Writer's Guild of America
"How To" Books
Script Evaluation Service
Pat the dog scenes are easier than doing the hard work of making the story so compelling, and the segues from scene to scene so seamless, that the reader never has a moment to wonder why he likes or doesn't like the main character.
But it's not necessary. In All That Jazz, for example, Joe Gideon is not a likeable guy; in fact he's a shit. But he's honest about what a shit he is, and he really does care about creating. Instead of a PTD scene, give your hero a dream, something s/he really wants to do but can't because of his/her circumstances. Dorothy dreams of a place "over the rainbow."
Or a driving goal. Dorothy needs to get back home to Kansas. In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino's character holds up a bank in order to get his gay transvestite lover enough money for the operation to make him a woman. A weird goal, but a driving one.
Or, give the hero a big problem that makes us care about him. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs puts a gun in his mouth every morning and tries to think of a reason not to pull the trigger. Dorothy is going to lose her dog Toto. Rick Deckard has to kill five replicants, even though he wants to quit blade running.
Or, as above, give the hero things to do, say and feel that are integral to the story that make us know him for a hero. Villains, it is generally thought, should be fun to be around. Richard III is a gas; he's really whooping it up being a rat bastard. Darth Vader is cool, in a horrible way. Likewise, the sheer intensity of a hero or antihero can carry him through the "likeability" hurdle - see Night of the Hunter - although don't hold your breath for the "Look Back In Anger" remake.
What do you do when your hero has no redeeming qualities as in, say Leaving Las Vegas? Make him/her as unique, human, truthful and fascinating as you can, and then convince a likeable actor to play him. Many actors love to play unlikeable characters, because they
In no case can your hero have a trace of self-pity. (Don't talk to me about Albert Brooks, I don't want to hear it.)
- can pull out the stops
- think it's harder, and
- don't like themselves.
The danger in this technique, as I see it, is that your audience will only absorb what is actually on the screen. The reader will only absorb what is on the page. If there is something youÕre not telling us, how do we know it?
The argument is that the knowledge somehow seeps into the character as you write him or her. Somehow, your secondary character takes on a greater fleshiness by virtue of your knowing him or her better.
It is certainly true that actors must know their characters better than the audience does, or they will not seem real. They should know what the character was doing before the scene began, what he would be doing if the scene never happened, what the characterÕs goals in life are, and so on.
Personally, I like to discover things about the characters as I write what they say and do. That way I am not suckered into writing bland ordinary characters whom I think are exceptional because of the wonderful offscreen life I have created for them. I also am freer to give my characters details that are relevant to their function in the script.
The risk with my approach is that characters may seem well-wrought but no more than functional. They wonÕt have the depth of life.
The flip side of that is that the audience does not always want truly deep secondary characters, or heros for that matter. A good stock character can be great fun for the audience. The obnoxious store clerk. The befuddled grandfather. Do we really want to know about their angst? No, they wouldn't be as enjoyable. Take Alan Rickman's over-the-top Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Did we want to know what made him the way he is? Like fun we did. We wanted him pure unadulterated evil. Any explanation would have made him less fun.
This is true not only of schlock, but of great literature. Take Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff, who was so well enjoyed in Henry IV and Henry V that the Bard brought him back for his own play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Do we know anything about his childhood? Did Shakespeare? He is a fat, drunken coward prone equally to bursts of hilarity and melancholy. It is what he does onstage that makes us love him.
Roger Zelazny, a marvelous science fiction writer, has an interesting approach that might prove useful, though. Just for himself, he writes a scene with his character that he does not put in the story. Not backstory, but a scene. He then makes a reference in the story to that scene. That gives the audience the feeling that the character has a life of his own.
But note how this is different from a backstory. What makes this technique meaningful is the allusion to the scene which is never explained to the audience.
Don't overdo it, but it may be worthwhile for your characters to refer to events outside the story. You don't have to pay off every set up.
In some scripts this is hard to do, and one wants to say, "I know the Scarecrow episode doesn't make the Cowardly Lion episode inevitable, but I like it that way!" But when development execs are looking for reasons to reject (which is all the time unless their boss already likes the project), they'll use the term "episodic" to describe their not being caught up in the unfolding events.
If it is in the nature of your story that new elements cause surprises in the second and third acts, for example if your characters are on the road, meeting new people and having new adventures every reel or so, a strong dramatic motor may fix the problem. In other words, the human relationships between the characters, or the development in the protagonist's character arc, will provide sinew to hold together what may otherwise be an episodic skeleton.
