Today we’re taking a look at a project, that isn’t necessarily bad, but gives us a good example of one thing, the importance of the logline.
Let’s take a look.
Dark Past by Jordan Ragsdale
Jeff is a college student whose parents where killed on a missionary type trip in Guatemala during a genocide that took place in the early 80’s. Jeff blames their death on General Diaz, a brutal ex-dictator who plans to run for president of Guatemala in present day.
Reading those sentences you’d think what? Well, if you’re like me you’d think we’re headed down to Central America where we’re going to get us some payback on a corrupt dictator. (I can hear Roy yelling, “You don’t need ‘corrupt’ as an adjective, since he’s a dictator!”)
Would you be surprised if you found out the script takes place (other than the opening scene) entirely on a college campus?
A better logline would be:
His parents having been killed in Guatemala when he was just a baby, Jeff’s focused his life on just one thing, revenge. But can he achieve his goal when he starts seeing things that shouldn’t be there?
The fact that it takes place on a college campus isn’t a bad idea, but we have to remember to deliver what we promise. Make sure the logline captures what your story is about. This isn’t so much a story of revenge, but more of Divine Intervention or a simple ghost story.
Another problem before we get started is giving the protagonist a goal they never come close to. The trip of going to Guatemala looms throughout the script, and is mentioned on almost every page, but by page 60 I realized we weren’t going to make it.
With that said, I’ll jump back to it later in our questions.
Jeff is just a baby when his parents have Javier take him away. Someone’s coming for them, and that someone’s bad.
Flash forward 20 years and they’re dead, and Jeff’s in college. He’s working towards his goal of revenge in a montage similar to that of Rocky IV.
Jeff heads to class, but sees a man that’s following him. It turns out this man is a ghost, and one that’s trying to convince him NOT to seek revenge.
Jeff bumps into several people that become friends, but are being directed by other ghosts, which Jeff now sees, to divert Jeff from his goal.
Some of the people slowly go crazy, and Jeff is warned NOT to let the other ghosts know he sees them, or he’ll start to go crazy too.
Things boil into a frenzy as a riot breaks out incited by the main Dark Spirit, who wants to kill Jeff, but can he escape with enough time to avenge his parents?
1.) Can we visualize the description?
Yes. In fact, and I’ll discuss this with #6, the first two scenes were VERY well done.
Overall it read well and quickly, but had a few problem areas I want to note.
The Latino man looks surprised.
Jeff turns his head slightly and looks at the man as if he
doesn’t know him.
Not sure what you were going for here. Does he know him or doesn’t he? Are you trying to create suspense?
A few students laugh.
Margarita sits back down. Jeff looks at the wall. The man is still staring at Jeff. He inches his gaze towards
Margarita’s desk. The man now looks at Margarita. Jeff pens
a few more words, and looks back up. He looks towards the
man and Margarita.
Two things here.
Why do the students laugh every time Margarita speaks? (She doesn’t seem to be saying anything funny.)
This was the second instance on the same page where description ran over 4 lines. Now, you can break that up, but I would suggest going back and streamlining some of the description.
(Remember, LESS is MORE.)
There’s another long description on page 59.
Page 36 – Alex screams, “Watch Out,” but then is missing later. I wasn’t sure how this worked. It was hard to tell when spirits were there or not.
Page 21 – A short scene dedicated to going potty. As nothing important happens in there other than Jeffrey peeing, get rid of it. Most of us should know how boys go tinkle.
Like I said above though, I followed most of it without any problems, but address these issues.
6 out of 10 points.
2.) Does the author use an acceptable format?
Format was done really well.
Two things I will mention, but not take points off for.
On page 37 we’re treated to “JEFF’S POV.” I would leave these things out. Just describe what Jeff’s looking at. The director can then pick which POV WE USE to see it. I believe there was also another time or two this angle was mentioned.
At 94 pages, I’d argue you’ve run a bit short for this type of story. Using the goal length of 110 pages, you’ve got some room to play with, so feel free to take advantage of it.
