Tag Archives: screenplay

More on Constructing Compelling Characters

Chinatown is replete with compelling characters

Chinatown is replete with compelling characters

As has been suggested in previous posts, compelling characters are the lifeblood of any story.

Learning to craft fictional characters is a life-long endeavour; it draws on our personal growth as we journey through life, learning from our actions, both good and bad.

There are, however, specific techniques that we, as writers, may immediately use to improve our craft. One such technique is to plan characters through the use of the character profile.

Profiling Compelling Characters

A compelling character profile contains elements that work together to increase the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude of a character.

In this post we examine six such elements: Basic traits, want vs. need, opposing elements, secrets, flaws, and uniqueness.

1. Basic Traits

Fictional characters usually have three or four basic traits that help shape their actions. In the movie, Rocky, for example, the protagonist is a hardworking journeyman boxer whose toughness and relentless determination to take whatever the opponent can throw at him help to propel him to a world heavyweight championship fight.

2. Want vs. Need

What a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most compelling characters are forged out of this opposition. A want is usually manifested through the pursuit of an outer goal, while a need is often obfuscated by that very goal. Rocky ostensibly wants to go the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. What he needs, however, is to bolster his self-respect by enduring the punishment the champion throws at him.

3. Opposing Elements

Inner conflict arising out of warring elements makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Manny a cold blooded killer in his youth is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who continues to influence him beyond the grave. In accepting a job to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, Manny repeatedly asserts that his wife has cured him of his evil ways, and he has only agreed to take on the job in an attempt to dispense justice and provide a fresh start for his children from the reward money.

4. Keeping Secrets

Someone with a secret makes for a far more compelling character. Secrets promote suspense, surprise, and enrich the backstory, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s dialogue and actions resonate with a terrible secret—that her daughter is also her sister, a result of an act of incest perpetrated by her own father. It is only when Jake Gittes learns of this towards the end of the film that he is able to fully understand the reason for her odd and seemingly deceitful behavior.

5. The Flaw

A character with a flaw seems more human, allowing the writer to play his strengths off against his weaknesses, heightening the inner and outer conflict. In the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, the protagonist is a brave and courageous man who has one damning flaw — overriding ambition. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of others, especially his wife, that he should be king. This flaw drives the story and ultimately determines Macbeth’s fate — his death.

6. Uniqueness

A unique personality doesn’t have to be bizarre; one or two unique habits or unusual traits are often enough to make a character stand out from the pack. In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a wealthy, mysterious man who throws outlandish parties in the hope of attracting Daisy — the great love of his life — to one of them. The unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his beloved vision of Daisy.

Summary

A character profile is a way of fashioning compelling characters. It helps ensure the action and dialogue stay on track.

How to Write Engaging Characters

Engaging Characters in Knowing

Engaging Characters in Knowing

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BELIEVABLE and engaging characters are essential to most successful stories.

While it is true that certain genres such as Action Adventure or Science Fiction adopt a more plot driven approach, others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character driven.

All stories, however, require convincing characters to complement an effective plot.

 

 

Pointers to building engaging characters.

As Lagos Egri reminds us, traits are important characteristics that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on.

Importantly, most traits have a moral or ethical flavour. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst to act in a cowardly manner is to be devoid of righteousness.

Additionally, engaging characters change and grow. They learn from events around them.

How does change affect existing traits? It reorders the hierarchical prominence of certain traits over others.

Typically, a traditional protagonist tends to have three or four positive traits and one negative one. This juxtaposition is essential in creating dynamic characters who experience internal conflict. A conflicted character is inherently more interesting than a static and stable one. Character change, on these terms, involves managing the emphasis of these traits.

In an “up ending” the protagonist de-emphasises his negative trait and accentuates his positive ones. In a “down ending”, the opposite happens. These changes typically happen at the structural turning points, particularly the mid-point. These are the moments where important events impact the character and cause him or her to respond. This allows the writer to craft character growth in a localised and manageable way.

In the film Knowing, John Koestler, an astrophysicist who believes in random chance rather than devine determinism, has to come to terms with the idea that the future is predetermined, when he discovers numerical data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously, accurately predicts global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world.

This eventually causes John to in entrust his son’s future to a group of alien observers who offer to take the boy and his young friend Abby to another planet to ensure humanity’s survival. As a marker of his transformation, John reconciles with his father, a priest, after many years of alienation. His trait of skepticism has been kicked down the ladder by his newly promoted trait of faith, not in science this time, but in his belief that the aliens will secure his son’s future.

