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CS Open, Round 1: Solid State

September 23, 2009

Today’s scene is the one that Anthony conceived. One more time, here’s the premise we’re trying to nail:

Your PROTAGONIST is in a jam. He (or she) had been relying on deception in order to further his objective, but his ENEMY has figured out the ruse. Write the scene in which your protagonist’s LOVE INTEREST confronts him with this information acquired from the enemy – while staging it in a tricky or dangerous situation.

And before I say anything about it, here’s the scene as we submitted it to the competition:

CS Open Entry: Solid State

Since I didn’t conceive the scene myself, I feel I can lay some praise on the concept without coming off as a self-congratulatory asshat. The competition encouraged “out of the box” thinking when it comes to setting and characterization, and I think Anthony managed to come up with an idea that definitely succeeds in the originality category.

It’s a concept that I think grabs you from the very first line. “INT. IPHONE” — interior, iPhone? That got my attention when we traded scenes, and hopefully it got yours when you read it.

The first version of the story was a bit more convoluted, less focused. In essence, Anthony tried to fit an entire story into 5 pages — and wound up with 8, which is the least of the issues we started with. The elements of the world were more mythical and less clear — Shazam had stolen something called the “Apple of Influence,” although what that was/did, and why he had stolen it, was not clear. Also, the phone’s User was a serial killer and somehow Shazam and Pandora set off a power surge through the iPhone screen that killed him. All that in 8 pages.

So while it was a great concept, the execution failed to follow the competition guidelines almost entirely. It was too long, the “deception” element was vague and the only reason I know about the “serial killer” thing that made the situation dangerous/tricky was that Anthony explained it to me. It needed to be much more concise, and to follow the rules of the chosen world.

My first thought when it came to the revisions was to remove the User from the equation as much as possible. He’s not a character they interact with, he’s a force of nature over which they have no control or influence. There is literally a glass ceiling between the Apps and the outside world. I used the old show ReBoot as an example.[1] The User doesn’t even know our heroes exist as thinking beings, and our heroes only know the User as this being who usurps their reality randomly and without much warning.

I also felt that it should be more like Toy Story, in the sense that the characters and their world should leverage the unique properties of what they are. Woody has a pull-string, and they take advantage of that when they can; Slinky Dog can stretch long distances, and they take advantage of that; et cetera.

Setting a story inside an iPhone, while an unusual concept, actually makes things somewhat easier in terms of establishing the world quickly. We avoid the problem we had in yesterday’s scene — it’s not a completely new world we’re dealing with, just a new way of looking at a now-common one.

We’ve anthropomorphized iPhone functions with which people are familiar. We get to leverage the fact that many readers already probably know that the Genius feature and Pandora are closely related in terms of the functions they perform, and that Shazam is very unlike both in terms of function and would probably be an extremely incompetent Genius. We get to speak of a “System Restore” the way people in this world would say “Armageddon,” without having to explain its significance.

We consciously avoided describing what “Apps” look like. If you want to make them some kind of strange creature in your imagination, you have the freedom to do so; if you just want to think of them as people who live inside an iPhone, a la the programs in Tron, you also aren’t precluded from doing so (the latter is how I see it, for the record).

Speaking of Tron, ideally our description of App City created a very Tron-like picture in your mind — bright colors against a perpetual nighttime cyberscape. We could have just said “like something out of Tron,” but I personally try to avoid openly acknowledging derivative sources. “Las Vegas with more neon” gives you the same concept, bright colors at night-time. We don’t even have to say that it’s “night” — you only ever see Vegas neon at nighttime, so it’s implied. Not to mention that, again, everyone who is familiar with the iPhone knows that the Apps reside in front of a black background. The reader hopefully fills all that in himself without even realizing we never specified.

As with yesterday’s scene, we get away with a bit of exposition in this scene explaining how the story got to this point because this scene is one in which the protagonist is supposed to describe — under the guise of justifying — the preceding events of the story. I think it’s much clearer what the story is about and the deception angle is clearly the entire drive of the story to this point. We also get to have a bit of fun with the dialogue in having the characters talk in ways that no human being would do, precisely because they’re NOT human beings.[2]

Looking at it objectively, my biggest criticism of this iteration of the scene would probably be that it still doesn’t completely address the premise. The confrontation between the two characters doesn’t come during a “tricky or dangerous situation.” The impending System Restore is introduced toward the end of the confrontation instead of being the driving force or an underlying threat throughout. Structurally I think it works as a scene,  probably better than if we tried to make the Restore an outright MacGuffin for the scene itself, but in terms of the competition we may lose points there.

