Today’s pilot not only brings one of the best superhero ideas in years to the table, it also reminds us just how important it is to find that fresh angle to a stale genre!
Genre: TV Pilot – Comedy/Superhero
Premise: In a world where superheroes leave a limitless path of destruction, we follow an insurance company that specializes in insuring against superhero-related damage.
About: I’m still not sure if Powerless was a comic book or not, but I do know this show will be covering damage from REAL SUPERHEROES. Well, I mean, if you count superheroes from the DC universe “real.” The show was created by Ben Queen, who wrote a straight-to-video flick called “Proximity” back in 2001, then went through a bit of a drought before securing a coveted Pixar writing job in 2011 (Cars 2). His work has been steadily increasing since, culminating in “Powerless,” which NBC is said to be SUPER high on (get it!?).
Writer: Ben Queen
Details: 34 pages – January 5, 2016 draft
You wanna know one of the key differences between a pro writer and an amateur writer? It’s something that took me years to figure out, and until you make the mental switch in your own head, it’s like you’re playing checkers in a city of people playing chess.
An amateur sees that superhero movies and superhero TV shows are doing well and they say to themselves, “That means I should write a superhero movie or TV show.” A pro writer, on the other hand, sees that superhero movies and TV shows are doing well and says, “That means I need to find an angle into this superhero thing that hasn’t been done before.”
In other words, they don’t come home from the opening weekend of Superman and start writing Batman. They come home from Superman and start writing Hancock.
Now there’s a whole art to this – exploiting old ideas for new ones. And I’m going to get into how to do this in a bit. But first let’s check out the show that’s inspiring today’s discussion, Powerless.
28 year-old Emily Locke is sick of superheroes, or “Supers” as they call them in this universe. These costumed egomaniacs are always battling each other, using the city as their own personal UFC fighting cage. This leads to all sorts of damage and death, and for what? So that these cool dudes with their slick leather capes can get a Saturday night table at Bar Marmont?
Recently, Emily’s boss and mentor was killed during one of these battles. So when Emily found herself on a train to work that happened to be picked up by “Crimson Fox” during an early morning battle with Jack-O-Lantern, instead of thanking her for performing her superly duties, she looked straight into Crimson’s eyes and said, “Do you mind putting us back on the tracks?”
Emily didn’t think much of what she said. She was fed up and wanted to get to work on time. But afterwards, word spread about the woman who stood up to the superheroes, and “Put Us Back On The Tracks” began trending on every social media site in the world.
Unfortunately, no one was able to get Emily’s name, which happened to be how she likes it. Emily is the opposite of a Super. She likes to hide out in the background and do her job anonymously. That job takes place at RetCon Insurance, one of the many companies that offers superhero-specific damage insurance.
But Emily’s strange day has only just begun. It turns out she has a new boss, Del, who’s the son of the company’s CEO. And up until today, Del has never had to work a day in his life. Because he has no idea what he’s doing AND he’s a dick, Del replaces everyone’s desks with standing desks, moves the bathrooms off the floor (a trick he read about in Steve Jobs’ biography to improve inter-department relations) and generally makes working conditions at the company only slightly better than a concentration camp.
When Emily’s best office buddy, Teddy, finds out that Emily is the “Back on the Tracks” girl, he encourages her to also stand up for the company and get their working conditions back. Emily will have to decide whether she wants to remain anonymous forever, or have the POWER to speak up and make a difference.
So let’s go back to that question I posed earlier. When you’re looking for a fresh angle on a ubiquitous genre, where do you find it? To answer that, let’s first look at where you don’t find it. You don’t find it in the cliches, in the repeated beats, in the staples of the genre. If you’re looking for inspiration through the things that happen again and again onscreen, you’re only going to be copying.
Where you find inspiration is in the stuff THAT THEY DON’T SHOW. Which means you have to go BETWEEN THE SCENES. You have to imagine what the world they don’t show you is like.
So in this case, the writer asked, “What happens AFTER a superhero battle? Who pays for all that damage?” Or “What happens to those commuters on the way to work when their train gets derailed in a battle? What are the logistics of taking care of that?” And that’s how you’re going to get fresh material. Because those are questions that aren’t usually asked.
And in general, this is how good writers approach everything. They look beyond what’s directly in front of them. They draw inspiration from the peripheral.
As for the story driving the pilot’s plot, I thought it was good, but not great. I liked that the show didn’t rest on its laurels. It didn’t say, “Look at this cool idea I came up with. Now watch me dick around for the next 35 minutes.” It brought this whole crazy boss plotline in which kept the office stuff firing on all cylinders.
