Blog the Cat, Chapter Seven – How to fix a broken screenplay

Blog the cat screenwriting index.

Okay, we’re drawing close to the end of Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, ‘Save the Cat’, and chapter seven is about propping up a screenplay and fixing rough spots. Actually, more of the chapter is about diagnosing problems with screenplays, but he does offer some ‘fix-it’ tips as well.

Rather than my usual tack of going through the content of the chapter first and then tackling exercises, I think that this week I’m going to mix in my participatory content and evaluate my Script Frenzy screenplays with respect to each possible problem as I go. I’ll try to cover all three complete scripts for each point, and my one incomplete script I’ll only bring up if it seems particularly relevant.

Problem 1: The Hero is passive.

Symptoms: The hero is being dragged through the story by other characters or forces, his motivation is missing, his goal is vague. He might be lazy and get handed clues to the mysteries surrounding the plot instead of going looking for them. Other characters might always be nagging him and telling him what to do next.

Ideas for how to fix: Probably start with reviewing the goal motivation first, and then going through the plot to make sure that it’s being executed well, and that whenever there’s a possibility of the hero being proactive or just waiting on events, make him show some initiative.

Script 1, Antarran Holiday: There’s maybe a yellow warning light for passive heroes here, but it doesn’t seem too bad. The main characters in the ensemble are mostly passive at the start of the script, waiting until a minor character brings the inciting incident upon them, but then they start to take charge, looking for a safe place on the alien planet, trying to find out more, asserting themselves when the alien army wants to draft them, and hatching a plan to get back home safely.

Script 2, The African Secret: My main character has her passive moments where secondary characters are moving the story along, (such as the big sister or the costar,) but in general her motivations are clear and she pushes through the plot by herself.

Script 3, Dungeon Heroes: Heran is a very dynamic character, possibly too motivated for his own good. But that’s part of the fun.

Problem 2: The characters are telling you the plot.

Symptoms: As-you-know lines, unrealistic character dialog that exists only for the sake of backstory and other exposition, and various crimes against the guideline of ‘show, don’t tell.’

Ideas for how to fix: Convey the same information with visible clues on the screen, or subtler hints in dialog subtext.

Script 1, Antarran Holiday: I think exposition is handled fairly well here. There’s the initial voice-over journal entry to establish some of the premise for viewers who aren’t familiar with the existing canon, and some expository storytelling by Chajicka, but that seems realistic to me because she’s explaining to characters who aren’t familiar with what she’s seen. Probably a few things that I could rework, but overall it doesn’t seem broken.

Script 2, The African Secret: Again, I think I’m in good shape here – some Giles-ish exposition by minor characters, (which could be livened up with a few Pope in the Pool tricks,) but nothing horrendous.

Script 3, Dungeon Heroes: Not that much exposition needed for this script, and I think it’s handled quite well.

Problem 3: The Bad guy isn’t bad enough.

Symptoms: The villain isn’t impressive, powerful, or ruthless enough, especially compared to the abilities of the heroes.

Ideas for how to fix: Change the bad guy’s background or skill level, or do something to establish just how evil they are.

Script 1, Antarran Holiday: I could have a problem here. There are two different antagonists in the script. One, Kivar, the evil alien King, is always offscreen, but portrayed through the reactions of others as a very fearsome character, such that if they wait around until he’s sent somebody out to find them, they wouldn’t have much chance to escape. The other, Turik, who wants the main character to join him in the war against Kivar, is kinduv an incompetent shmuck, and it isn’t hard for the kids to foil his plan. Maybe I could make him a much more hard-core alien Army officer, and have him actually succeed in ‘drafting’ some of the heroes, so that the rest of the gang have to stage a rescue.

Script 1.5, Haunted by a whisper: Again, I have the problem that I don’t think the premise would work if Lee is completely evil, but she could be portrayed as much more hard-core about ‘the game’ – willing to hurt strangers just so long as she gets what she needs to do, and probably delighting in being able to outwit Ben and leave him helpless, now that she knows that he’s her counterpart.

