Those 20 Script Notes You Asked For On I Am Number Four
Hi John-Boy, I know I’m a bit late, but I finally got around to betaing your story, I Am Number Four. I know that since you sent me it, it’s been published and made into a movie, but I think I have some useful notes for you that could be applied to your next project.
First off, I know this story wasn’t your idea, you ghost-wrote it for literary supervillain James Frey and had the movie adaptation dictate the plot as you wrote, but you can still strive for excellence, just like the characters in your story… try to… accomplish things like… not… dying. So, here are some problem areas that you might want to work on.
1. I don’t understand the basic premise of your story, despite the fact that for ten minutes of the movie, your character rides around with Timothy Olyphant and narrates his situation to the audience. I think it goes something like this. The evil Mogs invaded the quite nice Lothlorian, killing everyone except for nine Chosen Whatevers (I think they’re the children of the Imperial Guard or the Royal Family or something? Anyway, superpowers). Oh, and nine Guardians for the Chosen Whatevers, who I guess are members of a different Imperial Guard or… something. And those 18 people went to Earth. Luckily, there were exactly nine Chosen Whatevers and nine Guardians, so they didn’t have to double up on Guardians for one kid or send a Chosen Whatever out without a Guardian. Oh, they were able to send a shapeshifting alien dog with one of them. So one of the last survivors of a doomed alien race is the hero, the other is his female sidekick, and another is his powerful alien dog. This seemed familiar somehow.
2. From reading your notes, there’s apparently a magic spell cast so that the Mogs have to kill the Chosen Whatevers in numerological order if they want to kill them (and they want to kill them because the Chosen Whatevers can stop them from invading Earth—somehow. For some reason, moderate superpowers that let them engage the Mogs in hand to hand combat will save us all. That’s a better Earth defense than a tank battalion. Because there’s a whole nine of them.)
So the Mogs are killing the Chosen Whatevers in order to get around this magic spell. But why is there a magic spell in a sci-fi setting? Couldn’t you have just written this as urban fantasy? After all, the characters use daggers and swords to fight—let’s just say they’re magic swords instead of advanced alien swords. The Mogs can be, I don’t know, Dark Elves and the Chosen Whatevers can be Light Fae. I guess you’re trying to be Harry Potter with aliens and so you can’t be Harry Potter with magic. However, the charm of Harry Potter was that it embraced the magical setting, so shouldn’t your alien story have a bunch of fun UFOs and Grays and other alien lore cropping up, not just the same guns and swords that show up in all genre entertainment?
3. By the way, since you’re trying to be Harry Potter with UFOs, I notice your story ends with the hero, his fuck-up male friend, and his hyper-competent female friend leaving on a quest to collect plot coupons which will defeat a dark lord, even forcing the hero to leave behind the woman he loves. This seemed familiar somehow.
4. Now, John-Boy, you show us that small-arms fire, like shotguns, are only able to knock the Mogs around, but the Mogs’ own weapons (and Lothlorian… knives) can kill them. So wouldn’t a much better defense for Earth be to go to the nearest town hall and say “Evil aliens are coming to destroy your planet, but here’s technology you can use to shoot them. Quick, make as much as you can!”? Nine teenagers with laser rifles is okay, I guess, but I think a thousand Navy SEALs with laser rifles is better.
5. By the way, none of this magic spell/the Chosen Whatevers stopping the Mogs/why the Mogs want to kill them business is made clear to the audience. Despite the part where the hero talks to the audience about what’s happening to him. In general, audiences like knowing what’s going on, or at least the basic starting point of what’s going on.
without the beginning of the sentence.
hard to understand.
naked mole rat.
5. In your opening scene, we see Number Three being killed in Africa. He’s a white guy. I think sending him to Africa might’ve made it easy for the Mogs to find him. Is there a black Chosen Whatever? Where’d they send him, Canada? Or are all of the nine advanced, peaceful aliens white? Maybe some of the other aliens that are sworn to serve the special, important aliens are black. Think about it, won’t you?
5. After that, there’s a scene of Number Four frolicking about on a jet ski. This is set to a pop song with the word water in the lyrics. I know that’s not your fault, but maybe you could make a note that just because this movie is aimed at teenagers, there doesn’t need to be a Top 40 hit playing at every moment.
6. Number Fo’ is doing flips and shit when suddenly he has a psychic vision of his predecessor’s gruesome death. But now that you’ve introduced a character by having him feel someone die, he spends the rest of the movie completely ignoring any possible danger to his actions so he can attend high school. That seems inconsistent.
7. Also, against all reason, it seems you got Timothy Olyphant to play Number Four’s doomed mentor, Henri. As a big fan of Justified, I’ve always wondered if anyone could make Olyphant the slightest bit uncool. Then you show him with a ponytail.
