I like to have clients fill out the premise test. It shows what they think the script is about, and it’s useful for diagnosing a host of story problems. It goes like this.
An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.
I asked if anyone on Reddit would be willing to give me a script that I could publically post notes. User Gaylord Queen was kind enough to send over his script.
Vacancy: 110 pages
By Gaylord Queen
Gaylord’s self-written premise test: A paranoid and distrustful electrician must escape from a haunted hotel, or else turn into a monster like the rest of the victims. She does this by reluctantly teaming up with the other survivors, and learns the value of depending on other people.
Gaylord’s Self-diagnosis on the script: Relies way too much on action lines. Starts out as a brick wall, with an entire page of description and no dialogue. Yikes. It’s called Vacancy, which is kind of a schlocky title in my opinion. But I’m sticking with it! (1)
Premise test breakdown:
ADJECTIVE: Paranoid and distrustful
MUST: Escape from a haunted hotel
STAKES: Turn into a monster
DOING: Teaming up with other survivors.
LEARNS: Value of depending on people
This isn’t bad, but it isn’t great. I’m going to cover it as if I hadn’t read the script.
ADJECTIVE (5/10): Paranoid and distrustful are the same word, so why repeat it twice?
TYPE (5/10): Given that the character is an electrician, I assume that it’s got something to do with the plot. This is setting me up to assume that her skill set will combine with other skill sets in a survival horror way, kind of like the Justice League, substituting MacGyver tech for superpowers. I’m okay with this.
MUST (2/10): Problematic because I don’t know how you escape from a haunted hotel. If this was a prison or a locked freezer, I get it, because those are real. With a haunted hotel, I have to ask “how haunted is it?” Consider the hotel from the SHINING, where anyone could have left at any time versus the hotel from 1408, where leaving the room is an impossibility.
Given that this is more in the 1408 category, the must would probably involve getting to the control room, or making peace with the evil force that haunts the hotel, or killing the 13 guardians, all of those are more interesting and specific musts than what is provided.
STAKES (2/10): Similar to the must, I don’t know what “turn into a monster” means. You’ve framed it as bad, so I’m guessing monster doesn’t mean “sexy vampire.” You didn’t say zombie, so I’m assuming that the monsters are more high concept, that they need more explanation. Because of that, I want to know what kind of monsters they are (compare and contrast Splicers from Bioshock versus Titans from Attack on Titan) and how bad being a monster sucks. I’d rather be a mindless mutant than a tortured soul aware but helpless, dying to kill my self or scream, but unable to, robbed of even the sweet escape of madness. Be specific.
Also, haunted hotel implies ghosts, but monsters implies something that isn’t a ghost. These two ideas don’t line up. If you’re saying haunted as a byword for “possessed by an extra-dimensional horror,” try to find a better, clearer way to say it.
DOING (1/10): The doing is the weak part of this equation, because presumably, in a survival horror, they’ll team up by act 2 or midpoint at the latest. Framing the doing this was suggests that this is going to be a recruitment movie (like heist/caper films) or a moving about coming to an agreement (1776, CONSPIRACY). I have enough context clues to know that it won’t be, so this weak phrasing irritates me. At the very least, I want to know if this is going to be a movie about shooting monsters or hiding from monsters.
LEARNS (2/10): In a survival horror, the underlying message is probably going to be “live is brutal and arbitrary, and psychotic darkness can attack you at any moment.
A lot of people stick a moral in because they feel they need to. Strictly speaking, you don’t need a “learns.” So long as it’s entertaining, people aren’t going to question it, and there are many movies that don’t really have a character arc. Don’t feel the need to tack on a moral, we’re not writing afterschool specials here.
However, taking this lesson at face value:
1) Why doesn’t she already know this? Assuming your character isn’t stupid, she probably knows that teamwork makes people more effective. She’s an electrician, for god’s sake, her job doesn’t exist without carpenters and others. So it’s not that she doesn’t understand teamwork, it’s probably that someone betrayed her in the past. That’s a potentially interesting direction to explore. Find ways to be more specific about that.
2) How does this affect the story? Given that the main character doesn’t trust other people, it means that she’s going to spend the second act self sabotaging her efforts. Given that you’ve promised me that she eventually learns, that’s an arc. Logically, that means she fails at trusting in act 2a, realizes she must learn to trust by midpoint,starts trusting in 2b, and things work well.
Of course, this being a story, you can’t just resolve the arc by page 75. What happens is she’s betrayed (or seemingly betrayed) and loses all hope. She didn’t quite learn the lesson 100%. But then, because she grows, she trusts someone when she has no reason to trust, and is rewarded, and is able to destroy the monster.
If that’s what you wanted to have happen, great, that’s a clearcut arc. If that’s not what you want, change the learns part… stories have a tendency to flow in certain directions, never underestimate the reader’s ability to draw conclusions.
Having read the script, I know that this is a survival horror where survivors must team up against a Lovecraftian, extra-dimensional evil. However, that’s not reflected in the premise.
What I’ve literally been pitched here is a political movie:
It’s about a paranoid electrician who must form a collective with a group of other people. Otherwise she can’t escape a hotel full of ghosts, and she might turn into some sort of monster (literal? Metaphorical). She’s distrustful, so she can’t form an alliance, but she learns to trust, so she finally forms an alliance. The alliance is tested and she and her group escape the hotel.
That’s much more boring than what was intended, but it’s what was literally said.
Onemight say, “But Matt, you’re being pedantic. Not everyone reads scripts with this level of meticulous tight-assery. Besides, the premise test is something you made up, I might have failed at fillnig in your dumb Mad Lib, but I know my story…”
I stand by my comments. Most scripts have problems and those problems exist on the most basic level. A failure in the premise test echoes through every other aspect of the script. This will become more clear next time when I compare the premise test to the first 12 pages of this script.
(1) Matt’s Preliminary thoughts:
1. This is an obvious “homage” to an internet project called NanQuest. Never assume people won’t catch where you rip something from, someone probably will.
2. There’s already a horror franchise called Vacancy.
3. Even if there wasn’t, why are you going with a deliberately schlocky title?