Script 2, The African Secret: Serious problems. The primary antagonist is the African Sorceress Queen, but she’s really a very flat character, who only appears in dinner scenes where she’s pretending to be a gracious hostess of the main character. One possible way of fixing her might be to have Naveli spy on some terrible magik ritual, with the Queen and a few members of her family preparing a horrible spell to protect their Palace when the rest of the world gets devastated. Also, she needs to have a face-to-face showdown with Naveli, which probably means capturing her, and then Naveli has to figure out a way to escape – again.

Script 3, Dungeon Heroes: This one, I’m good at. The Demon Prince is definitely bad enough. A little bit funny, too, but not in a way that diminishes his badness.

Problem 4: The plot is too linear.

Symptoms: The plot of the movie progresses at a constant speed, or speeds up without adding complexity. Things happen, but they’re not interesting.

Ideas for how to fix: Spin things around, throw the hero (and the audience) for a loop with something that they won’t expect.

Script 1, Antarran Holiday: I think that my Act two might have a bit too long of a straightaway, with the characters at Chajicka’s estate. Act one definitely has a few good spins, and Act three has a couple as well. I’m not sure what I can do to add more complexity to the plot, though, because I’m already struggling to defy my own expectations.

Script 2, The African Secret: This one is probably twisty enough.

Script 3, Dungeon Heroes: Good here too – things are changing pretty quickly at point.

Problem 5: The emotional impact of the script is monochromatic.

Symptoms: A movie that seems more like a sunset cruise than a roller-coaster ride, hitting the same emotional note over and over.

Ideas for how to fix: Go back and flesh things out using more emotions from the palette.

Script 1, Antarran Holiday: Let’s see, I’m covering wonder, contentment, fear, anger, passion, jealousy, frustration… I think that’s good off the cuff.

Script 2, The African Secret: Again, we have fear and anxiety, lust, betrayal, affection and pride, determination, and some humor.

Script 3, Dungeon Heroes: This one might be lacking a little. I’ve got the humor, I’ve got the fear, the noble love, the anxiety and affection… might be good to get more foible and frustration in there, but it’s looking okay.

Problem 6: Dialog is flatlining.

Symptoms: The dialog doesn’t reveal anything about the character, it doesn’t strike anybody as interesting.

Ideas for how to fix: Give each character a different verbal tic to distinguish them and make them interesting.

This time, I’m actually going to try the ‘Bad dialog test’ on a random page from each script, and read it while pretending that the names are covered up, to see if I can tell who’s who just from what they say.

Script 1, Antarran Holiday: Testing page 104. I can kinda tell the difference between Tess and Max, and that’s pretty bad, considering that their dialog is more lively in the Canon. Maybe I need to go back and listen with a better ear for the dialog tics that are already there.

Script 1.5, Haunted by a Whisper: Testing page 61. This looks better, I can immediately tell the difference between Lee’s lines and Benjamin’s… mostly because Lee sounds more sure of herself, more dynamic and assertive – which, considering that she’s the antagonist and Benjamin is the protagonist, I’m not sure if this is a danger sign for Problem 1, or a good sign for avoiding Problem 3.

Script 2, The African Secret: Testing page 8. This seems reasonably good, I could tell the difference between Samantha and Naveli okay – though most of the page was Samantha expounding on exposition – a danger sign for Problem 2.

Script 3, Dungeon Heroes: Testing page 44. Okay, this is in a crowd sequence, so the main character’s dialog is very lively, but I’ve got three guardsmen who really seem interchangable – good opportunity to give them really funny verbal tics, and maybe something for one of the townspeople with lines as well.

Problem 7: Starting at the end of the journey.

Symptoms: The main character doesn’t have any problems that need fixing, you know what kind of character they need to be at the end, but want to save them the hardship of growing, so they’re that character (or nearly) at the beginning of the script too, and there’s no arc.

Ideas for how to fix: Have the character take a step back, or several – figure out what the character had to grow through to get to who they are, and start the story back before that growing process was complete, and maybe before it had really started.

Script 1, Antarran Holiday: Well, since this was a fandom script, I’m limited by the characters being where they were at one point in the series, and not wanting them to grow so much that their later arcs are completely irrelevant, but I think that I did okay. At the start of the movie, the group is still having some dysfunctions, (though I could take a step back in those, come to think of it,) and by the end of the script, they’ve grown together, learning how to accept each other and work together better.

