Originally written on December 13th, 2018, this was my term paper for Screenwriting Analysis class. It has analysis of a short spec script titled ALONE, which I then rewrote.
The first time I read the short screenplay titled Alone, I felt it was not a good script. However, after reading it again, I feel it has potential & attempts of a novel style, but its ideas are contrived, underdeveloped and too direct. There have been several films and TV shows in the recent past with a similar premise, as the bleak idea of a dystopian future – clubbed with a disaster like an epidemic – is now a major, yet niche, sub-genre of science-fiction so I will try to reference the ones that I have watched.
The foremost and biggest problem the screenplay has, that it almost feels anti-dramatic. Whatever drama it is trying to put forth is completely via dialogues, which isn’t even a conversation but a monologue. Lacking a contrast of perspective, it suffers from a monotonous nature of treatment on the surface. This heavy reliance over dialogue kind of defies the whole nature of Film as a medium, as it is an audio-visual one. Of course, there are visual ideas in the screenplay, which I will talk about later, but those do not help integrating or even adding much to the dramatic arc.
An average viewer perceives the film via the protagonist and traces it via the story, at least when he/she’s watching it for the first time. As much visuals influence the viewer’s experience, his attention is captured and maintained by the unfolding story. And traditionally, in a film with lesser complexity – i.e. made for masses like a commercial blockbuster – the story’s dramatic elements like expositions, conflicts, etc. are primarily in its dialogues & characters. So, when a story/character is so nearly flat and devoid of a transition, the viewer’s concentration or even relatability with the film decreases immediately.
Coming back to my point about the visual aspect of the film to carry the plot forward, there have been many successful films which have much lesser dialogues. Coen Brothers’ Academy Award-winning 2007’s film No Country for Old Men has long running scenes almost wordless. The scripts for films of Action genre are usually shorter since their story is reliant mainly on visualization of physical fights or conflicts between characters. In Alone, there hardly is any startlingly dramatic action by the protagonist. The described visuals are only supplementary to the mood & space creation. So, even after including them in the framework of the plot, most of its drama boils under the surface unable to ever thrust upwards.
As mentioned in the preface to Thomas Pope’s “Good Scripts, Bad Scripts”,*1 ‘Filmmaking is a mysterious process and one finally hidden, even for the filmmakers themselves’ and that ‘there are no rules to the amazingly difficult and glorious craft of screenwriting, but the only rule is that the script must work’. So, there are really no limitations to trying new & unconventional things, as long as it ‘works’.
But how does a script ‘work’? To define this abstract idea, let me briefly trace it through some of the films I liked, which I felt had a really well written script which ‘works’, and I will mention my reason for selecting it:
- The Apartment (1960) – This has a very strong three-act structure which begins with establishment of the premise & characters, their internal & external problems, moving onto different conflicts, finally leading to a resolution/happy-ending.
- The Godfather Part 1 (1972) – This too has a conventional, linear structure, but it has more to do with gradual character developments of its protagonist(s). As in, there are many events happening one after the other, but it’s difficult to separate the acts from each other, and to really see transitions, we need to focus on characters’ changing behaviors along with their background.
- Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004) – Within its conventional structure, it incorporates non-linearity very fluidly to give out only necessary info to make the story complete, which is very unconventional. Memento (2000) and Reservoir Dogs (1992) too work similarly except that their experiment with flashbacks is more direct. Also, (500) Days of Summer (2009), When Harry Met Sally (1989) are perfect examples.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – This is more of an episodic script, except that all the stories are connected with a singular philosophy or goal, scrutinizing humans’ desires & hunger for exploration, their curiosities and actions they take to fulfil the same. The Tree of Life (2011) too never deflects from its philosophy, hence beyond a storytelling framework these films keep you involved and thinking about it even afterwards.
- The Florida Project (2017) – Here, the narrative takes a back seat, and instead we are sucked into the world of its characters which is presented in vignettes, until a final problem suddenly arises and concludes. There hardly is a second act. Annie Hall (1977) too works similarly except it still swings into its narrative occasionally non-linearly.
- No Country for Old Men (2007) – Throughout the film, the game of cat & mouse continues, with characters chasing each other, but it gives most of its space to the action regarding the central chase, instead of character developments or typical conflicts & resolutions. I think of it as a strong genre piece.
Now, to summarize the above list, I think a script can work if –
- It has a conventional structure.
- Character driven drama with well fleshed out developments & illustrated background.
- A direct & fluid experiment on a typical convention (for ex. Linearity).
- True to its Philosophy.
- Well rooted in its world.
- True to its Genre’s strength.