And I love that. I love when writers say, “I know I have a cool idea here. But I’m still going to push myself and come up with an actual story here.”
My problem was that the story they chose didn’t connect enough with the concept. It was TOO SEPARATED from the superhero angle. I mean if your concept promotes a company that deals with superhero destruction insurance, shouldn’t your pilot deal with a major insurance claim that came via superhero destruction?
You could’ve even tied it in with the opening. Maybe Crimson Fox dropped the subway car that Emily was on and that was the claim. I’m not sure a standing desks debate best takes advantage of the cool concept you’ve constructed.
But the pilot survives this misstep because the writing is crisp and funny and promises a world where we likely WILL see insurance-related plotlines. It also hints at some fun surprises, such as some of the people at work secretly being superheroes.
So while I didn’t think this was perfect, it was much better than the typical slew of superhero stuff I read. I think NBCs got a rare winner on its hands.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When looking for a fresh spin on an overdone genre, being different isn’t good enough. You want to be clever. For example, I could bring a fresh take to the superhero genre by focusing on a superhero who’s a great cook. But is that a movie that people would wanna see? No. It’s not clever in any way. Insurance claims stemming from superhero destruction is an intellectually rich idea that offers all sorts of possibilities.
So I’m going to toss it over to you guys now and see how much you’ve learned. Another common genre at the moment is the young female post-apocalyptic YA flick. I’ve just hired you to give me a fresh take on the genre. Leave that fresh take in the comments and upvote your favorite submissions. Winner gets “Featured Comment” Status and their very own virtual green light!
I’m off for the day guys. I’ve been reading Scriptshadow 250 Contest scripts all weekend and need a breather. I know there was a big hubbub over a certain script submitted to Amateur Offerings on Saturday. Guys, honestly? Don’t get your skivvies in a bunch over it. A “Get Noticed” script is a perfectly viable approach to marketing yourself in this industry.
Less and less specs are selling each year so you’re not so much writing to sell as you are writing to get noticed. If someone wants to break the rules and write first-person action lines, it’s not a big deal. We’ve seen Black List scripts do this. We’ve seen Nicholl finalists do this. And hell, we just saw a movie dominate the box office that embraced this mentality. I’m not sure why people were freaking out about it so much.
Moving on, here are 5 scripts that you don’t want to write, derived from the last 5 Scriptshadow 250 scripts I read. I know you’ll all ask, “When will you announce the winner, Carson??” I refuse to answer that question as I haven’t met any of my previous deadlines. All I can say is that I have 18 of the 25 finalists so far and that I continue to read!
1) The “By-the-books” script – I read a biopic and the writing was actually really good. But the writer hit all the biopic beats right down to the childhood flashbacks. There wasn’t a single moment that surprised me. I was 50 pages ahead of the writer, and that was on page 5! You have to infuse some unexpected choices into your scripts guys! Don’t just use a template from a successful script in your genre and follow it to a ‘t.’
2) The “Can’t Get Out of My Own Way” script – This script came from one of my favorite commenters on Scriptshadow so I was really looking forward to it. But the writer was so set on impressing us with his writing that every paragraph was 15 words longer than it needed to be. I had to keep going back through sentences to understand what I’d just read. Just getting through the script became a chore. Stop overcomplicating things. Write in a simple manner that’s easy to read!
3) The “Flashbacks For No Reason” script – Oh boy. This script kept jumping back into flashbacks that would REPEATEDLY tell me things I already knew. The main character liked chocolate. So the flashback would be of the hero as a child buying chocolate from a candy store. No, guys. No. If you’re going to include a flashback, it better have a point that relates to the story!
4) The “I Haven’t Done A Lick of Research Into the World of the Story I’m Telling” script – This particular script was about a bunch of hardcore thugs who came from a rough neighborhood. Though it was clearly written by an upper middle class white dude who’d never spent a day in the hood in his life. If you’re going to write about a world you know nothing about, you better take the time to research that world. The page don’t lie.
5) The “I’m Not Bringing Anything New To The Party” script – It’s perfectly okay to want to bring back a genre. For example, writers have been trying to bring back the Spielberg 80s movies for 20 years now. But there’s a difference between bringing a fresh new angle to these movies, and bringing us the exact same movies we’ve already seen. If you don’t bring the fresh new angle, your script will feel dated, like something that was written in the 80s, and that’s not what you want.
Hope that helps. Oh, and check out both 11/22/63 on Hulu and Love on Netflix. Both rock and are very well-written!
