Blood stains and clown pants

I had a hunch there would be a lot of entries to the second Scene Challenge, but by the hammer of Thor, I never expected 162.

It’s taken hours to go through them, winnowing it down from a list of 25 to ten to the winner. There were so many solid entries that I found myself needing to stick pretty closely to the rules: it had to be about a guy picking up his clothes at a dry cleaner. This standard led me to ding entries that felt more like a laundromat than a dry cleaner. It also sidelined many scenes that created a fascinating situation but weren’t really about The Guy himself.

Believe me, I enjoyed the riffs on what a dry cleaner could be. A couple of times, I found myself thinking, “Yeah, I’d see that movie.” But since the competition was about introducing a character, the winning scene had to be about The Guy, not The World.

After a final battle between several really strong contenders, I ended up picking two that were very similar, each of which had aspects I really liked. The first is by Craig Ugoretz:

  • An ornery, ancient Honda careens into the parking lot, screeching into a space. Out tumbles CLARENCE MALLOY, unshaven, egg-beater hair, stained wife beater. All that’s missing are the wavy smell lines.
  • He struggles out of the car, trying not to let any balloons slip out, and ends up slamming the door on his clown pants. He always does that.
  • Clarence scurries up to the counter, out of breath. The cashier eyes him, wary.
  • I lost my ticket. But it’s Malloy, a clown shirt? Bosco stains? Oh, and, I’m in a bit of a hurry.
  • He tries a smile. It misfires.

Let’s look at what Craig did. The second sentence gives us a bit of a visual on Clarence, but it’s the “wavy smell lines” that stick. Honestly, it was one of the few descriptors I still remembered after 100 subsequent entries. I like the balloons in the car, but it’s too easy to miss. Adding something more concrete around “balloons” would help slow the reader down, as would breaking it into shorter sentences:

  • He struggles out of the car, trying not to let any of the 57 balloons slip out. He ends up slamming the door on his clown pants. He always does that.

The action inside the dry cleaners doesn’t do that much, though Clarence’s misfired smile is a nice touch. It could even be the end of the scene, if we were to cut to Clarence showing up at his next gig.

The second is by Danny:

  • A dust cloud enters.
  • It slowly clears to reveal JOE SMELLS, wearing quite possibly the first pair of clothes ever made, and they’ve certainly never been washed.
  • Have your rates dropped yet?
  • The cashier shakes his head ‘no.’
  • How about coupons, or specials going on?
  • The cashier rolls his eyes and points to a sign reading: WE DO NOT CLEAN CLOTHES YOU ARE CURRENTLY WEARING.
  • Smells sighs. As he exits–
  • All right, I’ll check back later. Again. You should really think about changing your policies though. They make you look cheap.

Most of the heavy lifting is done by the dialogue, and it works well. Danny relies on a single description to set up the visual. I’d love to know an age, and at least one other detail to give me a picture of who this guy is. Since we need “first clothes ever made” to help tie us into the dry cleaners, I might break that off as a second sentence and add some more goodness right after JOE SMELLS.

  • It slowly clears to reveal JOE SMELLS, 32, the most confident homeless man in Phoenix. He’s wearing quite possibly the first pair of clothes ever made, and they’ve certainly never been washed.

Congrats to Craig and Danny. I hadn’t meant to split the prize — but I hadn’t anticipated 162 entries, either.

Given the setup, I guess it’s not surprising that I had my pick of clowns, wary cashiers and stinky patrons. But there were a few other trends worth noting:

  1. “A, but not A.” You describe a character as being one thing, then immediately negate it. “Friendly, but somewhat aloof.” “Impeccably dressed, yet his tie is askew.” There’s nothing wrong with this technique, but you have to be careful that it doesn’t verge on impossibility. I kept waiting for a tiny giant to show up.
  2. Laundronoir. I guess it’s natural that blood stains would be a common theme, but I hadn’t anticipated so many tickets from decades ago.
  3. Past tense. Several of the early entries were written in the past tense, common to novels. Screenplays are always written in the present tense. But it’s nice to see some new contributors who haven’t been exposed to screenwriting trying their hands.
  4. Smell-o-vision. Along the same lines, screenplays can only directly describe things that can be seen or heard. If you’re referencing smell, a character in the scene needs to make the reaction: “Candace half-chokes on the smell coming off him.” Or at least make sure the reader knows that this is just for his benefit: “He looks like week-old roadkill, and probably smells like it, too.”

Again, there were a lot of strong contenders, so my congrats to the many readers who contributed. If you want to comment on a specific entry, be sure to reference it by number, because there are several duplicated names.

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