Summary

Traits have an ethical or moral flavour. They are fundamental to the formation and growth of engaging characters.

Screenwriting Mentors

Screenwriting advice

Christopher Vogler’s book provides an extremely useful guide on the screenwriting craft

WE ARE LIVING in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information, and this includes information on screenwriting. Finding the right stuff, therefore, is one of our biggest headaches.

In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five important writing mentors worth mining for gold.

Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, they all adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot that revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’

Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance—-although even he employs a template in his use of the quest as a generic structure. But more of that later.

The screenwriting mentors:

Syd Field

For the sake of brevity, one may view Syd Field’s work as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles.

Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’

Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Linda Seger

Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.

Michael Hauge

Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.

Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.

Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres.

McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.

Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.

Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.

This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale, in terms of character function, put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.

Summary

Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important screenwriting and story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.

Story Twists and Dramatic Beats

Dramatic Beats in Inglorious Basterds

Dramatic Beats in Inglorious Basterds

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IN THESE ARTICLES I often talk about the large pivotal elements that shape a story—the turning points, the pinches, the mid-point, and so on.

But these structures, important as they are, form only the macroscopic aspect of your story. The fuel that turns the engine over lies in the details, in the dramatic beats that make up your individual scenes.

Dramatic beats, we are reminded, are small but significant actions or events that form the sinew of a scene.

In a scene in which a murder occurs, for example, a character pacing around the room does not constitute a dramatic beat; spotting the dagger behind the curtain, which is to be used in the murder, does.

But what sorts of dramatic beats keep our readers and audiences glued to their seats, and how can we best write them?

For one, we can craft them in a way that creates suspense. For another, we can introduce the element of surprise.

Or, we can do both.

Twisting your Dramatic Beats

A twist inevitably contains an element of surprise. It is an event or action that the reader does not see coming. Include at least some beats in your scenes where one or more of the following occurs:

1. A lie is exposed.
2. A loss of resources occurs.
3. A trust is betrayed.
4. A new problem arises.
5. A plan goes wrong.
6. A new character is introduced.
7. A character swaps sides.
8. Unforeseen consequences of past actions arise.
9. A new motive is revealed.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, Colonel Hans Landa’s reputation of ruthlessness drives one of the longest and most suspenseful scenes in the entire movie.

At the start of the film, Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa insists on being introduced to each of the dairy farmer’s daughters individually, heightening the suspense.

Although LaPadite at first resists admitting that the Dreyfuses are  hiding beneath the floorboards of his house, Landa eventually ferrets the truth from him through a series of compliments, threats, and innuendoes.

The scene utilises some of the techniques mentioned above:

A new motive is revealed—Landa did not come to LaPadite’s farm house to close the book on the case as he at first claims, but to catch him out.

A lie is exposed—Landa is able to ferret the truth out of LaPadite.

A new problem arises—LaPadite knows that if he continues hiding the Dreyfuses his own family will be executed.

A trust is betrayed and a character swaps sides—LaPadite is forced to betray the Dreyfuses.

A plan goes wrong—LaPadite’s plan to hide the Dreyfuses under his floorboard is exposed.

Summary

Well-crafted dramatic beats contain enough twists to keep your readers and audiences interested in your story.

How the Inciting Incident Works in Stories

inciting incident in Shutter Island

Can you guess the inciting incident in Shutter Island?

I have mentioned in previous articles that the inciting incident is an initial narrative event that gets the story going.

In this post, I want to highlight two of its main functions—-to create momentum by moving us away from the ordinary world of the protagonist, and to keep us interested in the story by setting up the first turning point as a surprise.

The first turning point, as Syd Field reminds us, is the moment the plot truly begins to unfold — the real start of the story. Stated in another way, it is the moment the protagonist is issued a new challenge, accepts a new opportunity, formulates a new plan, and embarks on a new journey to achieve it.

The function of the inciting incident, then, is to introduce an event which disturbs the status quo and initiates a course of action with unexpected consequences. In this sense, it is an early mislead that helps the writer set up events as a series of surprises.

In Shutter Island, police marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Auel, arrive at the hospital for the criminally insane, which operates under Boston’s jurisdiction, ostensibly to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from the facility.

When his request for access to the hospital’s personnel files is refused, Daniels begins to suspect a sinister plot by the doctors to cover up his investigation into unethical and illegal medical procedures. Soon, however, Daniels begins to doubt everything around him, including his own sanity.

