Reader Question: What is the best way to make sure readers love my characters?

May 26th, 2015 by

Reader question via @Sylent_steel from my recent #scriptchat session:

I love my characters! What is the best way to make sure readers will too?

Seems like you’re off to a good start in that you already love your characters. Presumably your affection for them will show up on the page.

That’s the thing about characters: They are the major conduits for a reader into the story’s emotional life. The more we dig into them, the more we understand the psychological dynamics at work in who they are and where their narrative destiny is taking them, the more likely we will be able to tap into their emotional nature.

First tip: Look for big ticket items such as want and need, and in particular zero in on aspects of their lives which are universal in nature. Trust. Fear. Hope. Despair. Belief. Regret. Each of us as individuals in our lifetime acquires a kaleidoscope of experiences, all of them coming with some form of emotional attachment and meaning. So, too, with characters. Those big issues can not only create a point of identification with a reader, but also help shape where the plot goes.

Also look for small specific dynamics at work in the lives of your characters. There’s a quote I love from author Anne Beattie: “People forget years and remember moments.” I don’t know about you, but that’s my experience with movies. You say a movie title, I immediately conjure up moments from that movie. And sometimes, the most powerful moments are the seemingly small ones.

Here’s an example from The Shawshank Redemption, a movie filled with memorable moments. There is a beautiful four-moment subplot centering around a harmonica:

* After Andy gets out of solitary confinement for the first time, he heads to the mess hall for a meal with the others. Asked how he survived, here is Andy’s reply and the ensuing conversation:

		I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. 
		Hardly felt the time at all. 

		Oh, they let you tote that record 
		player down there, huh? I could'a 
		swore they confiscated that stuff. 

			(taps his heart, his head) 
		The music was here...and here. 
		That's the one thing they can't 
		confiscate, not ever. That's the 
		beauty of it. Haven't you ever felt 
		that way about music, Red? 

		Played a mean harmonica as a younger 
		man. Lost my taste for it. Didn't 
		make much sense on the inside. 

		Here's where it makes most sense. 
		We need it so we don't forget. 


		That there are things in this world 
		not carved out of gray stone. That 
		there's a small place inside of us 
		they can never lock away, and that 
		place is called hope. 

		Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a 
		man insane. It's got no place here. 
		Better get used to the idea.

So this little moment establishes two things: Hope, which is a HUGE theme in the story, and the harmonica.

* Later Andy surprises Red by giving him a gift: A harmonica.

It’s a nice reversal in that Red is the guy who gets things including Andy’s rock hammer. Here Andy repays the gesture. Again a nice little moment cementing their evolving friendship.

* In a scene soon after, Red is alone in his cell. He pulls out the harmonica. Studies it. Puts it to his lips and gives it the tiniest of toots. Puts it back in the box. And that is that.

This quiet tiny moment speaks volumes. Andy made a specific connection between hope and music. Indeed, he reinforced it by playing the Mozart opera over the prison loudspeaker system, a moment which transfixed the entire prison population. Here is how Red responded to that moment:

			       RED (V.O.) 
		I have no idea to this day what 
		them two Italian ladies were 
		singin' about. Truth is, I don't 
		want to know. Some things are best 
		left unsaid. I like to think they 
		were singin' about something so 
		beautiful it can't be expressed in 
		words, and makes your heart ache 
		because of it. 

	CAMERA brings us to Red. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		I tell you, those voices soared. 
		Higher and farther than anybody in 
		a gray place dares to dream. It was 
		like some beautiful bird flapped 
		into our drab little cage and made 
		these walls dissolve away...and for 
		the briefest of moments -- every 
		last man at Shawshank felt free. 

So harmonica = music = hope. The fact Red in that private moment in his cell where he gives the harmonica nothing more than a little toot suggests he’s not bought into the message of hope. Which leads us to one of the most emotionally riveting moments in the script.

* The day before Andy escapes, he makes Red promise if he ever gets out of prison to go to a field in Buxton:

		One in particular. Got a long rock 
		wall with a big oak at the north 
		end. Like something out of a Robert 
		Frost poem. It's where I asked my 
		wife to marry me. We'd gone for a 
		picnic. We made love under that 
		tree. I asked and she said yes. 
		Promise me, Red. If you ever get 
		out, find that spot. In the base of 
		that wall you'll find a rock that 
		has no earthly business in a Maine 
		hayfield. A piece of black volcanic 
		glass. You'll find something buried 
		under it I want you to have. 

		What? What's buried there? 

		You'll just have to pry up that 
		rock and see.

Which leads to this scene:

Now listen to the soundtrack… carefully. In the cut called “Compass and Guns,” at the 2:44 mark, precisely when Red first sees the tree in the field, we hear a harmonica. Then again at 3:15. I’ve cued it up so you can listen to it here.

A tiny moment, but what a wondrous grace note to round out the harmonica = music = hope theme. Of course, capped off by the final side of dialogue in the movie:

		                RED (V.O.) 
		I hope I can make it across the 
		border. I hope to see my friend 
		and shake his hand. I hope the 
		Pacific is as blue as it has been 
		in my dreams. 
		I hope.

Sigh. Such a great movie.

Circling back to where we started, some advice to make readers love your characters as much as you do:

* Love your characters: That passion makes it more likely you will write vibrant, alive characters. If you care about them, hopefully others will care about them, too.

* Look for the big ticket items: Universal dynamics and themes your characters may have at work in their lives as those help to sweep up a reader into larger drama of those characters’ lives.

* Look for small, meaningful moments: Where pure, honest, genuine emotion can speak directly to the reader.

