Cow Boy: A Five Page Mystery

Cow Boy Wyoming Snowy Landscape(Image edited from an original by HaarFager)

About a month or so ago, I took part in the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Screenplay Contest. I’ve done a few of their contests before, and I thought this would be a good way to get back into stretching my screenwriting muscle. I like their contests because it makes you think outside the box and be as creatively wild as you want because the end product is only meant to be a screenplay. You don’t have to worry about the practicalities of actually trying to produce it.

Commitment-wise, the short screenplay contest in particular is a breeze: for each round you are only required to submit a five page (max) screenplay in a 48 hour period. Easy peasy.

The way the contest works is this: Writers are divided into groups. For each round, each group is given a genre, a location, and an object. The short screenplays they write much use each of those elements, with the genre and location being the more important. Everyone competes in the first two rounds, with the cumulative placing resulting in the top five writers from each group advancing to the third round. Then the top five from each group in that round advancing to the fourth and final round.

For the first round my assignment was thus:

Genre: Mystery
Location: Cattle Ranch
Object: Motorcycle Helmet

You can read my screenplay here, which I recommend that you do before reading the rest of this post.

Having competed in some of their contests in the past, I know that originality and out-of-the-box thinking tends to get rewarded, so it was important to me that I did something wildly different to what I thought everyone else in my group might do.

For example, I guessed that most people would use the mystery genre prompt to do a crime or detective story, so I wanted to take it in a completely different direction and create more of a mysterious story – perhaps something along the lines of Lost, where it is more about an unusual situation where it isn’t entirely clear what’s going on.

I also wanted to utilize the motorcycle helmet as a fairly prominent aspect of the piece. Strictly speaking, it would be within the rules to just have a motorcyclist ride past in the background so long as it is included within the text of the screenplay, but I feel that is a bit of a cop out – and half the fun of this contest is finding a way to incorporate all of the elements they give you anyway. I do believe that you are likely to score better for doing so too.

For most of the 48 hours I just let my ideas simply percolate in my head. I’m not sure where it came from, but the idea of a boy wearing a motorcycle helmet appearing in the middle of nowhere struck me as a very cool, yet unsettling image. It was mysterious and spooky.

To add to this creepy factor, I thought it was important that the cattle ranch be as isolated and desolated as possible. Not only is the idea of a kid in a motorcycle helmet kind of odd in and of itself, but within this context the mystery and creepiness is magnified.

The story would feature just two characters: a cattle rancher and this mysterious boy who turns up on his property out of nowhere.

Initially, I planned on setting this on a cattle herder’s territory somewhere in Mongolia. I recalled the interesting landscape from an episode of An Idiot Abroad, and I thought the wide open emptiness there would be the perfect setting for what I had planned. I also liked that they got a lot of snow there, as the idea of a white-blanketed landscape would only add to the vibe I was looking to achieve. Ultimately, however, I balked at this idea out of fear that the judges would declare I hadn’t truly used the cattle ranch setting specifically enough. So I relocated the idea to the wide open emptiness of Wyoming without sacrificing too much.

I had decided that the screenplay should have very little dialogue. Like the landscape it was set it, I wanted everything about this to feel as sparse and as simple as possible. To be honest, I think this is probably to my benefit given my writing style, but it also seemed like a no-brainer given that I had only five pages in which to tell a story. Extensive dialogue was out because it would have bogged down everything way too much.

I also thought it would be good practice for me to try and craft an intimate character piece without saying too much. I used to be terrible at writing character actions. I would give way too many specific instructions for a character’s movement, so I really wanted to pare this down here and do just the very bare minimum. I think I achieved that. I am proud of the sense of character you get in this piece, despite the fact that only one of them speaks, and that there is very little specific direction given.

So far, only a handful of people have read this script. Some of the other writers taking part in the contest gave me very high praise indeed, which, I won’t lie, I absolutely loved, but it was ultimately the people I know and trust whose opinion meant the most.

It has been very interesting to hear the feedback this script has received. I intentionally left a lot unexplained because it is supposed to be a mystery, and to over explain everything would be tantamount to beating the audience over the head with a bat. I wanted people to draw their own conclusions and to see what they made of it. My wife and sister, for example, had very different readings of it. The joy in writing something like this is that both readings are equally valid. I like allowing the audience to bring their own biases and interpretations to something because that way you’re essentially letting everyone decide what it means for themselves, which in most cases means they find a meaning which supports their pre-existing philosophies. Which usually means they’ll end up liking it, lol!

From my perspective, however, I had a very clear idea behind certain aspects of the boy. He was not born of a cow. The carcass with the slit down the side at the start of the screenplay was likely a cow that had happened to die, and the boy took refuge from the harsh weather by cutting it open and sleeping inside its warm corpse. It’s gross yes, but it’s also a documented survival tactic. It allowed for a very cool visual to open on too!

Also, the motorcycle crash at the end of the script was meant to be just a random accident that had occurred some time ago. The deceased rider had no connection to the boy. The boy had just come upon it and some point, found the helmet, and was intrigued enough by it that he put it on and decided to keep it.

In my mind, the boy had existing by living off the wild for a considerable time. That was why he knew how to suckle on the cow at the ranch – he had done the same thing in the wild many times in the past.

As for where the boy originally came from, or where he went, or why he left the rancher? I’d be lying if I said I knew. Some things are supposed to stay a mystery.

I would love to hear what your thoughts, questions, or comments are about my script. Please let me know in the comments below.

This morning I woke to find out how my script was officially judged. No feedback yet, just the raw placement. I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty bummed. I scored six point, putting me in tenth place overall out of 28 writers total in my group. I expected to do better than this. The silver lining is that the second round takes place this weekend, so I’m going to have to turn this disappointment into motivation to really pull out all the stops to have a hope of advancing to round three. Regardless of the outcome, I will post that script at a later date too.

Help support my blog by clicking on one of the Amazon links below – even if you don’t buy anything today, you will be helping out. The three film scores you see below are what I was mostly listening to while writing Cow Boy.


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