Tag Archives: screenwriting craft

Mapping Character Change Using Psychological Theory by Phil Lowe

I’ve tended to focus in this series on personality models which emphasise how different we all are, as it’s generally the differences between characters which lead to drama. But let’s break the rule for the last in the series and look at a model which says we are all exactly the same when it comes to responding to a change in our circumstances – and which creates drama through a battle we have with our own psyche.

If you’re doing your job as a writer, your characters will spend a lot of time wrestling with some kind of change: losing a job, getting a job, receiving bad news, meeting a new partner, finishing with an existing partner, having an accident, being betrayed… Without change there is no drama. And our ability to understand the impact of change on a person comes from the “transition curve”, courtesy of a doctor who took one of the most dramatic changes of all – dealing with a diagnosis of terminal illness – and used it to map how we respond to any change.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross made extensive studies of the reactions of terminally ill patients on learning the facts about their condition. When she put her observations together, she found that each and every terminally ill individual went through a series of identifiable stages in the process of coping, or attempting to cope, with the reality of death. If you were to plot the stages over time, and graph them according to how positive one feels, you get the curve below.

character changeAfter a brief period of shock, you see that the curve goes upwards. How can such bad news result in a positive reaction? The answer is that the positive feelings are essentially self-deluding, for this is the stage of Denial. The stance here is ‘It isn’t true: the tests must be wrong; I’ve never felt better.’

If the patient can be convinced of the reality of the situation, this positive stance is wiped out at a stroke and the patient advances quickly to the next stage, Anger. This is emotion born of frustration and impotence, and all logic is abandoned, before a semblance of apparent logic returns in the stage of Bargaining. The archetypal example of Bargaining is doing a deal with God (“Cure me and I’ll do good deeds for the rest of my life”). And when Bargaining doesn’t work, then Depression takes over (“I can’t cope with this, I might as well give up now.”)

If the patient can be coaxed beyond this, they reach the point of Acceptance, the point at which one decides to face what is happening and use the remainder of one’s time positively. This will require some experimentation, until the truly positive final step is achieved and the patient has a way of living which is authentic and embraces their condition.

Notice anything, narrative structure enthusiasts? Is this not a little like the arc of a character through a story? Is the stage of Acceptance not unlike that moment at the end of Act Two (or Act Four, if you’re trying to impress the new head of BBC Drama) when a character accepts the need to change and sets off to make what s/he has learned about him- or herself work? Does the Denial stage not bear a passing resemblance to the “refusal of the call” stage of the Hero’s Journey? Because what does a good story do if not present your protagonist with an enforced change, and then watch how they come to terms with it? This is why the transition curve is so powerful – it connects us with a deep human truth which unites us all, and which is reflected in stories told throughout history.

But before you start making all your characters terminally ill, this curve applies to any change, even positive ones. What does every lottery winner say? “This win won’t change me” (while you smugly think “hah, you’ve clearly never read about Denial being the first reaction to change – you’re going to suffer, mother****er”. Or maybe that’s just me). It doesn’t even have to be used in the service of Drama. Sitcoms rely heavily on Denial, Anger and Bargaining stages: The battle against the need to change is a staple of British comedy, from One Foot In The Grave to Fawlty Towers. Of course in a sitcom the character mustn’t change, so they are doomed never to reach Acceptance.

A comedy told as a complete story, though, will go through the whole curve. In the recent Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham), the alpha male obsessive foreign agent, is driven first by Denial (ignoring the rule to stay out of the mission), then Anger (becoming more and more of a loose cannon), Bargaining (as he tries to make an unnecessary partnership with Susan Cooper work) and finally, the Acceptance that Susan has done a good job. We leave him experimenting with a new phase as… I won’t spoil the ending for you. RomComs are another great example: the characters spend much of the film in Denial, Anger or Bargaining, as they each resist the call to change represented by their relationship antagonist. The film’s crisis is the point where they must Accept their need for each other, whereupon one of them runs to the airport and… you get the point.