Script 2, The African Secret: Again, a few continuity issues, since this is effectively a sequel script, but I think I’ve got some growth and a good arc – Naveli starts as very sheltered by her Ivory tower – she remembers some of what she’s learned in her earlier adventure, but is also a bit scared of the real world because of it, and learns that she can take things on her own terms and rely on herself, and her friends.

Script 3, Dungeon Heroes: To a certain extent I’ve got a good arc for my main character in terms of becoming a hero externally, but he’s a nice guy inside from the start, so it might be good to have some other flaw or lesson that he needs to learn over the course of the script.

Problem 8: Minor characters are too interchangeable

Symptoms: Characters are visually not memorable enough.

Ideas for how to fix: Hand out limps and eyepatches, any other kind of ‘visual tic’ you can think of that’s funny or a good identifier. (Like the verbal tics mentioned in Problem 6.)

Script 1, Antarran Holiday: Most of the characters aren’t mine, and I think that they’re visually very memorable, so are the few originals that I came up with for this script.

Script 2, The African Secret: Okay, I could do a bit of this here, especially when it comes to the three handmaidens. Jenna is probably the easiest to recognize visibly, and Monica is the hardest to remember… maybe Monica could be wearing a different fancy hat every day, and Clara could have trouble making eye contact with anybody, which would upset Naveli but she doesn’t want to chew Clara out for it. (I know that that’s not quite a visual thing, but it’s not an entirely verbal trait either. Hmm…)

Script 3, Dungeon Heroes: Most of the characters are fairly easy to distinguish, except for two pairs that might be difficult. There’s Heran and Lanker, his best friend, but Lanker’s a brother in holy orders, so I could add some more funny details for Lanker’s monk’s habit, which should distinguish him. The other would be the demons – the Demon Prince, the main bad guy, and his lackey, the Demon General. I’ve described some differences in their appearance, but maybe they could be different colors or something that makes it even easier.

Problem 9: Plot isn’t something that everybody relates to or connects with.

Symptoms: Movie hinges on specific or cultural things, and doesn’t have a deeper level that could be understood world-wide.

Ideas for how to fix: Connect the plot to a truly primal motivation, such as food, sex, death and survival, or protecting loved ones.

I have to admit that I have some problems getting in touch with my primal side, but let’s see…

Script 1, Antarran Holiday: There’s four primal motivations that I can see, all of them somewhat buried underneath other details in the plot. One is the fear of death or imprisonment, which is lurking somewhat out there, with the specter of Kivar’s name. The second is sex, expressed in the various teenage courtship rituals that are getting played out, and the conflicts over who ends up with whom. The third is the desire for the affection of a family – several of the characters don’t really have true families, and many of them have formed bonds like that among themselves, and Tess, particularly, is hungry for that without realizing that she needs it. And the last would be the ‘no place like home’ urge, the desire to get back to somewhere that’s familiar while visiting a crazy land. But none of these is clearly dominant over the others, and that’s a problem that I’m not sure if I know how to fix.

Script 1.5, Haunted by a secret: The closest thing to any primal plot drive I can figure out is Ben’s desire to have his life mean something, to do more with it than just survive his job, have dinner with his mom and family on the weekends, go out with the guys and try to get laid.

Script 2, The African Secret: Again, we’ve got some primal problems here. Naveli’s life is in danger at some points, but that’s not a driving point of the plot, in fact, she’d have been perfectly safe if she refused to go to Africa in the first place. The reason why she didn’t have to do with wanting to live up to the faith that her family has in her, and protecting them and her whole country from some disaster or war that she’s not sure she understands yet.

Script 3, Dungeon Heroes: This one, I think, is fairly good primal – Heran is fighting first to rescue the woman he loves, then to save his own life, and finally to save the town he calls home from this invasion of monsters.

Okay, we’ve got one more chapter left, and then I’ll see if I can make a decent blog post out of the glossary, or a wrap-up, or whatever. See you again soon!

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