There is a host of other things you can do. Make the characters funny. Charming. Entertaining. Courageous. And don’t forget, there are some characters who you want us to hate. But let’s start the conversation here.

GITS readers, what are your thoughts? How do you write characters you love so that others will love them as well?

Reader Question: Can characters “flip” archetype functions in a story?

May 22nd, 2015 by

Reader question via @FinalAct4 from my recent #scriptchat session:

Characters can “flip” to a new archetype as well at various moments in the story?

Yes, indeed! I like to think of this subjects as masks as in ancient Greek theater:

Of course the famous masks of Tragedy and Comedy:

The actors would change masks to indicate they were playing this or that character. With regard to character archetypes, a similar dynamic exists in contemporary stories.

Let’s go back to a movie I reference quite a bit because it so perfectly represents the dynamism of the five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster.

Protagonist – Clarice Starling
Nemesis – Buffalo Bill
Attractor – Catherine Martin
Mentor – Hannibal Lecter
Trickster – Jack Crawford

For purposes of analysis, let’s say these are the primary archetypes associated with each of these characters. At any given moment, from scene to scene, relationship to relationship, they may don the ‘mask’ of a different archetype.

Let’s look at the relationship between Hannibal and Clarice:

* When they first meet, Lecter recognizes straight away she is a ploy played by Crawford, so Lecter dons the mask of Nemesis both in his opposition to Clarice and her goal (to get him to fill out a questionnaire) and in his mean-spirited rundown of her personality and background (“You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste.”)

* Later when Lecter makes his “quid pro quo” offer, he dons the Trickster mask because while he is going to help her make the necessary journey into her own psyche (Ally), he will use whatever means he can provided by her to facilitate his eventual escape (Enemy).

* At several points in their interactions, Lecter probes into Clarice’s sexual matters, and even suggests, “I think it would be quite something to know you in private life.” Here he dons the Attractor mask.

He switches masks to suit his needs and that is a key to understanding one of the fundamental potentials of this narrative feature: Characters may use masks to help them achieve goals.

If you think about it, this is really nothing more than a reflection of general human behavior. We present one aspect of ourselves to a policeman who stops us for a ticket compared to who we are with our spouse or who we come across as at work.

Every individual has multiple aspects to his/her psyche. We can consider these to be represented as our own masks. Same thing with characters. Even though their primary character archetype may not change, they can use masks to switch narrative functions from moment to moment.

One tremendous value of this is we can use masks to create multilayered characters who present different aspects of their persona in a story, which offers us, as writers, a much wider range of dramatic possibilities.

So yes, by all means, feel free to explore your story’s characters… and see how they don a variety of masks over the course of the narrative.

How about you GITS reader? What do you think of this idea of masks? Love to hear your thoughts in comments.

Reader Question: Is a character’s transformation dictated by events or reactions to them?

May 21st, 2015 by

Reader question from @filmwritr4 from my recent #scriptchat session:

I’ve wondered about character transformation in movies. Is their change dictated by events or reactions to them?

Both. This speaks to the dualistic nature of a screenplay universe.

There is the External World of the physical journey, what we see and hear through Action and Dialogue.

There is the Internal World of the psychological journey, what we intuit and interpret through Intention and Subtext.

An event happens in the External World.

The character has to process that event. As writers, we can think of them doing so in the Internal World, their psychological and emotional being.

Their reaction to the event causes a shift in their attitude and beliefs which in turn leads to make a choice.

That choice evidences itself in the External World.

Thus they go along until… another event.

Now they have to process this… that causes a shift… and leads to a choice… which manifests itself in the External World… which alters the plot… which leads to another event… which they have to process…

And on and on and on.

This is, of course, a broad generalization. But it speaks to a dynamic common to all movies:

Event – Reaction – Shift. Event – Reaction – Shift. Event – Reaction – Shift.

What we’re seeing there is the very essence of Transformation.

Consider The Silence of the Lambs.

EVENT: Clarice offered the gig of visiting Lecter. She goes and presents questions to him. He sees through it and ‘reads’ her. She starts to flee. Semen flung on her by next inmate. Lecter gives her a clue.

REACTION: Clarice has Flashback #1 of she and her father as he arrives home.

SHIFT: Clarice goes to storage unit and discovers severed head.

EVENT: Clarice returns to Lecter.

REACTION: He presses to learn more about her personal life.

SHIFT: Clarice opens up a bit.

EVENT: Clarice at funeral home of Buffalo Bill victim.

REACTION: Flashback #2 where she recalls the funeral of her father.

SHIFT: She rises to the occasion of the autopsy and discovers a key clue (moth).

On and on it goes, this intricate ‘dance’ of External and Internal Worlds signifying the transformation of this character wherein Clarice eventually confronts her shadow self — by recounting the nightmarish experience on her uncle’s Montana farm, the spring slaughter of the lambs — then the physicalization of her deepest fears — the Boogeyman in the form of Buffalo Bill — and emerges at the end having gone from Disunity to Unity, or at least a movie approximation of it.

Bear in mind when we watch a movie, at least good ones, this all plays out organically. However as writers when crafting a story, we can think rather intentionally about all this. For example, at every step of the way when working out a story, we can ask questions: What would this event mean to this character? How would they react? What choice would they end up making? How might that impact the plot? What next plot point could I brainstorm to challenge the character and stimulate more of their metamorphosis?

Change is not just what goes on inside a character, nor just what happens in the plot. It’s both. They are inextricably linked. That’s why character and plot by rights need to be closely aligned in the story-crafting process, and why relying on a formula and focusing primarily on plot is – in my view – a wrongheaded way to go.

Star with character. End with character. Discover the story in between.