10 out of 10 points.
3.) Is the dialogue free of exposition and rich in subtext? Does each character have a unique voice?
Hold onto your butts.
First thing I want to talk about is using contrasting character names. Jordan didn’t.
The characters didn’t necessarily sound similar when they talked, but their names were very close.
We had a Jeff and a John, Stuart, Stephanie, and a Susan, and others. But WAIT, you’re saying. Hank those aren’t that close. What’s the big deal?
Here’s the problem, from page 30:
Ok, bro. I really need this table.
If you don’t give it up…
Jason smiles deviously. Stuart looks at Jeff. Jeff slightly
shrugs his shoulders. Stuart gets up.
There’s no Jason in the story. The author lost track of the characters, and meant to say John. If we as authors are making these simple mistakes with the characters in our story, and we’re the ones dreaming it up, how can we be sure a reader isn’t having the same issues?
There was also some “on the nose” type stuff.
E-Stephanie! How are you today?!
This is Jeff! He is also going to
Guatemala! He is in your 12:30
class. He knows the area very well.
Yeah… I go down there about every
Really?! That’s so cool!
Margarita turns to Jeff.
You will show her everything down
Definitely… should be a blast.
Hey, Margarita, I’ll see you at
Yes, Jeff! See you then!
We should never hear characters exchange formalities. It’s part of “coming in late” where we assume stuff like that is done and we don’t have to waste time on it. (When writing dialogue, remember story, Story, STORY!)
I guess you’ll just have to do
Austin. Let Stephanie go find
herself or whatever she’s doing,
probably 22nd year life crisis.
We can still skype…
We better be skypin’ every night
Yeah… This guy better be way hot
if you’re givin’ up a whole
semester with us…
I’d argue the whole bit is weak in the dialogue department, but I did get that Stephanie somehow changed her mind at the drop of a hat, and before she met Jeff. (We later find out that Alex ghost-talked her into it.)
If that’s the goal, to show how spirits influence us without us knowing it, I think there should be more a focus on that, and less on the chit chat between Stephanie and Tia.
Page 41 – Carlin and Boggs’ back and forth is lame. So is when they meet Boggs’ daughter, Crina, in the cafeteria. These are all conversations we don’t need to be a part of.
Few last things…
Watch ellipses “…” They’re throughout the script. I normally advise using them once or twice, but in this case I’d go back and edit them ALL OUT.
Your characters should only be saying things that are important, which means they’d never trail off… (Page 15 I actually counted them used nine times within a page and a half.)
Too Much Talking
The script has a lot of talking about doing things, but never getting around to the actual doing. This is a problem. A lot of talking about meeting up later, and the overall talk of the trips these students are going to take but never do.
Two issues here. On page 33, when meeting with the psychiatrist, he says “Oooooo” a few times. Drop that.
Next, anytime he’s talking to Stuart he almost always calls him “man” somehow. Drop that too.
Tilting one’s head.
Infamous page 33 again. Alex tells Jeff to tilt his head, which is some way to better deal with the spirits. I didn’t understand this part, but other characters seemed to be doing it later too.
The dialogue needs a lot of work, and as I suggested, go back and ask:
1.) Does a reader need to see the characters discuss this?
2.) Can I show this instead of having the characters just talk about it?
3.) Is there a more interesting way my character can divulge this fact? (Think SUBTEXT!)
1 out of 10 points.
4.) Does the writer understand the challenges and rewards posed by the medium chosen in which to tell his/her story? Shorthand version of this is: Is it a movie and not a play?
If we would have gone the initial revenge route, a definite yes.
With the contained setting of the college campus, I’d argue not entirely.
The one thing that saves this and most likely makes it a movie though are the ghost/spirits.
(I was thinking about it last night however, and you could probably make this a play by easily deciphering the “spirit” characters with a particular costume. They just couldn’t pop out of nowhere.)
5 out of 10 points.
