Today we’ve got Get Out meets Rosemary’s Baby meets The Stepford Wives.
Premise: A pregnant couple hoping to start their family in the suburbs find themselves embroiled in a decades long mystery which threatens to shatter their American dream.
About: Today’s writers are two of the few on the latest Black List to have a produced credit. They wrote Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, in 2015, which, if I remember correctly, I liked.
Writers: Emi Mochizuki & Carrie Wilson
Details: 108 pages
I’ve been thinking a lot about character this week and a common mistake we writers make when it comes to the creation of our characters. There are basically two types of characters in a script. There are the main characters, typically 2-3 in every movie. And then everyone else – the periphery characters.
What I’ve realized is that writers often do a good job with their secondary characters but a lousy job with the main ones – the reason being that a secondary character doesn’t have to be complex. Which allows the writer to create somebody with a much clearer identity. The school bully, the stuck-up judgmental wife, the aging mother who will never be happy until her daughter gives her a grandchild, the over-exerciser, the spiritual hippie.
I’ll read these characters and immediately understand who they are.
Meanwhile, main characters are more nuanced. They have more going on. Which, in theory, is a good thing. But often writers will lean too heavily into that nuance and never actually convey what the core identity of that character is. And therefore we never get a feel for them.
John McClane’s core is a tried-and-true New York cop who doesn’t play by the rules. Arthur Fleck’s core is a guy who just wants to be accepted by the world. In my new favorite show, The Bear, the main character’s core is a workaholic who is determined to succeed at all costs.
Yes, main characters are nuanced. They’re complex. But you still have to give them that core identity that allows the reader to understand who they are. Cause if you spread their identity across too many plates, we’re not going to know what we’re eating.
I bring this up because I saw a little of this problem in today’s script. Let’s get into it.
34 year old Renee Kim has just gotten pregnant with her husband, Mark. The two are still reeling from a stillborn pregnancy a year ago. So Renee moves forward with caution. Cut to half a year later and Mark’s success at work has allowed them to purchase a house in esteemed Carriage Hill, a community of rich people well outside the city.
Right away, Renee starts seeing weird stuff. There’s this hot chick across the way who likes to jump up and down on her trampoline in her dress… with no underwear on. There’s also single Phoebe, a hot mamajama who’s not actually a mama, but someone who’s just really good at flirting with husbands.
Renee and Mark become fast friends with their neighbors across the street, Trevor and Zoe. Zoe, like Renee, is pregnant, which gives Renee someone who knows what she’s going through. Well, that is until one night when Renee sees a naked Zoe across the street in the window with some kind of weird collar on. Freaked out, Renee tells her husband, but he just assumes they’re into kinky sex.
Things get weirder when Zoe disappears. She leaves a text to Trevor that she’s found someone new so sayonara. Renee is not convinced. Not only are Zoe and her soon-to-be-born baby gone, but come to think of it, there aren’t any babies in Carriage Hill. There aren’t any KIDS in Carriage Hill.
As Renee’s delivery date approaches, she becomes convinced that this Carriage Hill place steals babies and does something to them. She alerts the police, who inform her that Carriage Hill used to be a hippie compound in the 70s until a fire burned it all down, killing many of the inhabitants. Renee thinks she’s put the puzzle pieces together to know what’s going on. But she starts to doubt herself because… well because Carriage Hill can’t possibly be inhabited by ghosts, can it?
I know we were talking about character introductions the other day. But we were doing so in the context of, “This is a bad character introduction.” The reality is that an AVERAGE character introduction is almost as bad as a bad one.
Here’s how Renee is introduced: “Effortlessly elegant and a natural beauty, RENEE KIM (34)…”
You may look at this and say, “Eh, it’s not bad, Carson.” And you’d be right. It isn’t bad. It’s average. Let me key in on a very important point when it comes to describing characters. If you only give us generalities, we will perceive your character in a GENERIC manner.
