Reader Question: How do I make supporting characters distinctive and interesting?

July 1st, 2015 by

Reader question via email from Joe:

Hi Scott! A question about supporting characters.

How do I make supporting characters that don’t necessarily have that much screen time but that I feel are essential to the story distinctive and interesting?

In the script I’m writing at the moment, I introduce a girlfriend and later fiancé to my main character at around page 25. As the story progresses, I use her in 7-8 scenes but she never gets any major screen time. I did this mostly because I felt that the story needed a strong female character to balance the otherwise male-dominated movie. I do have other female roles in the story but none of those characters are featured in more than one scene.

In the movie Rush, the character of Suzy Miller is featured in only 5 scenes or so, yet she is played by A-List actor Olivia Wilde who receives top billing. (I only used Rush as an example since it was this movie that made me think of the question).

What I think makes this character worthwhile is that she has a small arc (she decides she doesn’t want to be with James Hunt, a notorious playboy, but with a man that adores her) and she shows/brings forth something about one of the main characters (Hunt’s angry temper when he doesn’t get any sponsors).

But other than this, how do I create “small” supporting characters that are interesting, that contribute to the story and that actors want to play?

First off, Joe, it’s great you’re even aware of this concern. I read a lot of scripts where the writer treats the more central characters pretty well, but handles minor characters with less care and attention. They’re generic. Flat. Uninspired. Forgettable. When I run across characters like that, I know the writer needs to up their game. Conversely when I read a script in which all of the characters — regardless of their line or page count — come across as distinctive, vibrant individuals, that’s one sign I’m dealing with a writer who knows his/her chops. And simply being conscious of the need to handle every character well is fundamental to this aspect of the craft.

The next thing: Be clear about each character’s function. Why do they exist in this story? What purpose do they play in the narrative? If you are clear on this and that function is, indeed, important to the plot, then you are on the road toward crafting a memorable character in part because their function is key to the telling of the story.

Your example — Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) in Rush — is a good one. You already cite some of the keys to her role, but it seems to me the most important point for her character’s existence is this: Her eventual divorce from Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) serves as a direct contrast to the relationship between Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and his wife Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara). They have a successful marriage and her importance in Niki’s life is one of the reasons he quits racing, i.e., he doesn’t want to jeopardize losing her. Not so with Hunt and Miller. She comes to understand that she will always be second to Hunt’s obsession with racing. Her affair with Richard Burton can be seen as an act of provocation to spur their divorce.

So yes, Miller’s role is a secondary one, but it is key in presenting a contrast between Hunt and Lauda in terms of what they deem to be most important in their lives.

Once you understand a character’s narrative function, no matter whether they are primary, secondary, or tertiary in terms of page count or influence, I would encourage you to use the same character development tools. Questionnaires. Biographies. Interviews. Monologues. In other words, engage each character, no matter how ‘small’ they are in terms of the plot.

Obviously this is scalable. You don’t need to spend as much time delving into the life of BALDING COP or OBNOXIOUS CUSTOMER as you do PROTAGONIST or ATTRACTOR, but you should do enough so that each character emerges into your consciousness – their physical nature, voice, mannerisms.

And that in my view is the key takeaway from this discussion: Engage the character directly. If you treat each character with respect, curiosity, and interest, no matter how large or small their contribution to the story, they ought to come alive to you. After all, every character is the Protagonist in their own story. SNOT-NOSED KID may only have one line of dialogue in the entire script, but his/her experience in the story universe is that they are the Protagonist.

Once a character does come to life for you, focus on what makes them unique. How do they carry themselves? How do they present themselves to the world? What about the way they talk is distinctive? What of who they are strikes you as being worthy of inclusion in a movie?

So to sum up: Determine what the character’s narrative function is. Engage them directly in developing their character. Look for distinctive aspects of their personality which can make their role entertaining and memorable.

Readers, what do you think? How do you go about making your secondary characters unique and memorable? If you have some additional thoughts, please head to comments.

Reader Question: Does a story absolutely need an antagonist?

June 18th, 2015 by

Reader question from Manwhit:

hey scott,

does a script absolutely need an antagonist character? is it possible to just create obstacles to what a character wants and not have them emanate from antagonists? for example, can there just be obstacles created by the circumstances of the outside world or even by the protagonist themselves. i.e. can they be their own worst enemy and cause the conflict by making poor decisions which stem from their flaws? can you think of any movies that use this scenario?

hope that makes sense. thanks!