The inciting incident in Shutter Island

The inciting incident occurs when Daniels arrives at the island to investigate the patient’s disappearance. The main thrust of the story, however, is to determine what is real and what is the psychotic delusion of a sick mind.

The plot starts in earnest at the first turning point — the doctors’ refusal to grant Daniels access to the hospital’s personnel files. This sets up the dramatic question which drives the entire story—what are the doctors hiding from Daniels?

Summary

The inciting incident kick-starts the story by pushing the protagonist past the ordinary world towards the surprise of the 1st turning point.

Foreshadowing in Stories

Foreshadowing in Jericho

Foreshadowing in Jericho


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What is meant by foreshadowing?

It is the surreptitious hint in a story that will act as foundation to a pay-off or ‘ah-ha’ moment later on in the tale.

In writing, every narrative event ought to have clear consequences. This is especially true in writing a screenplay, which uses fewer pages to tell the story, than in writing a novel.

If the writer intends to plant a knife in a scene in order to foreshadow an important event later on, it has to be used in the scene, or at some later point in the story to justify its inclusion.

Foreshadowing the Pay-Off

In the television series, Jericho, for example, we notice that a gun in a frame on the wall is part of a display in a home where a couple of bogus cops are lurking. Later, we see that the gun has been removed, indicating that the potential victim is now armed and can retaliate. This is crucial in establishing the credibility of the character’s fight-back.

In the movie, Mask, Stanley’s dog shows us his prowess by catching a flying frisbee. This action sets up the pay-off later on in the plot, when the canine crucially jumps to retrieve the magical mask in mid-flight.

But how best to handle foreshadowing and its pay-off?

Firstly, foreshadowing should never draw attention to itself, but form part of the story’s natural development. Secondly, a pay-off ought to be held back for as long as possible, and revealed only when it can deliver the most dramatic impact.

Summary

Foreshadowing and pay-offs are specific events in the plot that make story surprises more believable. Foreshadowing forms the justification for a later crucial event, without drawing attention to itself, while a pay-off is delivered at the moment of highest dramatic impact.

How to write a minor character

Minor character

There is no truly minor character in Toy Story in terms of impact


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Most novels or screenplays contain at least one minor character. This is a character who serves the plot in some important way, but who does not warrant the time and space required to develop him into a major player.

One of the pitfalls of crafting minor characters is that they can easily slip into stereotype or cliche, possibly because writers tend to create such characters more out of necessity than passion. Yet, such pitfalls are easily avoided.

Aks yourself the following questions:

1. What is the function of the character in the scene you intend to write?

2. Can this function be performed by an existing character?

In deciding this, consider whether this is truly a secondary character, or a bit-part player. Bit-part players occupy brief moments in a story and need not be extensively fleshed out. What is this character’s relationship to the plot? Is it simply to convey new information, or is the character emotionally linked to the protagonist or antagonist? If emotionally linked, he/she/it is a minor character, rather than a bit-player.

3. What is your minor character’s background — upbringing, education, occupation? Her background will influence her style of dress, body type, body language, dialect, speech idiosyncrasies, hobbies, unexpected interests. The latter are markers which, in the absence of deep interaction and complexity, grant a minor character uniqueness at a glance.

The Minor character in Toy story

In the film, Toy Story, the Dinosaur and Mr. Potato Head are minor characters who are uniquely differentiated through their speech, appearance, and psychological make-up. The Dinosaur is timid and nervous, while Mr. Potato Head is irreverent, bold, and sure of himself. They are as different from each other as Woody is from Buzz Lightyear. They are a wonderful illustration of coulorful and interesting characters made so through broad strokes.

Summary

Create interesting minor characters by infusing each with physical and psychological traits that manifest in unique dialogue and behavioural patterns.

Dramatic Irony in Stories

Dramatic Irony in Moulin Rouge

Dramatic Irony in Moulin Rouge

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Dramatic irony typically occurs when the reader or audience, and at least one of the characters in a story are made privy to important information that the protagonist is unaware of, or presumes the opposite of what is known to be true.

Create dramatic Irony in your story by doing the following:

1. Show the reader or audience the kind of misunderstanding or deception that is being perpetrated. This could be intended or unintended.

2. Place the protagonist in that situation without revealing to her the information necessary for her to know she is being deceived.

3. Play the scene out, step by step, allowing the reader or audience to observe the protagonist suffering the consequences of events and actions, whilst thinking the situation to be precisely the opposite of what is actually happening.