How about you, GITS reader? What comments might you have about character transformation?

Reader Question: If you could teach one scene, from paper to film, commenting on the art of collaboration, which would it be?

May 20th, 2015 by

Reader question from @timplaehn from my recent #scriptchat session:

If you could teach one scene, from paper to film, commenting on the art of collaboration, which would it be?

Tim, I had a lot of thoughts on this one. For example, the derivation of the line “Round up the usual suspects” in Casablanca or the line “Nobody’s perfect” from the end of Some Like It Hot. I’ve got anecdotes about both [if someone wants to hear them, let me know… I’ll be happy to respond in comments].

However both of those examples owe more to the whimsy of happenstance. The one I’ve chosen to answer the question with is clearly about the collaboration of writer-director and editor. It is the opening sequence in The Shawshank Redemption, screenplay adaptation by Frank Darabont from a novella by Stephen King. Note the contrast in scene description, pivoting from a MAN and WOMAN having steamy sex, and the drunken, but calculating moves of ANDY DUFRESNE:

1	INT -- CABIN -- NIGHT (1946) 

	A dark, empty room. 

	The door bursts open. A MAN and WOMAN enter, drunk and 
	giggling, horny as hell. No sooner is the door shut than 
	they're all over each other, ripping at clothes, pawing at 
	flesh, mouths locked together. 

	He gropes for a lamp, tries to turn it on, knocks it over 
	instead. Hell with it. He's got more urgent things to do, like 
	getting her blouse open and his hands on her breasts. She 
	arches, moaning, fumbling with his fly. He slams her against 
	the wall, ripping her skirt. We hear fabric tear. 

	He enters her right then and there, roughly, up against the 
	wall. She cries out, hitting her head against the wall but not 
	caring, grinding against him, clawing his back, shivering with 
	the sensations running through her. He carries her across the 
	room with her legs wrapped around him. They fall onto the bed. 

	CAMERA PULLS BACK, exiting through the window, traveling 
	smoothly outside... 

2	EXT -- CABIN -- NIGHT (1946) 2 reveal the bungalow, remote in a wooded area, the 
	lovers' cries spilling into the night... 

	...and we drift down a wooded path, the sounds of rutting 
	passion growing fainter, mingling now with the night sounds of 
	crickets and hoot owls... 

	...and we begin to hear FAINT MUSIC in the woods, tinny and
	incongruous, and still we keep PULLING BACK until... 

	...a car is revealed. A 1946 Plymouth. Parked in a clearing. 

3	INT -- PLYMOUTH -- NIGHT (1946) 3

	ANDY DUFRESNE, mid-20's, wire rim glasses, three-piece suit. 
	Under normal circumstances a respectable, solid citizen; hardly
	dangerous, perhaps even meek. But these circumstances are far 
	from normal. He is disheveled, unshaven, and very drunk. A 
	cigarette smolders in his mouth. His eyes, flinty and hard, are 
	riveted to the bungalow up the path. 

	He can hear them fucking from here. 

	He raises a bottle of bourbon and knocks it back. The radio 
	plays softly, painfully romantic, taunting him: 

		You stepped out of a dream... 
		You are too wonderful... 
		To be what you seem... 

	He opens the glove compartment, pulls out an object wrapped
	in a rag. He lays it in his lap and unwraps it carefully --

	-- revealing a .38 revolver. Oily, black, evil. 

	He grabs a box of bullets. Spills them everywhere, all over 
	the seats and floor. Clumsy. He picks bullets off his lap, 
	loading them into the gun, one by one, methodical and grim. 
	Six in the chamber. His gaze goes back to the bungalow. 

	He shuts off the radio. Abrupt silence, except for the distant 
	lovers' moans. He takes another shot of bourbon courage, then 
	opens the door and steps from the car. 

4	EXT -- PLYMOUTH -- NIGHT (1946) 4

	His wingtip shoes crunch on gravel. Loose bullets scatter to 
	the ground. The bourbon bottle drops and shatters. 

	He starts up the path, unsteady on his feet. The closer he 
	gets, the louder the lovemaking becomes. Louder and more 
	frenzied. The lovers are reaching a climax, their sounds of 
	passion degenerating into rhythmic gasps and grunts. 

				WOMAN (O.S.) 
		Oh god...oh god...oh god... 

	Andy lurches to a stop, listening. The woman cries out in 
	orgasm. The sound slams into Andy's brain like an icepick. He 
	shuts his eyes tightly, wishing the sound would stop. 

	It finally does, dying away like a siren until all that's left 
	is the shallow gasping and panting of post-coitus. We hear 
	languorous laughter, moans of satisfaction. 

				WOMAN (O.S.) 
		Oh god...that's sooo're 
		the best...the best I ever had... 

	Andy just stands and listens, devastated. He doesn't look like 
	much of a killer now; he's just a sad little man on a dirt 
	path in the woods, tears streaming down his face, a loaded gun 
	held loosely at his side. A pathetic figure, really.

Compare the contrasting moods — the couple’s passionate love-making (arches, moaning, fumbling, slams, ripping) and Andy’s dispassionate preparation with the gun (loading, methodical, grim, silence). And then bringing the two ‘worlds’ together as Andy approaches the cabin, the “languorous laughter” and “moans of satisfaction” smashing into Andy’s consciousness “like an icepick,” then he “just stands and listens, devastated… a sad little man on a dirt path in the woods.”

Quality writing. However those of you who remember the movie will note this scene is different than the script. I’ve ‘cut together’ a version of the script to reflect the edits made in the movie:

...and we begin to hear FAINT MUSIC in the woods, tinny and
incongruous, and still we keep PULLING BACK until...