The conclusion of the scene is not entirely dissimilar to yesterday’s — the characters are about to descend into their particular “underworld.” This isn’t too surprising — both scenes come from about the same point in their respective stories and the “Descent into the Underworld” is explicitly one of the stages of certain interpretations of the Monomyth. It’s a little funky that they’re both essentially literal interpretations of that stage, but I think it’s alright.

In execution, today’s lead-out promises something different than yesterday’s scene, and still succeeds in making me want to see what comes next. Yesterday’s scene was a steampunk Ghostbusters from the perspective of the ghosts, and this story appears to be taking the direction of a cyberpunk What Dreams May Come, and perhaps a bit of Wizard of Oz (the Genius is clearly some kind of Man Behind the Curtain, otherwise Shazam’s ruse wouldn’t have worked as long as it seems to have done).

Maybe I’m biased, but I’d watch either one without being too bothered by the underlying similarities.

According to the emails I’ve received from the competition, I’ll find out by Sunday whether either of our scenes has gotten us through to the semi-finalist round. If so, we’ll have at least one more scene to examine in about a week’s time.

Even if we don’t get through, they post the premises publicly, so we might write some scenes just for the heckuvit, so I have something movie/writing related to post about here.

  1. In fact it’s in homage to ReBoot that they refer to their overlord as “the User.” In the first draft, he had a name — Blake.
  2. I got Pandora’s bit about “Sledgehammer” vs. “And She Was” by actually generating a Pandora playlist with “Sledgehammer” as the basis, taking the second song it suggested (the first was another Gabriel song), and using its reason for suggesting it verbatim. I checked a few songs later in the playlist to try and find something even less similar, to make it even less likely that Shazam could find any correlation, but I thought that the long list of reasons followed by “that was an easy one” (it would be, for her!) was too funny to resist.

From → writing

  1. Now this is original and offers a thousand ways to be interpreted visually.
    However it does not feel quite right that Pandora engages in a dialogue while knowing there is an impending system restore.
    I imagine her pulling SHAZAM out and running frantically thru App City while evading some virus, trojan horse or mal functioning app. (consequence of SHAZAM’s messing with the Genius)and having an argument while trying to stop the doom.
    But you guys do have imagination.Nice.

  2. First off, love the originality of it. To tell you the truth I don’t think I would of ever thought of a situation like this with apps.

    I am with Lisandro on this one. The fact that Pandora engages in a conversation knowing that something bad is about to happen and not make a run for it is questionable. I am not saying what you came up with was bad by any means but it’s definitely something to consider.

    Other than that I did like it. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  3. Daniel permalink

    Wow, I read through both scenes today and am thoroughly impressed. Though I don’t know if a scene like this one could ever actually be produced, I think it was very well-written and extremely original. For the sake of the challenge, I think both scenes should be quite good enough to move on to the next round.

    Speaking of, if you are willing to reveal it, I would love to know what kind of scores these scenes received. My scene only received an 86 — if I were half as original as you guys I think I could have managed at least a 90. Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll be moving forward, but I would bet both of you guys will.

  4. Anon. permalink

    I entered this competition too and still haven’t received my score so I’ve been poking around to see what other people have submitted – I have to say, I really think this is the most original entry I’ve read so far. I thought it was very clever and funny and, in my opinion, deserved a higher score. Either way, nice job and good luck – I hope you do advance to the next round!

  5. ratna permalink

    very nice. the image it conjured for me was permutation city …

  6. In fact it’s in homage to ReBoot that they refer to their overlord as “the User.”

    although tron did this long before reboot, no?

    i also think it would be much stronger if all the exposition and conflict between shaz and pan was driven by her quest to find genius and solve the user reset problem. if that kicked off the scene it would have heightened all the other elements and given more pace to all it.

    but definitely kudos for a very original setting.

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