So whatever genre you work in, ensuring that no character experiences change without triggering the transition curve will bring great authenticity to your script. And don’t only think about the major change that runs through the arc of the story; within one block of dialogue, if it’s doing its job properly, a character will be pushed out of his or her comfort zone and will inevitably display at least some Denial, pushing back to try and preserve the status quo.

This is my last blog in the series – but like any human being, I will go straight to Denial and do another farewell one shortly.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.

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New Year Writing Resolutions

The world doesn’t owe you a screenwriting career. Harsh, but true. So, like everyone before you, you’re going to have to go out there and make it for yourself. And you can. Here are my top tips for new year writing resolutions to help you on your way.

Surround yourself with your biggest cheerleaders. Dementors are great in Harry Potter but not in your life. Avoid people who don’t believe in your dreams and instead spend time with people who do.

Find support groups online and in real life. Join a local Writers Group like Stratford-upon-Avon Screenwriters or Them There Northerners. Facebook and LinkedIn have numerous screenwriting communities and on Twitter search and use #scriptchat #screenwriting #amwriting to find other people talking about writing and screenwriting.

Make time for your writing every day. I know it’s tough with so many demands on our time, but you’ve got to put the hours in. And don’t kid yourself that you need a big expanse of writing time; if you wait for that to materialise you’ll be waiting forever! Carve out small chunks of time in your normal day, whether it’s your lunch-break, in the evening or early morning, even if it’s only for half an hour. But make it part of your daily routine.

Study the craft. Whether you take classes or self-study, there is a way to develop your screenwriting skills that suits you. There are numerous M.A Screenwriting courses; Creative Skillset list their accredited courses and any internet search will throw up hundreds more. There are short courses to suit everyone, anything from several months to one-day. If you don’t want spend money on a course, you can learn a huge amount simply by watching films and tv and reading their scripts. But don’t just be a passive consumer, be an analyst; break it down, work out how the writer has crafted their characters and story structure to manipulate you emotionally. Whether you’re watching comedy or horror, thriller or drama, the job of the writer is to make the audience feel (and hopefully to think as well), so how did the script make you scared, amused, excited, frightened?

Develop your screenwriting skills. The old adage ‘writing is rewriting’ really is true. So to make sure your rewriting is improving the script and you’re not just going round in circles, find people whose feedback you trust. That might be through peer review or via a paid-for script feedback like those on offer at Script Angel. If you go for peer review, make sure the person giving you feedback is at least as good a screenwriter as you, and preferably much better! If you opt for a script consultant, make sure they’ve got industry experience reading for well respected production companies and contests or have script edited professionally. Good feedback should offer practical solutions to the problems and weaknesses it identifies and should resonate with you as the right direction in which to take your project. Great feedback will inspire you to write the next draft.

Get your writing out there. No-one will know about your great script unless you make it visible to them, so do whatever you can to get your script as widely read as possible. Research the best screenwriting contests and target those offering what you most need, be that cash prizes or getting finalists’ scripts read by producers. The industry is looking for new writing talent and they’re looking to agents and the well respected contests as their filters. Target producers making the kind of films that your screenplay could become. I know the vast majority of production companies won’t take unsolicited material, but there are a handful that do and if they don’t, then get your script solicited by querying them. Don’t be a stalker but do be smart and tenacious in making yourself and your script visible to the industry.

Be true to yourself. Yes you should understand the market, but honestly, there’s an audience for just about every kind of film and therefore a place for every kind of screenplay. Of course there are more opportunities in some genres than in others but you don’t need to write a low-budget gangster thriller just because lots of them get made if that isn’t your cup of tea. Don’t write what you think others want to read. Write for yourself. Every successful screenwriter I’ve worked with has caught the attention of the industry with the script they were most passionate about. It might not be the thing that actually gets made but if it’s utterly compelling it will get you noticed.