...a car is revealed. A 1946 Plymouth. Parked in a clearing.


ANDY DUFRESNE, mid-20's, wire rim glasses, three-piece suit.
Under normal circumstances a respectable, solid citizen; hardly
dangerous, perhaps even meek. But these circumstances are far
from normal. He is disheveled, unshaven, and very drunk. A
cigarette smolders in his mouth. His eyes, flinty and hard, are
riveted to the bungalow up the path.

He raises a bottle of bourbon and knocks it back. The radio
plays softly, painfully romantic, taunting him:

You stepped out of a dream...
You are too wonderful...
To be what you seem...

He opens the glove compartment, pulls out an object wrapped
in a rag. He lays it in his lap and unwraps it carefully --

-- revealing a .38 revolver. Oily, black, evil.

INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946)

THE JURY listens like a gallery of mannequins on display,
pale-faced and stupefied.

D.A. (O.S.)
Mr. Dufresne, describe the
confrontation you had with your
wife the night she was murdered.


is on the witness stand, hands folded, suit and tie pressed,
hair meticulously combed. He speaks in soft, measured tones:

It was very bitter. She said she
was glad I knew, that she hated all
the sneaking around. She said she
wanted a divorce in Reno.

What was your response?

I told her I would not grant one.

(refers to his notes)
I'll see you in Hell before I see
you in Reno. Those were the words
you used, Mr. Dufresne, according
to the testimony of your neighbors.

If they say so. I really don't
remember. I was upset.

What happened after you and your
wife argued?

She packed a bag and went to stay
with Mr. Quentin.

INT -- CABIN -- NIGHT (1946)

A dark, empty room.

The door bursts open. A MAN and WOMAN enter, drunk and
giggling, horny as hell. No sooner is the door shut than
they're all over each other, ripping at clothes, pawing at
flesh, mouths locked together.

D.A. (O.S.)
Glenn Quentin. The golf pro at the
Falmouth Hills Country Club. The
man you had recently discovered was
her lover.

INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946)

Did you follow her?

I went to a few bars first. Later,
I decided to drive to Mr. Quentin's
home and confront them. They
weren't I parked my car
in the turnout...and waited.


D.A. (O.S.)
With what intention?

I'm not sure. I was confused. Drunk.
I think mostly I wanted to scare them.

INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946)

You had a gun with you?

Yes. I did.

When they arrived, you went up
to the house and murdered them?

No. I was sobering up. I realized
she wasn't worth it. I decided to
let her have her quickie divorce.

Quickie divorce indeed. A .38
caliber divorce, wrapped in a
handtowel to muffle the shots,
isn't that what you mean? And then
you shot her lover!

I did not. I got back in the car
and drove home to sleep it off.
Along the way, I stopped and threw
my gun into the Royal River. I feel
I've been very clear on this point.

Yes, you have. Where I get hazy,
though, is the part where the
cleaning woman shows up the next
morning and finds your wife and her
lover in bed, riddled with .38
caliber bullets. Does that strike
you as a fantastic coincidence, Mr.
Dufresne, or is it just me?

Yes. It does.

You claim you threw your gun into
the Royal River before the murders
took place. That's rather convenient.

It's the truth.

You recall Lt. Mincher's testimony?
He and his men dragged that river
for three days and nary a gun was
found. So no comparison can be made
between your gun and the bullets
taken from the bloodstained corpses
of the victims. That's also rather
convenient, isn't it, Mr. Dufresne?

(faint, bitter smile)
Since I am innocent of this crime,
sir, I find it decidedly inconvenient
the gun was never found.


As Andy turns off the light and staggers out of
the car, spilling bullets, dropping his bottle of
bourbon, heading toward the cabin --

D.A. (O.S.)
Ladies and gentlemen, you've heard
all the evidence, you know all the
facts. We have the accused at the
scene of the crime. We have foot
prints. Tire tracks. Bullets
scattered on the ground which bear
his fingerprints. A broken bourbon
bottle, likewise with fingerprints.
Most of all, we have a beautiful
young woman and her lover lying
dead in each other's arms. They had
sinned. But was their crime so
great as to merit a death sentence?

INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946)

He gestures to Andy sitting quietly with his ATTORNEY.

I suspect Mr. Dufresne's answer to
that would be yes. I further
suspect he carried out that
sentence on the night of September
21st, this year of our Lord, 1946,
by pumping four bullets into his
wife and another four into Glenn
Quentin. And while you think about
that, think about this...

He picks up a revolver, spins the cylinder before their eyes
like a carnival barker spinning a wheel of fortune.

A revolver holds six bullets, not
eight. I submit to you this was not
a hot-blooded crime of passion!
That could at least be understood,
if not condoned. No, this was
revenge of a much more brutal and
cold-blooded nature. Consider!

INT -- CABIN -- NIGHT (1946)

He gropes for a lamp, tries to turn it on, knocks it over
instead. Hell with it. He's got more urgent things to do, like
getting her blouse open and his hands on her breasts. She
arches, moaning, fumbling with his fly. He slams her against
the wall, ripping her skirt. We hear fabric tear.
He enters her right then and there, roughly, up against the
wall. She cries out, hitting her head against the wall but not
caring, grinding against him, clawing his back, shivering with
the sensations running through her.

D.A. (O.S.)
Four bullets per victim! Not six
shots fired, but eight! That means
he fired the gun empty...and then
stopped to reload so he could shoot
each of them again! An extra bullet
per lover...right in the head.

INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946)

Andy stands before the dais. THE JUDGE peers down, framed by a
carved frieze of blind Lady Justice on the wall.

