By Julia Morizawa.
What elevates a feature screenplay from good to great?
As part of our “Anatomy of a Winning Script” series, in this article, we are going to break down one of Shore Scripts’ winning feature screenplays, specifically from the perspective of a contest reader.
Semblance, written by Bill Whirity, was the Horror Genre Winner in our 2020 Feature Contest. The story follows a teenage girl, struggling to find her own identity, who faces off with an alien species threatening to take that very thing from her.
Bill wrote and directed a short film of Semblance in 2014, which had a successful festival run. After focusing on other projects, he returned to developing the feature script in 2018. The story was largely inspired by the concept of conformity – “this conflicting duality of trying to fit in while also remaining a unique snowflake” – as well as modern society’s attachment to our phones and the idea that the aliens in the story have different circadian rhythms that need blue light all the time.
Semblance from Bill Whirity on Vimeo.
Bill is a Los Angeles-based writer/director, born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, who studied directing and screenwriting at Columbia College where he earned his bachelor’s degree in Film and Television. After moving to Los Angeles, he began sneaking into classes at the American Film Institute. During that time he shot his unofficial “thesis film,” an 80s Amblin-style short about a boy inventor titled The MisInventions of Milo Weatherby, which went on to play at festivals all over the globe, earning awards along the way. Most recently, Bill launched the Midnight Movie Club with Matthew Lillard (SCREAM, SCOOBY-DOO, HACKERS) to create their own genre films. Bill wrote and is shortly due to direct their first film, Let Them Die. Additionally, his short film Prey was selected as a Fresh Blood pick for 2019’s Bloodlist.
As our Horror Genre Winner, Bill was awarded a $1,000 cash prize, which he used to purchase an iPad for reading scripts and making notes via Scriptation, for on-the-go writing via Final Draft, and to draw all of the art for Midnite Movie Club’s NFTs via Procreate.
“Winning the Shore Scripts contest not only gave me confidence in my writing which helped me feel more comfortable sharing my work (something I know is hard for all writers), but also led to some great meetings and new connections (albeit this was significantly more limited during the pandemic).” –Bill Whirity
Now, let’s take a look at some of the elements that made Semblance a Shore Scripts contest winner.
HOOK: A strong hook grabs the reader’s attention from page one. There are no black and white rules for what makes a great hook. It might be a powerful visual, the introduction of a unique character, high-stakes action, a mystery, or a cold open (such as a flash-forward to later in the script or a crime being committed that the story will later solve). In Semblance, the opening scene reels us in with a visual hook – nearly identical houses on a cul-de-sac at night. This establishes the horror genre and tone. It introduces an effective visual trope – uniform “perfection” or “The American Dream” – which modern-day audiences have come to expect means that something damaged or horrific is likely happening within that facade. We know that something bad is going to happen and this puts us on edge. Then we see a bug zapper with an eerie blue light and hear the distinct ZZZAP! signifying death. This, mixed with lightning and thunder, establish a creepy, mysterious tone within one-third of a page.
Setting this tone – getting our heart racing with a feeling of dread – keeps us reading. Semblance’s hook continues through to page 4 in a series of scenes that serve as a teaser, much like a cold open in a television script. Everything seems normal in this house, featuring a father, mother, and their 10-year-old daughter who can’t sleep. Until the father realizes that the girl that just left the room with his wife is not actually his daughter and he witnesses his real daughter quite literally disintegrate before his eyes. But, of course, no one believes him and he is dragged away by the police. This opening sequence introduces the concept of the story – something supernatural or alien is replicating or invading the bodies of the people in this neighborhood – and solidifies the script’s horror tone. But most importantly, it keeps the reader invested because now we need to know what happened to his daughter and what is going to happen to the rest of the characters in this world.
PLOT DEVELOPMENT: The primary area in which Semblance truly excels is plot development. In simplest terms, every scene within the script drives the plot forward. An event that happens in one scene incites an event that happens in the next. The scenes progressively build off one another. In other words: cause and effect. As a result, the pacing is excellent, keeping us on the edge of our seats and always wanting to find out what happens next.
When the protagonist, Riley, gets mixed up with some “rebel” kids, we meet Old Man Krumholtz, who calls the cops on them. As a sort of initiation, Riley is pressured into placing a homemade bomb into Krumholtz’s mailbox for revenge. While narrowly escaping the scene, Riley elbows Krumholz hard – too hard. Later, we see Krumholtz struggling to fix the mailbox before he is infected by the alien slugs that are invading the bodies of everyone in the neighborhood. The next time Riley passes by Krumholtz’s house, the mailbox is flawlessly fixed. We know what this means, but Riley merely finds it odd. Riley feels guilty for elbowing Krumholtz so she agrees to help him retrieve his cat, which is when Krumholtz (the alien replicate) attacks her. She narrowly escapes, only to realize she dropped her phone and must return to retrieve it. And that’s when Riley first observes the alien slugs crawling under Krumholtz’s skin.
Every choice that Riley makes in this sequence of scenes, which do not happen back to back but are interspersed with subplots and character development, directly results in the events of the subsequent scene. This is an excellent execution of cause and effect, and the protagonist drives the plot. Nothing happens by accident or coincidence or “just because.” And this is true for every branch of the plot and every subplot within the script.