Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Character On The Screen [Part 2]

August 5th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

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 “Character On The Screen” [P. 64-65]:

Failure to concentrate on this essential of plot making (developing of character) has been responsible for the wishy-washy substance of countless pictures. Photoplaywrights are too prone to leave development of character to actors and directors, it being considered sufficient to indicate that the hero is “young, handsome and full of vigor.”

The proper place for character drawing is in the original story; for the cleverest actor cannot portray a character which has not been conceived by his dramatist.

As an actor once said to me, “If you [the writer] don’t know the character, how am I supposed to?” And while developing characters is important so that actors may comprehend who they are playing, character development is also critical to the story-crafting process as a whole where the plot and major events should arise from the characters themselves.

I can’t tell you how often I hear this critique of scripts by aspiring screenwriters from Hollywood professionals: Thin characters, characters about whom they don’t care. As Loos & Emerson suggest, character development is the writer’s domain, no one else’s.

Next week, more screenwriting advice from 90 years ago.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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