You strike me as a particularly icy
and remorseless man, Mr. Dufresne.
It chills my blood just to look at
you. By the power vested in me by
the State of Maine, I hereby order
you to serve two life sentences,
back to back, one for each of your
victims. So be it.

He raps his gavel as we


I haven’t been able to find the entire opening sequence on video, but here are two clips which show the cross-cuts between the past (night of the murder) and the present (the trial):

Instead of seeing the events, then hearing Andy and the lawyer talking about them, with the way the movie is edited, we experience them both together. Not only more visual, but also a more economical way of approaching the narrative.

This is a great example of collaboration wherein we, as writers, can learn a lesson: Screenwriters are the original editors on any scripted story. Every time we cut from one scene to the next, or one shot within a scene to another, we are ‘editing’ the movie. So why not fully embrace that ‘power’ we have? Think like an editor! Use cross cuts and intercuts. Use visual-to-visual transitions from one scene to the next. Use the visual tools we have at our disposal to craft the most visual, cinematic scripted story possible.

If you read the script for The Shawshank Redemption while watching the movie, you’ll see a lot of scenes on the page that hit the cutting room floor. Speaks to the power of collaboration with the editor… and the importance of us thinking like an editor as we craft our scripts.

Reader Question: Should antagonists think they are the protagonists of their own stories?

May 18th, 2015 by

Reader question from @farrtom via my recent #scriptchat appearance :

Should the antagonist think he’s the protagonist of his own story, or does that make him too relatable?

I provided a brief snippet of a response in the #scriptchat conversation, but there is an important point here worth delving into more thoroughly.

@farrtom: Yes, by all means, the Nemesis / Antagonist should think s/he’s the Protagonist of their story. You know why? Because they are the Protagonist of their own story! Indeed, every character is their own Protagonist. They see, feel, and experience the story universe through their specific senses, their own perspective, and as a result develop their own world view.

So at the very least, you would be wise to spend time when developing your Nemesis character(s) to spend time with him/her/them seeing the story universe through their eyes. Sit with them. Talk with them. Experience how they relate to the other characters, what each represents to the Nemesis. The same questions you ask a Protagonist, e.g., What do you want, What do you need, What are you most afraid of, etc, ask of your Nemesis.

What is the value of these exercises? If you immerse yourself in the life of your Nemesis, you are much more likely to craft a multidimensional character, one a script reader may find compelling. And a more complex Nemesis who we can relate to and understand, even if we don’t sympathize with them, becomes a more interesting, engaging one, a more effective character in the context of the narrative, and an appealing figure for actors to want to play.

As to the second part of your question — does that make him too relatable — I suppose there is a risk a writer may so demystify a Nemesis, the character loses some of their power over our imagination. It’s one thing to be dealing with a mysterious Bad Guy/Gal, it’s another if the character has qualities which remind us of our pipsqueak brother. Then again, maybe not.

“I miss my wives.”

Immortan Joe – Mad Max: Fury Road

If your Bad Guy/Gal is worthy of being a Nemesis, they won’t be much like your pipsqueak brother at all. The more likely challenge in your work is to make the Nemesis more relatable. Why? Because when a script reader can find something within the Nemesis they can relate to, that shrinks the emotional and psychological distance between the reader and the Nemesis. That character is no longer an IT, rather s/he becomes a YOU.

I call this humanizing your Nemesis. It reminds me of that line from a writer I saw somewhere: “Even bad guys have mothers.”

So yes to doing character work with your Nemesis in which you look at the story universe through their eyes as a Protagonist.

And yes to digging into the Nemesis character’s inner life to find dynamics with which script readers and eventually moviegoers can relate.

That path will lead you beyond one-dimensional Bad Guys/Gals… into a world of complex, compelling Antagonist figures.

Reader Question: What makes a stellar logline?

May 7th, 2015 by

Reader question via Twitter:

Kindra, you are asking the $64,000$640,000$6.4M… $64M question. Believe it or not, a logline can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a movie studio as it provides the foundation of everything that comes after it: script development, casting, marketing strategies, merchandising, sequels, franchise, etc.

First, some background on loglines. I did a series of posts on Go Into The Story analyzing a major agency’s instruction packet, specifically about loglines. In that section, the document says:

The logline provides a one-sentence summary of the script’s premise and plot. It should succinctly describe the situation of the protagonist and include any major story elements.

Concise, concise, concise. One sentence that generally describes the script. General is the key word. Don’t worry about every detail of the story in the log line.

“Concise, concise, concise.” They didn’t use that word in triplicate because of some errant repeat key. People who work in the Hollywood movie business are extremely busy and they have the attention span of gnats. Therefore a good logline is a concise one that says what it needs to say in the briefest possible form.

That brings us to the idea of high concept. It may not be as in vogue as previous decades, but believe me, a story that is compact and unique is much more likely to generate interest compared to a laborious, convoluted idea.

How can we understand “high concept?” A story idea that can be summed up in 1-2 lines. A high concept movie must have a clean, simple, and basic idea.

We can even go more granular by talking about the idea of a story-conceit, which we would define as the “central premise of the story.” With the movie K-9, it was the premise of a human cop teamed up with a dog cop. With Inception, it’s the premise that people can enter into other people’s dream states. With Groundhog Day, it’s the premise that someone has to relive a day over and over again.

So what kind of logline gets my attention? First off, one with a strong story conceit.

The next attribute: A clear emotional center, one that can resonate with a significant movie audience. How does your logline make the reader feel?

Finally there is the six word test. This from my interview with screenwriter Daniel Kunka:

Scott:  You followed that up with the spec script “Agent Ox” in March of 2011 that sold to Columbia. That’s described as a human spy on an alien planet who’s trying to stop an invasion of the Earth. How did you come up with that idea?

