What screenplay contest readers think [Act II]

07/05/2012
This is Act II of a three-act post about screenplay contest analysis. For Act I, which sets up the story of the screenplay I submitted, see Inside the mind of screenplay contest readers [Act I].

UPDATE: The Ice Boy, my screenplay which is discussed here, was a Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship 2012 Quarterfinalist.

Recap

I submitted my feature length screenplay, The Ice Boy, to the BlueCat Screenwriting Competition and in two short weeks received written feedback from two contest readers. I’m sharing that feedback here with my thoughts and snippets from the script.

The Feedback

I’ve arbitrarily decided to refer to my reader as “she”. Her analysis is denoted in block quote format with a grey bar on the left side. (If you’re reading this in a feed reader you might want to pop over to the site to enjoy better formatting.)

Archive # 265
Ice Boy
Reader # 6085

What Did I Like:
Rune is such a wonderful character and I really enjoyed the fact that he was much more verbal in the flashbacks than he was in the present day. This gave him a lot more depth and it forced us to read his emotions.

I’m not sure what “forced us to read his emotions” means. But I’m gratified to hear she enjoyed the flashbacks and connected with the character. In fact, it would be easy to superficially criticize the screenplay as having too many flashbacks, not realizing that there are two equally valid stories here that intertwine. So — success on breaking the “flashback rule”. I’ll take it.

Rune always played the reluctant hero, but emerged as the true hero he actually was toward the end of the script when he desperately fights to save his Grace.

Here’s the one thing about feedback that often frustrates me — lack of specific examples. I have no idea what moment she’s referring to. Rune is pretty much captive in the third act, and Grace sacrifices herself to protect Rune. I’d love to know to what scene the reader is referring in which Rune fights for Grace. But I’m very happy to hear that the reader connected with Rune on a gut level.

Grace was also an interesting character, full of many tortured moments where we really got to see how good of a person she actually was.

Grace is one of those characters that can be hard to pull off. She’s bitter and in a lot of emotional pain, and has woven a protective wall of cynicism, sarcasm and alcohol around herself. And she doesn’t go out of her way to be nice. At all.

BRIGHT STUDENT

Dr. Larsen? I just was wondering if you got my emails? I’m applying for --

GRACE

Your blocking the doorway, Nancy.

BRIGHT STUDENT

I’m Michelle.

GRACE

I know.

Once Rune comes into her life, she finally has to make a choice to be about something more than herself.

I enjoyed the motherly moments she shared with Rune, particularly when she lets him cut off a lock of her hair and keep it. This was a great way of showing them bonding, without any words being spoken at all.

I’m really glad to hear this and I appreciate the specific example. This was one of those scenes that’s so important in terms of character, but runs the risk of slowing down the action. Not to mention, we’re seeing a previously hard-hearted character soften a bit, and that has to be a believable shift.

Here, Grace has just given the neanderthal boy his first haircut:

Rune looks at his shorter hair in the mirror. Still a bit shaggy and rough.

GRACE

What do you think? It’s what all the cool kids are wearing.

Rune ruffles his hair. Messier. Better.

Grace eyes the strap still biting into his wrist. She gently takes his hand.

GRACE

I think it’s time to take care of this, don’t you?

He braces himself, but allows her to continue.

Grace digs the scissors blade under the strap. Rune sucks in a breath but holds steady. His eyes water.

SNIP

Rune sighs in relief. He rubs his raw, red wrist. Grace takes it and rubs some aloe on it. Rune reaches up to touch her hair.

He takes the scissors. Leans in to cut Grace’s hair.

GRACE

Oh, no. No, that’s not a good idea.

Rune gently persists.

GRACE

Just one snip. Not a big one.

Grace stretches out a bit of her hair.

Rune carefully cuts.

Grace ties a rubber band around the lock. Gives it to Rune.

Winters was a classic villain. I really liked seeing a villain that showed no remorse at all. She never backed down from her goal to repopulate the human race with male drones. She always stuck to her plan and killed mercilessly with no cause for hesitation. It is often that we see villains having a moment of weakness where we witness their humanity in a shining moment. It was refreshing to see a character that is actually delusional and evil through and through.

It would be easy to criticize the villain Winters as being one-dimensional but this reader found it refreshing. Why does it work? Partly because Winters is the shadow-self of our hero Grace. It’s what would become of Grace if she didn’t allow her heart to beat again, to allow others to need her and depend on her, and to be about something more than herself for a change.

It also works because Winters is, in her own point of view, absolutely right. She’s fighting to save the human race…just, you know, in her own unique way. But she has a certain kind of logic about her. It’s easy to see how and why she behaves the way she does.

The opening scene with the Neanderthal man was very compelling, full of action and really forced the reader into the story. It was definitely a great way to get the reader invested in the story from page one.

Again, this is great to hear because the story actually opens on Grace and Kyle’s failing relationship. It’s a character moment, and that’s a challenge to open with in a fast-paced thriller. Apparently, it all worked out okay.

The dialogue all throughout this script was great. Every character is smart and even the ones that are not have some very funny and interesting things to say. The dialogue was very witty and intelligent.

I had a lot of fun writing this script and I think it showed. I’m always pleased to get a compliment on the dialogue as I used to consider it a weak spot.

