Set Up = Death

Just critiqued a client’s script and without going into story specifics, I thought I’d give you some of the take-aways.

It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever had a client deliver. Still, there were areas to improve.

The cliched rule-of-thumb with first draft (and this was a third draft) scripts is, “Rip out the first 20 pages.” I did it with a script of mine about four scripts ago.

This writer wanted to show how the hero got to where he is. That his mother had died. That his uncle was giving him a place to live. The hero meets the girl (a set up which, in the phone conference, we decided he keep). We meet the hero’s friends, adorable goofy losers. We see him get his first real job since his mother died. We do not meet the person who will be the eventual opponent, with whom the hero will do battle at the end.

I kept making notes on the pages… “where is tension?” “story not started” “where conflict?”

I do that a lot, by the way. I need a “Where CONFLICT?!” rubber stamp!

Because the scenes were just set up… telling us where the character was and sort of how he got there… it was impossible for there to be any real tension, because the story had not yet started. Once the story begins, you can have real, meaningful conflict. Not chit-chat argument that isn’t “about” anything.

The hero didn’t have a goal. Not one we could see, like, at night, a super columnated beam of light from a lighthouse was shining on it. Imagine how bright a light that would be, shining on your hero’s goal… Or this one… spotlights slung under the wings of a B-17, swooping in low (again at night) as the bad guy zig zags across the desert in a jeep, trying to stay out of that bright white light. The bomber’s machine guns cutting into the desert scrub as the hero’s goal tries to elude the writer / pilot… once the jeep gets in the light, lock on and stay on, and then get rid of all that zig zagging through the desert before you got the light on your hero’s goal.

A tortured image that I will probably give up on now.

Tell us / showing us how the hero GOT to where his predicament began is a recipe for slow, boring doom and a reader stopping at page 8 or 9. That assumes you’ve gotten your script past the coverage stage, to a person who is legally allowed to STOP reading… like an agent.

The story has to START with the hero with a problem, not waiting for it to begin. It may be a low grade problem, like a fever, but the beginning is not before the hero has a problem. The problem just gets WORSE as he moves forward. I kept writing FADE IN: and scratching it out, and a few pages later, writing FADE IN: and scratching it out… until I finally found what I suspected would end up being the opening of the movie… the hero trying to attain his goal, with a plan… and then (guessing here) about 14 pages later, that plan explodes and the hero hurtles toward the end of act one.

I suggested the writer keep the stuff that pertained to the last fifteen pages of his script, and cut most of the first 20 pages. I hope that is what he’ll do. Because suddenly, his script will be easier to write.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Set Up = Death

  1. This is a problem I had with the first Hobbit movie, doing a direct adaptation does not work all the time, that seem to be problem movie adaptations, expositiin maybe ok with text on a book, but film is a different medium, I suggest screenwriters to think more visual and economical, this is why I DESPISE M Night The Last Airbender, a rape to my favorite cartoon, where it’s all exposition. It’s just stuff happening, not characters reacting and emoting.

    Speaking of animation, I recently starting to reread your book, and I notice you called DREAMWORKS ANIMATION’S Prince of Egypt a DISNEY film mostly because your ignorant in animation this is what Tvtropes.org called “Every Animation is Disney” when people make that terrible mistake, by the way Im listing your book as an example. Just like The Oscars, people in Hollywood are ignorant and dont understand the art NOT GENRE (Brad Bird will punch anyone who will make that mistake) anyway I just like to point out this mistake to you. I would appreciate an apology and admitting you made this mistake on this site, maybe make a blog about animation. I dont know, but I like to use what I learn in your book to further what animated films can do. Thank you for reading this, if you are reading this

    -Adrian Dezendegui

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