5.) Is there anything unique in what the writer presents? Are the writer’s ideas, based on this sample, likely to continue to be original?
Blending a revenge story with a ghost story was a clever notion, I’m just not sure it worked in this particular case.
Jordan came across as knowing a bit about Central American climates, so there’s that.
The main problem I think that would hurt Jordan on this story, is if it was bought in present form a producer would probably order another writer to just separate the stories with the producer picking the one he thought had more potential.
There’s a high probability Jordan would be left out entirely.
3 out of 10 points.
6.) Does the script have a hook?
Yes, yes, yes!
Here’s where I was really excited.
The whole scene of Jeff being whisked away through jungle trails on Javier’s motorcycle as a baby was great.
From the opening, there was a sense of impending doom. All very well handled, and again, well done. (Especially as Jordan mentioned being a new writer.)
15 out of 15 points.
7.) Is that hook effective?
Most of it yes. Up until meeting Alex in the library everything was really well timed and paced. (Especially page 3.)
After page 2, we get that brief montage type thing of Jeff getting ready.
He comes across as serious, having a gun, doing pushups, and checking his phone for texts from Javier.
It’s all good, and he leaves for class.
Then he’s being followed by a man he doesn’t seem to know. (Couple that with his revenge idea, and we’re all, “Who’s this guy? Who’s he working for?”)
There’s a bit of a speed bump as we meet Margarita, but we’re back on track as Jeff tries to track down the strange man.
Finally Jeff catches him spying in the library and confronts him, only to find out he’s a….ghost? Wait, what? Jeff can see dead people? Hasn’t this been done before?
From there the whole story went from pretty good to wandering in a desert of random scenes.
A REALLY better way to handle this, and not completely give away the ghost thing, is to set Alex up better.
Jeff chases him a few times, and he just disappears. Having recently been watching Game of Thrones, I’m reminded of how they handle the Necromancer. Is he dead, magic, a twin? We don’t know, but we know something’s not right with him.
Do this with Alex. Have Jeff be right on his tail around a corner, but suddenly Jeff turns it and Alex is at the end of the hall.
Jeff loses Alex in a crowd, but he’s appearing around him in locations that don’t make logical sense.
Work this transition in so we know we’re not dealing with a simple revenge story.
10 out of 15 points.
8.) Is there enough to maintain the hook? Reveals, conflict, etc.?
There’s a lot of okay scenes, but they have a hard time tying into the main story.
As I mentioned earlier, the main focus seems to be on going to Guatemala, but we never get there.
Think of what a problem this is. It’s like Jaws with them talking about the shark and never going to kill it. Like Luke and Ben talking about delivering R2D2 to the Rebellion, but only sitting in the cantina or flying on the Millennium Falcon.
There were several set ups on things that never seemed to pay off. It just seems like Jeff wanders around campus waiting for the day he leaves for Guatemala.
Even the ending of Jeff being attacked by the possessed people really didn’t make sense, because there was no real reason for them to attack him.
There’s really not much to say, and as I had trouble writing the synopsis, we need more of a focus.
The easiest thing I can suggest. Ask yourself, “What’s this story about?”
Once you answer that question go back and look at each scene asking, “Does this support my story?”
1 out of 10 points.
9.) Does the story play to a target audience, and have the elements demanded by that audience?
Fixing the logline will help out a lot, and properly define what you’re trying to do.
I’d make a suggestion to either keep it on the campus and go with that story, or scrap the ghost idea altogether and send Jeff to Guatemala with Stephanie, making Alex a real live human guide for him, then get them into trouble.
Too many readers are going to be confused by what’s going on with the current draft.
There’s also a few other issues that people might have problems with.
Page 35 – Susan is a psychiatrist, and Jeff’s using the old, “hypothetically how long will it take…” She should press him on this. No one suddenly chooses to see a psychiatrist over hypotheticals. It would lead to a better scene when Jeff’s forced to consider if he’s crazy or not.
Boggs vs. Carlin
I didn’t get why they were early in the script. They didn’t make sense to the story.
