Nick Macari recently wrote an interesting blog titled "Are you working on a phantom story?"
And I thought "that's oddly specific"...and then I realized he wasn't talking about this Phantom-
To break it down- a phantom story is a series of events that may or may not lead to a conclusion, but it lacks an emotional core that allows the audience to care.
It’s a plot or a concept without the essential element that makes it worthwhile.
“A story needs a sun. It needs gravity to hold everything else in its universe in place and allow life to flourish.”
I’ve written my fair share of Phantom Stories in my time. Sometimes I've fallen so in love with a premise or a clever plot turn that I thought that enough was going to carry the story through. It wasn't. Even though I know better, I can still fall into that trap of "wouldn't it be cool."
I'll give you a recent example.
I applied to a handful of television writing fellowships this year. I have not done this for a decade. I have exactly two current spec scripts; a Rick and Morty and an Agents of SHIELD. I decided to use my Agents of SHIELD spec for most of the fellowships.
I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to introduce the characters of Isaiah Bradley and his grandson, Eli Bradley into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I would pull a lot from the Truth: Red, White and Black limited series by Morales and Baker and Young Avengers by Heinberg and Cheung.
(above image is from Young Avengers by Heinberg and Cheung)
It was an easy enough idea to work in without conflicting with things established in the shows or movies. I then tweaked the origin to fit my story...... my phantom story!
Here's my logline- SHIELD investigates a college track star who may have superhuman powers. When Coulson discovers his ties to a World War 2 experiment, it becomes a race to recruit or capture the young man.
Here's a page from part of the info-dump scene which was an info-dump but I was pretty happy with it.
To fill it out more- SHIELD comes to believe Eli, the college track star, is actually the black Captain America from WW2, with his version of the super-soldier serum retarding his aging. Eli's track ability has seemed to come out of nowhere and it's believed he rather dramatically stopped a robbery in the small college town. Most of the episode involves spy action with SHIELD and the CIA (who are also interested in Eli) and then eventually Hydra getting involved. Isaiah is introduced as an elderly but still capable badass (he's the one who actually stopped the robbery). In the end, normal kid Eli gets a transfusion from his grandfather and gets powers of his own (just like the comics!) There's also a very amusing subplot with Fitz and Simmons hanging out with May while she does her nightly routine.
It was still a phantom story. What was this episode about? I knew what events occurred, but not why they really mattered. I was halfway through and I still hadn't cracked it yet.
Finally it came to me. This was about heroes and how they see themselves and how others see them.
Mack's known the legend of the "black cap" his whole career. He's an inspirational and cautionary figure (later in the scene above Mack reveals that it's believed Isaiah went into hiding because he knew he wouldn't be appreciated post-war.) When he finally gets to meet him at the end of the episode I believe pulled off a genuinely powerful moment.
Coulson is a "white cap" fanboy as established in the movies and is nearly giddy about getting to know more and see more of that legacy in action.
Isaiah's kept a low profile for decades but when confronted with a situation where he must act heroic, doesn't hesitate. He also wonders if he did it to show his grandson that his old stories were true.
Eli is just a regular kid but throws himself in front of a bullet for his grandfather, proving that he too is a hero.
In the B-story, May is asked why she works so hard and if she ever feels outclassed. She calls out Eli's sacrifice as something heroic, but when she does something like that, she sees herself as just doing her job. I was very happy to be able to tie that into the main theme, because before that her story with Fitz and Simmons was just humor and giving them something to do in the episode before they showed up in the climax.
Finding the essential theme to the story helped make things matter more to me as the writer and hopefully to a reader/viewer. I won't say that script is perfect...if I'm being honest, I think it's...pretty good. It got a little complicated with the double-crosses with the CIA and Hydra. And Daisy is, of course, central to the episode but doesn't really play at all into the theme. I also got the legitimate note that I wrote a "season 1" version of the character rather than the more dour version currently on the show. I'm kind of okay with that. Her scenes with Mack are tonally correct with the show and actually kind of funny.
Let's see what the people at the Fellowships think.