8. If Henri was trying to keep on the downlow, would he really spell his name in a distinctive, memorable way? Especially when he insists on Four going by ‘John Smith’, which has the opposite problem of being so fakey that people remember it. Four starts off the movie being named Daniel Jones, which is properly plausible and unmemorable. Shouldn’t Henri be better at thinking up fake names by this point in their lives?
9. Henri reacts to Number Three’s death by moving them to a crappy small town in Ohio, where they run into Dianna Agron.
Do you know you’ve written two scenes when someone covers Number Four’s tracks? First, Henri burns some personal possessions before they take off to Ohio. Then another character, Number Six, blows up the entire house. This seems less inconspicuous. (Just thought you should know, but someone set this scene to an Adele song in the movie I saw. It’s a bit laughable. WE COULD’VE HAD IT LOOOOOOOOOLLLL!)
So, I’m just wondering, was Henri not doing enough to cover their tracks and therefore incompetent, or was Number Six excessive in covering their tracks and therefore incompetent? Given that you’re introducing both characters and their hypercompetence in the same manner, I’ve got to see it as one of them being a tit.
10. Speaking of your character Number Six—let me put it this way. Faith Lehane is a great character, but not just because she was sassy and badass. Because Number Six is basically her without any of that character’s nuance, subtlety, layers, subtext, pain, conflict, or just anything really. I know, I know, I thought Faith without anything interesting to do was Dollhouse too, but no, it’s this character. She’s a fellow Chosen Whatever to the hero but who lost her mentor to the bad guys, so now she’s a badass who makes sexual innuendos like “You’re good with your hands” and just generally acts like a bitch for no reason (to helpful sidekick who’s coming along to find his missing father: “If you slow us down, I’ll shoot you myself.”).
A note about the sexual innuendo: we’re told that the Chosen Whatever species mate for life, so… is she just a tease? Does mating for life not preclude fucking around a bunch while you wait? It’d be nice if the unrealistic romantic expectations your YA novel foisted upon young people made sense.
Here’s the thing about Number Six. She literally doesn’t show up in the movie until the third act. Like, there are a few short scenes to show she’s looking for Number Fo’ (like the scene of her tapping on a laptop in fingerless gloves, wearing aviator sunglasses, whilst leaning on her big motorcycle, that had to have inspired Kate Beaton’s “Strong Female Characters!”). But she has no dialogue or personality until she’s needed for the big fight scene. Maybe you didn’t know this, but Number Six was all over the advertising for this movie. She was in the ads and the trailers, probably had an action figure. Maybe you intended for her to be like the long list of great characters who aren’t introduced until the movie is nearly over, like… okay, I’m drawing a blank here… but people might be under the impression that she’s a main character who has more involvement in the plot than just shooting people while everyone else is shooting people.
Note: Why does Number Six have an Australian accent? Is she from the Australian part of her homeworld? Did she grow up in Australia and pick the accent up there? Because Number Three had an American accent, you’ll remember.
You probably feel good about coming up with a female character whose entire reason for being is gunplay rather than sex appeal, but you’ve really just replaced one kind of fetishism with another. She’s still a one-note character, her one note is just shooting things instead of liking shoes. Why can’t she be a well-rounded, three-dimensional character, like—okay, no one in this story is a well-rounded, three-dimensional character, but they at least get time to be two-dimensional. Six barely has time to be one-dimensional.
Try to come up with answers to a few questions readers might have about Six. Why is she such a bitch, for instance? Is it because her Guardian died? Number Four’s Guardian dies and he doesn’t start acting like a bitch. Or did her Guardian die because she acts like a bitch all the time? These are things the audience needs to know. Ambiguity is okay—we know Number Four doesn’t want to hang out with Timothy Olyphant all day either because he saw Hitman or because he’s a giant asshole because what kind of asshole wouldn’t want to be with Timothy Olyphant all day?
10. Speaking of female characters, Dianna Agron’s character. She’s not quite defined by her sex appeal—
But she is defined by Number Four’s romantic interest in her. Oh, wait, she likes photography. What an outsider! How unique? It’s not like every single teenager has a thing for arty (read: black and white) photos. Perhaps her tortured soul also really likes Disney princesses and Mean Girls.
If you’ll recall, at the end of the story, everyone’s gearing up to go on this big quest, and she’s just like “I’ll just stay here and wait for you to come back and smooch me.” So your hero is in love with someone who learns that the entire world is in peril and her boyfriend will be risking his life to save it, and her reaction is to stay at home? Scott’s coming along; how is he going to be more helpful than her? Sure, he’s a UFO believer, but that doesn’t mean he actually knows anything.