Neither did I understand what happened to them at the end. Even after reading it a few times it was very hard to understand who was possessed, who was good, who was bad, who was shot, who was alive. Madness.
Take a look back and ask, “What’s their role in this?”
Lastly on page 2. Slight hiccup where Javier is riding a bicycle, but I think you meant a motorcycle. It was just confusing, and as things were happening fast, it through me off track causing me to go back and reread a few lines.
Get rid of it. Everyone seems to be checking their phone, and I was waiting for some sort of payoff from this. Jeff checks his phone nonstop, and other than an initial message from Javier, it’s never mentioned what he’s looking at.
4 out of 10 points.
Being a new writer, this can come across as rather harsh.
I’m sorry, but know that we’ve all been there.
Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, go back and look at what’s right. I can’t stress enough how much I liked the first two scenes. Go back and look at how they were structured and see if you can’t carry that style throughout the rest of your script.
Currently the story is best described as walking in a maze. We stumble into a lot of dead ends and are forced to turn back.
Stephanie’s love story. Crina’s fall from chastity. Jeff’s support of Stuart. Margarita having John kill her husband. Alex’s redemption.
All of those begin to lead us somewhere, but then just cut off. It’s like throwing things at the script to see what sticks.
It’s not a bad story, but it’s going to take a decent amount of work.
This is a bit of a complex idea, and if you enter rewrite hell with it, you’ll quickly get burnt out.
My suggestion? Put this on the back burner. Take my notes here and apply them to your next script. Find an idea that’s more straightforward and that you’re interested in, and then run with it.
This way you’ll have a whole new script under your belt, and when you come back to Dark Past you’ll be wiser and might have a clearer idea of where you want to take it.
Total 55 out of 100 points.
First of all, thank you for this. I consider myself a new writer even though I wrote this one in 2005, but stopped writing altogether after a few months, only to come back to what is now the grind in November of last year. This review gives me a lot to work off of. It’s very important to me to get opinions from people who I believe know what they are talking about. You guys definitely fit that category.
I knew coming in that I was, and still am weak on characters. The review I got on Zoetrope made the same observation. The first time I wrote it in 05′ I submitted it and all the reviews I got basically said “The formatting was just so bad that I couldn’t read the whole thing…” So I have made some progress at least in that aspect :).
The logline was bad I agree… I’ve been listening to podcasts and the other night one guy basically said if the logline isn’t good a lot of people won’t even look at it based on that. I honestly didn’t know it was that important, which is partly why I posted a synopsis on the forum. At first I thought the plot was just too much to fit into a log-line but my eyes are being opened once again.
Yeah, Carlin is supposed to be the whole “puppet master, dark spirit guy that’s been roaming around since the beginning of time.” I wasn’t sure if I got that across enough and I didn’t know if Alex should have known that much about him since he had only been dead for 20 or so years. I figured maybe Alex could have heard rumors from other dead people. I also failed to put it in there that it was Carlin (Dark Spirit) who caused Jeff to be able to see Alex and all the other spirits in the first place. But yeah, basically he is in control of everything, in this world at least. People have the idea that good ultimately rules the world so I wanted to experiment with the idea that it might be a bad person that controls most everything “behind the scenes” here “in the Earth Realm.”
I agree with the Susan observation too. I was shooting for Jeff only wanting to figure out if he would be so crazy by the time the assassination attempt came that he couldn’t do it, and nothing more. Now I think I could have integrated that idea better into Jeff’s conversations with Alex.
Yeah I was trying to have Alex surprised that Stephanie actually signed up for the study abroad trip. I was also trying to have Jeff suspicious that Alex might be following him because he knows what he is planning to do. In the library Jeff asked him if he is ARG, which is an acronym for a political party in Guatemala, which Diaz started. It’s pretty far out that anyone would know what Jeff is trying to do, but there’s always a chance I guess and that’s one conclusion Jeff came to, seeing as how he now has a Latino man following him around.
