On top of that, there’s no drama to any of the scenes (recognize the dramatize!). It’s just Alex coming over to Ian’s and the two talking about their lives, their pasts, and their feelings about one another. They don’t do anything. There’s no goal driving them forward. It’s just a continuous string of “scenes-of-death” with no conflict or purpose.

This is why I always tell you to give your characters a goal, no matter how mundane. Because if they don’t have anything to do, you won’t know what to do with them. Which leaves you writing scenes with people talking to each other even though nobody has anything to say. There are like 10 screenwriters in the world who can make a dialogue scene work with no goals or drama. And even they’d prefer to avoid them. So you gotta stay away from this situation.

Why not make Ian’s problems more urgent? His late rent is hinted at here but never takes center stage (so we don’t take it seriously). Maybe he’s got a week before he has to be out. Now he has a goal – find money or find a new place to stay.

Or, if that’s too obvious, give him something he has to focus on. Maybe his landlord just found out about his elaborate train set and considers it a fire hazard. He wants it out of the apartment within a week or Ian’s out. Now Ian has something to focus on – figure out what to do with his train set. Taking down the set also symbolizes moving past the accident.

Another issue is Ian’s daydreams. We’re not sure if they’re real, if they’re flashbacks, or if they’re made up. Because they’re so different from everything else in the script (Out no nowhere, Ian will be climbing a mountain), they never feel organic, and therefore leave us confused. Now they do pay off, but to just randomly cut to Ian climbing a mountain without cluing the reader in as to what’s going on is a bit jarring.

And this is the thing with screenplays. These kinds of things are forgivable when the script is popping. But when the pace is slowed by a lack of narrative drive, urgency, drama, or conflict, it’s much easier for the reader to get tripped up by these moments.

So this script has a lot to fix. Moving forward, I’d tell Robert to learn how to dramatize scenes (people talking about their lives is not a scene!). I’d tell him to ditch all the melodrama. I’d tell him to get rid of all the on-the-nose dialogue. And I would add some bigger character goals for both Ian and Alex. By making those changes, this script would improve drastically.

And here’s why I care. Despite how boring this script is, it actually has a great ending. Like “holy shit” level ending. I was shocked. But the problem is, nobody’s going to get to that ending because everything that precedes it is too boring. If Robert can somehow nail the first 100 pages of this script – no small feat, I know - he has a story worth telling.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

GAUNTLET WINNER: ORIGIN OF A SPECIES (Who was your Gauntlet winner?)

What I learned: If you have an interesting question you’re bringing up in your story, don’t answer it right away! Keep your reader curious by drawing it out for 5, 10, 15 scenes. Here, we have a nice reveal when we see that Ian’s in a wheelchair. Alex immediately asks him what happened, and Ian launches into the story of the train crash. Noooo! Ian needs to not answer him! He needs to tell him much later in the story! Keep the reader curious!