I read two scripts this morning about which I seriously debated, “to recommend or not to recommend…” For me as a reader, it really comes down to whether or not I would fight for a script. If I’m on the fence, that’s not a resounding, “yes!” There are too many resounding yeses at this level, so if it’s a mediocre yes, then, for me, that’s not a recommend.
I have already recommended a couple of projects for this competition, one of which was quite frankly incredible. I absolutely loved it. I still think about it every day. That’s the mark of great writing – you just can’t get it out of your head. It seeps into the corners and lurks there, taking up space, marking its territory. I wait for that. The script that haunts my waking hours. Those characters, ghosts, that I carry with me throughout my day.
These two aren’t that. They’re not haunters. But why not? Why are these just below the cut?
In thinking carefully about these two projects, I realized the main difference: neither of these scripts were emotionally evocative enough to make me laugh or cry. Neither made me literally sit up and scoot to the edge of my seat, dying to know what happens next. Even though they moved well, they held my interest, they were competently plotted and the subject matter was quite interesting, the deciding difference at the end was in the characters. Neither of these scripts will haunt me once I put them down. And that is because, honestly, I didn’t care enough about the characters.
In the two near misses, the characters moved through the world and the story was adequately plotted. However, I had absolutely no sense of where these characters had come from before page one. Without a clear sense of who the character is – outside the confines of the page – then I don’t have a point of reference in which to understand the character arc. The character’s growth in the story journey, or character arc, is the real reason why we love characters and connect to them. So, if the world paradigm of that character isn’t very clear when we meet them – if it is vague or confusing in any way – then it will be harder to understand or connect with that character.
Both scripts start out right inside the story and they do not give me a couple of scenes to establish the normal world. That tends to work better for some genres and not so well with others. For thrillers, mysteries or actions, that is fine because we’re supposed to be wowed by the thrills and action sequences. The character scenes can come a little later. However, in a character drama, it is important to establish the normal world so that we have somewhere to grow to from that starting point.
With that project I loved, I was up at 2:00am reading it, and I literally was dying to turn the page to find out what happened next. And that level of suspense was maintained throughout. But I really fell in love with the protagonist. He was multi-dimensional. He felt like a complicated real human being. I had a fantastic sense of what his life had been like before page one – and I also had a great sense of where his life was going after FADE OUT. I didn’t question the choices made by this character – they seemed obvious based upon what the writer had established.
The today scripts did not paint character adequately enough for me to not question some of their choices. These choices led to main plot points, and I didn’t understand or believe the choices, which led me to not buy the world or the characters in general.
I will give you specific examples:
Border patrol agent has a “relationship” with a Mexican woman who works in a brothel, is likely a stripper or hooker, although he chooses to ignore this. She has a relationship with a drug dealer and uses her agent boyfriend to get the drug dealer info about how and where to smuggle drugs across the border.
My thinking: Okay, so a hooker who plays an asshole to get her drug dealer friend smuggling info, fine, that I’ll buy. However, a border agent sleeping with a hooker and not assuming he’s being played? That I didn’t buy. For me, that is a HUGE break in the logical world. Especially in the thriller world – everyone should be playing everyone. The writer could have established a very specific set of circumstances to sell that point to me so that it had been believable. For example, she’s the hottest woman for 500 miles so he gets street cred by f*ing her. He knows she’s using him but he enjoys having sex with her; he’s also using her by trying to get her to inform on the local drug and smuggling community. He tries to keep their exchange under control, but she outsmarts him. That’s more believable to me.
High school male shares a kiss with a male teacher but after which still denies he’s gay and pursues a female friend, saying he “has feelings for her.” Meanwhile, he’s dating said teacher and exploring his gayness.
This one is more sticky because everyone’s sexuality is personal. However, most of my gay friends knew they were gay from a very early age. It’s one point to make a conscious choice not come out and be openly “gay,” but all the while know inside you are attracted to men – that might make a very interesting story, and perhaps a great story for the Christian Right to pursue (since apparently many of them fall into that category and are forced to because of oppression). However, there was something about the way this particular character was established that rang false to me. I don’t think you wake up one morning at seventeen without having thought to yourself, “Am I gay?” and just kiss a man. I’ve known women who have done that. But, dudes, not so much. There were many choices in here that just didn’t make any sense to me, and because of my confusion they didn’t deliver the emotional punch they needed to.
Ultimately, there were just too many choices that I didn’t believe, and they boiled down to character. Any point of confusion for the reader is a break in the logical world of your story and distracts the reader. In making absolutely clear and logical character choices, it will be clear why your characters are making the choices they make. You can have characters making unique or unusual choices, but you must establish them properly so that they make sense in the world of that character.