The official answer I’d offer is no: A movie does not absolutely need an antagonist character (what I prefer to call a Nemesis). However a movie does require an antagonist function — that is some sort of oppositional dynamic(s) to confront and challenge the Protagonist.

An example of a movie that doesn’t have a Nemesis character per se (except the ocean) is Cast Away (2000), where the Protagonist Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) is stranded for four years alone on a remote island. In this story, geography and weather generate the primary conflict in the life of the Protagonist by creating his isolation and standing in the way of his escape. It’s a successful story, however you know the filmmakers were up against it when they had to create a ‘character’ in Wilson, a volleyball Nolan doctored up so he could have ‘someone’ to talk to.

That said, Hwood much prefers strong, compelling, and dynamic Nemesis characters. Why? Part of the reason is that stories generally benefit from having a Protagonist vs. Nemesis dynamic, as it usually provides a much more visceral and personal conflict. Also a good Nemesis such as Buffalo Bill / James Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs, Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption, Jeff Sheldrake in The Apartment, Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope, and Hans Gruber in Die Hard can be a fascinating character, driving up the tension in the story – how will the Protagonist overcome this worthy opponent – and therefore the entertainment experience for the viewer.

Now specific to this question – “can they be their own worst enemy and cause the conflict by making poor decisions which stem from their flaws?” – the answer is yes, a character can work at odds against their best interest. But does that constitute a Nemesis function or rather is that more an example of their Disunity state, a conflict between what they want (External World / conscious goal) and what they need (Internal World / unconscious goal)?

Oftentimes a Protagonist begins the story in a state of Disunity. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy (Judy Garland) wants to leave and get away from her home, as expressed in the song she sings in Act One, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Indeed, she runs away from home, albeit in order to save Toto from being recaptured and taken away by Elmira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton). But what she needs is precisely the opposite – to feel like her home in Kansas is a home. Remember she is an orphan, she is the only child on the farm, she has no job like everyone else, so in sum she doesn’t feel like she fits in – her home doesn’t feel like a home. In a way, her entire journey to Oz is to give her experiences, primarily in bonding with Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, who are projections of three workers on the farm (Hunk, Zeke, and Hickory), and in feeling what it’s like to be separated from (especially) her Auntie Em, to change her world view: So that when she returns to consciousness in the farmhouse, she does feel like she belongs, leading to the final words in the movie, “There’s no place like home.”

“Here’s the deal, Auntie Em. Turns out I had to go to Oz in order to discover that this place really is my home.
Stories are kinda strange like that, aren’t they?”

So in desiring to leave the farm and actually run away, Dorothy acts in opposition to what she needs, and that does create a certain measure of conflict. But it is her struggle with an actual Nemesis character – Elmira Gulch / the Wicked Witch of the West – which creates the most significant set of challenges for Dorothy. And like so many Nemesis characters, Gulch / Wicked Witch represents a projection of Dorothy’s shadow self – someone who is a loner, who doesn’t feel understood, who doesn’t like her life. One of my students in the last university class I taught had an interesting thought: Might Elmira Gulch be a sort of forecast what Dorothy could have become as she grew old if she didn’t go through her Oz transformation-journey?

To circle back to your original question: No, a movie does not need a Nemesis character, but it does require an antagonist function to create opposition to the Protagonist. However most movies fill that function primarily through the presence of a Nemesis character. And while a Protagonist character may act against their best interests, thereby providing opposition to themselves, more often, I think, this is a reflection of the P’s original Disunity state, something that gets worked out in their transformation-journey (Deconstruction-Reconstruction), ending up (typically) in a Unity state.

[Originally posted December 19, 2009]

Reader Question: Are there no “great scripts,” only “great films”?

June 17th, 2015 by

Mark, for purposes of context, I visited Mr. McDowell’s IMDb page. And just as I suspected: Whereas he has 245 acting credits, he has only 1 for writing and that for something called Rag Tale (3.8 rating), script by Mary McGuckian with McDowell receiving a “devised in collaboration with” credit along with 10 other actors.

That would suggest, a writer Mr. McDowell ain’t!

In trying to empathize with and understand the point of his comment, I came up with two takes. First, he is simply engaging in hyperbole. A comment on the fly to emphasize the role of a movie’s production over the writing process.