The Oscars are finally here! Well, at the end of the week, anyway. On Thursday, I’ll be handicapping the original and adapted screenplay categories. That’ll be sure to ruffle some feathers as I’ll probably spend the whole time writing how if Spotlight wins, it means nobody in the Academy understands screenwriting. But in the meantime, let’s check out some FUTURE Oscar winners. That’s right, YOU GUYS! Read as much as you can of each script, let the writers know where you stopped (or if you stopped) and why, then vote for your favorite. Good luck to all!
Oh and remember, you can submit your own script to challenge your peers by sending me an e-mail (email@example.com) with your TITLE, GENRE, LOGLINE, WHY YOU THINK IT DESERVES A SHOT, and a PDF of the screenplay. A good review tends to get writers some industry contacts. So keep’em coming!
This one sounds like an old school 90s spec!
Title: Keep Talking
Logline: A lowlife informant must struggle to stay alive when a vicious cartel implants an explosive device in his throat, which is set up to detonate if he stops talking.
Why you should read: It has horrible criminals, entertaining violence and colorful profanity, surrounded by a copious amount of GSU. I’m also fairly certain the title page is centered.
Title: The Meal Plan
Genre: Crime Thriller
Logline: After armed thugs take over his dorm, an outcast resident fights to save the roommates he loathes and the girl he loves from being held hostage.
Why you should read: The Meal Plan came about after a neighboring dorm was robbed and the residents were tied up with their shoelaces during my Freshman year of college. From those true events sprang the foundation for this Die Hard-meets-Reservoir Dogs tale. I’ve workshopped this script quite a bit but have yet to take it for a spin on the contest circuit or in the marketplace. I’d love to hear what the Script Shadow community thinks of The Meal Plan before I do. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.
Title: American Witch
Logline: When Emma’s sister Sadie is kidnapped by a witch and hidden in an abandoned mine, Emma must search the witch’s lair in an attempt to save Sadie’s life.
Why you should read: If you enjoy horror then I have a treat for you… This Amateur Offering comes paired with a 5-minute award-winning short film based on the feature I wrote. The script itself has received two 7’s on The Black List and has been read by respected agents and studios around town (my witch script is among Alex Ross’ HEXEN on TBL, http://scriptshadow.net/amateur-friday-hexen-witches/, it’s cool to be among fellow SS readers. I don’t feel so lonely). Alas, I have yet to reach the level we all hope to be apart of, “produced writer.” So please, watch and read and give me your thoughts on what more I have to do to sell my first screenplay. I’d really appreciate it.
Title: Back In Line
Logline: Spiraling out of control, the best detective on the force must team with a by-the-book female partner in order to finally catch his arch nemesis who he believes is a time traveling criminal from outer space.
Why you should read: I’m pretty sure the guy I hate most in this world is actually from another planet. I can’t prove it, though. And it’s driving me nuts. Because I can’t just causally mention to people that I think this person is from another planet. When I do they think I’m kidding. I try to leave a moment of silence after they chuckle in the hopes that they get that I’m not kidding. But then I chicken out and chuckle back. Anyway, I hope you like the script.
Logline: After a routine liposuction, a man discovers his unborn twin living inside him.
The horror begins when the entity takes over his body.
Why you should read: I’ve been writing screenplays for a really, really long time. I’m either a stubbornly horrible writer or an undiscovered talent. You be the judge, sir. I’ve sold a screenplay to Justin Lin (“Fast and Furious 3-6″ and “Star Trek Beyond”). This was a Sigmund Freud biopic, if you can believe that. I’ve had countless scripts optioned over the years. “HALFS” is one of the best of these scripts. I will promise one thing… you will be entertained until the last page.
No amateur script today so I thought I’d discuss yesterday’s article about opening scenes, as well as post the winner of the scene contest! But first, I want to comment on a few of the things commenters noted.
“Flash-forward opening scenes are a cliche.” – I believe the commenter was trying to say that crazy mysterious flash-forward openers are cliche and hollow, a cheap trick to grab our interest before cutting to the past where, surprise surprise, a much slower and less interesting story unfolds. I agree with this. Those were not the scenes I had in mind when I wrote yesterday’s article. If the only way for you to pull me in is to flash forward to an exciting scene that will happen later in your screenplay, you’re not doing this right. Flash-forwards and flash-backs should always be your last option. See if you can create interest out of a linear situation first. Because unless you’ve written the greatest flash-forward opener ever, or it’s clear that there’s a reason why you started us in the future, I’m going to be skeptical of your ability to tell a compelling linear story.
