How making specific choices can elevate the quality of your screenplay

When I started the journey of writing BIG SISTER with my co-writer Blake Pinter, I of course had no idea where it would take us. When we won a “first prize,” I thought it meant we were “on our way.”

The first prize was nice, but it didn’t really matter. The prize was not from the short list of “recognized” competitions. Nonetheless, it meant something to me. It meant this story that I felt needed to be told had been acknowledged. It had managed to climb above other scripts and survive. That’s no small feat.

Missing components

But… somewhere in my heart I knew some element or component was missing. It was, I felt, the reason the script has not gone as far as I think it could (meaning: produced and distributed as a feature film). This came to light when I participated in a group mentorship offered through Roadmap Writers, which more and more writers are hearing about and gravitating towards. The mentor in this case was a gentleman named Chris Deckard.

Chris picked up on an element of the script which we originally put in as a sort of B-story. The lead character, LYNN, spends her whole life focusing on others while ignoring herself. This type of behavior backfires and at the end she’s forced to face herself and ask for help. It is, we believe, a unique story about an enabler and the price they pay for being one. But the element I’m referring to is a book that Lynn is supposedly writing. Her sister, Suzanne, who idolizes her, can’t understand why Lynn hasn’t gotten around to the book. The reason Lynn gives is that she’s focusing her energies on helping her boss/lover Oliver with¬†his book and career. Finally, when that relationship ends badly, Lynn does return to her book, but realizes that she has nothing to say.

It’s a device that served us well… except… Chris pointed out: Okay, so, she writes a book or tries to. Who cares? So what?

A-ha moment

As soon as he said that, I realized the issue. The subject matter of the book is not specific. There’s no pressing reason for Lynn to write it. It’s a book that she said she would write long ago and hasn’t yet. There isn’t anything connected with it in a real, emotional way to make it important enough to really matter.

Then, suddenly, in the shower, where all my good ideas come to me (what is it about water and creative ideas?), I realized why. The missing component of this story is that it is based on a tragic family incident that I was unable to address in the script. It was simply too painful. And so, I created a whole world around the incident, without addressing it. The result is a script that resonates with people, but as I now see, is not addressing the elephant in the room.

Chris was right to focus on the book. He (gratefully) acknowledged that the rest of the script was very real and all the dialogue felt authentic. He wanted to read past the first 10 pages because he quickly became interested in our characters. All those were pluses. But… the book. The non-specific book about a non-specific topic that is being written for a non-specific reason. That.

The book, I now realize, is what Lynn must write to express the family tragedy that she and Suzanne know about only too well. Lynn is trying to brush it under the rug, while Suzanne is pushing her to write about it in the way only she (Lynn) can.

By addressing this, by making it real, by making it tangible, by being specific,  it will allow an undercurrent of raw emotion to travel along with the main story, an emotion which is, in fact,  intrinsically part of the main story.

When tragedy strikes, people deal with it in different ways. I chose to deal with it by writing a screenplay. But I held back on what hurt me the most. Now, thanks to Chris’s keen eye, I’m going to update the script and let the truth resonate. And be specific about it. Being specific, really, is the key.

More soon. Now, back to the pages…