Which leads to my second take: His comment does speak to the reality that a script, while capable of telling a story, is intended to be a movie. It is a movie-in-waiting. Thus a script in and of itself represents a potential movie. And per that logic, how could a potential movie qualify as being ‘great’? It’s only when the script is transformed into an actual movie it can then be assessed as to its artistic and commercial merits.

I suppose there is some truth to that, especially if the frame of reference is that of an actor. However for those of us whose craft is writing… well, Mark, your tweets are a fair representation of what I suspect would be the reaction of most writers.

In response to Mr. McDowell’s observation, let me put forth another take on the subject:

“To make a great film, you need three things – the script, the script and the script.”

Who said that? None other than Alfred Hitchcock. This inverts Mr. McDowell’s statement: That it is impossible to have a great film without a script of comparable quality, i.e., “great”.

I think I’ll go along with Mr. Hitchcock over Mr. McDowell in this particular discussion.

Now if I were a cynic, I might be inclined to perceive Mr. McDowell’s comment as yet another in an endless stream of negativity heaped on writers or worse, a persistent pattern of ignoring the contributions of writers in the movie-making process.

Why, just yesterday, the Hollywood Reporter breathlessly analyzed the greenlighting of a project called “Passengers”. The article goes into great detail about co-stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt’s financial deals, the political moves by current and past presidents of production, the long stop-start history of the project… and nowhere mentions the writer of the script without which none of the content in the article would be in existence.

By the way, the writer is Jon Spaihts and “Passengers” is a 2007 Black List script, widely seen among the screenwriting community as a great script:

But I’m not a cynic, more of a realist. And the reality is if a person is not a writer… or hasn’t worked closely with writers… or hasn’t been involved intimately with the script development process… the chances are they just don’t understand what writers do. If they did, they wouldn’t casually toss off a comment like, “There are no great scripts… just great films.”

This underscores the value of entities like the Black List, the annual version of which provides a snapshot of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Those 10 lists, which you can access here, contain plenty of great scripts…

…’potential’ movie or not.

What do you think of Malcolm McDowell’s comments? A mere ripple across the surface of the screenplay universe or a thunderous wave worthy of severe umbrage? Let me hear your thoughts in comments.

Reader Question: When writing do you paint a visual picture through your action lines?

June 11th, 2015 by


Interesting timing for this question, Janna, because just a couple of weeks ago, I ran my first session of a brand new Craft class called Scene Description Spotlight: Express Your Voice. One of the points of emphasis in our week long time together was this: Since movies are primarily a visual medium, strong scene description reflects that.

In Lecture 4, we looked at the concept of imagematic writing. Here is an excerpt:

One of the simple pleasures I have discovered later in my life is poetry. I try to read a poem each day for inspiration, not only for the content and substance of the words, but also the actual usage of the words themselves. Word choices. Combinations of words. Verbs. Descriptors. Rhythm. Pace. Feel. Tone.

Consider these excerpts:

It hits the floor in a wet lump like yesterday’s road kill.

----

Rivers of sparkling traffic-jammed headlights bleed through
the checkered circuits of urban sprawl far below.

----

They pivot with sharp synchronized movements, as gravel
crunches under their perfectly polished boots.

Actually these excerpts are not from poems. They come from screenplays. The first is taken from a 2014 Black List script Beauty Pageant, written by Shea and Evan Mirzai. The second from another 2014 Black List script Dodge, written by Scott Wascha. And the last example comes from Catherine the Great, written by Kristina Lauren Anderson, which topped the 2014 Black List, the #1 most popular unproduced script in Hollywood.

As soon as I began to read poetry on a regular basis, I realized something: Screenplay scene description is more like poetry than prose.

Poems often deal in the moment — a boy watching a moth, an old man splayed on a porch chair, a single drop of rain trickling down a window — and search for meaning in it. And what are screenplays but a series of meaningful moments played out in the present tense?

Moreover poems can depict a scene, but equally as important they convey the mood and tone of the moment, making it become that much more alive and vivid in the imagination of the reader.

Consider the poem “The Spiral Notebook” by Ted Kooser:

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
5 SUBJECT NOTEBOOK. It seems
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.

My musings about scene description as poetry led me to invent a word: Imagematic. Using words, like poetry, to create strong, visual images. That is imagematic writing.

