The Biggest Mistake Screenwriters Make

Transcendence

The biggest mistake screenwriters make is writing the screenplay before getting the logline right, which inevitably results in the plot not working and the movie failing at the box office.

Getting the logline right is mostly about ensuring the idea on which the movie is based can work effectively as a 1st act plot point.

The Johnny Depp movie, Transcendence (budget $100M; box office $103M; CBR 1.03) failed at the box office because the idea on which the movie was based is not a viable 1st act plot point.

The idea is this:

 A dying man’s mind is uploaded onto a computer and he becomes omniscient.

To work as a 1st act plot point the idea has to create a problem, an antagonist and a physical goal that generates continuous obstacles and conflict for the main character in the second act before it is resolved in the third act.

If the dying man is the main character and his mind is uploaded onto a computer and he becomes omniscient then he (or it) doesn’t have a problem: he’s omniscient. Since he doesn’t have a problem and doesn’t need to worry about antagonists his situation doesn’t generate continuous obstacles and conflict.

That’s the flaw in the movie and is obvious when the logline is analysed:

When a computer scientist is fatally wounded by anti-technology activists his mind is uploaded onto a computer but he becomes such a threat to humanity that he has to be destroyed.

Extracting the key story elements from the logline:

  1. The main character is Will Caster (Johnny Depp).
  2. His world is science and artificial intelligence (AI).
  3. His emotional issue is an insatiable desire for knowledge.
  4. The inciting incident is when the activists fatally wound him.
  5. The 1st act plot point is when his mind is uploaded onto a computer.
  6. His physical goal is total control and omniscience.
  7. The antagonists are the activists.
  8. His emotional goal is to acquire knowledge.
  9. He reacts by acquiring knowledge, becomes a threat to humanity.
  10. The resolution is when he accepts his own destruction and the world’s technology shuts down.

Will being fatally wounded can’t be a 1st act plot point because the problem of imminent death is quickly solved by uploading his mind onto a computer. That tries to be a 1st act plot point but it isn’t viable because it doesn’t create a problem, a physical goal and an antagonist that generates continuous obstacles and conflict for him in the second act. So the story hits a dead-end.

40 minutes into the movie and Will uses his newfound powers to set the FBI onto the anti-technology activists and the conflict is diffused because the antagonistic forces are diffused.

Because the idea doesn’t have an inbuilt, self-evident problem with an inherent physical goal and antagonist, three things happen that undermine the movie:

1) The Will Caster character doesn’t have a second act: with the activists neutralized there’s nothing left for him to do but become more and more powerful and have more and more control. Because his physical goal is about omniscience, not about addressing a problem that has severe consequences, it doesn’t present him with ever increasing obstacles, and so the plot isn’t driven by dramatic conflict.

2) The physical goal of omniscience turns Will into the antagonist and the activists into the protagonists: the character we are supposed to be rooting for is turning people into robots, and the antagonists we are supposed to be rooting against – they murdered innocent scientists and killed  Will – are now the good guys trying to stop him.

3) Will’s wife takes over in the second act as the main character: Will is clearly the main character in the first act but then his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) takes the lead in the second act because she is the positive force who stops him from taking control of the world.

The movie actually used two loglines, each undermining the other.  The first logline had Will as the main character for the first act and the second was used to structure the rest of the movie as Evelyn’s story.  This is her logline:

A woman whose husband is fatally wounded by activists uploads his mind onto a computer but discovers that his powers threaten humanity and she sacrifices her life to destroy him.

