Case Study – Combover scripts.

Vlad (not his real name) is a client I’ve been working with for a while. When he started, he had me do notes on a few scripts. They were all “combover” type scripts, all setup, no middle.

I gave him my standard advice – build out the middle by writing one awesome second act scene. People often have a hard time with this, Vlad was no exception. We fell out of touch for about six months.

He rehired me about a month ago – he was a man on a mission. He finishes grad school soon, and he wants to work in showbiz with a passion and focus that blew me away. He pitched me a science fiction story (not his real project) about a girl and a guy who end up on the run from bad men.

I ran him through a simple exercise: tell me the story in five minutes. This produced a simple outline, but it was pretty thin and it wasn’t one he was happy with. We played with this outline via email for a bit, and then  had an aha moment.

The outline read like it was afraid to be interesting. Any time the characters got in hot water, a third party would come to save them, deus ex machina style. It made the characters inactive, and it prevented it from gaining any narrative frisson.

Finally, I asked him: “Vlad, do you know how to write genre scenes?”

It takes a lot of courage to admit when you straight up don’t know something. Vlad admitted he did not.

So I gave him this exercise:


Given that the characters are in an apartment trying to recover the macguffin, given that a radioactive, murderous monster is also in the apartment, and given that neither character is a trained fighter, how can we get them out?

List one: props. everything that’s at hand in the apartment.

List two: character skills. every special skill and life experience that could even faintly come in handy here.

List three: cool moves. Everything from a similar movie that you could co-opt, homage or improve upon.

This gives you a thousand permutations to run together. At least one of those combinations will yield an interesting move.

I had Vlad write three versions of the scene. Each were better than the last. I was surprised by how well it worked, I’m always looking for that magic moment when someone “gets it” and this was Vlads.

I asked him to write another scene, later in the story. He came back with a servicable chase scene. Not great, but an easy fix, a solid B-.

So I tried something else:

Given that we have a solid fight scene and a solid chase scene, write everything that happens in between.

Vlad complied, and just like that we had a second act. We identified all the potentially cool scenes that occurred within that span of time (we came up with about 6, 3 genre scenes, 3 dramatic scenes). He wrote them all in about two days.

This took his game up a level – rather than trying to explain exploration, premise tests, or conceptual specificity, he had a real, workable draft that was easy to improve.

The haters out there are going to say, “Where’s his success?” “What did he win?” “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” These are fair points, and I hope to shut you up in a few months when he semi-finals in something good. Still, an overnight switch from being paralyzed by a second act to being able to render almost anything in decent scenework is a quantum leap for a beginner, and what I’m trying to move all my clients to.

The details of this have been fudged to protect client confidentiality and the specifics of his idea. Used with permission.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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