By the way, there’s already been a Karate Kid remake. I say this so you know it’s unnecessary to have Dianna Agron play Demi Moore in Karate Kid. She used to be this jock’s girlfriend but then they broke up, so now the jock is a dick to Number Fo’ because he’s creeping on the jock’s girl. And the jock is still in love with her, so he does things that seem a lot like date rape, like getting a bunch of his friends to put on masks and grab her and take her to a secluded spot in the woods with him and grab her against her will, thus giving Four license to use his godly alien powers to beat up some schmuck. But since the jock is never actually shown raping someone, just in a situation that smacks of rape, you don’t seem like an ass when he turns out to be nice at the end.
Perhaps you could just leave out this subplot, as the question “what if someone who’s picked on got superpowers and was able to turn the tables on his bully?” has been thoroughly answered by mainstream entertainment.
11. I think “psycho jock with inexplicable niceness later in the movie” has become the new “bully who is actually gay” in terms of stock characters who are seemingly layered but not really. They did it in Amazing Spider-Man too. These characters seem less “life-like and complex” than “inconsistent”. I don’t think Number Four even saves the psycho jock to justify his turn-around. In fact, I thought he’d been killed by the evil aliens.
12. And before I forget, the whole thing with the Chosen Whatevers mating for life—how does that work? Do they have just no choice in the matter? If Number Six falls in love with an abuser or a drug addict or something, will she have to put up with that or never be able to experience love? What if Number Four falls in love with Dianna Agron but she isn’t in love with him, or she falls out of love with him? Will he be lonely forever? I realize this is just a silly plot point to justify them jeopardizing the safety of the entire world so Four can be with someone he’s known about a week, but c’mon now.
Can they ‘aim’ themselves at someone, or is it a soulmate kinda thing, where you meet someone and you just are in love? It has to be a soulmate thing, right, otherwise Number Four could fall in love with Number Five, but Number Five’s in love with Number Six, and Number Six is gay. If it’s a soulmate thing, how come humans don’t have soulmates? Did God or the Force or whatever match up all the Chosen Whatevers, even so one of them could find love on Earth just in case the Mogs destroyed his planet (and if that had never happened, would he never have gone to Earth and never fallen in love, through no fault of his own?)?
Or if it’s just that you fall in love with someone and your endorphins are such that you never fall out of love with them (the “honeymoon phase” never ends, so to speak), wouldn’t it be more responsible for Number Four to at least try getting something together with Number Six, just so a mutual relationship could be assured (not to mention their species could survive, as we’re not told whether Chosen Whatevers can mate with humans)? Or maybe Numbers Seven or Eight would be more to his liking? He really should’ve held off on dating Dianna Agron until he knew his own species was a no-go. When you think about it, it’s like one of us humans trying to fuck a dolphin. Sure, they’re both pretty smart (I imagine someone who’d want to fuck a dolphin is about on par mentally with a really bright dolphin, one of them that doesn’t get choked by the plastic rings beer cans come in), but it’s still gross.
12. Back to Dianna Agron. There’s another character, Scott something, who gets picked on because his dad believed in UFOs and then went missing so now he’s wondering where his dad is and if aliens are real and all this shit. Wouldn’t it make more sense if this Scott kid were played by Dianna Agron? You’d have to change the name, obviously, but then she could be involved in the plot beyond getting told “Stay down!” when the mean aliens show up.
She could maybe grapple with this alien shit beyond just going “Oh, my boyfriend’s an alien, that’s hot,” maybe do some acting, have her own motivations and drive beyond being a dick-holster. Just a thought.
13. There’s also a lizard that climbs onto the heroes’ car while they’re driving to Ohio, and then it turns into a dog and gets Number Fo’ to adopt him, and then it turns out to be a “Camaro” (sp?) that wants to protect Four and can also turn into a giant CGI monster to fight another CGI monster. They must’ve spent millions of dollar on this character. I’m concerned that he has nothing to do with this movie and is pointless.
At the end, two big alien monsters come out to hunt down the heroes. One of them gets killed by the shapeshifting dog and the other one actually fights the heroes. Wouldn’t it be more intimidating if it were just one big alien monster? That might seem a bit more special.
Plus, for the alien pet thing to work, shouldn’t the alien pet look the same all the time so we can form an attachment to it? And shouldn’t Four know about this Camaro from the get-go rather than having to be told about it in the third act? Given that a major plot point is that he’s not safe going to school? Couldn’t the Camaro just turn into a tiny lizard, he keeps it in his backpack, and if there’s trouble, it turns into a giant monster and protects him?
14. In fact, Number Four doesn’t seem very informed at all about vital, need-to-know information. Odd, since he spends all day with a man who was tasked with protecting him and knowing this stuff. Shouldn’t Henri tell him “One day your palms are going to start shooting light out. When that happens, don’t worry, you’re just getting superpowers. Put your hands in your pockets and ask to go to the bathroom”? What else are they talking about all day?