And now the bad news. It’s always hard to hear bad news, even after the good news. Even after many years of writing workshops and critique circles. I always have to brace myself for the bad.

What Needs Work:
Kyle’s character didn’t seem to play a big enough role in this story. Grace and Kyle’s reunion could have been a little meatier, although the awkward sex scene between the two was very funny.

Even though this is a criticism, I’m overjoyed at the mention of the awkward sex scene. This was a huge win for me because it was a very late addition to the script and the last scene I wrote. I put it there for several reasons. One, to build more of a moment between reunited lovers. But also because I had a lot of exposition to get through at the end of the second act, and I originally ended up with pages and pages of talking heads. My new motto? Why write exposition, when you can write sexposition.

Kyle seems to show up with a fancy experimental lab and all the answers. It made me wonder why he had never tried to contact her before all this, in spite of the fact that the human race was at stake. It seemed a little out of his character if he was truly, madly in love with Grace.

This is what was in the script:

SMACK! She slaps him. Hard.

GRACE

You let me believe you were dead.

KYLE

I knew that when you learned everything, you would understand.

GRACE

I don’t understand anything.

Apparently, the reader doesn’t either.

Though never explicitly stated, I thought it was clear that it was imperative Kyle and his team be completely off the grid. Considering the number of betrayals and double-crosses — let’s say trust is an issue. Also, Kyle is a little…eccentric now. He’s become the good-guy version of a bond villain, insulated in his secret lair and driven by a singular purpose. It’s a common theme in this screenplay — in trying to save humanity, people lose their humanity.

There could stand to be more moments between Grace and Rune where Grace takes on a more motherly role or teaches Rune how to live in his new surroundings. Apart from the scene with the delivery boy, Rune doesn’t get a chance to interact with people, places or things throughout the story. It would be nice to see Grace become his teacher in that respect. They have some really nice moments already, but it would be nice to see them bond even more.

I really love this comment because it is so much about what the screenplay strives to be, and it’s the reaction of a reader who likes the characters and wants to see more of them doing the things she likes about them. And there could probably be a bit more of that.

That said, it’s important to remember that Grace can’t transform into a loving mother in one fell swoop. She has a long journey ahead of her, and ultimately cannot achieve he inner goal of becoming mother to Rune until the very end.

The final bit of feedback from my contest reader:

Why is Grace so quick to change her mind and go back to work for Winters? Her decision to work for the crazy woman that pretty much killed her ex was a little rash and she didn’t seem like the type of character to take a decision like that so lightly. It might be beneficial to see a small snippet of why she chose to go back. We know she’s a fighter and she’s determined about her work, but perhaps there’s something personal, or a sign of some sort that gives her the last nudge she was looking for to continue the experiments.

I do have Winters call Grace out on why she knows she’ll return. That said, this is a note all about the refusal of the call. And the Refusal can be a very difficult obstacle for a writer to overcome, as I have written about before. Here’s the scene as it stands:

WINTERS

You’ve always had a lab. It never closed. You never quit.

Grace fixes her eyes on Winters. Deadly serious.

GRACE

I’m not going back there.

Winters waves her hand and Elmer and Fudd rummage around Grace’s apartment. They find a suitcase and start packing.

WINTERS

Grace, my darling Grace. You’re coming back. You’re coming back because jerking college rejects along isn’t a life, not when you could be doing so much more. Like saving the world --

GRACE

Saving the world?

WINTERS

And besides --

Winters takes the tumbler from Grace’s hand. Downs the wine. Presses the empty tumbler back in Grace’s hand.

WINTERS

There is no chance of an “incident” like the last one.

GRACE

How can you be so sure?

WINTERS

You’ll understand when you see.

GRACE

I’m not going back.

WINTERS

I know something about you that perhaps you haven’t learned yet. You can’t live with failure, Grace. You’re the kind that won’t stop until you win. Even if it kills you. It’s why I hired you.

…and we cut directly to Grace, back at the lab. The first act is packed and things move quickly.

I could do the Ripley scene of Grace waking from a nightmare and calling Winters, but that feels so familiar and unnecessary. It would be better to let the script stand than to go for the cliched.

Now What?

Above all else, I’m really very pleased that this reader took the time to thoroughly read my script and give thoughtful feedback, both positive and negative. Though you might think so from my responses, I don’t necessarily disagree with the feedback here. I don’t think it’s off base. I’m just giving context to the comments and illuminating my reasoning for the choices I made at the time I wrote the script.

What’s interesting here is that it’s very difficult to tell how big a problem the problem areas are. Are these notes script-killers or nit picks? Does the bad outweigh the good? Will the screenplay advance in the contest or is it sunk? No screenplay is going to be flawless, but just how problematic are the problems?

Hard to tell.

But this is just one of two analyses I received from the contest. Perhaps the next one will tell me more. Check out my next post, Act III, to find out.

In the meantime, please leave your comments below. What do you think of the analysis? Would something like that be helpful to you? Or would you rather not know what your reader is thinking? How much stock would you put into a stranger’s opinion?

By the way, the new comment system is a dream. You can easily sign in with your Twitter or Facebook account in one click if you like. It’s easy.