Note that a screenplay must have inevitability and yet surprise. This is not really a contradiction. The genre and the "contract" often tell us what the eventual outcome of the movie will be. But we don't know how we'll get to that outcome. We know James Bond won't get killed, but we don't know that when he skis off the cliff, there's a parachute in his backpack, or there's a plane waiting to catch him. We don't know how.
Similarly, in a drama, we need to be able to look back and see how the eventual outcome was "inevitable." But we can't know it's coming until it's arrived. We have to feel unsure which way the story will go, knowing that it will go the way that will satisfy us.
From scene to scene, there can be simultaneous surprise (we got here) and satisfaction (of course we got here, it's the only place we could have got).
Easy? No, of course not. That's why they pay so much to have it done right.
The stronger an impression your villain makes, the greater the obstacle for the hero, the better the conflict, the more drama.
- Cartoon villains, in the best sense. Iago. Darth Vader. The Wicked Witch of the West. He is a truly horrible evil person, and there is a tremendous force and intensity to his personality. You love writing him. The actor will love playing him. Think of Hannibal the Cannibal in Silence of the Lambs or the Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Elmira Gulch.
- Realistic villains. Give him tremendous sympathy and self-justification. He believes he has his reasons. Hitler thought he was ridding the world of evil Jews, and taking the world for the Master Race, as was their right. Claudius really loves Gertrude, and has convinced himself he loves Hamlet, too. He feels terribly guilty for murdering Hamlet's father. O. J. Simpson has convinced himself he is the victim.
But "Megaera" won't necessarily seem scary to a reader without a classical education, which is most readers. For example, I once called a place "Iblis," which is not only Arabic for "despair," but the name of the chief djinn, an angel who was ejected from heaven after he refused to reverence Adam, saying, "And shall I worship a lump of clay, I whom Thou didst shape out of smokeless fire?" The exec on the project, an extremely bright and talented woman who had, unfortunately for me, not read the footnotes in Richard Burton's translation of The Thousand And One Nights, did not think "Iblis" sounded scary enough.
I changed it to Kadesh, which I vaguely recall might be the Hebrew for one of the Ten Plagues in Exodus, or then again, might not be. But it sounds good.
I include the anecdote just to point out that you should do whatever you need to do to tell yourself what the character means, if that's important to you. But be sure you're also scoring with a reader who has not read as many books as you have. Even readers who have read as many books as you have will assume that the audience won't get the allusions they do. Smart, educated studio executives -- there are more than you would expect from the stories -- regularly assume that the audience is uneducated, intellectually lazy, and scared of anything deep, and that they will resent anything over their heads. They are regularly proved wrong by the success of deep, intelligent, difficult movies. But no one ever got fired for underestimating the audience, and most executives live in fear of being fired during all months with vowels in them.
There is another danger in using clever names. Your readers will periodically understand them perfectly well. They'll know why you named a character "Janus" and will figure out he's two-faced before you want them to; or they'll just be slightly irritated at you. You never want anything that alienates your reader from imagining the movie unspooling in his head.
Once you've decided, write your step outline as you would any other movie. Don't go back to the source material until you've got an outline you're happy with. If it didn't stick in your head, it shouldn't be in the movie.
- You can get into a scene earlier in order to introduce characters you'll need later, or to have background information about a character come out, or just to establish the texture of a character's life. The forward motion of the scene builds as you make your main point, so the exposition you're doing in the beginning doesn't feel flabby.
- You can also extend a scene so that it covers two steps, or beats if you will, in which case your scene lengthens. But you still want to get out of the first half of the scene as soon as you can, and into the second half.
There are many other links at the Muse of Fire home page which includes downloadable actor, director, & agent price lists, a hotlist, FAQ, and notes about copyrighting screenplays.
Intermediate FAQ/Part 2
NOTE: This Web page is Copyright 1999-2002 by Alex Epstein. It may be freely quoted and/or copied, provided Alex is properly cited with his URL, Muse of Fire, so people can find it as it is updated it, and provided this copyright notice is not removed.
theater 1 |
theater 2 |
theater 3 |
theater 4 |
theater 5 |
theater 6 |
theater 7 |
theater 8 |
theater 9 |
theater 12 | theater 13 | theater 14 | theater 15 | theater 16 | theater 17