Don’t give up. Anything is possible and as Lucy Hay wrote recently, ‘why not me?’. Someone is going to be the next big screenwriting talent to make a splash, so why shouldn’t it be you? The professional screenwriters I’ve worked with and interviewed for the Script Angel blog (Chris Lunt, Tripper Clancy, Robin Mukherjee, Jamie Crichton) all wrote on spec for years before their dreams of a screenwriting career became a reality. They didn’t give up, and neither should you.

Fusing Genres by Bobby Del Rio

When I was first starting out as a writer, I made the decision to constantly write the opposite of what I had previously written. I won a playwriting award in university, and parlayed that momentum into some media attention as a young playwright in Toronto.

genre word art 2But with the ensuing media attention I received in the next couple years, I realized that there was still an awful lot about writing I didn’t know… I decided that the only way to keep evolving was to start writing the OPPOSITE of what I had built a reputation for. (At the time, since I was in my early 20s, I was known for teen drama.) I also didn’t want to get pigeonholed as being a particular “type” of writer, and the media does have a tendency to want to ‘define’ you (mostly for the benefit of their readership/audience, I think).

With every subsequent script, I started trying my hand at new genres. I didn’t necessarily think of them as genres at the time, but that’s what I was doing. I started out in teen drama, then moved to boisterous comedy, then tried my hand at naturalistic relationship drama, then started experimenting with absurdism, then romantic comedy, then gangster movies, etc.

After about a decade of consciously learning particular genres, I began to combine them.

That’s when my writing career really started to take off.

I’ve had many writing jobs in the last couple years, and I attribute this mostly to my conscious effort to fuse genres. If you really look at today’s most recognized screenplays, many of them could certainly be considered hybrids. Tarantino does it constantly (Django Unchained was Western + comedy + revenge thriller), Christopher Nolan (Inception was film noir + science fiction), Woody Allen (constantly blending comedy + tragedy), Spike Jonze (Her was romantic comedy + dystopian cautionary tale), etc.

We can argue about which specific genre elements were utilized in the above examples, but nobody can deny that those scripts feel fresh, original and DIFFERENT. For me, it’s fairly simple: If you build on the archetypes of the past, you can create something original in the future.

A simple (but effective) entry point for me in recent years has been saying to myself: What genres should I combine next? I just wrote/directed a feature film adaptation of my best play, The Market. When I began writing the play, I purposely set out to combine many tropes from genres I described as “uber male”. I took film noir, crime drama, buddy comedy and Wall Street action movies and combined them into one. The audience reaction (usually male) was unlike anything I had ever experienced as a writer (when we did the play). Many men absolutely loved the script, and I believe it’s because I was literally utilizing recognizable tropes from movies they loved in the past.

Many different people kept telling me my script reminded them of other movies they had seen in the past. That’s because I knew the genres I was fusing extremely well.

I believe there is a real opportunity moving forward as screenwriters to combine genres that people haven’t really seen before. We live in a very complex and deeply integrated world. The internet has made it quite easy for people to become experts on genre. You can watch entire television series from the 80s effortlessly, you can watch every single horror movie online if you have the time (which many people seem to be finding), etc.

People know genre inside and out these days, so I think it’s quite difficult to write a script that plays in only one world. Those scripts tend to feel outdated, like the audience has “seen it before”. Part of the reason my scripts tend to feel original for producers (which I’ve heard again and again) is for the simple reason that I am combining genre elements they haven’t seen before in the same script.

I believe in the notion that there are only 7 original plotlines in the history of the planet. Every script is a variation thereof, so for me, it makes perfect sense to simply start combining elements of those original storylines into one another.

Dialectical idealism is the principle that new things arise from previous incarnations of itself. That is an oversimplification of complex Hegel theory, but the general point remains: What is new is predicated on the perception of things that are old.