Evelyn’s Story Pattern looks like this:

  1. The main character is Evelyn Caster.
  2. Her world is science and artificial intelligence (AI).
  3. Her emotional issue is idealism; she wants to change the world.
  4. Her inciting incident is when activists bomb the AI research centers and Will is shot but survives because the bullet only grazed his arm.
  5. Her 1st act plot point is when she learns that the bullet was laced with radiation poison and Will has only weeks to live.
  6. Her physical goal is to save Will.
  7. Her immediate antagonist is the radiation poison.
  8. Her emotional goal is to overcome her idealism about science.
  9. She reacts by “saving” Will and uploads his mind onto a super computer.
  10. The 1st conflict point is when the activists attack her workshop but Evelyn copies Will’s mind onto an IPad and escapes.
  11. The midpoint is when Will “becomes” Martin, the building contractor who was healed by Will, and who now wants to have a physical relationship with Evelyn. That unhinges Evelyn and she begins to doubt the wisdom of having uploaded Will onto cyberspace. Her goal now takes a different direction.
  12. The 2nd conflict point is when the activists, having joined forces with Will’s friends and colleagues, Joseph and Max, as well as with the FBI, attack Will’s data centre and take Martin captive to extract the source code from his blood and use it to create a virus to infect Will.
  13. The 2nd act plot point is when Max shows Evelyn how Will is changing organic life so that soon everything will exist only to serve him.
  14. Confronting the antagonist is when Evelyn agrees to be infected with the virus so she can infect Will and destroy him.
  15. The twist is when Evelyn discovers that Will has regenerated himself back into a living human. That gives her pause, but only briefly.
  16. The climax is when Will has to choose between letting Max be killed or uploading Evelyn and infecting himself.
  17. The resolution is when Will is destroyed and the world’s technology shuts down.

Even though the movie tries unwittingly to follow the Story Pattern with Evelyn as the main character the second act nevertheless falls apart because neither her 1st act plot point (Will’s imminent death) nor her reaction to it (uploading his mind onto a computer) create a problem, a physical goal and an antagonist that generate a continuous series of obstacles and conflict she can confront, be challenged by, and eventually overcome.

Evelyn’s physical goal is to save Will.  She achieves that 35 minutes into the movie by uploading his mind. The activists track her down but Will’s new powers diffuse the threat by minute 40. Consequently, there is no ongoing, continuous conflict from any antagonistic force that affects Evelyn for the next 45 minutes of screen time.

Most of the second act, which should be driven by obstacles and conflict as she tries to solve a problem has little dramatic conflict because she doesn’t have a problem to solve or a physical goal to achieve. The second act is a series of sequences that have no direct effect on her: Will’s data centre is built; Will making breakthroughs with nano technology; the activists going on the run because of information Will feeds the FBI; the activists taking Max prisoner and trying to recruit him; Joseph and the FBI trying to figure out what’s going on.

That’s 45 minutes of dead screen time in the 2nd act with no dramatic conflict for the main character. Evelyn is troubled and confused about what Will is doing, certainly; and she’s confused about Joseph’s note, telling her to run; and the activists attack Will’s compound, but it’s not the kind of continuous conflict that arises from Evelyn having a problem that has severe consequences if not addressed.

Years pass with little for Evelyn to do but watch Will grow more and more powerful, turning his worker bees into hybrids of himself.  Nothing truly challenges Evelyn until she realises, 91 minutes into the film, that she was wrong to save Will’s mind. Her reaction is to join the activists, persuades Will to destroy himself and that results in the breakdown of the world’s technology.

Transcendence failed because the idea the movie used as a 1st act plot point wasn’t capable of driving a story with a continuous series of obstacles and conflict the main character had to confront to solve a problem that had severe consequences.

The movie didn’t provide the main character with that kind of problem until 91 minutes into the movie.  That’s when Max (Paul Bettany) uses a puddle of rain water to demonstrate to Evelyn that Will is bringing about the end of organic life and if he’s allowed to continue the world will exist only to serve him.

91 minutes into the movie before there’s an idea that could work as a 1st act plot point: a computer mind is controlling the world by turning living creatures into hybrids of itself. That idea could have worked as a 1st act plot point: the main character would probably have to be a James Bond type or super hero type whose physical would be to save the world. That would generate a continuous series of obstacles and conflict for the main character as he battles the ever-expanding power of the computer.

The biggest mistake screenwriters make is writing the screenplay before getting the logline right. Getting the logline right is mostly about ensuring the idea on which the movie is based can work effectively as a 1st act plot point.