Conceptual specificity (or Santa Claus vs The Zombies)

Conceptual specificity:  The fun of the second act should come from the elements set up by the first act. The fun of the second act needs to come from the hook, otherwise the draft isn’t exercising the idea it purports to embody.

I know that’s a long and boring mouthful, so to drive this home I created an exercise called “SANTA CLAUS VS THE ZOMBIES.”

Here’s a weak logline: A man discovers that a rare bug in the rainforest cures cancer. He ends up on the run from the hitmen of a powerful drug cartel.

I hate loglines like this, because it’s all about the first act and it tells me nothing about the second act. Scripts like this tend to spend forty pages setting up some wonky scientific MacGuffin, and then deliver an anemic, setpiece-light second act of generic action/thriller moments. It may be competently written, but it won’t be conceptually specific.

Let’s say there’s an open writing assignment called “SANTA CLAUS VS THE ZOMBIES.” It’s stupid, but it pays well, and to get it, you have to pitch a scene from the second act. The easiest way to do this is to use both parts of the setup – create scenes that borrow from the established lore of both Santa Claus and zombies.

Conceptually specific examples:

  • Zombies attack the elf workshop. Santa and the elves must hold them off with tools and weapons improvised out of toys.
  • Mrs. Claus bakes cookies in the kitchen. A zombie attacks and she has to burn its head off in her oven.
  • Rudolph gets bitten by a zombie. Santa must put him down before he can bite and infect the other reindeer.
  • Santa flies his sleigh to escape zombies. A zombie clings to the runners, trying to climb up to bite Santa.

Here are some bad pitches:

  • Santa Claus talks to his friend Bill. (who the hell is Bill? If you’re setting up Santa Claus, use established parts of his mythology. ‘Santa’s Buddy’ is a movie unto itself).
  • Santa loads the sleigh with toys (this is a first act scene. It happens in the ordinary world, when you’re setting up Santa. The second act happens after the inciting incident, when Santa becomes aware of the zombies).
  • A zombie walks through the snow and bites a scientist who’s researching the poles (this scene could appear in any old zombie movie. A conceptually specific scene would have the zombies vs Santa). *Santa drops the bomb that kills the last of the zombies (leaving aside whether Santa has access to a bomb or not, this is a climactic scene that would probably occur in the second act).

IN CLOSING

Santa vs. the Zombies is a cheesy, lowbrow idea, but it’s a very clear one. It’s easy for an audience to imagine conceptually specific scenes for it, so the premise feels very fraught. Most beginning writers write their early scripts around very soft ideas that don’t lend themselves well to conceptually specific second act scenes. As such, the second acts are rife with filler, so the work done in the first act feels wasted.

Hopefully you’ll have a better idea than SANTA VS. THE ZOMBIES. Hopefully your idea will allow a reader to envision a second act just as clearly.

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