How to bring imagematic writing to scene description? Three touchstones:

• Verbs
• Descriptors
• Poetics

Verbs: This is Narrative Voice relating the active nature of the story’s present tense.

Descriptors: This is Narrative Voice capturing key visuals happening in the moment.

Poetics: This is Narrative Voice using words to evoke a sense of mood and tone.

Thus when we consider imagematic writing, we can think of Narrative Voice as, what else — a poet. As always, such stylistic choices are fundamentally connected to the specific type of story we are telling and the genre’s impact on our Narrative Voice, but there are ample reasons for you to look at scene description more as poetry than prose.

Circling back to your question, Janna, you nailed it: Paint visuals. Create pictures. Use active verbs, vivid descriptors, and poetics over prose in your scene description to conjure up images — your movie! — in the mind of your script’s reader.

Anyone interested in elevating their visual writing should consider taking my Core IV: Style class. It’s a 1-week online course that starts on August 31.

Beyond that, read scripts! Pay attention to how pro writers handle scene description, noting how visual their writing is. There are over 100 movie scripts you can download here – free and legal.

Reader Question: Is it worth submitting a first draft into a competition?

June 9th, 2015 by

Reader Question from Twitter:

Is it worth submitting a first draft into a competition?

Short answer: No.

Unless God Him/Her/Itself has reached down from on high and anointed your first draft words with final draft quality.

Unless you prefer to live on Planet Delusion where somehow your first efforts are equal to the blood, sweat, and tears of your competitors who have slaved over their scripts through multiple drafts.

Or more pragmatically… unless you have a driving desire to waste your own damn money.

I’ll say it again. No.

If you sense the powerful emotions in the subtext of my word “no,” it derives from personal experience in the biggest contest of them all: The Hollywood development system. You can read about it here: Never send out a script before it’s ready.

You can pretty much reverse engineer that sad saga from the title of the post.

Look, there is nothing easy about this gig. Anybody who has any hopes of making it as a professional writer – of any stripe – has got to accept that fact. There’s a reason why the adage “writing is rewriting” has so much play among professional writers. Writing a story is akin to wrangling magic. And apart from whatever we do on the spiritual side of things to go into the story and find the animals, trusting that our characters exist, the story universe exists, and all of that New Age-y type of stuff that is actually true, there is the simple fact that we have to show up to do the work. Ass. On. Chair. Day after day. Draft after draft.

Which leads me to two other points. First, as writers, we should take pride in our work. In part, that means caring enough about our stories to get them into the best shape possible. A 1st, 2nd, or 3rd draft is generally a stage in that process of becoming the story it deserves to be.

Second, let’s say a writer submits a first draft to some screenplay competition. Let’s say through some miracle, it wins. Hell, let’s play out this fantasy for all it’s worth. Now the writer gets repped. And the script goes out as a writing sample. Then lo and behold, it lands the writer a writing gig.

Hallelujah!

Cut to a month later where — for maximum effect, let me switch this to the second person — you are seated in your lawyer’s office. On the table in front of you is a contract for said writing gig. Holy crap! It’s a six figure deal. With trembling hands you pick up the pen to sign the contract when you notice this item:

Delivery date of draft: 8 weeks. Okay, let’s say 10 weeks just to be generous.

Have you developed your writing chops sufficient enough to feel confident you can deliver the goods? If you haven’t gone into the trenches — prep, first draft, rewrites, polish, edit — and developed an approach to writing whereby you feel at least pretty good about being able to craft a credible, professional quality screenplay, just imagine the pressure you will feel.

Even if you’ve got your writing act together, more or less, you’ll feel pressure. But if you don’t really have some clarity on how to do what you need to do to write a script, that pressure can crush you.

So again – no. I would strongly advise against submitting the first draft of a script to anyone, not just competitions. Write, then rewrite the script until you honestly think it’s in good enough shape to get some feedback. Then do that. Seek out other writers who know their way around a story. Based on their notes, you rewrite some more. That process can continue for awhile, hopefully each time the story getting better.

Here’s the thing: It’s not just about the script. It’s about learning how to conduct yourself as a professional writer. And one thing that means is rewriting that first draft until it becomes the story it deserves to be.

How about you, readers? Any thoughts on the subject? Head to comments if you would.