I was trying to make Margarita goofy for some reason. I have no idea why but I thought it would be funny to model her after one of my professors in college and also have it that she had her husband killed. I think I made her goofy back in 05′ because I know I came up with the idea that she had Fernando killed recently… so I probably should’ve melded the two ideas and not made her so “funny.”
I caught the Jason instance and corrected all of them but that one… I still can’t believe one slipped through…
I think now that I should’ve just as a whole explained things better. Fernando sees Jeff looking at him, so he tells everyone he knows about Jeff. Alex assumes that because Fernando died not too long ago, no one is going to believe that he found a “seer” when he tries to show everyone. This is why he doesn’t worry that much about Fernando. The main reason why Alex doesn’t want him looking at any of them is because if he does, then they will most likely try to have him carry out their own “revenges” or simply try to get him killed for the simple fact that he can see them. Something else they might do is have him “run their errands”, like what Timothy’s twin brother tried to do. I was trying to show how in tune Timothy was with his twin brother’s spirit. obviously he is rich and was the first to reach the town when Jeff let out the fact that he could see all of them. The other “puppets” just didn’t have the means to get there so quickly.
I wasn’t really shooting for a fall from chastity for Crina, but more showing that the Dark Spirit could basically control anyone he wants. But then again, I’m sure it came off that way (fall from chastity) and am thankful you noticed it. Basically the God Concert was a last ditch effort of Jeff’s to get away from it all and maybe finding some peace, which obviously didn’t work out in the end.
Boggs versus Carlin
Boggs is basically being preened by Carlin to be his next “puppet.” He is running him up the promotions as a police officer, but wants to make sure Boggs will do anything he wants. This is why Carlin was happy to see that Boggs shot him and was willing to blame it on Jeff. Boggs proved himself. Boggs actually thought Jeff was there to kill him. He definitely knew that Jeff was able to see the spirits so that’s the conclusion I had him come to.
I know you’ll cringe when I mention this but in the sequel Jeff finds out that Diaz has “repented” of everything he did in the 80’s and is now sincerely trying to make his country better. This is the reason Carlin does not care that Jeff is planning on killing him, and in fact now at the end of Dark Past is forcing Jeff to kill him.
Thanks again. I will definitely be rewriting this one and implementing your suggestions on dialogue and characters and focusing the plot more. This review didn’t seem harsh at all. I’m not exactly “neuro-typical” so nothing anybody says almost ever seems harsh to me, even if it is meant to be harsh 🙂 , which, may-not-so-coincidentally, be one of the reasons I have trouble with characters and dialogue…
Thanks for giving me the chance to read it.
I’m glad first, that there was useful criticism in the review, and second that it didn’t come across as harsh.
Even I have to remind myself of the helpful nature we want this community to have.
I actually like the Carlin idea, and it’d be better if the dark spirit in him came through more. He should be a dirtier cop, and try to get Boggs to go along with stuff. The way it is now is them just sitting around talking. (Other than letting John off, which now makes more sense, but isn’t good because you had to explain it after the fact.)
I’m still confused on the Guatemala angle though. I’m guessing Jeff makes it there in the sequel, but that’s a problem now as there’s not enough in the first movie. I think it could play better if you just kept it contained, or even set it in Central America. That way the looming trip that never happens isn’t there.
All in all, glad I could help, and yeah good job on the formatting. (Zoetrope folks tend to nitpick, so don’t sweat the minor details.)
Yes, I agree with all that.
On the one side you have Alex and Jeff… Alex trying to get him to give up his plan. Alex does this because he thinks it will win him points with a higher power… On the other side you have Carlin and Boggs… Yeah I didn’t do very well revving up the juxtaposition…
Also, if you don’t mind, I’m definitely going to steal your phrase “ghost-talking.”
Feel free to use any phrases I coin. Just remember my royalty of a nickel per use in any sold script.
(Whoa, “coin” and “nickel” in the same sentence? I’m getting as witty as walker.)