How to write a sympathetic protagonist

Today we’re looking at the first ten pages of a script titled Lucy Human, sent in by screenwriter PJ Dawson (read the pages I’m commenting on here)

The story, from what I glean from just the pages submitted, is about a young orphan girl at a stuffy boarding school who gets abducted by aliens. Tonally, it seems geared towards a young adult audience, and/or moviegoers who enjoy films within the Harry Potter vein. And in these opening script pages, the writer executes a nearly flawless setup. 

The story opens on some evil aliens, orbiting earth, plotting to take a “human specimen.”

Then we meet young Lucy, setting some lab rats free, and getting in trouble for doing so.

Her legal guardian, Mr. McNiece, takes her to see the school head for a talking to, and we learn her mom has died and her father has left her, and that Mr. McNiece is genuinely concerned for her.

Later that night, she steps out onto the roof and is whisked away by a mysterious beam from the clouds, and wakes in some sort of holding cell with another alien prisoner, who’s just as scared as she is.

What these pages do right:  In a mere ten pages, we learn all we need to know to be interested in and/or empathize with Lucy. She’s a nearly perfect example of a sympathetic protagonist.

Further, we’re treated to scenes which flow quickly and cinematically, and without a lot of unnecessary verbiage.  The pages are lean, and they read quickly, allowing a script reader to visualize the scenes with ease.

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Using a paltry 3/8’s of a page, on page 2, we’re deftly introduced to Lucy and she takes some rats out of her pocket and says “You’re free.”  And without the audience even knowing they’re lab rats in particular, we already like her.  When we find out they’re lab rats, we like her even more.

Learning that she’s an orphan of sorts, and that she has a legal guardian, and that she’s been socked away into a boarding school, ratchets up that “like” even further.

But here’s a few places that could use some work:

p5 Lucy asks Mr. McNiece “Why did she have to die?”  This might be too direct, too soon. It might work better to have Mr. McNiece accidentally mention Lucy’s dead mother, and then immediately try to backtrack.  Lucy could remain silent, but we can read the pain on her face as Mr. McNiece tries to “dig himself out.”  For example:

Leaving just this much exposition about Lucy’s mom let’s the audience “participate” more in the film, as they’re not spoon fed the information. They’re only given a hint at this point. A clue.

Then, the definitive information that Lucy’s mom is dead could come in the scene later with the two girls texting. 

By spreading out that bit of exposition, you craft a more elegant scene between McNiece and Lucy, by making Lucy less “on-the-nose,” and you make us feel for Lucy more, because by not asking “Why did she have to die?” she comes off as a bit stronger – a bit more resilient perhaps.

As a result, regarding the action immediately after, where she buries her head in Mr. McNiece’s chest and sobs – perhaps that entire moment could be excised, or replaced with Lucy changing the subject, despite the audience seeing quite plainly that she’s hurting inside.

The second thing I’d tweak if this were my script would be the first scene, with the aliens aboard the spacecraft.

When Lucy gets beamed up aboard the spaceship, we have a pretty good idea of who she’s going to meet, and what the interaction is going to look like, because we’ve already met the aliens on page 1.

But what if, instead of meeting the aliens and watching their dialogue exchange on page 1, we only saw alien hands, and/or shadowy alien faces?  

By keeping them mysterious, and not giving them dialogue in that opening scene, you make Lucy’s “beaming up” more suspenseful, and the audience subsequently more on the edge of their seats, because we have no idea what to expect. 

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