UPDATE: Twitter conversation re this post:

In point of fact, that’s Eric Roth’s approach who begins every writing session on P.1, so by the time he’s gotten through the draft, he’s rewritten it perhaps dozens of times:

So okay, I guess I should have been more specific about what “draft” means. If you constantly rewrite it as you go through the first draft process, you could have something to send to a contest. However isn’t the a hybrid first draft? A rewritten first draft? More in the spirit of what I wrote about above?

My main point still stands: Get your story in the best shape possible before submitting it somewhere.

Reader Question: What advice for someone wanting to give writing a full-time shot?

June 5th, 2015 by

First and foremost, you have to want it. I mean really want it. The competition is fierce. Think of it this way: If you aren’t working at the craft, someone else is. A lot of someones. So your desire has to be such that writing is your number one priority.

Here is an example. In March 2014, I interviewed Stephanie Shannon who won the 2013 Nicholl Fellowship with her screenplay Queen of Hearts. When she decided she was going to write the script using the Nicholl deadline as motivation, she was working as a manager’s assistant:

Scott: Assistant gigs, from everything I’ve heard, a great way to learn the business, but they’re notoriously challenging, especially hours. How did you carve out time to write?

Stephanie: I just became really singularly focused. I was determined I wasn’t going to let another year go by without finishing a feature. I told myself there was no way I was going to miss the Nicholl deadline. I have never been more determined to do anything in my life.

It was a pretty isolating time for me, though. I’d work all day as an assistant, I’d get home at night, and I would write. I’d wake up and work a little in the morning, then go to work. Sometimes I’d just pull out my laptop and write at my desk while answering phones, or in my boss’ office while he was out at lunch. Then on Fridays I would go home after work, and I wouldn’t really reemerge until Monday. I was so into the story that it didn’t feel like I was torturing myself. I was excited, and I looked forward to working on it, which was a really great feeling.

Stephanie’s last lines lead me to the next thing I’d like to say: You not only need to want it, you have to learn to love it. You may think you love writing. But what about if you are breathing, eating, and living it? Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. You have to learn to love it… even if there are times you hate it. That may sound contradictory. I suspect most writers understand what I mean.

The last point I’d make about attitude: You’ve got to be in it for the long haul. If you are serious about trying to make writing a career, you’ve got to work at it daily, but play the long game. And that means immersing yourself in the craft. You want to develop solid writing practices that will enable you to deliver the goods when you land gigs… so you can keep landing gigs.

How to learn the craft? In my tweet, I mentioned three things you can… no, check that… you must do.

Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.

How best to do that?

1, 2, 7, 14.

1: Read 1 screenplay per week.

2: Watch 2 movies per week.

7: Write 7 pages per week.

14: Work 14 hours per week prepping a story.

If you’re not willing to do this at a bare minimum, go back to my first point. Do you want it? Really want it? If you do, you should have no problem committing yourself to this type of regimen.

There are other things.

Read books. Listen to music. Take walks. Study art. Watch people. Hear conversations.

In other words, live life. Every second of your life is filled with stimuli that can not only inspire you with story ideas and elements you can use in your writing, it also feeds your soul. And you will need spiritual sustenance to keep you going.

Now let me give you a goal: Three scripts. Three treatments. That’s what you should aim to have in hand when you make a legitimate push to break into the business. Those scripts need to be written, rewritten, rewritten again, vetted by writers who know story as well as pro readers. Those treatments don’t have to be full outlines, but convey a story in three acts, strong on character description. And these should all be your strongest story concepts which means you will want to be generating ideas on a consistent basis, working on only the best ones.

A word about income. Try to find a job that lends itself to writing. In January 2013, I interviewed 2012 Nicholl Fellowship winner Michael Werwie. He made a living as a bartender. Check out his thoughts on that gig:

Bartending couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. I had my days completely free and I used that time to write. I’d wake up, eat breakfast, and write, and that just became a discipline, to the point where if I skipped it or didn’t have time to do it for whatever reason, it felt strange. I would do that every day, and would also take meetings, if and when I had those (which were few and far between for many, many years). Bartending allowed me to make the most money while working the fewest hours. It was a good balance because I could treat writing like a full‑time job and still pay the bills.

When I was first writing scripts, I was doing stand-up comedy, so I scheduled my work three weeks on, one week off. I’d break story on my cassette tape recorder and transcribe notes to legal pad at night. Then in my week off, I’d pound out pages. There are jobs. And there are jobs which are writer-friendly. Find one of those.

