Character Description in Screenplays and Novels

Character description and the Mona Lisa
No character description would be complete in this example without reference to Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

Character Description: In a typical screenplay or novel, character descriptions should be written when the characters first appear on the page. These descriptions should be brief and to the point. This post looks at this often misunderstood aspect.

In a screenplay, there are only two things to establish about a character from the outset—gender and age. Pedantic descriptions about physical attributes, cars and pets, musical instruments played, should be avoided, although, in a novel, lengthier descriptions are more common.

If a characteristic is crucial to the story, state this succinctly. If, for example, one of your characters, say, Bruce Dunn’s graceful movement somehow ends up saving his life then foreshadow this in your description of him: Bruce Dunn was built like an army barracks shithouse but moved with the grace of a ballerina.

Lengthy, unmotivated descriptions slow the thrust of the story and betray the writer’s inexperience. 

So, why do so many writers include them in their stores? Because it is far easier to describe a character’s varied physical attributes and traits than to reveal them adroitly through dialogue and action in a scene.

Character description that references physical stature, hair colouring, and weight, therefore, is relevant only if it foreshadows aspects of the plot, such as the stutter that causes the murderer to trip up at the end, or the lack of height that motivates a man to over-achieve in other areas. 

This extends to emotional traits as well. Indeed, one of the best ways to make emotional and physical traits germane to the story is to interweave them and have them explain some aspect of the character’s action(s).

This brevity of description extends to the novel and short story too, for much the same reasons. In her wonderful book on the craft of the short story,  Inside Stories for Readers and Writers, Trish Nicholson offers us several examples of this skill.

In Modus Operandi she describes a character’s physical size: “A big man, too–he had to duck under doorways. His hands were as wide as dinner plates. To see those long fleshy fingers you’d realize the strength in them.” This description is not only germane to the story but it foreshadows menacing aspects in the plot.

Summary

Character description should be brief and germane. Describe only those traits of a character that serve as triggers to the plot, and do so succinctly

Story Questions: What are they?

Story questions with William Goldman
William Goldman was at pains to ask the right story questions prior to writing his novels and screenplays.

Asking the right story questions: In his book, Screenwriting, R. G. Frensham quotes William Goldman as saying: “Movies are about story: is it well told, is it interesting? If it isn’t, it doesn’t matter how talented the rest of it is.” This is also true of the novel as well as the stage play.

So, how do you give yourself the best chance of writing an interesting, well-executed story? This post offers some suggestions: 

Having chosen your story idea, you should begin to implement it by going from the general (idea) to the specific (individual characters and events). Here are a number of questions intended to help you clarify, expand, and tell your story in an effective way. Write a paragraph in answer to each one.

Nine story questions that will help you write a better story

1. Why do I want to write this story?

2. Who do I think will want to watch/read it?

3. What is it about? 

4. Who is it about?

5. Why is it about this character rather than some other?

6. What is the importance of background or setting?

7. What is the most fitting genre for the story? 

8. What is the moral of the story?

9. What is the main theme of the story?

In answering these questions you are preparing the soil for planting and harvesting. It gives you the time you need to probe your own motivation for writing the story and forces you to think about its deeper structures. 

Summary

Answering a number of pertinent story questions prior to writing your story helps you to explore the elements, structures, and motivations that are necessary in telling a tale that is interesting and well-executed.

How Long to Write Each Day?

Write Stephen King
Stephen King believes that one should write every day

Writers write. We’ve all heard this succinct advice on becoming a writer. 

But how often should we write? Where should we write? Where do we start? Where do we finish? 

How long should we write each day?

Answers to these questions fill countless of books, articles, blogs. Often they disagree.

Each writer brings his own approach to the art and technique of writing. Stephen king believes one should write every day. Jeff Somers, the New Jersey sci-fi writer believes it’s pointless to force it. We may agree on general principles, yet disagree on specific habits. 

When I write a new novel or novella, I generally won’t stop working unless I complete the chapter I’m working on. The chapters of my novels tend to be short, so the task isn’t that daunting. 

Having thought about the forthcoming chapter the previous day—the story beats that have to be struck and the character development that needs to occur—I keep to the task until that last sentence is in place. I end my chapters with a revelation or hook that creates expectation in reader, and this guides my thinking the following day; it makes the process easier — for me. 

This might not be the case for others. 

A fellow writer, and winner of several writing awards — no slouch in the craft of writing— told me that he often stops writing before completing the scene he’s working on, whether it’s giving him problems or not. He finds that tackling the material the following day brings fresh insight to his writing. I suspect this is because he is more a pantser than a plotter, but the point is well taken. One shoe size does not fit all. There are, indeed, different strokes for different folks. 

It’s helpful to keep this in mind as we pour over the voluminous suggestions of experts. Some nuggets of advice are more suited to our particular personalities and circumstances than others. We need to decide which to keep and which to throw away. 

After all, how long is a piece of string, anyway?

Summary

Study all the advice on how to write in general, including on how long to write each day, but use only what’s best suited to you.

The Role of the Archetype in Stories

Archetype and Story
How to work with an Archetype

In their book, Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley present a system for crafting stories, which, although somewhat counterintuitive, brims over with important advise—especially with regards how to work with the archetype. Here is a look at their archetypal characters, some of whom vary in naming convention from those put forward by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Christian Vogler.

The Protagonist (hero) and Antagonist, whom we recognise from other writers on the subject, form the first pair. The function of the protagonist is to pursue the goal identified towards the end of the first act and, hence, drive the story forward. The function of the antagonist is to try and stop him at all costs.

The next pair is Reason and Emotion. Reason is calm and collected. His decisions and actions are based solely on logic. Star Trek’s Spock is a typical example of this archetype. Bones, the ship’s doctor, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. Although a medical man, his opinions and actions are deeply emotional. He presents the emotional dimension of the moral premise.

