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Sunday, June 28

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Screenplay

Critique By Maria D'Marco

WIP Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines

Submissions currently in the queue: Four

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through May 1.

This week’s question: Do you think it/they work?

Market/Genre: Screenplay

JH Note: Something very different this week—a screenplay. I know nothing about them, but Maria has had experience here, so I thought we’d give it a whirl.

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Logline: "Shrinking Violet" is an adult dramedy about a smart but immature woman who desperately wants to look good for her high school reunion, so she drinks a magic potion that's effective at first but may eventually cause her to vanish without a trace.

FADE IN:

INT. GREENE HOME - KITCHEN - DAY

A color photo of Violet Hofstadter from a Wisconsin high school yearbook shows a blue-eyed, blonde cheerleader wearing a "Sheboygan High" sweatshirt.

Pulling back reveals 12 seniors on that page. A raster-scan highlights Violet and four other students whose older personas will become important: scrawny Martin Burgdorf, shaggy-blonde, blue-eyed Bradley Greene, bushy-haired, brown-eyed Norman Schultz, and frumpy Kate Miller.

Pulling further back, VIOLET (Hofstadter) GREENE (33) holds the yearbook open at arms-length on the kitchen table. A bag of Oreos is within easy reach. She's gained 40 pounds, and her hair has darkened in 15 years.

Her clean-cut, 14-year-old son, EVAN (with short brown hair and dark eyes), enters through the back door, drops his backpack on the floor and proceeds to the fridge. He grabs two bunches of grapes: one purple, the other green.

Shoving the Oreos aside, he sets the grapes on the table and sits down beside his mother.

VIOLET
Never give up, do you?

EVAN
(pointing to the grapes)
Purple's for "Violet." Green's for "Greene." They're all for you, "Mrs. Violet Greene."

VIOLET
Mizz Greene, if you don't mind.

EVAN
I know. I just wish you and Dad were still married so I’d see him more often. Anyway, what’s up?

VIOLET
Got another message about my high school reunion.

EVAN
Cool. You going?

VIOLET
(points at her stomach)
Are you kidding? Look at me.

EVAN
You'd get to see old friends.

VIOLET
Who'd snicker about the bloatapotamus I've become.

EVAN
Real friends won't care.

VIOLET
Sometimes you're too smart for your own good.

EVAN
Sometimes I think I'll finish growing up before you do. **Theme

My Thoughts in Blue:

FADE IN:

INT. GREENE HOME - KITCHEN - DAY

A color photo of Violet Hofstadter from a Wisconsin high school yearbook shows a blue-eyed, blonde cheerleader wearing a "Sheboygan High" sweatshirt.

Pulling back reveals 12 seniors on that page. A raster-scan highlights Violet and four other students whose older personas will become important: scrawny Martin Burgdorf, shaggy-blonde, blue-eyed Bradley Greene, bushy-haired, brown-eyed Norman Schultz, and frumpy Kate Miller.

Pulling further back to VIOLET (Hofstadter) GREENE (33) holding the yearbook open at arms-length on the kitchen table. A bag of Oreos is within easy reach. She's gained 40 pounds, and her hair has darkened in 15 years. [Is this important? The telling fact is the weight gain unless you show in the following dialogue her fussing over her hair.]

Her clean-cut, 14-year-old son, EVAN (with short brown hair and dark eyes), enters through the back door, drops his backpack on the floor and proceeds to the fridge. He grabs two bunches of grapes: one purple, the other green. Shoving the Oreos aside, he sets the grapes on the table and sits down beside his mother.

VIOLET
Never give up, do you?

EVAN
(pointing to the grapes)
Purple's for "Violet." Green's for "Greene." They're all for you, "Mrs. Violet Greene."

VIOLET
[this line could be strengthened with expression direction]
Mizz Greene, if you don't mind.

EVAN
I know. I just wish you and Dad were still married so I’d see him more often. [this is a very thorny statement to make – yet it goes unchallenged or acknowledged] Anyway, what’s up? [the sudden switch from his concern to hers – well done, if it signifies his continued sublimating of his role in the family – no longer child – no longer allowed to miss his dad openly? -- again, body language could emphasize this shift]

VIOLET
Got another message about my high school reunion.

EVAN
Cool. You going?

VIOLET
(points at her stomach) [last direction had her holding the yearbook]
Are you kidding? Look at me.

EVAN
You'd get to see old friends.

VIOLET
Who'd snicker about the bloatapotamus I've become.

EVAN
Real friends won't care.

VIOLET [these last two lines are nicely done – and also signal action by one or the other character, as they are conclusions. I would suggest having the restlessness of a 14-year-old win out and move first.]
Sometimes you're too smart for your own good.

EVAN
Sometimes I think I'll finish growing up before you do. **Theme

The Question:

1. Do you think it/they work?

Let’s take the logline first…

If we clear out some clutter, we have:
"A smart but immature woman, desperate to look good for her high school reunion, drinks a magic potion that may cause her to vanish without a trace.”
Pitch this, watch for reaction, add additional, enriching qualifiers that deepen the conflict or show the obstacles to overcome, state the lesson learned or change accomplished.

These qualifiers should be written out, read aloud, and the pacing of presentation practiced. Every word should have a purpose and be able to show your conviction in the story.

If we go one step further, we could have: “Desperate, insecure, mom drinks magic potion, ignoring inherent threat of vanishing forever.”

As you continue to cut down the material, you finally find the messages that are driving the story core: desperation/insecurity. This is a story about a woman who hasn’t evolved beyond high school, desperate to make a good showing to her ‘peers’, who will do anything, even take the chance of vanishing forever, to accomplish her goal.