While it should be stated that one cannot fuse 2 genres together until one is experienced with the tropes of BOTH genres, it’s an excellent way to create unique combinations of possibilities. Now having written 60 scripts, what keeps me going creatively is that I might hit upon some magical ‘formula’, some new way of writing a script that completely changes the game for me…

But above all, writing should be FUN. While many of us who do this as our job can feel overwhelmed by the consumer politics of it all, I believe that stretching beyond your comfort zone as a writer is the way to achieve the feeling of freedom and creativity. Try combining elements from genres that seem completely unrelated. You might be surprised at how well the puzzle pieces fit together…

In summation, Bob Dylan said it best: The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Bobman

Bobby Del Rio is a published playwright and working screenwriter. He just wrote/directed the feature film The Market, and has many other feature screenplays completed for producers around the world. http://www.bobbydelrio.com

‘Story’ Versus ‘Save the Cat’ – Screenwriting Book Review by Phil Lowe

I can’t claim to have read every book on screenwriting (I don’t suffer from procrastination quite that badly) but I’ve done my fair share, and these two hardy perennials are the books I return to most often when I’m stuck or needing a compass to navigate through a rewrite.

story vs save the cat screenwriting book reviewLike good scripts, they are a mix of the original and the familiar. Both, in their way, are shining examples of “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” “But which is better?” you can’t help asking. And I have to answer: it depends. They are both written by opinionated and provocative individuals, fiery pulpit preachers of The One True Way. Both are dealing, one way or another, with the Three Act Structure; each finds a very different way into it.

Story is the book which made me want to write fiction again after ten years in the world of business writing. A colleague lent it to me after a conversation about the design of team exercises. I read it and, like Keats on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, the scales fell from my eyes. I thought: “finally, after all these years, I get it – I see why I’ve never managed to plot effectively.”

It is a dense and thorough tome. Don’t enter without a distress flare and your eight favourite records. Lose yourself in it and you will emerge days later, dusty, bloody and gasping for air, your head ringing with phrases like “The Negation of the Negation” and “Extra-personal conflict”. Then, as the dust settles, you are left with simple, elegant ways of thinking about character and story construction – like the idea that story is driven by the gap between what a character expects to happen and what actually does happen. It’s a principle that applies not only to action, but dialogue as well (watch any episode of Eastenders to see how they make the dialogue crackle through each character giving the answer the other doesn’t expect).

Story is so thorough, though, it can put you off. Every time I look at those wheel diagrams of how to use minor characters to show the protagonist’s qualities, I find myself getting one of my headaches and I despair of ever being able to write anything vaguely well constructed. But if you go in with a “cherry picking” mindset, you can’t lose, so rich is it in nuggets.

So Story sounds like the complete package – surely the only book you’d need? Well…

At the beginning of a school holiday, my head teacher wife asked, in that casual way she does, “Are you busy over the next couple of weeks?” Five minutes later, I had “nomineered” to write an original school play for a cast of forty from scratch and have it ready to go at the beginning of the following term. This was no time for “The Negation of the Negation” – I reached instinctively for Save The Cat.

If McKee is the great academic of screenwriting theory, then Snyder is its ultimate pragmatist. Unashamedly populist where McKee is bombastic, his book eschews “Archplot” and “The spine of unconscious desire” for “The Pope In the Pool” and “Bad Guys Close In”. His adherence to box office takings as the ultimate measure of a film’s success will rile many (where McKee idolises Casablanca and Chinatown, here we kneel before Legally Blonde and Miss Congeniality). But this is not a man who wants to be seen as deep and intellectual – we are talking, after all, of the writer of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Put your prejudices aside, and you will find his legendary “beat sheet” a lifesaver if you want to generate coherent plot quickly. He enables you to step back and see the arc of your story with stunning simplicity, where McKee can make your head spin. His material on creating titles and premises by looking for the irony in your idea is a great thought starter, and like McKee he reminds us that story is as much about character as plot – which is where the title phrase comes in (I won’t spoil it for you).