Usually in these things, the mentor guy is doing mentoring and teaching his charge how to use a lightsaber. Is Number Four supposed to just stay home all day and not die? That’s the best plan these advanced aliens could come up with? And why would Number Four, a teenage audience surrogate, balk at this? Shouldn’t he be watching TV all day, or at least trying to hang out with his friends at the mall instead of trying to go to high school? Is he just curious about stuff? Doesn’t his species have a more advanced method of learning? Couldn’t he just beam our world’s history into his brain?
15. Hey, you know Voldemort in Harry Potter? He has bad teeth, a weird nose, he’s bald, wears long flowing robes, has a giant pet snake he uses to kill his enemies, and his henchmen mark themselves with weird tattoos. Well, your bad guys, the Mogs, have bad teeth, weird noses, are bald, wear long flowing trenchcoats, have a giant pet dinosaur they use to kill their enemies, and mark themselves with weird tattoo.
16. I know superheroes are popular now, so you’ve given your Chosen Whatevers superpowers instead of just having them use alien technology. But those superpowers—they don’t make any sense. Number Four has light-up palms. Does that signal that he’s using his powers? No. His palms just light up. He also has telekinesis, but that’s an entirely different visual effect from his palms lighting up. He just literally has this power he uses as a flashlight. He’s able to use it to power up Number Six, but that seems uncomfortably sexual to me, based on the fact that Number Six seems to have an orgasm when he does it to her.
17. Number Six has short-range teleportation, like Nightcrawler. But then there’s a situation at the end where she and Number Four need to escape a big explosion. So does she teleport them inside the shockwave so it can’t hurt them? Or underground, so it passes over them? NO. Instead of using her one power in a clever way, it turns out that she’s also FIREPROOF. I thought it was that she has personal forcefields or something, but no, she’s FIREPROOF.
It’s really no fun when characters just get new superpowers whenever they need them. Look at The Incredibles. Each of them has one superpower, so they all have to work together and be creative to handle dangerous situations. But Number Four is really agile and super-strong and has telekinesis and has light-up palms. Just pick one of those powers and see how much cool stuff you can do with that. Don’t have him get shot in the head and say “What luck, I just got a heal-from-being-shot-in-the-head superpower”. Readers might not pick up on the subtle hints that Four can heal from being shot in the head.
18. You have a subplot where the jock’s cop dad somehow gets a warrant to search Number Four’s place, somehow decides that Number Four and Raylan Givens are terrorists (despite there not being anything that can be mistaken for terrorism, like a bunch of weapons, in the house), and tries to hunt them down. This just seems to be in there so there can be a scene of Number Four trashing a police car. I see from the TV Tropes page that there’s a later subplot where the Mogs trade technology to the government to get the FBI to hunt Number Four for them. Why not skip to that plot point instead of having the hero mistaken for a terrorist? It makes the Mogs seem more intimidating and villainous, instead of them just getting lucky in seeing Number Four get into a wacky Gitmo misunderstanding.
18. One of the Mogs kills Henri, but not the leader, just some random henchman. Why not have the leader kill Number Four’s father figure so there’s some actual bad blood between the two, instead of them just, you know, being on opposite sides? Harry Potter and Voldemort hate each other because Voldemort killed Harry’s parents. You can see how Harry’s vengeance would be less satisfying if his parents’ killer was just one of those Death Eaters dressed up as a Klansman.
19. I notice you’re writing a sci-fi story, but the sci-fi nerds are portrayed as miserable cowards who sell out the Earth to evil aliens. Isn’t that like a romantic comedy where rom-com fans are portrayed as pathetic sheep who can’t get dates?
20. I saw a poster for the Al Pacino Scarface movie that said “ORIGINAL GANGSTER” on it. That Scarface was a remake of a black and white movie. So it’s not the original gangster at all. On the plus side, your story does not feature that poster. Keep it that way.
21. Your entire movie is pretty much spent on the romance subplot. I realize chicks like YA novels, but what female character are they supposed to relate to? Dianna Agron has no personality or effect on the narrative and Number Six doesn’t show up until the lights are coming on in the theater. So it seems like your entire movie is just laying groundwork for the next movie. But whatever story you’re trying to tell there, you could get to in this story since nothing happens in this movie. The heroes kill some minor henchmen and lose a mentor. That could all happen in the first act of a better movie.
22. The end of your story has Number Four, Number Six, and Scott going off to find the other Chosen Whatevers (while Dianna Agron knits or scissors Rachel or whatever). If this is so desirable, why were they ever split up? Why couldn’t they all go to Earth together? We see the Mogs come after them with about a dozen henchmen at a time—wouldn’t nine Guardians stand a better chance against a dozen than one Guardian going against nine? To say nothing of when the Chosen Whatevers mature and are able to defend themselves.
So I hope this helps when the time comes to reboot your book/movie, which will be in four years at the rate Hollywood is running out of ideas.