Use dramatic irony to heighten the emotion in a scene or scene sequence.

In Moulin Rouge, Satin pretends not to love Christian. She does this to force him to leave her and so save his life, since Maharaja, the owner of the establishment, who wants her for himself, will kill him if he stays. Christian believes her and this causes him immense pain. The dramatic irony of these actions generates heightened emotion in the audience which perceives Satin’s motive as a selfless show of love.

Summary

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience as well as one or more character is made aware of the true nature of a situation while the protagonist is not. The effect on the reader and audience is to heighten emotion.

The Hero’s Journey in Stories

The hero’s journey in The Matrix

The hero’s journey in The Matrix

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THE hero’s journey can be viewed as a composite of two sorts of paths through the story world.

The one is an outer journey that contains the physical events that play out in this world. The other is an inner journey that motivates the hero’s actions.

Think of the inner journey as the path that takes the hero to a state of higher knowledge and self-awareness. Only when he has achieved this state will his outer actions be of sufficient quality to defeat the antagonist in the external world.

Defining the hero’s journey in The Matrix

In The Matrix, Neo’s love interest, Trinity, and his relationship with his friends, provide some of the most important reasons he embarks on his outer journey.

His goal is to defeat the antagonistic forces that keep humanity slumbering in a virtual world. That is his outer journey.

But in order to complete his outer journey successfully he has to undertake an inner journey that will culminate in the realisation that he is the only one capable of defeating agent Smith and the machines. This march to self awareness is a prerequisite for wielding the power he needs to achieve success.

His friendship with Morpheus and his crew, and his love for Trinity, therefore, are spurs to Neo’s outer journey.

Often, the inner and outer journeys intersect in one powerful scene. In The Matrix, Neo dies at the hands of agent Smith only to be brought back to life through Trinity’s love, symbolised by a kiss.

Summary

The inner journey provides the explanation for the hero’s actions that comprise his outer journey.

Writing a strong story ending

Strong story ending in Unforgiven

Unforgiven has a strong story ending


A strong story ending is essential to the success of your tale and is the result of deliberate planning from the very start of your manuscript.

Here are five suggestions for writing such an ending:

1. Play up the reputation of the protagonist, and even more so, the antagonist

Stories are about the protagonist and antagonist involved in a life and death struggle of some sort. Enhancing the reputation of these two essential characters ups the stakes and leads to a more engaging and tense ending.

In Unforgiven, William Munny, the protagonist, is described by the opening titles as “a known thief, murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” Later he is described by the Kid as being “the same one that shot Charley Pepper up in Lake County? You’re the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train in Missouri.” Likewise, the antagonist, Sheriff Bill Daggett, is described by a deputy as being utterly fearless. He is seen beating English Bob, a hardened murderer, within an inch of his life. His toughness and cruelty enhances his reputation as a feared antagonist.

A truly memorable story ending is as surprising as it is inevitable. Foreshadowing it, therefore, has to be subtly crafted so as not to show its hand.

2. Cast doubt about the outcome of the final confrontation

The more we doubt the ability of the protagonist to achieve his goal by defeating the antagonist, the more we root for his success, and the more we fear for his failure. When we first meet William Munny we find him slipping and falling amongst the pigs in the pen. The Kid says of him: “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin.” And later, it takes Munny four shots to get the first cowboy. Compared with Little Bill’s ruthless skills, this makes us fear for his survival against the Sheriff.

3. Shift direction

Introducing twists which thwart our expectations, causes us to worry about the outcome. Little Bill beats up William Munny at the saloon, and Munny spends three days hovering near death. The Kid remarks that Munny is useless. Munny hardly appears as a man who can fulfill his contract and succeed in standing up to Little Bill.

4. Increase the suspense around the final confrontation

When Munny is told that Ned Logan has been beaten to death by Little Bill, he knows that he has to go back and revenge his death. He knows that this might result in his own death. He tells The Kid “Here, take this money and give my half and Ned’s half to my kids.” Munny’s doubts about the outcome of the confrontation increases our suspense even more.

5. Have the final confrontation play out in the antagonist’s stronghold

Facing the antagonist in his own lair weakens the protagonist’s ability to prevail. Munny faces Little Bill in the saloon, surrounded by Little Bill’s deputies and henchmen. This stacks the deck against Munny and makes it unlikely that he will survive the confrontation.

Summary

A powerful ending increases the tension in the story by making the likelihood of the protagonist prevailing over the antagonist seem unlikely.