If you go back to McKee after Snyder, you will find not only more subtlety but a more inclusive approach. Snyder sits Memento atop his demonology (It doesn’t follow his beat sheet and it didn’t make money), where McKee would happily include it in his “Antiplot” category. For Snyder, it’s not worth writing if it doesn’t fit; for McKee, everything fits somewhere.

If you can’t face buying both, which should you buy? Tough question: you can’t pick up Story and use it straight out of the box in the same way as Save The Cat! – but on the flipside, Story has more richness. If I had to come off the fence (while still keeping one buttock on it), I’d say go for Story if you’re rewriting and want to give your work a thorough stress test; but if you’re staring at a blank page and want to get the juices flowing, Save The Cat will probably unstick you the fastest.

Before you regard either as a panacea, though, consider: ultimately, both authors remind us why screenwriting is so ballsaching: both, in their own way, acknowledge that while there is a formula we must follow, we must somehow follow it without being formulaic. Sadly, you will not find the answer to the latter quest in any screenwriting book.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist. He originally trained and worked as an actor and has a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com

Why I’ve Learned to Love Story Structure – Part 2 by Xandria Horton

I mentioned in a previous post why I know first-hand that structure can feel for some like their script nemesis. This blog post outlines some more thoughts I’ve found useful of ways to think about structure:

orange is the new black script angel story structure

Structure: micro and macro

Structure is most often referred to in the macro – the number of ‘acts’ in your script and its shape as a whole. But structure is less often thought of in the micro; the way in which your story delivers a single scene. Each scene has a status quo which is interrupted by something (ideally) dramatic, where a unit of story is delivered to the audience (almost certainly) through conflict, and the result is a changed situation. It’s easy to forget that it is this level that can shape the clarity and tone of the script.

Structure: when is a problem the story, and when is it how it’s put together?

When there’s an issue in your script, one of the biggest questions is whether it’s the story or plot – which are usually intertwined in the writer’s head – that’s at fault. Is it something that doesn’t quite sit right in the dynamic of your character’s journey and what happens (content), or is it because of where a piece of information sits in the script and how it is delivered (context)?

I’d love to hear any tools that you have for this process, but for me it’s getting the writer to test it in different ways: if it’s a feature, what’s the overall message or theme of the script – and does this scene fit within that? If this scene were removed, what would be the result on the larger plot? What would the opposite outcome of this scene look like? It’s also often useful to see in its simplest form (cue cards, scene by scene outline). Other suggestions are welcome!

Structure’s Toolkit

Below are some common elements in scripts that relate to structure:

The circular narrative: this is frequently used in TV and feature specs alike (and particularly in comedy). The opening scene of a script presents a scenario, usually a tense/climactic situation, after which the narrative jumps back in time to present the events leading up to this moment.

  • This structural tool succeeds or fails on whether the scene you are ‘hooking’ the audience with is sufficiently extraordinary and creates enough narrative questions (not only “how did they get here?” but “how are they going to get out?”). Ideally, assumptions created by presenting this scene out of context are subverted as a result of experiencing the story as a whole. As I’ve already mentioned in my X Factor blog post however, this can be a way that writers who know there isn’t enough story in the first 30 pages of their script can inject some narrative questions. However, this can also be a legitimate way to present two disparate story elements side-by-side.