Let me apply these different guidelines to Alone to see where it stands in these departments. Talking about the structure, Alone definitely has ‘Classical Design (Archplot)’ as explained by Robert McKee in his book ‘Story’.*2 It does start a little higher than bottom, true to what Thomas Pope says in the introduction to “Good Scripts, Bad Scripts”,*1 with an external problem at hand. Now, the next step would be to complicate the proposed problem, which the script fails to do. Instead, the problem is vaguely explained to us by the protagonist, which robs us of an experience and the room to make an interpretation of our own. This narrative device pushes viewers away from getting involved and it just becomes like a news broadcast, to which our reaction is hardly devised on a personal level. Furthermore, it only has just one ‘Story Event’,*2 which is at the very end, while the progression to that point isn’t that interestingly constructed either.
Since, the dramatic arc does not take off much, defying Pope’s chart #1 of Tension vs Time (pg. xvi ‘Good Scripts, Bad Scripts’),*1 the interest in the story starts to lose. If it had continued the same way for a longer time, I think the graph would have started going down and the ending would have been even less impactful and, as Pope describes it, would have alienated the audience. The script at least has an impactful ending, but it still hardly tops the premise, about which I will talk later.
Talking about the character development, there are attempts of it, however those are not made clear or highlighted so it becomes unconvincing. The motivation for Girl to step outside is not very thoughtfully driven. Part of it stems from the fact that Girl’s character is not explained in-depth. We do not get a proper picture of her background or her inclination towards a specific philosophy of life. Even her clothing is not explained, which is usually a nice device to introduce your characters. Denying this information takes us away from relating to her or her decisions. This is especially a big flaw considering the entire drama in the script is based on her character’s actions.
As there are less & less insights into her character, we are unable to understand what drove her to take up the original decision, which seems illogical as the story moves forward and Girl starts talking about how painful it is to live alone. Specifically, when she says that she has lived her whole life having friends & family around her. Although, one of the things I liked is the fact that she doesn’t commit suicide or jumps from a balcony, and instead chooses to ‘go back to her family & friends’ whatever the aftermath maybe. However, her confidence that the virus would finally kill her, if she jumped from the balcony & survived, feels conflicting to what she says just minutes later. So, the emotional idea of belonging to her own community, is put forward in a contrived & flawed manner, thus taking away its believability. And since we don’t have much idea about who she is, we feel alienated and find her character lacking in roundness.
We cannot even make out her preparation of the original decision. This could have been shown via the objects in her apartment. If she had an unusually large amount of food, water & supplies stocked up, then we would have known the degree to which she was confident about her decision of shutting everyone off. These give a few more shades to her character, and we start to get involved in her story. Instead, when we are shown that she is trying to pass the time by dropping pennies in the water – which you can imagine to be an important survival entity by now – her character, who carefully predicted a worldwide epidemic, becomes even more unconvincing. And since we don’t have much background except that she looks in her early 20s – which is a very vague characteristic – becomes even more elusive and we cannot get a hold of her psyche beyond her already typical & clichéd narration. This becomes an obstacle in fleshing out ‘The Audience Bond’, as Robert McKee would put it.
Showing an epidemic based drama via characters is done really well in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, where the script mostly hides explanations related to the virus, and the characters drive the story. Not all of these characters have much development as the story progresses, but their background is made clear, so we can understand their decisions. Also, the hyperlink nature of the script, where one character’s decisions affect other character(s) keeps the drama flowing and, frankly, we don’t miss their roundness much.
Moving onto the unconventional or experimental parts of the script, initially I liked the descriptions about the place where the story is taking place. Also, to have only one character, is quite an audacious move & approach. There are clear attempts to create an atmosphere, however, since they don’t add much to the drama and remain independent of the protagonist’s actions almost all the time, we stop paying attention to those. Sometimes, this use of material objects, like ceiling fan or duct tapes on the door, is so dryly handled that it rather feels lazy writing. For example, Girl explains the necessity of having a ceiling fan, because it’s summer in Texas. Instead, if these objects were complemented by other material objects, like a scorching heat wave when she looks outside or her employee ID card indicating the location as a city/town in Texas, then it would have been a more absorbing experience. Instead we get some surrealist ideas like sunlight creating an effect of play of light or the garbage bag fluttering or a piercingly loud tone, which may add to the mood & atmosphere, but ultimately feel unused or underdeveloped, since their existence doesn’t always make sense.
Material objects come in very handy while making an atmospheric drama, because as much as they help in world-building, the ones related to a character explain the intricacies & nuances of it. The garbage bag Girl put up on AC vent briefly gives us insight into her preparation for survival, however it is the only instance explaining it, so it doesn’t get highlighted properly. As I said earlier, this feature could have been capitalized upon with more description about the food stock, the manner in which she has put up the duct tapes, or simply a few more objects at her place. The use of a tape recorder in this case was snappy and adds up as a mild final twist, but it does not feel much sensible. Was she making sure that her tape was recorded properly? Why would she re-trace the same actions she had recorded earlier? This adds not to the mystery but to the illogicalness of her actions, again denying us believability of the story.