Let me close with this anecdote. Some years ago, I was leading a workshop at UCLA and invited as a guest one of my former students Lisa Joy. At the time, Lisa was writing for the USA TV series “Burn Notice” after having been on staff of the ABC series “Pushing Daisies”. Subsequently Lisa sold a feature spec script “Reminiscence”, then co-wrote the pilot “Westworld” which HBO has put into production as a series.

In our session in Westwood, Lisa said something I’ve always remembered: “Before I broke in, I decided I may not be a professional writer yet… but I’m going to conduct myself as if I am.”

Every piece of advice I provide above? What Lisa said encapsulates it.

Conduct yourself like a professional writer.

Pro writers want it.
Pro writers love it… even when they hate it.
Pro writers are in it for the long game.
Pro writers watch movies… fanatically.
Pro writers read scripts… obsessively.
Pro writers write pages… daily.
Pro writers live life… and feed their creativity.

Finally let me suggest a change in language. Instead of giving it a “shot”… make a “commitment”. That’s what’s needed. A total commitment of mind, body, and soul.

To help speed you on your way, a big honking blast of creative juju!

Onward!

Reader Question: How do I know if it’s too much or too little scene description?

June 3rd, 2015 by

Reader question via email from Anonymous:

How do I know it I’m writing too much description in a scene or not enough?

First off, you start with the invisible character who is ‘telling’ your story, what I call Narrative Voice. What is their personality, their descriptive style? They may write more prosaically to match the feel of your story’s genre. On the other hand, they may be of a leaner, tighter take on things. For example, there’s a big difference between this:

Chuck emerges onto a ridge that leads to a summit.  He climbs
across a rocky lava field covered with scrub lichen and low
ferns, soil dark as coffee beans, his way crossed by steep
gullies that cut like dark fingers into the lava.

The lava field narrows, forcing Chuck closer to the sea.  He
passes a series of CAVES, their mouths dark and mysterious
and scary. He gives them a wide berth.

And this:

Ripley now hanging halfway out of the shuttle-craft.
The Alien clinging to her leg.
She kicks at it with her free foot.
The Creature holds fast.
Ripley looks for any salvation.
Grabs the hatch level.
Yanks it.
The hatch slams shut, closing Ripley safely inside.

Make sure you get in touch with your Narrative Voice and style sensibility for your script. You should ground every choice you make about handling scene description in that.

Next there’s a writing mantra which provides guidance: Minimum words, maximum impact. That’s the way with screenplays, both for film and TV: We have to write more with less. The novelist Raymond Chandler, who did some screenwriting including Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder, said this:

“The challenge of screenwriting is to say much in little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement.”

As far as the concern about how much is too much, how much is too little, there’s no precise formula to know for sure. You give it a try. You read it. You read it aloud. You futz with it. Test that out. At some point, you give your pages to readers (hopefully ones who know a thing or two about screenwriting). They say it works. Great. They say there’s not enough there to track what’s going on. You add some. They say it’s overwritten and wordy. You cut some.

In early drafts, we can default to more because we want to be in the moment and give expression to what we see in our mind’s eye. Then as we do subsequent drafts and edit, the default shifts to less as we try to find that delicate balance not too much… not too little… just enough.

Another touchstone to guide the writing of scene description, ask these three questions:

Is it essential?

Is it effective?

Is it entertaining?

The first question speaks to overwriting. The second questions speaks to underwriting. The last question speaks to goal.

So let’s say you’re writing a scene. You see it in your head. Whatever you choose to describe, press yourself to make sure you include only that which is essential. When you read it back, make sure you think it’s effective. And always strive to make it entertaining.

Aim for that sweet spot: Minimum Words. Maximum Impact.

Final point: This is Reason #538 why you absolutely must read movie scripts. The more scripts by pro writers you read, the more you begin to get a feel for how much is too much and how much is too little, just by tracking how those writers handle scene description.

Readers, what advice do you have on this subject? How do you know when you’ve hit that sweet spot of just enough description and not too much?

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:

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

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

				ANDY 
			(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? 

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

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

				RED 
		Forget? 

				ANDY 
		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. 

				RED 
		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:

			       ANDY 
		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. 
			(beat) 
		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. 

				RED 
		What? What's buried there? 

				ANDY 
		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. 
			(beat) 
		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?