Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today we look at the “continuity.’ In Chapter IX [P. 36]:
The first step in preparing your continuity is to introduce your characters. The old fashioned way was to show the characters one after the other in a series of portraits. The better technique is to introduce them as they appear in the story itself. In any case make your audience entirely clear upon the character of each person in the story and his relation to other characters.
Confusion as to the characters is ruinous. Don’t get your audience interested in minor characters at the start. Keep your important characters on the screen long enough in the first scenes so that the audience will recognize them clearly in future scenes.
I think character introductions are so important, I teach an entire 1-week course on it. Every character introduction is important, but especially in Act One where you are tasked with ushering in every major character in your screenplay. That is a challenge for a script reader to keep them all straight. You can make that experience a positive one by how you handle your character introductions.
Loos and Emerson provide two important tips:
* “Make your audience entirely clear upon the character of each person in the story”: When you introduce a character, you have the right to approach it in a more ‘novelistic’ way. That is you may describe something of their personality getting to the essence of who they are. For example, “Withers is a Type A guy in Type B clothes.” Providing the reader a thumbnail sketch of a character’s persona is an effective way of making it “entirely clear” who each character is.
* “Keep your important characters on the screen long enough in the first scenes so that the audience will recognize them clearly in future scenes”: Screen time or page count, especially in Act One, can convey the relative importance of a character. Thus you would be wise to give more of it to Primary characters and less to Secondary and Tertiary characters.
Next week, titles and sub-titles from Anita Loos and John Emerson.
If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.