Daniel:  Sheer desperation. As great as the 12 Rounds experience was – it got me into the guild, it got me health insurance – this town for a young screenwriter is about “what can you do for me now?” I wasn’t at the point where studios were knocking down my door begging me to work for them. I’m still not. The movie came out, it didn’t do very well, so even though my name was out there I still had to bring a new idea to the table.

And for a few years I tried to recreate the same thing that happened with 12 Rounds.  I wrote two or three action-thrillers much in the Taken vein that just weren’t me. The scripts were fine scripts, but nobody cared. I got a lot of “this is great” reads and that was it. I think the success I had getting the move made put me on a path where I tried to take the easy road and I thought I would hit the lottery again and it just didn’t happen.

It’s a lesson that was valuable to learn though. I wasn’t writing to my voice. I was writing to what I thought Hollywood wanted. And Hollywood, she’s a fickle mistress. So Agent Ox was my response to that. It was my return back to what the script Copies was that I had written all those years before. A big, fun, genre movie. It was still marketable, it was still trying to give Hollywood something that would hopefully sell, but it was my version of that, my voice, and not some watered-down other thing.

That decision really defined who I became as a writer. It had taken four years of college and maybe eight years after and I had a movie made and I still didn’t quite know until I started writing Ox. And that original idea of the script, it was so simple. I made a document called “High Concept Story Ideas” and just brain dumped a bunch of stuff down for two or three days, and the very last idea in this document were the six words “Human Spy on an Alien Planet” and I knew that was it.

I always joke in meetings now that those were the six words that changed my career and how I think about writing screenplays, but it’s the absolute truth. I started writing three weeks before my son was born, I finished it during his midnight feedings and then I sold it ten days before my WGA health insurance ran out. The first sale is always special, but it’s the second one where you really start to think you can do this as a career.

Scott:  That six word thing. You’re really talking about drilling down the high concept so they can see it. Like what’s the simplest thing you can convey, and it’s really important because the people on the other end are so busy, you really want to have that concise description, yes?

Daniel:  For sure. I know that people don’t like that concept. Like they think that it lessens an idea or it lessens what you do as a screenwriter, but again, this is the game we’re playing. If you want to write at a studio level, you must be able to communicate big ideas in simple terms.  That’s how specs climb the food chain. If an assistant reads your script and loves it, that six-word idea will make it that much easier for the assistant to sell it to his or her boss, and then for that producer to sell it to the studio and that studio to sell it to marketing and hopefully, marketing to sell it in a three minute trailer to the entire world to get people to come see your movie.

Even if you’re trying to write a more independently-minded movie – what are the six words that make your independent movie different from every other independent movie? I don’t want to diminish the actual craft of telling your story and creating memorable characters and dialogue and conflict and emotion, but I also think younger writers don’t necessarily think of the bigger picture as well.

The six word test for K-9: Headstrong cop. New partner. Police dog. Boom. You see the movie.

Circling back to the original question, here are three stellar loglines from spec scripts which sold in the last few years:

Once a year globally, people lock themselves at home and fend off the senseless and random attacks by Grims. Tonight’s that night. – The Grims

A 7-year-old girl accidentally misspells “Santa” and instead invites Satan to bring her a toy for Christmas — and he does. – Dear Satan

A dog will go to any length to ensure its owner ends up making the right choice between two eligible young women. – My Owner’s Wedding

With a logline, don’t tell the story, sell the story. What is the central conceit? Find that, then build a logline based on it. That’s most likely to lead to a logline buyers will respond to.

What are some stellar movie or script loglines you’ve seen recently? Please head to comments and provide your thoughts.

Reader Question: What is the most creative way you’ve seen for someone to get their script read?

May 5th, 2015 by

Reader question via Twitter:

By “get their screenplay read,” I assume, @scifi2611, you mean “by someone who can cut me a million dollar check to buy said script”, or at least an individual in the Hollywood food chain who can lead to that fat payday.

Since I’ve been at this for nearly three decades, I have seen, read, or heard more than a few innovative approaches to getting material read. BPDF (Before PDFs), when aspiring writers had to figure out how to get a screenplay comprised of three-hole paper and accompanying brads into the actual hands of a reader, the task was particularly challenging in that you had to create a physical intersection in the time-space continuum between your script and a real live human being.

Speaking personally, even I have been hit up to read material in some unusual ways. Once I was taking a cab to LAX and when the chatty driver discovered I was a screenwriter, he tossed a screenplay he’d written into the back seat. [One must assume he kept it at hand precisely for opportunities like this one.] What followed was a combo pitch session and slalom ride through 405 traffic with his head bobbing back and forth between me and the cars around him, relating what he thought were cool moments in his story interspersed between invectives spewed at other drivers. Valuable lesson learned: Never tell cab drivers you are a screenwriter or this may happen.

Back in the early 90s, I remember a guy who used to stand on busy intersections in Los Angeles (I saw him once at Santa Monica and Wilshire near the old CAA building) holding a sign that said, “Screenplays For Sale,” and he would literally wave his scripts at passing cars. Not sure if he got a sale, but he got noticed by the press which in L.A. is no small deal.

I heard a story from an agent in which he was at a club one night, went into the men’s room, entered a stall, closed the door, and was doing his business when he saw a screenplay being slid under the divider wall, accompanied by an O.S. voice of the script’s writer pitching the story. Needless to say, the Bathroom Pitcher did not become that agent’s client.

Writers have taken out ads in the trades. Thumbs up for chutzpah. Thumbs down for economic sensibility.

