3 Lessons Learned from Reading CRAWL

A young woman, while attempting to save her father during a category 5 hurricane, finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.

Crawl is a small, taut screenplay that was expanded in production to completely change the third Act of the film. In the original screenplay, most of the story is limited to one location and moves swiftly with every element remaining essential to the plot. This is mean, lean storytelling from Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen.

Here are three lessons I learned from reading the Crawl screenplay:

  1. Give strong reasons for difficult choices.
  2. Back characters into corners, then show them respond actively.
  3. Have fun ramping up suspense!

#1. On the following page of the Crawl screenplay, the protagonist (Haley) is searching for her Dad, who has not been answering his phone. After finding his truck parked outside a house he’s been working on, she investigates:

GIVE STRONG REASONS FOR DIFFICULT CHOICES — The premise of Crawl is simple and our protagonist has strong reasons for making decisions that might make us throw popcorn at the screen if seen in a horror flick. What is more primal than protecting family? Interestingly, Haley and the terrifying creatures are both protecting family. On the screenplay page above, Haley “awkwardly lowers herself into the hole and squeezes under.” Into a crawl space of a house she’s never been in.

If it weren’t for the music and the various clues of her Dad’s presence, this choice would have disengaged me from the story. However, because of the aforementioned elements and Haley’s concern for her missing Dad, the choice actually makes us like her more. She is active. She is making choices in pursuit of her overall objective — to keep family safe.

When characters make difficult choices in your scripts, make sure they are made for the right reasons. Reasons that the audience can identify and relate to so that they remain engaged and entertained.

#2. At this point in the story, Haley and her Dad are trapped in the crawl space beneath the house, chased by a large, aggressive alligator. The following scene shows Haley hitting a dead end as the creature closes in:

Screenwriting lessons learned from reading the CRAWL screenplay.

BACK CHARACTERS INTO CORNERS, THEN SHOW THEM RESPOND ACTIVELY — Active characters are necessary and interesting. It is uninteresting to watch stories about passive characters — that is, characters who are not making choices to move the story forward or pursue objectives. Passive characters simply react to things that happen to them. It is a common problem seen in amateur screenplays and that problem is certainly not present here. The Rasmussen Brothers do an excellent job of keeping the two main characters active, making unique choices in pursuit of survival and familial protection.

On the page above, Haley has crawled out of a safe space where the alligator couldn’t reach her, but…

Just then, the BEAST rounds the corner. Eyes reflecting red in the beam of her flashlight.

Blocking that end of the passageway.

Yes, Haley flees (naturally) but when she comes to a Dead End with the Beast closing in behind her, she kicks her way through plywood and puts it back in place as “the REPTILE thrusts its snout sideways through the gap.”

Throughout Crawl, Haley is consistently on the move, making active choices that move the story forward and allow her to progress toward her goals despite obstacles and setbacks.

#3. The following page of the screenplay is different in the final film, but I found it worth a look. Haley has climbed out of the crawl space, bitten and bleeding, and continues fighting with the female alligator:

HAVE FUN RAMPING UP SUSPENSE! — Naturally, a thriller like Crawl will be packed full of suspenseful moments. The script satisfies this element well, as evidenced above in one of the final scenes. Haley has finally escaped the crawl space but the “FEMALE REPTILE” follows her into the backyard.

Haley is limping from a bite earlier and the Category 5 hurricane is in full effect — “A METAL LOUNGE CHAIR blows across the deck. Splashing down into the pool.” Then, Haley slips and falls into the pool! As is the case with good writing like this, the pool (a major element of this final climax) was established in the first Act of the screenplay. As Haley struggles to get out of the water…

A FLASH of lightning reveals —

The female reptile. Now completely free of the vent.

Crawling rapidly toward the pool. SPLASHING down into the shallow end.

It swims toward Haley, sinking beneath the surface.

Now, this is one of my greatest fears. Ever since I was a child I had a fear of alligators and crocodiles and was plagued by recurring nightmares. This scene got under my skin. As I read on, I was gripping my chair, anxiously wanting to know what would happen next. These suspenseful action scenes were fun to read and easy to visualize.

From this, I learned to HAVE FUN with the writing, relish in the suspense, and get under the audience’s skin.

[Poster image and script excerpts courtesy of Paramount Pictures™]