So many films would be better films had they gotten coaching and feedback at the script stage. By helping you avoid pitfalls that trip up even the pros, our goal is to help writers craft watertight scripts that go on to be sought-after, fought-over properties in Hollywood.
The Book of Henry
I went into this film knowing little about it other than it had an impressive team behind it. I love Naomi Watts; that kid from Room is amazing; the story sounded charming, a potentially compelling blend of light and lethal. Sadly, as you can read in many reviews, the film did not live up to its hype or the talent involved. It was both twee and dark with oddly contrived situations and on-the-nose emotions. Could it have been fixed at the script stage? I will share some coach notes here, avoiding spoilers as best I can.
The official plot summary is:
Sometimes things are not always what they seem, especially in the small suburban town where the Carpenter family lives. Single suburban mother Susan Carpenter works as a waitress at a diner, alongside feisty family friend Sheila. Her younger son Peter is a playful 8-year-old. Taking care of everyone and everything in his own unique way is Susan’s older son Henry, age 11. Protector to his adoring younger brother and tireless supporter of his often self-doubting mother – and, through investments, of the family as a whole – Henry blazes through the days like a comet. Susan discovers that the family next door, which includes Henry’s kind classmate Christina, has a dangerous secret – and that Henry has devised a surprising plan to help. As his brainstormed rescue plan for Christina takes shape in thrilling ways, Susan finds herself at the center of it.
You can see from the summary that the story is trying to marshal a lot of elements. Unfortunately, this gives us an overlong and plodding script, which speaks to the perennial need to streamline. Many story details and moments don’t relate to character goal or move the story forward. For example, Henry is always building Rube Goldberg contraptions. Beyond showing that he’s creative and good at stuff, they don’t really do much for the plot. There are numerous moments of Mom tucking the kids in. Yes, these establish ritual and intimacy, but we don’t need so many to get it. Mom is not very good at her waitressing job. We get from her finance avoidance, consistent lateness picking up the kids, and her video game obsession that she’s bad at adulting; we really don’t need the world of her job too. These sorts of things could have been cut, and the story would have been tighter and more compelling.
Protagonist gives story structure:
Whose story is it? From IMDb, the film’s log line is, “With instructions from her genius son’s carefully crafted notebook, a single mother sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather.”
The rule of a good log line is: describe the protagonist, the goal, and the obstacle. Often this set-up gives us the act one problem and the goal that takes us into act two. Based on this log line, it seems the producers feel the mother is the protagonist. However, she spends the first half of the film passive and inert, “an endearing mess,” while young Henry moves and shapes the world around him, creating said “carefully crafted notebook.” He seems to be the character most in pursuit of a goal at the start – one of the protagonist litmus tests.
Mom takes up the action well past the midpoint (in fact past the low point) when she finds Henry’s notebook. She has a sort of coming-of-age arc as she continues the ‘rescue Christina’ quest. In the end, her character changes the most in the story – the other protagonist litmus test. No wonder the script is overlong if the true action of the log line doesn’t start until an hour into the film! Because the log line essentially only refers to the third act, the film doesn’t fulfill the promise of its premise after we invest so much in Henry’s arc. As a result of this uncertainty, neither Henry nor Mom’s arcs are fully developed, and both leave the audience short-changed.
Without a clear protagonist driving the action through scenes anchored in their goals, any story will feel flaccid and plodding. While true masters can sometimes pull this off, switching protagonists mid-film almost never works. Psycho is the most famous example where it does work – but the lack of many other great examples shows you how difficult it is. (Of course this rule does not apply to ensemble stories like Short Cuts or Magnolia, but that’s another kettle of fish.)
Update your story:
The script had been written twenty years before production. This can be fine; many scripts take circuitous routes to the screen. But technology and social norms change. Unless you’re doing a period piece, your story has to change too. For a while I thought this was a period film until Henry uses a new Macbook Air. Characters speak of six hundred thousand dollars as though it’s enough to retire on and support a family of three. Maybe twenty years ago.
Henry needs to gather evidence against the evil stepfather next door. What would any person do in that situation now? Shoot a video with their phone, right? Henry makes no such attempt because twenty years ago that technology didn’t exist. If the audience can solve your problem more easily than your protagonist, you’ve got a major plot hole. If you want to keep that situation, you better find a strong, logical way why our solve wouldn’t work for your protagonist.
Speaking of plot holes, Christina lives with her not-so-great stepfather. We learn her mother is deceased. So why can’t she live with her father? This is another point of logic that could be addressed easily, but it never is. If your audience can ask logical questions the script doesn’t answer, we hold onto a sense that the story is built on shaky ground.
Get dimension into your characters:
Another way this script feels oddly dated are some of the character tropes: the impossibly handsome, single, successful surgeon with the heart of gold who naturally becomes interested in Naomi Watts’ overwhelmed single mom. Come on now. Don’t forget Mom’s wonderful spunky mess of a best friend who has hidden depths. Been there, done that. These things may have been fresh twenty years ago but now we’ve seen them so many times (or simply wished they actually existed) that they come off as flat, two-dimensional conveniences rather than fleshed-out characters. Frankly neither of them were necessary to the story at all. If a character doesn’t bring something of great value to your plot, cut them.
Likewise, the main characters were full of tropes and easy indications. Mom can’t understand finances and doesn’t want to. Instead she is obsessed with single-shooter video games. So childlike! She’s ripe for a coming of age! Henry is a flawless brainiac of a kid who is kind to his average and adorable younger brother in a way that feels storybook perfect. These aren’t real people. All of us have good points as well as flaws and foibles. Your characters should too. It will make us love them more.
Look for ways to push beyond the obvious when creating a character. Start with what your character wants, and what they are willing to do to get it. What’s at stake for them? In what way are they desperate? Then build personalities, habits, and quirks around their wants and needs, instead of using copy-and-paste character types. I often tell my clients: each character thinks they are the star of the show just like we think we are the stars of our own lives. That means for a successful, meaty script, you have to give just as much thought to the character development of the incidental best friend character as you to do your main character.
In addition to on-the-nose characters, the dialog in this film is first-draft quality much of the time. Characters say exactly what they mean with extra earnestness. In real life, we rarely talk about what we’re really talking about, so when we see it onscreen it rings false. Most writers put on-the-nose dialog in their first draft, but it’s important to submerge it into the subtext in the following drafts. This makes for richer scenes that are more relatable and human.
At the start of the screening I saw, the film’s director told us it had taken twenty years to get this script made. Sadly, it could have used more work. It can be frustrating when we struggle so hard to craft our own writing to see flawed work not only make it to the big screen, but also be championed by experts and artists we respect. All in all, if I had read The Book Of Henry script in competition, I would not have advanced it. I would have instead given it middling marks and many of the notes above. I hope they help you avoid the same pitfalls in your own work.
Have you seen a film that frustrated you and wondered exactly why it didn’t work? Let me know! I’d be happy to give it the Coach Notes treatment here.