Whiskeytown (Rewrite)

Author: Craig Schwartz
Genre: Drama
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 8
Writer’s Potential: 7

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A traveling horse-trainer makes a stop in a small California town and discovers the son he abandoned 12 years earlier.


In Whiskeytown, California, a man in his mid-30s named JOHN COMBER arrives with his assistant/girlfriend PAM and hosts a seminar on training horses not to fear loud noises (like firecrackers) or strange objects (like plastic bags). He catches the attention of an ATTRACTIVE WOMAN in the audience. That evening, he sleeps with a local waitress named CHARLOTTE. This prompts Pam to leave him, but not before trashing their motel room. She also takes their truck, his only form of transportation. He’s stuck at the Whiskeytown Lake Resort. He strikes up a friendship with the owner, an elderly gent named CHROME. They swap war stories and horse stories. Chrome takes care of his 12-year-old grandson, RYAN SMITH, who takes an unnatural shine to both John and his horse, Tommy. Lacking an assistant, John asks Ryan to help him with his next horse seminar. A horse enthusiast, Ryan loves the idea. Chrome isn’t so keen on it, however. He reluctantly allows it, however.

Later, Chrome explains Ryan’s story to John: his father knocked up Chrome’s daughter and disappeared. She raised Ryan by herself until he was about five or six, when she went out on Whiskeytown Lake and either committed suicide or was the victim of a fatal boating accident. Since then, Chrome has raised Ryan as his own son. After seeing a picture of Chrome’s daughter, John realizes something awful: he fathered Ryan. Although he has never been to Whiskeytown, he met her in nearby Anderson, they had a few nice nights together, and he moved on. This has been a pattern for most of John’s life.

Once John realizes he is Ryan’s father, he has one goal in mind: he wants to buy a truck from a man named ALBERT and get out of town. He also distances himself from Ryan, after agreeing to teach the boy how to ride. John explains the situation to Charlotte and wonders what he should do. Charlotte thinks he should at least tell Chrome and perhaps figure out a plan to tell Ryan. John believes that’s easier said than done, since Chrome has already told him he has a lot of anger directed at the anonymous father. He does tell Chrome, though, and it goes about as well as he expects: Chrome gets so angry, he has a minor heart-attack.

While hospitalized, Chrome insists that Ryan stay with his friend ERNEST and his family, rather than with John (who until now had been bonding quite well with both Ryan and Chrome). John discovers not only has Albert taken his truck on a trip — it’s broken down. He’s still stuck in Whiskeytown. He tries to make things right with Chrome and fails. Ryan sneaks away from Ernest’s house and begs John to teach him how to ride. John finally agrees, and has a nice day bonding with his son. The next day, Albert returns with his truck. Chrome is released from the hospital. Charlotte agrees to take four months off from college to be John’s assistant. But John’s not so sure he’s going to leave so quickly. Chrome and Ryan agree to take John out to the middle of the lake to see the old Whiskeytown, which was sunk years ago when the government flooded the valley.


First thing, I’d like to address the confusion regarding my earlier comments on protagonist/antagonist: some feel like “protagonist” is synonymous with the main character, with the person whose story and character we’re most aligned with throughout the narrative. I don’t happen to agree with that, and I’ve always been taught (and felt personally) that it’s a little more complicated than that. The protagonist doesn’t always have to be the central character. It could, for example, be a more minor (but essential, of course) character like Ryan, Charlotte, or Chrome. Similarly, the antagonist can be the main character. Their role in the story is defined by their behavior; whether or not they are treated as a primary or secondary character is the author’s choice.

An example I like to use is Die Hard. You could argue John McClane is the protagonist, and that the clear goal that carries him through the story is the desire to stop the terrorists and save his wife. But that’s a reactive goal, not something he’s setting out to do at the beginning of the movie. Hans Gruber is the one with the clear-cut goal: taking over the building under the guise of a terrorist attack that is, in fact, a robbery. His story is the engine that really drives the plot, not McClane’s. Everything McClane does after the terrorist attack is designed to counter and defeat Gruber’s actions. He’s the main character, we’re rooting for him, but he’s consistently portrayed as the antagonist. Gruber, meanwhile, is evil, we want him defeated, but he’s the one with the goal that sets the story in motion and constantly propels it forward.

In Whiskeytown, I define Ryan as the protagonist and John as the antagonist. Sure, John owns the story; that’s as it should be, since he’s the one with the significant character arc. However, Ryan is the one with the big goals: he wants to learn horses, he wants to bond with John, and he’ll defy everyone around him to achieve his goals. With the exception of his desire to leave town (which isn’t what the story is about), John’s goals are in reaction to Ryan, especially once he realizes Ryan is his own son. He’s the one who’s countering each of Ryan’s attempts to bond with him. This is what I meant in my earlier comments about recognizing the roles of John and Ryan in the drama, because I felt too much emphasis was placed on Chrome as antagonist in order to define John as the protagonist. Ryan doesn’t need — and shouldn’t have — more focus in the story to make him the protagonist.

I wanted to clarify what I was trying to say, so I hope it makes sense, even if you disagree with the way I define protagonist and antagonist. I apologize for any confusion. However, I guess I think it’s a semantics argument, since the author agreed with part of what I said and allowed John to think more often in terms of Ryan than Chrome in this rewrite. I liked those changes and felt they went a long way toward showing that John really does care about Ryan., even though he still intends to leave (that’s another element that was strengthened in this revision). The added scene detailing Ryan’s “esecape” from Ernest’s house was a nice slice of character insight for all three — Ryan, Ernest, and his mother — and does a nice job of showing the intensity of Ryan’s desire to be with John.

I don’t think my original criticism — that John and Chrome’s conflict should be de-emphasized in favor of strengthening the Ryan and John relationship — still stands. This is in part because of the changes that have been made to the third act, but mostly a result of a fresh read. The author goes a long way toward showing John and Ryan’s rocky, complex bonding process; adding more to what’s there may just be overkill. Since this revision wasn’t significant in the sense of gutting the story and starting from scratch, everything that I liked about it the first time remains: great dialogue, well-defined characters, sense of place, et al. In fact, though the revisions may seem minor, they have a significant impact on the story. It feels tighter and more focused. Based on this rewrite, nothing really jumps out at me as problematic. It’s a very strong effort.

Posted by D. B. Bates on July 12, 2006 3:32 PM