The flashback and montage:

  • Whilst many writing resources have now come around to the fact that flashbacks, montages, dream sequences are not just lazy storytelling, this doesn’t mean that writers don’t sometimes rely on them in a way that delivers lazy storytelling.
  • Flashbacks should create drama in their own right and move the plot forward in the present, despite dealing with something from a character’s past. Bang2write has a great post on this here, which also delves into other often misused storytelling tools such as voiceover and dream sequences.
  • The flashback has had a revamp of late: Orange Is the New Black uses flashbacks as an integral part of its structure, which both humanises the inmates by presenting them in a world we recognise and creates ironies between their past and present lives. It also provides the occasional pressure release from a claustrophobic story world. Other recent UK TV like Utopia and The Honourable Woman made some bold and – I think – successful choices by carrying out large portions or entire episodes in the past, which then constantly informed the storytelling in the present, rather than dipping back and forth.
  • And as for montages, whilst they’ve moved on somewhat from Rocky (Team America, anyone?), they often aid a script to deliver a character change, but should never be in lieu of scenes that chart a character’s emotional journey – the audience want to see these up close. A good example of this is Groundhog Day; we skip the hundreds of days in which Bill Murray’s character learns to ice sculpt, play the piano, learn about Andie McDowell and generally become a better person. However, it doesn’t montage the scenes in which his character is challenged or he develops a better emotional understanding.

Multiple storylines a.k.a. ‘plate spinning’

  • Whether this is for a feature with an ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ story, or an episode of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, structuring and interweaving multiple storylines is what allows you to keep your stories moving forward. The difference is whether the viewpoint you create revolves around a central protagonist or an ensemble cast of characters.

Twists vs. Dramatic Irony

  • Structure constantly negotiates whether to let the audience in on one a piece of information before a character in the script (dramatic irony) or hold back so the audience experiences it at the same time – or even after the protagonist (plot twist). When you learn information and how is important in any story, but particularly in genre stories, where the audience can feel involved at key moments of the storytelling, e.g. playing “armchair detective” in Crime. Far from holding back on the plot, the more thought-out clues the audience can invest and speculate in to create plot twists, the better.

Experiencing something first hand vs reported action

  • Generally, it’s more dramatic for the audience to witness first-hand an event in the story, although there are some caveats to this. I frequently see traumatic events in the protagonist’s backstory shown in flashback or in the prologue, when it is possible to show this in a less conventional way. Also, on some occasions, it can be very moving if the plot understates the importance of an event by not flashing back or showing first-hand: examples include Thomas J’s death in My Girl, the fate of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List and the famous climactic scene in Se7en.
Yeah Brad, we know  structure can sometimes be tricky...

Yeah Brad, we know structure can sometimes be tricky…

So this is just a few thoughts to steer clear of structure potholes, identify structure issues and be aware of some of the more popular structure shortcuts (and when you might not want to use them). Feel free to add them to your structure ‘toolkit’ – and post below your own suggestions, or how these concepts have worked (or not worked) in your own writing experience.

Script Angel in the City of Angels

Last weekend was the Screenwriters World Conference in L.A. It was a great opportunity for me and the 100s of writers attending to hear directly from the screenwriters, managers, agents and producers working in Hollywood today.

screenwriters world conference pic

There were many fabulous sessions on the craft of screenwriting; writing the spec, writing for tv, writing the micro-budget film, writing web series, writing subtext, writing the emotional core, writing compelling characters, writing horror. Whatever your screenwriting interest, there was someone with experience in that specialism there to help you get to grips with it.

What struck me was that not just the delegates but the speakers too were incredibly well-read on the craft of screenwriting. There was a strong sense that becoming a great screenwriter is about learning your craft. Most of the people I met, whether aspiring delegates or experienced speakers, have read a huge number books on screenwriting and continue to want to study the craft in order to become more skilled at it. It was not so much being a slave to a set of screenwriting rules but rather having as many tools in your arsenal as possible to help you tell the story you want to tell. I might have read 20+ screenwriting books and been a professional script editor for over ten years but I certainly came away with a big new list of screenwriting must-reads. TOP TIP: Learn your craft by reading screenwriting books, watching films/tv and reading scripts.

