SCREENWRITING TIP #2: CHARACTER
Let’s start with the main character, the person we accompany on their journey, who, in a sense, we become. Generally we take to a character because of how they are written. The strength of that character on the page will hopefully attract a great actor to the role and help you get the screenplay made.
I generally start by creating a little bio of my principal characters (this includes the antagonist – very important). I jot down what they look like, how they dress, how they speak, down to details like what kind of car they drive, the sort of music they listen to, what they order on their pizza, whatever comes to mind.
But the two most important questions you should ask of a character are - what do they want? And what are they afraid of?
In “Mr. Holland’s Opus” Holland want to be a great composer. He’s afraid he doesn’t have the talent. His desire and fear are the yin and yang of his problem.
In “Courage Under Fire” Colonel Serling, a professional soldier wants to be a good leader of men but is afraid that he was a poor leader and maybe a coward.
You must dig deep into your character. They can’t just want to be famous, you must ask why they want to be famous. What drives them toward this need? They can’t just want revenge, you must know why revenge is so important to them. Are they delaying the mourning or/and loss of the one that initiated this revenge? Create a backstory as if you were the actor chosen to portray this person. Where were they born? What was the relationship with their parents? Detail their teenage years, sex life, love life. Most of this will probably never appear in the script (a curse on all needless exposition) but you the author must know it.
Now a really important note about pro-activity. The biggest mistake I see beginning writers make is that the story happens to their main character. Yes, something in the beginning may happen to them, but it is how they react and then deal with this problem that makes them interesting. Even if it is the wrong action, it will lead to another situation that they have created. Good characters don’t react, they act. They are in search of something, even it that something is within themselves.
Hand in hand with pro-activity is the fact that we usually learn about characters by what they do – or won’t do, not necessarily by what they say. In fact, a character’s dialogue can be totally contradictory to what they are doing. A cowboy who says he is against violence but is shooting everyone is his path is telling us a lot about his true nature.
Another caution – a bunch of screenwriting books and thusly more than a few development executives urge you to reveal everything about your characters as soon as possible. I advise you not to give up all your cards at once. Piecemeal this information. In real life you don’t find out everything about someone during the first hour of conversation. You get their story a bit at a time. This continues your interest in them. You should do the same in your writing. Peel your character like the proverbial onion. And a little character surprise doesn’t hurt. Add a character flaw or eccentricity that surprises you but somehow fits. It humanizes them and makes them more interesting.
Only a week left for pre-orders. If you have any interest in preordering (and getting a Felicia Day headshot, which she’s extending to all hardbacks ordered before 2/22) definitely do it now. Onto my next writing column:
SCREENWRITING TIP #3: Plot (1)
Some describe the plot of a screenplay as the spine of your story. Some say it is a series of red dots, each red dot being an important emotional or/and expositional step in the story being told. And then there is the old architectural standby, the plot is the support beams, the super structure upon which rests your story and characters. Whatever you call it, what you are trying to lay out is the inevitable order of your story. Not one scene too many, not one scene missing.
I think the best screenplays are the ones told with the minimum number of scenes, each one a truly BIG scene, not a string of little moments but a series of monumental scenes with as much depth of character and plot as you can muster, full of conflict. Also with as little shoe leather and transition scenes, as possible.
You also want the audience, the reader or the moviegoer to become a participant in the story telling. The human mind is always trying to make order and sense out of everything around us. We look at the stars and without the proper science, make a mythology to explain what we see up in the night skies. We explain the illogical untimely deaths of beloved men and women with conspiracy theories. So a good writer takes advantage of this predilection by leaving out parts of the story, the pieces that are obvious, and making the audience fill in those bits, forcing them to become a participant in the storytelling itself. Making them invest in the tale.
The hazard is that you can leave out too many bits and confuse your audience – and lose them. Once they pull out of a movie and turn to the person next to them and ask, “What’s going on?” you have lost them. The suspension of disbelief you’ve worked so hard to achieve is gone and you have to start all over again. Difficult enough the first time, even harder the second. So abbreviate carefully.
Also, be careful that you don’t beat the audience up with one big action or emotional scene after another. A scene can be important, BIG, but still be quiet. There is a natural rise and fall in good drama where the valleys are as important as the mountains. As in music, the silent rests are as important as the notes. A grace note here and there can give the audience some respite and also set them up for the next tense scene.
More about plot in the next update.
SCREENWRITING TIP #1: The Big Idea
Everywhere I travel if someone discovers that I am a writer, they invariably tell me that they have a great idea for a movie, a book or a TV series. (Especially cab and uber drivers, they are idea machines). And if I would JUST write it for them...
Yikes, there’s the catch. They don’t want to do the work themselves. Problem is, I have tons of ideas of my own. Ideas are cheap. Execution is what counts. Very few execute. When I am pitched an idea I tell people, "Write it yourself!" Few ever do. Because they discover when they start that writing is hard work, and they quit without seeing it through. So the basic secret of success in writing is: Do the Work. Write the worst thing you can put on paper, but get through it. Then you can rewrite it. Over and over until you make it great. Most people who are professionals wrote five or six screenplays before they even sold one. No one is a genius right off the bat.
But a word of warning before you start the actual writing: It’s best to test your Big Idea before you dive in. Do an outline of your movie, brainstorm the plot points. Do character sketches so you make sure the character fits with your plot and vice versa. I will be covering how to do those things in more detail in future updates, but the biggest warning I have is: NEVER START WRITING WITHOUT AN ENDING. You will just be making the hard work harder for yourself. Your Big Idea is worth doing the homework for, just so you can keep your enthusiasm up through a very difficult process of creating something from scratch.
And if you don’t have time for full steam ahead on one Big Idea right now, the best thing you can do is make a habit of filing your ideas away in a file cabinet. Virtual or physical. Write anything you find interesting down. Scan the world for things and plots and people and phrases that pop out to you. You never know when your observations will come in handy. Eventually, you will have files and files of plots, and characters and ideas, that can help you start quicker when you finally dedicate yourself to that one Big Idea project. You’re not starting from zero, and that’s a wonderful thing.
A Good Idea is eternal. Sorting the bad from the good is the hard part, but having a file to pull from is the key. You never know when a character you thought of five years ago, might solve a plot problem you have now. And every once in a while, make yourself go through those files, let your mind wander over them. You might be able to add some puzzle pieces together and BAM! You could have the pieces of a Big Idea just waiting to be assembled and written.
Or you could just take an Uber somewhere and grab one of the driver’s ideas. But we both know you can do better than that.