GENERALITIES = GENERIC
“Effortlessly elegant.” That *does* give me information. But it’s a phrase I’ve read hundreds of times before. Which mean this character is now being lumped into that giant group of generic characters in my head who were described the same way. Same thing with “natural beauty.” I’ve read that phrase more times than I can count.
This isn’t hard, people. Find ONE SPECIFIC THING about your character you can key in on and describe that via phrasing that’s different from what people typically use. That’s going to help your character intro stand out, and therefore, your character stand out.
I know it’s a book but in Gone Girl, here’s Gillian Flynn describing the female cop who comes to the house after Amy’s disappearance: “The woman was surprisingly ugly — brazenly, beyond the scope of everyday ugly: tiny round eyes set tight as buttons, a long twist of a nose, skin spackled with tiny bumps, long lank hair the color of a dust bunny.”
When you are specific, the character becomes special in the reader’s head. The reader can imagine them, see them as a real person.
SPECIFIC = SPECIAL
Let’s stop making the mistake of describing characters with generalities and platitudes (“a bear of a man”).
Okay, onto the script. When it comes to scripts like this, there’s a decision that needs to be made. Are you going to stick to some level of reality? Or are you just going to go completely nuts and include whatever weird idea pops into your head.
I prefer when writers stick to reality as much as they can. Because reality is scarier. And, if they do include supernatural or sci-fi stuff, do so in the context of making it as believable as possible.
I thought Don’t Worry Darling did a good job of this. Some really crazy things happen in that script. But there was always an underlining design to it all. I think what I dislike most is when things get so chaotic that I no longer feel like I’m reading a well thought out story, but rather a writer who’s throwing every idea at the wall.
Which is how this reads. I mean, one second, we’re watching this gorgeous naked woman. The next second that same woman is 100 years old. It’s a creepy image but I wasn’t clear on how their body changed.
We’re got the hippie compound. We’ve got underground tunnel systems. We’ve got everybody under the sun acting bizarre.
I didn’t dislike it but I guess, at a certain point, I could no longer suspend disbelief. There were too many things to keep track of. And I get the conundrum of being the screenwriter in this scenario. You want to keep giving the reader the fun that they came for, so they’ll want to keep turning the pages.
But part of being a good screenwriter is trusting that you can hold the reader’s attention through those slower parts of the story. Sure, I could have a superhero show up in my script on page 10 and then Rome blow up on page 20 and then inter-dimensional aliens arrive on page 30 — I’m giving the reader plenty of reasons to keep turning the pages. But at what cost? At the cost of them not taking the story seriously, which eventually ends in them in disengaging.
Carriage Hill is a fun little script. I just wanted to believe what was happening more. It all got a little too goofy for me.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If there’s one thing that drives me crazy, it’s when the writer describes the main character generically, but then gives some secondary character a well thought out detailed character introduction. I’ll never understand that. Here’s a description of the Carriage Hill manager: “Real estate agent NANCY TALBOT smiles like a game show host. Dressed in a vintage Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dress, she’s in her forties, but could pass for thirty.” Why wasn’t this level of detail used for Renee????
This isn’t just nit-picking, by the way. One of the most important things in a screenplay is our connection with the main character. The better we know them, the more invested we will be. So you want to do everything in your power to connect us to them. And the character intro is the first of many important steps a writer uses to achieve that.
What I learned 2: If you want to have a pregnant character in your screenplay, we should either meet them when they’re 8+ months pregnant, or, if you show them get pregnant, you want to do a TIME JUMP to 6, 7, 8 months later. And you want to do that time jump as early in the screenplay as possible. Cause you want to start the ticking time bomb to the baby’s birth. You can’t do that if the movie starts with the character at 2 months pregnant and you gradually tell the story over the next 7 months until they conceive. There won’t be enough urgency. There are exceptions to this (Rosemary’s Baby) but for the most part, it’s a good rule to follow.