As well as honing their craft the delegates also had the chance to hear how to develop their screenwriting career. Certainly, the question that I get asked the most is; how do I get my writing noticed?  I know from experience the frustration that new writers feel on trying to ‘break in’ to an industry that looks like a closed shop. Of course it’s not, and new writers are getting noticed, getting repped, getting meetings and getting gigs all the time.  For me, the sessions on establishing a screenwriting career were of particular interest so that I can better help my writing clients to develop their screenwriting career in UK and the US in both film and television. TOP TIP: Learn who’s who by reading the trades.

My writing clients have had great success and got representation following wins or finalist placings in the prestigious screenwriting contests like the Nicholl Fellowship, but I was keen to hear whether the big managers and agents really take notice of contests. I made sure to attend the session on Getting An Agent with Jake Wagner of Benderspink, Josh Dove of Haven Entertainment, Zac Frognowski of Grandview and moderated by Script Mag Editor Jeanne Bowerman. Since none of these guys take unsolicited approaches, how do they find new writing talent? The answer was recommendations from colleagues, contest placings and other filter platforms like The Black List. TOP TIP: Learn who is getting deals for their writers by reading the trades.

Of course not all screenwriting contests are equal but they definitely see the most prestigious contests as a kind of vetting process. Jake makes sure he and his team take a look at all the finalists of contests like Script Pipeline. In addition, the Nicholls circulate the loglines and contact details of their quarter-finalists to the industry so if you do well in the big screenwriting contests your work is getting seen by people you couldn’t otherwise get access to. TOP TIP: Research the contests that give their finalists great exposure.

Many producers, agents and managers also attend pitching sessions like the one held at SWC, as well as at other prestigious events like Story Expo, The Great American Pitchfest, and the London Screenwriters’ Festival. Pitching at events like these can get you read-requests and, if they like what they read, that all-important general meeting and the start of a working relationship. TOP TIP: Attend pitching events to start meeting and building relationships with managers, agents and producers.

The big take-away for me was that yes, it’s tough but it is also possible to make it. If you hone your craft, write killer material and develop a strategy for your career then becoming a professional screenwriter is within your reach.

Creating Characters by Alan Flanagan

As part of the Script Angel Writer’s Toolbox series, writer and script editor Alan Flanagan looks at the tricky task of building your characters.

Have you ever tried to be the most interesting person at a cocktail party? To look like the smartest person in your class? To make someone fall in love with you?

rp mcmurphy one flew over the cuckoos nest

It’s not fun, and yet as a writer you’re left with the Herculean task of making an audience care deeply about your characters, not just in ninety minutes but usually in under twenty — and ideally under ten.

So how do you build a human being without raiding your local graveyard?

Facts, Facts, Facts

When building any character, remember the iceberg rule. You need to know about ten times as much about your character as your audience will ever see.

Build a character profile, including their family history — parents and siblings definitely, grandparents can be helpful — and place of birth, their education, professional history, taste in lovers, taste in friends, taste in food. There are no right or wrong answers here, but you will find yourself forming a concrete version of this person from which it will be impossible to deviate when you sit down to write your script.

Remember, a character who feels specific is “universal”, but a character who feels non-specific is just “generic”.

Point Of View

Secondary to facts, an interesting exercise for a character profile can be to question your character on various facets of their lives. This isn’t just about their biggest fear or their proudest achievement, but their personal opinion on anything from Afghanistan to Miley Cyrus. Everyone has an opinion on big issues, even if (tellingly) that opinion is no opinion at all.

Character & Plot

Often the main reason we get into this business is because of our desire to spin a good yarn. But by building a concrete character you will time and again see opportunities for the facts of your characters life to intersect beautifully with your story.

For example, consider a character’s profession. Think of how Memento‘s Leonard used his background as an insurance investigator to anchor his sense of self. Or how American Beauty‘s Carolyn Burnham was so perfectly encapsulated by her zealous cleaning of a house. Profession can also helpfully delineate characters, as the multifarious characters in Orphan Black (all played by the same actress) find differences in being a cop, or a drug dealer, or a researcher.

