making the short list in the john august scene writing challenge

scene_challengeA few days ago, John August announced his latest scene writing challenge. It’s kind of like one of those 24-hour filmmaking challenges, except you don’t have to actually make a movie… just write one. And not even a whole movie… just a scene or sequence. Simple, right?

John has done these a few times before. Each one garners more and more responses, from more and more good writers.

There were 145 entries for the Superheroic Scene Challenge, and some of them were looooong. Printed out, they totaled 406 pages. Going side-by-side shrunk it to a still-ridiculous 203.

As you can see in his initial posting, John gave us three directives: Make it about the action, have a villain called “Brickhouse”, and have Brickhouse steal a staff from the Museum of Ubiquities.

This was my first whack at one of John’s challenges. I had mixed feelings at the end, spending several hours crafting a sequence (around 4 pages altogether) that’s not a part of a project I’ll ever finish. But I needed the kick in the butt, and it was a chance to get my work in front of John and his many talented readers, so I couldn’t say no.

The results came in today. Though I didn’t land in the winner’s circle, I did make the “short list”, which I guess means I was a contender. [Tries his best Maxwell Smart: “Missed it by that much!”] John said I “kept the action tight”.

I’ll take it.

Here’s a direct link to my entry (I may have tweeted earlier that I was number 48 — there seems to have been some editing going on at John’s blog, and my entry is now numbered 47. That’ll fuck up my Twitter followers! 😉 ) I won’t bother posting it here, since I don’t have Scrippets (the amazing little add-on that allows for formatted screenplay content embedded in WordPress)  loaded on this blog. Plus I like to send traffic back to John.

A few notes (with spoilers):

  • I spent a little time thinking about the back story: an origin story for the characters, and their interpersonal history. Then I tried to keep the dialogue and character dev that actually reached the page to a minimum so as to focus on the action, letting the scene play out like a small part of a feature length story.
  • I focused on escalation: having the action build, both in scale and in its threat to bystanders. So staircase>rooftop>helicopter>endangered-crowd. And of course the action goes from being private (in the alley) to public (in the streets).
  • I wanted a (beat) in the action – a false finish that would then kick back in a finale. Thus the window washer’s platform.
  • I wanted the hero (Chase) to be weaker physically than the villain, but smarter. I don’t know if he’s smarter, but he uses his mind (psychokinesis) rather than brute strength, so that’s kinda working.
  • I also wanted the hero to be flawed. Thus, his powers hurt/exhaust him and are probably more a burden than a gift (and, according to my back story, thrust upon him by genetic design).
  • I didn’t want to tie it up with a bow, so Brickhouse gets away, and the scene is buttoned with a teaser that infers “more to come”.
  • I actually didn’t have any powers for the “staff” worked out when I started writing.  I intended to have it simply be a valuable artifact (the museum being a collection of “ubiquities” notwithstanding). But when I got to the conclusion I realized that essentially “ignoring” one of John’s requirements seemed like a cop out – bringing a gun on stage without having it go off, so to speak. I like what ended up happening.
  • A famous quote from a famous writer informs the closing dialogue about the staff and Brickhouse’s whereabouts.
  • It was actually an accident that Chase opens with “It’s about time”, since that’s what the staff ended up being all about. But once I saw it, it worked for me.

What would I change?

  • Maybe a couple more dialogue exchanges (but not just classic superhero quips) during the action sequence — something more revealing? Not sure. I do like that it’s “bookended” by dialogue.
  • I don’t like that Brickhouse raises a fist on the scaffold, falls, then ends up just raising a fist again. Feels lazy. I think I’d rather they separated after hitting the helicopter, the boy stunned, Brickhouse ringed by SWAT. Right now I kind of wonder why Brickhouse chooses not to just smack the kid. But maybe that’s part of what makes it feel more complex?
  • I’d spell “sights” right. Guns have “sights”, not “sites”. Oops.

There’s a lot of discussion going on among the readers at the blog. Read it through. Interesting stuff. It’s all so subjective. But one poster, “Pete”, had this to say, which, having read for contests before, I think is so true:

one way this has been Very helpful is that it gives us readers perspective on the way execs, agents, and managers must invariably respond to the deluge of specs that come across their desk. i mean, how many of us – aspiring screenwriters all – looked at the volume of entries and starting thin-slicing our way to the ones that stood out immediately?

That’s why format is so important! Sometimes, yes, even over content (or maybe not “over” content, but bad format may keep anyone from ever getting to your content). Yes, I have passed on poorly executed good ideas.

In the end, the scene challenge is just an exercise, and an opportunity to have John August read your work. That’s the prize, win or lose.

I’m glad it was John and Matt who had to make the decision. Thanks again for the challenge, guys. Good fun.

Now I’m off to write something short. I hear another Twitter ‘Zine calling my name.

*Image borrowed from John’s blog. Hope that’s okay.

Leave a Reply