Not script related per se, there was another LAT article some time ago about a fledgling actress who, frustrated she couldn’t land an agent, created an alter ego to act as her rep, like if Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) in Tootsie had concocted the character of agent George Fields (Sydney Pollock). She started calling productions as the faux talent agent on behalf of the “hot new talent” she repped. Not sure how much work the actress got, but again the press she generated probably didn’t hurt.

Sports has been a traditional means to an aspiring screenwriter’s end. If you’re good at hockey, soccer, tennis, surfing, basketball, and the like, there are circuits in Hollywood of agents, managers, producers, execs, actors, and directors who indulge in those activities. I know several writers who due to their athletic prowess have maneuvered their way into an inner circle of connections. But this takes time to develop solid relationships before kerplopping your spec script onto the sweaty, post-game lap of one of your teammates who just happens to be a player.

The thing is these type of antics may have been necessary 20 years ago when the Hollywood acquisition and development system was pretty much a closed loop, where a writer had to know an agent, exec, or producer, or someone who knew someone to get read. That is not the case nowadays.

With the emergence of managers, there is a lot more opportunity for writers to send out unsolicited material and get read. Strategy: Find managers who have produced movies similar to your script. Get their email addresses (many of them are listed in sites like Send them a brief email with the logline of your script. It worked for Seth Lochhead who got a manager, then sold his script which eventually became the movie Hana.

Then there is the Black List website. Any screenwriter in the world can pay a small monthly fee to have their screenplay hosted on the site. It becomes available to over 3,000 industry people who subscribe to the service. I just spent the weekend up in NYC with Franklin Leonard, who founded and runs the Black List, and he tells me well over 100 writers have gotten representation off the website and there have been dozens of deals as well. Indeed, the first movie to be produced that was discovered off the Black List website — Nightengale — debuts on HBO May 29th.

Note: I do not make any money from my affiliation with the Black List. My recommendation is based on my belief in and support of what Franklin and the Black List team are accomplishing in opening new avenues into Hollywood.

Hollywood’s old closed loop system is slowly opening up. So if you’re speculating how you can use drones to deliver your latest spec to Leo or Scarlett, there are better ways to get read nowadays.

That said, I’d be interested to hear of other innovative, even outrageous attempts people may have heard of or tried to get scripts read by industry people who matter. If you’ve got some tales to tell, please head to comments.

UPDATE: And right on cue, this happens (via The Wrap):

Suzanne Allain has landed a two-step blind deal at Warner Bros. after submitting her script “Mr. Malcolm’s List” to the Black List.

Warners and Franklin Leonard‘s Black List recently partnered “in order to further encourage diversity among our screenwriting ranks.”

Based out of Tallahassee, Florida, Allain self-submitted the script to the popular screenwriting site and it garnered attention around town before eventually working its way up the ladder at WB.

Like I said in my original post, you don’t need fancy tricks to get a script in front of buyers. Nowadays there are entry points like the Black List site.

And I see she follows my blog on Twitter (@suzanneallain).

Congratulations, Suzanne!

UPDATE #2: Heard back from Suzanne:

Yes, the competition is fierce, but if you write a script which has the potential to draw attention, there are pathways into Hollywood to put your script in a position to do precisely that. Suzanne is a great reminder of that fact.

Reader Question: How insane is it for a 46 year-old to try to start a Hollywood writing career?

April 28th, 2015 by

Question via Twitter from @russmaloney:

Glib response: About as insane as it is for a 20 year-old. A 25 year-old. Or a 30 year-old. The odds against financial success as a screenwriter or TV writer are long for virtually anyone. Every aspiring writer has got to know that going in. Even if you break into the business, it’s a challenge to build and sustain a career.

That said there is no doubt Hollywood has an age bias, more so for TV, less so for feature films. Part of this is due to the fact that many of the people who work in the development side of things are young themselves… 20s and 30s. Part likely derives from Hollywood’s decades-long obsession with teenagers and the 18-25 year-old target demo. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the people who best understand and can write for that age group are members of that age group, the assumption being that older writers cannot grasp the subtle nuances of what it means to be a young person nowadays.

That’s bull shit, of course. It’s like saying men cannot possibly write authentic female characters, or women cannot write men. That young writers can’t write old characters. That white writers cannot write black characters and vice versa. By this logic, we would have no science fiction movies featuring aliens because none of us could possibly imagine what it’s like to be a member of a species from another planet!

This presumed conventional wisdom flies in the face of the fact that as writers, we believe we should be able to write any character of any race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and so on.

Research. Imagination. Empathy. It’s what writers do, put ourselves in the shoes of character after character after character, no matter who or what they are.

This is a line of argumentation that doesn’t have a lot cache in Hollywood. However this does: If you write a great script, nothing else matters.


Man. Woman. Old. Young. Christian. Jew. Muslim. Atheist. Straight. Gay. Transgender. Black. White. Asian. Hispanic. Whatever.

If buyers perceive your script to be something they can monetize, they will buy it.

Witness Mickey Fisher. A longtime GITS follower, Mickey had toiled for years on the fringes of the business as a writer, filmmaker, and playwright when he wrote an original TV pilot script called “Extant”. It eventually became a CBS TV series. Here is how Mickey described the actual sale of the script from our July 2014 interview:

The news hit on my 40th birthday, which was on a Wednesday. We were selling the show straight to series on CBS. It was like everything exploded that day. I had hundreds of messages and phone calls from friends and family and people and all the team. It was a great feeling about it.

On his 40th birthday! It could have been his 50th birthday. Or 60th. The fact is Mickey wrote a script that became the focal point of the entire Hollywood development community and sold for big bucks. That’s the power of the written word.