And that’s just profession, which is one tiny detail in your list of facts. Think of what else a character profile can offer you.

The Stereotype Trap

“Write what you know”, right? While every writer draws on their own experience — whether they intend to or not — it’s important to bear in mind what that phrase means.

Having read hundreds and hundreds of scripts, it’s clear that the characters writers are bringing to the screen are predominantly male, predominantly white, predominantly straight, predominately… predominant. Do you want to see a character you’ve seen a million times, or one whose story you’ve never seen before?

It also says something about how we see the “write what you know” dynamic. “What you know” isn’t about your gender, sexuality, race — it’s about humanity, and that doesn’t see such simple boundaries.

Next time you’re working on a script, consider how a character would work if you flipped their gender, changed their ethnicity, gave them a disability. It won’t change their character outright, nor should it, but it may throw up unusual character moments and interesting plot points you hadn’t considered.

Bringing Your Character To Life

Once you’ve nailed down everything about your character, the obvious question is how to get them down on paper. Here a couple of key elements come into play:

First Moment: On the page a reader is usually being bombarded by characters and information, so it’s vital that the first sight we get of a character is a fair approximation of who they are. Do they come crashing through a window? Tumbling out of their neighbour’s wife’s bed? Cowering from a knock at the door? Far too many characters enter a script doing nothing, or doing something that is either bland or a poor indication of who they are.

Look: This is packaged with the above, but consider how your character looks. Avoid commenting on their attractiveness, because it tells us nothing — what is a “pretty” girl? Instead, rely on unusual adjectives — “sly”, “clipped”, “bullish” — and focus on what part of a person’s look really tells us about them. Are their shoes scuffed? Is their hair pulled back painfully? Chewed nails? Smeared lipstick? Red eyes? Gleaming pocket watch? Be specific but be concise.

Dialogue: Writing good dialogue is a difficult, some might say impossible, skill to learn. It relies on a combination of brevity, levity, plot necessities and a true voice that comes from eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

What you can decide straight off is the general style of a character’s voice. Think of their background, their education, their attitude to life. Are they all long words and dripping bon mots? Or are they constantly dropping their g’s and speaking in metaphors? Are they clipped, one-word robots or loquacious, excited know-it-alls?

Relationships: Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. If you want to define your character early and well, put them in a situation with someone they are deeply connected to. It could be by hatred, by love, by family, by law, but deep relationships breed deep reactions — showing who your character really is.

The Wants & Needs: In drama, as in life, people want things. And in drama as in life, this often doesn’t correspond with what they really need.

When we introduce a character, we not only introduce their personality, but we implicitly introduce their flaws, and what they really want and need in their lives. In any scene, a character should be aiming to achieve something – and a scene without goals and change is a dead fish.

But on a wider scale, any story should look to exploit its character’s flaws and needs. This could be done traditionally but subversively, as in Frozen where the hidden need is a sisterly connection. Or a flaw could be exploited to teach a lesson, as in Requiem For A Dream‘s series of interlocking tragedies. Or a character’s flaws could be cured, but then undermined, as in Chinatown‘s reforming of its protagonist, only to have him lose everything in the end.

Always remember that audiences aren’t looking for someone to like, they’re looking for someone to love. And we only love people we feel we know, people who are beautiful and damaged and as flawed as we are. Anything less will ring hollow.

Bio: Alan Flanagan is a writer and script editor who works for Big Finish Productions on the series ‘Dark Shadows’, as well as script editing for Canadian festival WildSound and being artistic director of theatre company Refractive Lens. Twitter: @parallelevision

Alan is currently performing his one-man show Dupont & Davenport at the Edinburgh Fringe, which tackles what happens when we can’t tell the difference between grief and love, and how we let someone go when technology makes it almost impossible. It runs until Friday 8th August, 1.25pm, at George Next Door, 9-11 George IV Bridge.