THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

THE SHIPPING RULES


As we get closer and closer to Oscar Night, remember about a decade ago when SHIPPING NEWS was Oscar bait... that didn't even get a nibble! Based on the novel by Annie Proulx it is a textbook on how NOT to write a script.

The story follows uber-shlub Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) as he gets beaten down by life to the point where it becomes funny. He has a boring job at a newspaper - not as a reporter but as a press operator. He gets drunk, picks up this slut in a bar (Cate Blanchett) who moves in with him. She screws everyone in sight - right in Spacey's apartment, sometimes when he's home. She's pregnant (maybe it's his), pops the kid, goes back to screwing everyone in sight. Eventually splits, leaving him neck deep in bills trying to raise the kid alone. Spacey is still in love with her, even though she's never been in love with him... but there's no happy ending because she gets into an awful car wreck while she's drunk and dies in a mangled mess. All of this happens in the first twenty minutes of the film, which makes it all seem comical. You know how you can't have coincidences that favor your hero because audiences reject good luck in a story? The same is true with bad luck - too many negative coincidences are funny. Silent comic Buster Keaton made an entire career based around bad luck - bad things always happened to him. In a novel, you can space out the bad luck over a life and it seems natural, on screen everything is compressed and his misfortune is laugh-outloud funny... not what the writer had in mind.

Spacey's aunt Agnis (Dame Judy Dench) pops up on his doorstep unannounced, introduces herself, and takes Spacey and his daughter Bunny to the family home in Newfoundland - a land of smelly fisherman and snow and rocks and wind. Spacey lands a job at the local newspaper as a reporter, even though he has absolutely no experience. So the old-hand reporter teaches Spacey what a story IS.

1) "Find the heart of the story" and discard everything else. Spacey's first story is a car crash, and he fills it with pointless details and subplots including what the police officer at the crash scene had for breakfast that morning. ALL WRONG! You want the *essence* of the story - and leave out all of the things that don't matter!

2) "Find the human angle". Spacey is told when he takes photos of car crashes to look for a boot, a glove, a kid's toy - focus on the thing that makes the story about people.

3) Stories are EXCITING and PROVOCATIVE - this is so good it made the film's trailer! The old guy points out some storm clouds on the horizon and asks Spacey to come up with the story. Spacey says it looks like rain. The old guy tells him that's NOT a story. The story is "Killer storm threatens village". People will read that story because it's exciting - "rain" isn't a story, "killer storm threatens village" is a story. Spacey asks what happens if it ends up just being rain, the old guy answers "Village spared from killer storm" - again, a killer storm is a story, rain is not a story.

These three things are great advice for screenplays! Find the heart of the story and get rid of any pointless details and unimportant subplots. Make sure there's a human angle - people want to see stories about people they understand. A story is something that is exciting and provocative, not something commonplace. With all of that good advice in the scenes where they teach Spacey how to write a story, you'd think the script would have followed the same advice. But the story is all over the place - it's a script that's all about what the policeman had for breakfast! And we focus so much on the events in Spacey's life that we don't spend any time on SPACEY - he's just a collection of bad luck, without anything that makes him human. And the story? It's "rain"! Nothing exciting or provocative. The trailer builds up the family mystery - but when they solve the mystery you just want to say "Is that all?" It's boring! So the script doesn't follow the rules for writing a good story that are described in the script! That's ironic.

Those rules are good ones. You should remember them when you write your script. THE SHIPPING NEWS is a case of "do as they say, but not as they do".


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