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.
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.
CHARACTERS & RELATIONSHIPS: As we have discussed, the premise and primary plot of Semblance involves an alien invasion in which slug-like creatures take over the bodies of the residents of a suburban neighborhood. But at its emotional core, it’s a coming-of-age story. This is explored through the 15-year-old protagonist, Riley, who experiences the primary plot (alien invasion) during a rebellious time in her life when she is abandoning old friends and detaching from her family in a misguided search for identity and independence. Through the conflict of the primary plot, she is forced to grow up, make choices that define her character, and learn the hard way what it means to lose everyone she loves. As such, in addition to the compelling plot, this is a character-driven story.
Riley’s search for identity is what motivates all of her actions and decisions throughout the script. Her need to both fit in and establish independence is extremely relatable. Her internal conflict tears her in different directions, from seeing the hurt and disappointment in her ex-best friend’s eyes to feeling guilty over harassing an old man to impress new friends.
The supporting characters also have emotional depths that give the story heart and ultimately reveal vulnerabilities that the aliens feed off. Riley’s mother, Liv, tries too hard to reconnect with her teenage daughter, and her desperation always backfires. Old Man Krumholtz grieves his late wife and fails to err on the side of caution when she mysteriously reappears. Riley’s ex-best friend, Meg, is hurt by their severed relationship and becomes mean as a defense mechanism. Squid, a weed dealer that Riley runs to for help, takes care of his severely ill mother. When the aliens replicate into a healthy version of his mother who beckons him in for a hug, he falls victim to the invasion as well.
Every character serves the plot while exploring their emotional depths and complexities. Additionally, these layers are revealed through action that occurs as a result of the primary plot (not despite the plot), without ever requiring the characters to explain their backstory, emotions, or objectives through overly expository dialogue.
DIALOGUE: The most notable aspect of the well-written dialogue in Semblance is the distinct character voices. Each primary character speaks in a way that is unique to their personality. Dialogue across the board feels appropriate for their age, status, and environment, and is therefore extremely natural. These characters speak to one another in ways that differ depending on their relationships, goals, and tactics they use to achieve those goals. And these voices are clearly established from the get-go. The way 10-year-old Alyssa speaks is distinctly different from the way 15-year-old Riley speaks in word choice, cadence, and attitude. Alyssa interacts with her parents differently than the tension-filled way Riley, her mother Liv, and her 13-year-old brother, Ben do. On page 6, how Liv loosely gossips with her friend over the phone contrasts with her failed attempts to connect with her teenage children. At all times, the subtext is used effectively, which means the characters don’t say what they mean but we still clearly comprehend their emotional needs, dynamics, and intentions. Sometimes it’s as simple as Liv offering Riley a ride to work and when Riley declines, Liv responds with, “You’ll be late” – three simple words that encompass, “Please let me in, I want to spend time with you, I’m trying hard here to connect with you, you can talk to you me, I love you.”
VISUAL STORYTELLING: “Show don’t tell” is an age-old screenwriting adage that seems so simple in concept but is often one of the most difficult challenges for emerging screenwriters. Some scripts tend to reveal the plot through dialogue as characters discuss their experiences with one another when it would be much more effective to show those characters experiencing whatever they’re talking about. In some scripts, the plot might be revealed through visuals, but they are very “on-the-nose,” such as a newspaper headline, a news report, or a flashback. Semblance masters the simplicity of visual storytelling by revealing the plot and establishing the world through both visuals and action.
This is particularly evident in the world-building of the story – the alien invasion and how it works. On pages 17-18, Riley and her new friends discover a small crater while harassing Old Man Krumholtz where they find a pink gooey slug-like creature. On page 19, we see the slug making its way toward the suburban neighborhood. On pages 27-28, we see the slug attack and capture Krumholtz’s cat, and we see a slug slip into the urn containing Krumholtz’s wife’s ashes, shortly followed by the appearance of a very much alive Nancy Krumholtz, and a brand new slug creature crawling out of her forearm. Within these few pages, we know exactly how the alien slugs attack and replicate, and the power they have in resembling a brand new, healthy version of their victims. There’s no expository explanation of the science or the reasoning – we see how it works and it absolutely makes sense.
The writer even pays a little satirical homage to the trope of over-explaining an antagonist’s motive when an alien replica offers a brief “villain monologue” to Riley in which it essentially says, it doesn’t matter why we’re doing this, “What matters is it’s happening.”
SET-UP & PAY-OFF: Utilizing set-up and the pay-off is an extremely effective structural choice in storytelling that is wonderfully satisfying when done well. Set-up and pay-off is a form of foreshadowing in which the writer plants information (an image, a line of dialogue, a prop, etc.) into the script to provide the reader with insight into significant events that happen later. The set-up also prevents later moments from feeling too convenient or random. In Semblance, the multitude of set-up and pay-off moments throughout the script is extremely satisfying. From a reader’s perspective, these moments feel like little gifts, like the writer is genuinely taking care of us.
The biggest example is the bug zapper that is introduced in the opening scene on page 1. Bug zappers are shown occasionally throughout the story, but always very briefly, as if they’ve been included to merely flesh out the environment and tone. They never feel overtly obvious, but they are present enough for us to mentally take note of. Leading up to the climax of the story, Riley realizes that the answer to her problem – the way to fight the alien invaders that she has discovered can only be killed by electricity – is to create a giant bug zapper utilizing an electric tower, power lines, jumper cables, and a barbed-wire fence. The solution to the problem – the thing that saves the day – is set up on page 1 and paid off on page 99, allowing the reader to experience a very satisfying “aha!” moment alongside the protagonist.
“Just get the first draft done, it doesn’t have to be perfect — and a first draft will NEVER be perfect, so get that idea out of your head — you’ll ALWAYS have to rewrite and rework things, it’s just part of the process. The most important part of which is to recognize when it’s good enough to share and not work on things endlessly. ‘Perfect is the enemy of good’ and at some point, you need to put your work out there – you can’t sell a script or turn it into a movie if nobody ever reads it.” –Bill Whirity
It is also important to research the contests, fellowships, and programs you are planning to submit your script to. For example, an opportunity that is specifically awarding funding for the production or development of a project is likely to also judge a script based on elements such as marketability and budget. Some opportunities may be in search of stories that explore specific themes or highlight certain demographics. If your script is considered a “genre film,” focusing on contests that offer separate genre categories may be beneficial.
Julia is a writer, actress, producer & Shore Scripts script consultant who has also worked with Coverfly, Austin Film Festival, and the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. She has also worked on features, shorts, digital series, and scripted audio fiction series that have won awards presented by Scriptation, Screenwriting Master, Action On Film Festival, The Audio Verse Awards, and more.
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