How to lose a reader in the first three pages.

A few days ago, /u/eddieswiss [+4] posted his script on reddit asking for opinions. I asked If I could post my notes and he graciously agreed. Eddieswiss is a promising writer and a nice person. He has the rare ability to take criticism, which is surprisingly rare. People who can take criticism develop faster than people who can’t.

Here’s the script . Read it if you like. This post only covers the first three pages.

Synopsis: DAMIEN (12) and RICHARD (11) play with toy swords on a playground. They have an active fantasy life and pretend to be medieval characters. Damien gets his new clothes muddy. He fears he’ll get in trouble. Richard’s mom calls Richard home.

Damien goes home, where he wakes up his MOTHER. His mother is mad at him for ruining his clothes.

Later, Damien has dinner with his mother and FATHER. Damien tells his dad about his fantasy adventures.

1. The formatting is a mess.

I could beat a dead horse, but that’s an easy fix. I’ve commented on the first line elsewhere[3] .

I’m overlooking the style mistakes, but they matter because they cause me, the reader, to withhold the benefit of the doubt. As you’ll see, that starts to matter.

2. Damien fears he’ll get in trouble because of his muddy clothes. The first thing he does when he gets home is wake up his mom.

This is a behavior mistake. We want our imagined characters to seem like they could be real people. We want the illusion of verisimilitude. It’s easy to lose that if you present information that doesn’t feel grounded.

When Damien finds his mom asleep on the couch, he’s lucked out. He’s off the hook. If he wants to avoid getting in trouble, he could throw his clothes in the wash and take a shower. Instead, he wakes her up immediately. That’s like a teen who sneaks out of the house intentionally waking up his parents on the way back.

You want to call out the unusual behavior so the script can justify it. Examples:

  • Damien could consider sneaking upstairs but then get guilty and wake his mom instead. That would say a lot about his character.
  • His mom could point out that he should have snuck upstairs, but be proud of him for being honest.
  • He could be honest because his character in his fantasies is honest.

As a reader I have no way of knowing if there’s a good reason for this behavior, or if the writer hasn’t thought things all the way through. As noted above, the script has already lost the benefit of the doubt. Had the script justified that character choice when it came up, it would have bought a lot of good will from me. Experienced writers anticipate reader hiccups. Developing writers don’t, which undercuts the reality of their choices.

You might argue that no one reads a script this closely, but some people do and you want to reward that attention. Even careless readers will subconsciously pick up on “artificial” behavior. Human beings are very good at recognizing human behavior, if something feels off it’s the behavorial equivalent of the uncanny valley: off-putting.

3. Where are we?

Is the playground connected to a school or a park? How does this connect to the world? Apparently the park is shouting distance from Richard’s mom, so is this a private park that’s connected to a neighborhood they both live in?

What’s the mood? Is it a sad, poor place that’s enlivened by Richard and Damien’s play? Is it a fun, happy place that would cheer up anyone?

Is it a nice playground, one of the modern kinds that’s impossible to get hurt on, or is it one of the cool old kinds, rickety wooden structures, tire swings hanging over gravel?

What’s the climate? Arizona in the summer? Honolulu in the fall? The season matters because there’s mud on the ground. I’d like the context. It’d cost a single line to put in and should be there before description of the characters’ wardrobes.

4. The age of the kids raises some questions.

There’s no specificity to the dialogue, you could make the characters 8 and it’d still work. Damien (12) is the hero of this script, so the inability to write specific dialogue for him is a bad sign, implying that the story is framed around a character that the author doesn’t have a firm handle on.

The age of the kids themselves isn’t arbitrary – it’s actually a defining characteristic. Consider: Damien and Richard are 12-year-old boys. It’s after school, it’s circa 2014, and rather than play video games, smoke cigarettes or talk about girls, they’re playing KINGDOM. They’re in a public place near a neighborhood. That makes them either very brave or very oblivious. Even if they are super-geeks, they’re at an age where non-conformity is mocked.

If this happened in real life, some 13-year-old on a bike might come by and call them a gay slur, or some mean teenagers might beat them up. Showing normal kids will highlight a cultural context for the kids. I’d be willing to give the script the benefit of the doubt, but as stated, it lost that on the first line.

5. The game the kids play raises a lot of questions.

They’re not just goofing around with swords, they’re playing Kingdom. I want to know more about that. You might be saying, “Jesus Christ cynicallad, let this go! It’s just a kid’s game!” But I won’t, because this really matters.

The stated logline is: A boy creates a fantasy world to deal with his cancer. I can only assume that we’re starting with this scene to show off the fact that Damien is imaginative. I’m fine with that, but you need to make sure that his imagination is grounded in reality.

1) The first line implies that the guys have swords they MADE. That implies that at some point they got together, busted out the Elmer’s glue and made swords so they could LARP on the playground. That’s a very different kind of geek than someone who finds a couple tubes in the trash and fucks around with them.

The best way to show what these swords mean to the characters is to show what they do with them after the game. If they throw them into a dumpster with a bunch of other tubes, that says one thing. If they take them home, that says another. If they put them in special scabbards which are made out of Tyvek paper and sequins, that says even more. Specificity is your friend. This is an easy opportunity to illuminate character through behavior.

2) This is the big one: Damien will be king SOMEDAY.

At first I thought the kids were just fooling around. But then on page three, Damien says he’ll be king someday, it says something about the game – either there are actual rules, which we’re not privy too, or Richard is really keeping Damien down, or Damien is so beta that he can’t even assert himself as a king. Any of these are great, but it’d be great if that was explored a little more. Let me see the kids having fun. More than the rules, I want to see HOW they play and what this game means to them. I also want to know how to play KINGDOM. Obviously, I don’t need an annotated rule book, but I want some sense of how it’s played, what it means to the kids.

3) How smart are these kids? I remember being a 12-year-old kid who was super into dungeons and dragons. I wouldn’t have been as “out” about it as these kids are, but kids like this do exist. That being said, the kids like that who cared enough about medieval times to pretend to be knights would probably know that a lowly knight would be unlikely to be in the line of royal succession. Are they ignorant dopes, or budding novelists who have a Jon Snow-like backstory for this Sir Damien character? Again, specifics create behavior, which builds character.

6. Mystery milk

The two CHILDREN are now sitting on a WOODEN BENCH and drinking from CARTONS of CHOCOLATE MILK. The both of them are covered in dirt from head to toe

Wait, where the hell did this milk come from? Am I to understand that they went out from home with nothing but their cardboard swords and cartons of milk, which they then left unrefrigerated for the X amount of time it takes to play Kingdom, and then, parched, went for some delicious, room temperature chocolate milk?

It’s specifically called a carton of milk, cartons have to be refrigerated (there are other kinds that don’t). This milk is one of the many things that takes me out of the reality of the scene and makes me doubt the construction of the universe on the first page. Again, this shows the specificity of location – if it’s winter time, you might have a nice shot of two milks sitting in a snow bank. That would at least make the world feel lived in.

In reality, though, the milk drinking scene is unnecessary. It’d be better to see more of the game of Kingdom and have mom call out just as the imagined game reaches its dramatic apex.

IN CLOSING

The following examples should give you an idea of the gaps in logic that suggest that the writer doesn’t fully have a grasp on the words he’s putting down. This might not register consciously, but it does register subconsciously and if a reader has lingering questions, they’re not fully focusing on your script.

At the end of the day, you’re either careful writing your script or you’re not. If you’re not going to take care in expressing things cleanly and accurately, why should the reader invest time in carefully reading your script?

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