“The opening scene is just a scene.” – MulesandMud had some excellent notes yesterday on how dramatic questions work. If you didn’t read his comment, make sure to. What he’s basically saying is that you shouldn’t just be asking dramatic questions in your opening scene. You should be asking dramatic questions in every scene. What I was trying to say was that if there isn’t a dramatic question posed in the opening scene, it usually means the writer doesn’t understand drama. And if they can’t hook you in the first 5 pages, how in the world are they going to keep you hooked for an entire screenplay? So yeah, even after you’ve finished that dramatic-question opening scene, don’t stop posing questions. Keep asking them in as many scenes as possible. That’s how you’ll keep us hooked.
“Each screenplay is unique.” – There will never be a screenwriting tip that universally fits every script. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this craft, it’s that every time you write a new script, you face new challenges that require you to do things you’ve never done before, some of those going against the very guidelines you’ve based your writing foundation on. For example, I always recommend you give your hero a memorable opening scene. But due to the unique challenges of some stories, you might not be able to do that. You could’ve made the opening of Die Hard a lot more interesting if the plane John McClane was on lost control and McClane had to save it. But then you lose the “ordinary man” quality that makes the rest of the movie work so well. My point being, I would prefer a dramatic question to open your script. It’s the easiest way to hook the reader. But if you’ve chosen an idea that doesn’t mesh well with that approach, don’t force it. Do what the script is telling you to do.
Okay, on to yesterday’s winning scene! This comes from Lucid Walk. The script is titled Under The Vultures and is a cowboy-zombie mash-up. I really liked the scene. I thought it did everything I talked about. The only issue I had with the scene (spoiler alert) was that the heroine was saved by a deus-ex-machina. Always always always try to get your main characters to solve the big problems on their own. Not only is it good writing, but it’ll make your audience fall in love with your hero like you wouldn’t believe. Minor quibble though. The rest of the scene was great!
EXT. FOREST – NIGHT
A heavy deluge of rain pelts WENDY MCQUAIL (27) as she bounds through the heart of a lush forest.
She is an innocent beauty, garbed in a blood-spattered pioneer dress, clutching a double-barreled shotgun.
SUPER: MONTANA, 1872
Wendy stops behind a tree, panting rapidly.
Lightning flashes. Thunder ROLLS.
A SHRIEK fills the air — high-pitched, ghastly — like the wails of a banshee mixed with the cries of a dying animal.
Wendy opens the gun’s chamber, only one shell left.
Another SHRIEK, closer.
Wendy closes the chamber — KACHICK! She takes a deep breath, her eyes filled with fear.
She steps around the tree, risks a peek.
Lightning flashes. Thunder ROLLS. And then —
THREE FIGURES burst out of the wet bushes.
Their flesh pale and rotten. Blood oozes out of their mouths. Their eyes burn bright yellow like jewels from hell.
And we’ll call them what they are — ZOMBIES.
The zombies linger, scanning the area for their prey.
Wendy watches them from the cover of the tree. Her eyes fixed on the undead monsters, she doesn’t notice…
A HULKING FIGURE approaches her from behind.
The zombies SHRIEK with anger, defeated in their search. They sprint into the foliage, out of sight.
Wendy sinks against the tree, sighs in relief.
A low GROWL.
Wendy swivels to the sound and sees…
An UNDEAD GRIZZLY BEAR stalks out of the darkness.
A hellish beast of intense size. Its furry hide is torn open, exposing its grisly rib cage. Its intestines drag through the wet mud. Blood drools out of its serrated fangs.
The bear’s yellow eyes leer at Wendy.
The shotgun falls to the ground.
Wendy gapes at the monster, frozen with fear.
The bear bellows a tremendous ROAR.
Wendy snaps out of it, goes for the shotgun —
The bear lunges —
BANG! — a gunshot ECHOES amidst the heavy storm, reverberating throughout the forest.
THE THREE ZOMBIES
whirl around, charge in the direction of the shot.
They find the BEAR collapsed in the dirt, its head blasted into a million pieces of brain matter and bone fragments.
The empty shotgun lays beside the bear carcass.
No sign of Wendy.
Once again, the zombies scan the area.
UNDER THE BEAR CARCASS
lies Wendy, completely hidden.
The bear’s entrails slime her body. She shields her mouth from the foul stench, silences her breathing.
She lies still and quiet…listening, waiting, hoping.
Suddenly, the carcass jerks back and forth.
Wendy’s eyes widen in shock.
shred into the carcass like a piñata. Cold fingers plunge into the exposed rib cage. They gorge on handfuls of rotten innards.
The zombies chew their way through the carcass…oblivious of who lies underneath…getting closer to her nonetheless.
closes her eyes. She’s trapped, helpless, alone.
Fresh tears stream down her face —
The carcass goes still. Wendy opens her eyes.
TWO THUDS as two zombies hit the ground.
The last zombie SHRIEKS.
Wendy stays still, listens intently.
