The Stowaway: A Five Page Comedy

The Stowaway 1930s vintage cruise ship

(Public domain image provided by Wikipedia)

A few months ago I signed up for this year’s NYC Midnight Short Screenplay Contest as a way to get my mind back into the screenwriting gear. You can read some background on the contest and my first round entry here.

Long story short: you are assigned a series of prompts and have 48 hours to write a short screenplay (five pages max.)

In the second round, I drew the following prompts:

Genre: Comedy
Location: Cruise Ship
Object: Microphone

Prior to reading the rest of this post, I recommend that you read my five page script, The Stowaway.

Just hours before the assignments were revealed, I’d said that the genres I most wanted to avoid were comedy and romantic comedy. So, naturally, I got comedy. Ba dum tssss.

The reason I wanted to avoid comedy is because it is so difficult to write. Don’t get me wrong, I think I can write comedically, but I find it a lot easier to inject moments of humor into a dramatic situation rather than write an out-and-out comedy that is supposed to be consistently funny.

It took me a long time to come up with the idea for this one.

Although, in theory, I could have done anything with the comedy prompt, I wanted to stay true to the general definition of comedy as a genre rather than simply imagine a scenario involving the other two prompts and then make it funny. Part of why I like this contest is that it demands you write something outside your normal wheelhouse, so I prefer to conform as much as possible to the requirements laid out.

For most of the first day, I wrestled with the idea of a contemporary comedy about a young couple on a cruise. He is trying to propose to her but things keep going wrong, forcing him to postpone popping the question. I forget the different episodes I had in mind, but one of them involved food poisoning.

I ultimately abandoned this idea because, truth be told, it really didn’t get me excited and it seemed too bland. I wanted something that would be a little different in order to set my script apart from generic comedy scripts.

I also thought that it was tricky to communicate the comedic nature of the script while maintaining the integrity of the story within such a minimal page limit. My desire with these things is always to tell a cohesive story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Eventually, I hit upon the idea of doing an almost silent comedy – a slapstick in the tradition of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. I figured this would allow me to get more done in a shorter amount of time, as there would be a need for only minimal characterization and plot development. Instead, the characters would be archetypes of the genre, and it would be quite easy to follow the through-story of what was really just a sequence of set pieces.

Taking a more vaudevillian approach to the script also meant I could avoid dialogue to a large extend – or entirely if I chose to. This meant that I was giving myself more space on the page since dialogue takes up more vertical space in the screenplay format. So even though I decided that dialogue was necessary given that I had to include the microphone prop, I was doing myself a favor on multiple levels by keeping the dialogue to a minimum.

I hit upon the idea of a Buster Keaton-type who is about to board a cruise ship, but due to his own ineptness manages to lose his ticket. Of course, the logical thing for him to do is to instead sneak on to the boat, and then be confronted by the ship’s officer for being a stowaway.

It seemed like a fairly simple idea, so it was all about the execution. But as I already said, I do not consider myself to be a comedic writer. Comedy, more than any other genre, depends primarily on the actors’ performance. You can convey horror, suspense, and even romance in text, but so much of the success of comedy depends on timing and delivery.

Trust me, writing comedy is hard.

Worse, by electing to homage the vaudevillian style, I had painted myself into a corner where I had to convey a very visual style of humor in plain black and white text. Gulp. Although I think I crafted some potentially funny situations throughout the script, I was dependent on the reader having a charitably imaginative mind when reading it.

Also, though I tried to strike a careful balance, it was always going to be a challenge to not overwrite the descriptions when trying to make clearly communicate each and every joke. In retrospect – and given more time – I think I could have found a way to have conveyed the humor a bit more successfully by having the intended rhythm of the piece come across more clearly in the structure of the script itself. As it stands, I do feel the script as a whole has too dense of a descriptive feel about it.

Overall, I received mostly positive feedback from peers and friends, but I do not think The Stowaway is one of my strongest scripts. The judges didn’t think so either; ultimately ranking me 15th in my group for the second round of the contest, meaning I tied 16th overall in my group once the cumulative scores from round one and two were added up. So I fell way short of advancing through to round three this time. Which was a major disappointment, of course.

Still, I have achieved what I set out to do – stretch those screenwriting muscles and get my brain thinking creatively again. My immediate goal now is to keep going and get working on a feature script or two – then keep going from there. Hopefully, I will be sharing more news on this front in the not-too-distant future.

For what it’s worth, here’s the feedback I got from the contest judges:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR SCREENPLAY – ……………The inanity of the comedy setup gave the script good energy. I liked that even though Lionel was being an exemplary citizen, he wasn’t doing anything bad. He was easy to love….The script reads well – care has been taken to craft strong screen directions that evoke not only the action, but also the mood and pace. The premise is also good – a fish-out-of-water comedy, in which a man who has it all suddenly loses it all but is determined to keep it all. …………………………………………………   WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – ……………Abandoning Lionel on an island took me out the story a bit. If the ship employees were trying to be lawful, marooning someone seems a strange choice….I’m not sure why it has to be set in 1931 – I don’t see what It adds to the story, and in fact the effect that it has on the dialogue is, in my view, quite distracting. It felt more like a period drama than it did a comedy short film. I wonder if the ending ought to be stronger – more ironic, maybe, or something like that? Lionel being stranded on an island isn’t all that funny – and the coconut falling on his head feels like a contrived final moment of humour rather that story generated humour……………………….………………………