There are other examples. You can read my January 2013 interview with Allan Durand who while in his 60s wrote a Nicholl-winning screenplay that led to a writing assignment. Or my August 2014 interview with Frank DeJohn and David Hedges whose Nicholl-winning screenplay landed them a gig writing a movie for TV. I didn’t ask how old they are, but based upon our conversation, I think it’s safe to say they’re both north of 40.

Bottom line, any writer has to be completely aware of the long odds against financial success as a TV writer or screenwriter, and to pursue that dream, Russ, you do have to have a bit of insanity floating around in your psyche. But the fact is if you write a great script, no matter what your particular life circumstances — age, gender, race, geography — Hollywood will find you.

GITS readers, what do you think? Please head to comments to provide your thoughts and opinions re Russ’s question. And if you know of other writers who broke into the business after the age of 40, feel free to post their names.

UPDATE: Some interesting comments from readers including two longtime GITS followers John Arends and Debbie Moon, both of whom achieved writing success on the professional front post-40. You may read interviews with them to learn more about their writing paths: John and Debbie.

Reader Question: What are some suggestions for doing character ‘interviews’?

March 25th, 2015 by

A reader question from Alex_kelaru in comments to a recent blog post in which I closed with this takeaway:

Do some interactive writing exercises with your story’s key characters where you zero in on what they believe, why they believe it, and how they see the world. Whether it’s an interview, monologue, sit-down, or journal entry, engage your characters in a dialogue. Learn what makes them tick… and why.

The question from Alex:

Great advice, I usually use the interview technique, I pretend I meet with my character in a coffee shop or some place out of their ordinary world and conduct an interview. Questions like ‘why do you think your story is worth telling’ or ‘Why might audiences dislike you?’ are some of the ones I ask.

However, Scott, I have a question. When you do an exercise like this, at what moment in the character’s life do you do the interview/monologue/sit-down. The character changes throughout the screenplay and an interview at the beginning might be (and it should be) very different then at the end of the story. I’m just wondering which one would be more useful ?

Good question, Alex. Over the years, I have aggregated a wide variety of character development tools which I use myself and have taught in the dozens of writing workshops I’ve led during the last decade. They are an excellent means by which we can interface with our characters, delve into them, dig into their core essence, determine their respective narrative functions, then build out from that foundation, exploring their distinctive personalities, and eventually hearing their unique voices.

The only way to do that is to engage your characters directly, deeply, and throughout the entire story-crafting and writing process.

As to when to engage them, at what point or points in their lives, this raises the fact that your characters exist. They live, indeed, have lived in their story universe 24/7/365 for the entirety of their existence. So you can begin in their Present, where they start the story. What is their current mentality and emotional state? If you are dealing with your Protagonist(s), be attuned to aspects of their psyche which are in conflict, either conscious or unconscious. I refer to this initial state as Disunity. [The Protagonist does not always go from Disunity to Unity, a positive transformation arc, but in most mainstream Hollywood movies, they do.]

But even a cursory amount of character work in the Present will point to influences from the Past which has led the character to their starting psychological state as well as the circumstances they find themselves in relative to the plot. That inevitably draws us into the character’s personal history.

I draw a distinction between personal history and backstory:

Personal History: Everything that’s ever happened to a character.
Backstory: Events / dynamics specifically tied to your story’s narrative.

Between character questionnaires and biographies, you can dig up much of this content. However you can also do interviews, sit-downs, monologues and the like with the character from a point in their Past.

For example, consider Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. When we meet her, she is an F.B.I. agent-in-training. But her Disunity is rooted in key experiences from her past, specifically when her father was killed when she was an 11 year-old girl. If you were developing this story, why not engage Clarice as a young girl? Before her father died. As she visited him in the hospital while he lay dying. At the funeral for her father. Indeed, the movie has two flashbacks, both of which feature Clarice at age 11.

What insights into Clarice’s persona could you gain from interfacing with her as a young girl? Enough to surface these two key moments… and presumably much more, including her traumatic experiences on her uncle’s Montana farm.

So you can engage the character in the Present and the Past. But why not jump ahead to the Future? Where does the character end up in terms of the metamorphosis? If it’s a positive arc, what does that Unity state look like?

There’s no single program and certainly no formula to dictate how a writer can develop their characters. I believe you have to trust your gut. If interviews are working, great. Do that. If not, try something else, a biography or questionnaire. Can’t get a sense of a character in the Present? Fine. Dig into their personal history by engaging them in the Past.

And then there some of my favorite tools: Character Archetypes. Once you dig into your characters and start to get a feel for them, consider their respective narrative functions. Who is the Protagonist? Nemesis? Attractor? Mentor? Trickster? I have been working with archetypes for over a decade now and find them endlessly fascinating. I look forward to digging into this content again starting Monday, March 30 in my upcoming Character Development Keys class. It’s a terrific course as we use The Dark Knight for our study script, a classic example of these five character archetypes at work in the narrative. For information on that, go here.

Bottom line, do whatever you can to engage your characters. No one knows the story better than them. You can connect with them in the Present, Past and Future to give you a deep understanding of who they are, why they are and where they’re going.

To read all of the posts in the Reader Questions archive, over 300 of them, go here.

Time for reader questions

January 23rd, 2015 by

You got questions? I’ve got answers. Well, at least opinions. And oftentimes, the GITS community will weigh in with some great insights.

While you’re at it, check out the archives of reader questions I’ve aggregated during the nearly 8 year run of this blog. Over 300 questions and answers.

Screenwriting. Craft. Business. Whatever. The transom is open. Feel free to lob your questions this way. Happy to give you my two cents.