Mud SPLASHES —
Thunder BOOMS —
A sickening THWACK —
The zombie SHRIEKS —
Another THWACK —
THUD as the last zombie hits the ground. And then…
Silence. Nothing else as the heavy rain SPLATS the earth.
Wendy remains still, waiting until it’s safe.
Wendy emerges from under the carcass. The rainwater rinses the bear’s muck off her body. Her eyes glide over the dead zombies.
Two have bullet holes through their brains. As for the third, the grip of an empty revolver has been clubbed into its left eye socket.
The yellow light has faded from their eyes.
Wendy turns around as a flash of lightning reveals —
HARLAN ELLSWORTH (35) lies slumped against a tree, breathing heavily. He is a charismatic gunslinger with the makings of a tamed wolf — reliable, but dangerous.
Oh, my God.
Harlan notices Wendy, tips his hat with a smile. It takes all of his strength to speak.
Oh. Howdy, ma’am.
Wendy hurries to Harlan’s side. He struggles to keep his eyes open. Pain and exhaustion take their toll.
Sir, are you alright?
Wendy looks down and gasps. A red smear of blood blossoms the inside of his shirt.
Now don’t you go worryin’ yourself, it ain’t a bite. But you are welcome to verify.
Wendy gulps. She cautiously lifts up his shirt, reveals a small hole burst outward on his torso, oozing blood.
Sir, you were shot?
Lovely, ain’t it? Right in the back, and right out the gut.
An undead SHRIEK resonates in the distance. Harlan and Wendy turn towards the sound.
‘Course, that ain’t nothin’ compared to what they can do.
Can you walk?
More or less.
He groans as he attempts to stand, using the tree for support.
But as to how far, I can’t say.
Wendy throws his arm around her shoulders, helps him up.
There’s a trading post just through these trees. We can make it.
Another distant SHRIEK.
We damn well better.
Wendy helps Harlan walk. He groans again, covers his mouth.
Apologies, ma’am, but you reek.
Wendy can’t help but laugh. She glances at the bear carcass.
Yes, well, desperate times.
She and Harlan disappear into the woods.
The thunderous storm RAGES on, drowns out the distant sound of horrible SHRIEKS.
FADE TO BLACK
I give this note to writers all the time in consultations, because very few amateurs know how important it is. YOUR OPENING SCENE HAS TO BE AWESOME. The opening scene is the scene readers use to decide a) if they’re going to like you as a writer, b) if your writing is any good, and c) if this script has any shot at being good. Bore us with an opening scene and you’ve essentially lost your reader before your script’s started.
How should you approach opening scenes so that this doesn’t occur? It just so happens there’s a trick to ENSURE your reader will be roped into your script immediately. And that trick is to start your script with a dramatic question. Something should be happening. Something that has a goal, that has stakes, that has some urgency, and that puts your hero in a position where he has to make choices, preferably important ones.
Here’s why this works. Whenever you pose a question, the audience wants to know the answer. So if you start your script off a minute before your hero, an Olympic sprinter, is about to run the 40 yard dash, who in their right mind is going to STOP READING before they find out if the character wins the race? Nobody. It’s literally impossible to stop reading.
Assuming that we’re intrigued by the characters you’ve introduced AND the question you’ve posed is compelling, this approach works every time. Because we have to find out what happens! Raiders of the Lost Ark is the perfect example of this. We have to see if Indiana Jones gets the gold idol and gets out of the cave in one piece!
But it doesn’t have to be a big action scene. Remember Titanic? That script opens with a slow crawling scene under the ocean. But there’s a question. They’re trying to find a piece of treasure, and we want to know if they can find it.
And it doesn’t even have to be a big movie to open with a dramatic question. I read a script about teenagers recently and the script opened with the teens trying to get up the courage to go inside and buy beer with a fake ID. It was a simple question but it still fell under the blanket of “dramatic question” and I wanted to know the answer. Would they score the beer or not?
Remember, the more compelling the characters, the more interesting the question, the higher the stakes, and the more unexpected the execution, the more the scene will work. But the principles are always the same. Ask a dramatic question. We’ll keep reading til we get the answer.
So that’s today’s challenge. Write us an opening scene that hooks us, that makes us want to keep reading your script. You could write it right into the comments below, or provide a link to a PDF download of your scene. Upvote your favorite scenes and we’ll give props to the winner in tomorrow’s amateur friday review. Good luck!
p.s. If you have the extra time, let the scene-writers know if you’d continue reading their script after that first scene or put it down. If you’d put it down, let them know why. Remember, most writers rarely get feedback, so it’s hard for them to ever know what they’re doing wrong.