You note that the theme is about growing up, son before the mom. This element is framed by her insecurity and his seeming security. But is the logline presenting that theme strongly enough?
“Middle-age mom, faced with her 15-year high school reunion, risks her life for the chance to impress people and hide her insecurities.”

“Faced with an upcoming high school reunion, an insecure mom risks all by drinking a transformative magic potion that may cause her to vanish forever.”
The idea is to keep writing loglines until you find one that leaps out at you as perfectly encapsulating the story.

I’ll mention that a question keeps pinging my mind, as I work through your logline: Where the heck did a magic potion come from??? (grin) Since they usually aren’t just stumbled over in a dark cupboard, I wondered what was involved. Is there a character who shows up and provides it? Does her son provide it (he knows a guy, who knows a guy…)?

Keep trying new equations of words and eventually, you’ll strike gold. Best to find someone tolerant to act as your sounding board, too. Or several people…

Now, to the scene itself…

We have approximately 45 seconds of dialogue, with minimal action. At full action, we might have 60 seconds. Time flies or lumbers with dialogue.

This scene, as I see it, is framing the mom/son relationship. The son gently nags his mom toward a healthy lifestyle. The mom still lives like she’ll live forever – like a kid or teen. This dynamic appears to be long-lived, which means the son is tenacious and mom is stubborn, refusing to face the reality that she’s aging and ‘out-of-shape’. The stated fact in the scene framing that she’s gained 40 pounds solidly shows she’s not happy, feels insecure.

Considering that we’ve established this in 45-60 seconds, you’ve done well. I do wonder how they have maintained this benign tug-of-war. But then, since her son was young, but old enough to have watched his mom gain weight, eat wrong, and seem unhappy.

The dialogue is a normal enough conversation, but I wonder if the son has become the surrogate ‘husband’, in that he’s assumed the role of caretaker, to an extent. This wouldn’t be something overt, just a role that many kids assume to ensure the adults in their lives remain as stable as possible.

What I miss, in this very ordinary and easily presented dialogue, is body language that reveals these two character’s emotional underpinnings. If mom is the snail, and the son is the pointed stick, what brings about the crisis that allows her to take a risk?

You’re limited in this venue by word count and have done well in introducing this pair. This is just the bare opening of the scene, so the next 45-60 seconds may reveal their thorns. I would be interested in seeing who holds which reins of power in the relationship.

Well done so far. Keep using action/body language to add dimension to the dialogue. And I would want to see some indication that the mom is capable of making rash decisions or taking risks, such as drinking some magic potion.

Good luck and thank you for sharing with us.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

2 comments:

  1. An intriguing opening.

    Opening scenes often make me wonder if they're the best place to start the story. Here, I'm not fully convinced. Contemplating going to the reunion is an obvious fork in Violet's road, but is her talking with Evan the strongest, most theme-centric way to lay the foundation for it? You make some points with him pushing healthy food on her, but are those the best ones or the ideal ways to say them in your first minutes of footage? A first scene, and especially in a screenplay, is expected to really nail what's going on.

    For instance, having her son in the first scene isn't what I'd expect for a reunion story at all. Instead I think of the other now-adult people she'll meet there, and maybe other adults in her life now (the ex she lost, maybe a bullying boss or some other challenge now) as part of the baggage she'd bring to that reunion. A troubled kid she can't control or that reminds her of her past self might relate to a reunion, but I don't see a strong connection between it and a well-balanced son. If you just want a character to push her there, most movies would use an adult friend (or a call from an actual classmate), and I think they have a point.

    --Or you could be setting up for Evan to be at the reunion with her or staying one of the most important characters throughout it. Or the story's Truth could be that her life is better than it seems because her son came out fine. Those would be unusual ways to take a reunion story, but they could work well if that's your plan.

    Like Maria said, where's the magic potion? It doesn't have to appear in the first page, but it's helpful to imply from the start that your story's feeling includes something weird or dangerous or maybe screwball silly. This is a strictly low-key, ordinary conversation, so it leaves you a wider gap to bridge.

    The first thing that stuck out with me is you give hair and eye color for some of the characters. That never works in a screenplay: you can't tell anyone who to cast. Your other characters get flexible descriptions that do the job better: "frumpy" or "scrawny."

    Screenplays are an exciting, highly competitive field to work in. They're also known as the most organized kind of writing there is, where novelists keep going to find insights and understanding. I hope you keep looking at this with an eye to how each moment can make the strongest contribution to where it's going.

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  2. I was also thinking about the son - he needs to be a central part of the play to show up in the first scene. If he is only there to set up the mother's insecurity about attending the reunion, then I would rethink his character.

    In screenplays, dialogue rules. Every word, every sentence must carry something though. No word is by chance. I think the dialogue here is good, but considering the entire story, is each of the words, sentences doing double time and moving the story forward - that's a good question to ask with each page written.

    The magic potion is also something to be considered. There is nothing here (so far, and our view is very very short) that sets us up for anything magical. Is the son growing up before the mother really the theme? I'm just wondering that because as the mother is growing older and feeling less relevant in the world, is her youth vanishing more of the theme that consummates with her actually vanishing?

    When writing a screenplay, the author depends a lot on the actors pulling through the dialogue to drive their actions. A few screenwriters depended heavily on screen direction, but it is my understanding that is not the norm. Therefore, the dialogue must tell the actor what the scene demands.

    I love screenplays. The ability to build suspense and tension through dialogue is magical (no pun!) - I think there is a great story here to tell - finding the true theme, the twist ending, and the telling dialogue will let you finish with a piece of art to treasure. Great work!

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