To quickly explain effective use of material objects, I think the origami Unicorn which the character Eduardo Gaff creates in Blade Runner (1982), not only adds to the mystery & shades of his character, but also to Deckard’s character who dreams of a Unicorn. Ultimately, it also increases our curiosity about this world where the line between humans and androids is very blurry. In Mad Max Fury Road (2015), portraying a post-apocalyptic world, water is considered the most essential entity and the one who controls it, is considered ruler of the land. These objects add to the story and atmosphere as much as any character.
Alone perhaps bases itself over pessimism & loneliness, however since it denies us a smooth, well explained transition and believability of the story, it kind of feels not worthy of our exploration afterwards. Basing the central idea of the film or a character on a classical philosophy or a psychological theory, is a great way to make a relatable film.
Christopher Nolan uses it quite effectively, with Inception (2010) based on ‘Life is but a dream’ which was hinted at & articulated by Plato & Descartes respectively.*3 Nolan’s interpretation of Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) had nihilistic undertones, yet diverse shades thanks to which we still find that character interesting. But it can be a double-edged sword. While, The Dark Knight doesn’t exactly suffer from contrived character developments, Inception does. This symptom is well explained by Howard & Mabley in The Tools of Screenwriting,*4 who state that when a screenwriter bases the script on a philosophical position, this method leads to clichés, propaganda and lifeless characters, because all the human issues of the drama have been subordinated to this thesis the author is out to prove. This is true for 2001 A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life as well, but since those are character-driven dramas, it works.
But we cannot excuse Alone as it is a character-based drama. This symptom could explain most flaws in Alone. Is it just an exercise in pessimism? Most of the story tries to adhere to the theme of loneliness. It has under-developed hints of optimism before the actual beginning of the story, but since we don’t get much details of it, except from a lazy device like Girl’s narration, it fails to compel us. The idea of Girl slipping into pessimism because of loneliness, is quite universal and relatable but its execution is not impeccable, hence feels like an opportunity lost and we end up expecting more to be given to think upon.
The script does not give out much details of the world in which Alone is happening. There hardly is any other view except that of Girl’s. This is also an unconventional idea – to base the entire story in one apartment – which fails to keep us captivated, especially since the premise concerns the entire planet. If there were flashes of other people or even animals, via flashbacks or showing newspaper clippings, that could have helped us settle into the premise. These do not necessarily add too much in the budget for production, minimizing which might be one of the purposes of the writer to let the story unfold only indoors, in one apartment.
As I noted earlier, material objects help in creation of the story’s world as well as explaining the external problem which the protagonist is trying to solve or survive against. In A Quiet Place (2018), most of the newspapers and devices on Lee Abbott’s desk let us grasp the nature of disaster and monsters. Many times, an epidemic is simply explained by text written on the screen at the beginning of the film. Children of Men (2006) uses government’s announcements, street graffiti to explain the current state of the world. Unable to have another view of the problem in Alone, we end up relying on the information that Girl narrates, which gives rise to a possibility that it might as well just be her imagination. But we cannot verify it, having very less info at hand and random, half-developed objects.
Alone’s real-time nature also hurts its ability to keep us engaged. If the recording could have been showcased to have been performed over the course of a few days or weeks, Girl’s gradual leading to final decision at the end would have made more sense. Since we directly jump at the point of her complete denial of hope, we have less to engage with, and more questions about what happened previously, answers to which are denied to us in the script. This problem is very carefully avoided in the film Trapped (2016) – which has multiple similarities with Alone – as it takes its time to lead the protagonist into the problem – getting locked in an apartment of an empty building – and gradually increases its drama with realistic wordless sequences.
World-building is especially an important aspect of survival-based post-apocalyptic films, as evident with the Mad Max film series, I Am Legend (2007), The Book of Eli (2010), where proper attention is given to set designs, costume designs which give us glimpses of current condition of the world. Even if we keep that aside for a while, since Alone happens mostly in an apartment, there is a scope to highlight the intensity of the problem with objects inside the apartment. I know, ceiling fan, clutter of food, duct tape, etc. are used to lead us into that but their existence feels rushed in the script and not enough to integrate the severity of the problem. Trapped (2016) does it particularly well, where each of these elements like food, water, electricity start to disappear slowly, adding to the graph of drama as well as to the rich detail of the world. The more detailing there is, the more real and compelling it feels to the audience. Thus, comparatively Alone feels unsuccessful in building upon strengths of its genre, or even working them out in a convincing manner.
To sum up, Alone has more failures in the different ways the script can work, than some of its novel and unconventional ideas it tries to take upon. These ideas could have been said to have a potential, since this is still a niche & new genre, but the lack of vision and less attempts of realizing each of them fully makes for an uninteresting story.
1. “Good Scripts, Bad Scripts” by Thomas Pope
2. “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee
3. Inception and Philosophy: Life Is But a Dream (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/plato-pop/201111/inception-and-philosophy-life-is-dream)
4. “The Tools of Screenwriting” by David Howard and Edward Mabley