The Sidekick and Skeptic represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the story. The sidekick is the faithful supporter of the protagonist, although he may attach himself to the antagonist since his function is to show faithful support of a leading character. The skeptic on the other hand is the disbelieving opposer, lacking the faith of the sidekick. His function in the story is to foreshadow the possibility of failure.

The Guardian and Contagonist form the last pair of archetypal characters. The job of the guardian is that of a teacher and protector. He represents conscience in the story. Gandalf is such a character in Lord of the Rings. He helps the protagonist stay on the path to achieve success. By contrast, the contagonist’s function is to hinder the protagonist and lure him away from success. He is not to be confused with the antagonist since his function is to deflect and not to kill or stop the opposing character. George Lucas’s (Star Wars) Jabba the Hut is such a character. As with the sidekick, the contagonist may attach himself to the protagonist.

As a group, the archetypal characters perform essential functions within a story. Because they can be grouped in different ways, versatility can be added to their relationships. 

Their usefulness becomes apparent when editing your manuscript, especially in sagas such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings

Does your story ‘feel’ wrong? 

Do your characters drift? 

Identity the function of each character archetype to see if it is functioning correctly in your story.

Of course, the task becomes more complex when the archetypes are mixed to create more complex and realistic characters, but even then, you may be able to pin-point their essential combinations and, therefore, work to improve their shared functions—but that is the subject of another article.

Summary

Understanding archetypes and their function in your story will assist you in troubleshooting loose and imprecise aspects of your tale.

Hollywood Story Structure

Hollywood story structure
The Hollywood story structure promotes the commercial value of a story

A hollywood story: I’m a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood

As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.

But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets? 

There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.

But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.

The Hollywood Structure in a Nutshell

I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such a story as a Hollywood story), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:

“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”

Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage: sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.

For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we? 

For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble. 

Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.

You get the idea. 

Hollywood story structure, then, lays out a set of events involving a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.

So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.

Summary

Hollywood story structure refers to interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing problems that keep the audience engrossed in the story.

Novels Films Games.

Novels, films, games.
Novels, films, games – The novella, The Level, has been turned into a screenplay and is awaiting being turned into a film

Novels, films, games: How could reading compete with the visceral pleasures of big-budget, special-effects-driven films, or the massive growth of computer games that have so captivated our youth?

Yet, the truth is that far from novels, films, games and the like existing in a state of war, creatively, they exist in a state of symbiosis, feeding off each other.

I think this is set to continue in the foreseeable future. 

Consider the various skills of the novelist: Philosopher, visionary, psychologist, researcher, casting agent, actor, director, cinematographer, set builder, costume designer, scriptwriter, editor, sound recordist. Indeed, the novelist is the prime creator of the story world—albeit in the virtual sense. 

At a time when big films require even bigger budgets, testing the potential success of a film by measuring the success of the novel upon which it is based is a relatively inexpensive way of taking out some insurance against failure—although, clearly, no guarantee against it, as the movie John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, clearly demonstrates.

The point remains, however, that if a novel has done well in the market place, the chances are that a well-made film might do the same. The film maker might then allow the world of the novel to inform the world of the film, although, clearly, adapting a screenplay from a novel is an art form in its own right—often, to the extent that little of that world, other than the bones of the story, remains the same. Even so, the novel does at least, act as a starting point for the film project.

Novels, films, games—the latter both in video and board formats, predate Amazon’s Kindle revolution and the resurgence of reading it inspired, but there were some who predicted the death of the novel as a viable form of entertainment.

In terms of benefit to the novel, people who have seen the film and enjoyed it might now read the novel on which the film is based. Sales of the Game of Thrones series sky-rocketed after the television series hit the screens. 

Book-to-film/TV adaptations, such as The Level, often go hand in hand with conversations about the relative worth of one rendition over the other. “The book was so much better than the film,” or vice versa—good publicity for all concerned, which helps to boost sales of the appropriate medium. 

As an aside, I might mention that in my classes on screenwriting, I sometimes encourage my students to write their screenplays as novellas, or short stories, first. This encourages them to explore their characters’ actions through the inner voice—something the novel, novella and short story do well. This shifts focus to character motives and goals and results in character action that is more authentic and believable, making for better screenplays.

Summary

Novels, films, games and short story anthologies often function in a state of symbiosis, testing and popularising the story through different media. 

Conflicting Story Characters Make for Better Tales

Conflicting story characters
Rob Roy has strong conflicting story characters to drive the action forward

Conflicting story characters are the engine of your tales. Do you want your characters to drive the story forward? Then push them into situations of increasing conflict. 

In Rob Roy the conflict between Robert Roy MacGregor and Archibald Cunningham involves murder and rape and defines the plot of the story.

Conflict, which is both internal and external, comes from contradiction—contradiction between warring traits inside the character such as fear versus ambition, and contradiction as a result of a clash between two external and powerful wills pitted against each other. Animosity, jealousy, covetousness, hate, and overbearing ambition fighting against their opposites make for a powerful conflict. 

Conflicting story character traits heap trouble and misery upon our characters. To rectify a wrong decision a character makes another, drawing on those traits, then another, and a third to fix the second, and so on.

Conflict provides the causality that drives the story forward, like a stack of falling dominos.

Some characters will eventually concede defeat. Others will remain stubborn until they succeed or die. 

As a writer, your interest lies in characters who, because of their physical and psychological traits, are predestined to defy the odds and never give up. They are reckless. They relentlessly try to achieve their goal, no matter what. 

Such driven people, however, become desperate only after dire necessity forces them to a decision, and any delay in acting might cost them their lives, loves, wealth, health, or honour. Desperate necessity propels them toward their ultimate goal, which is clearly stated in the story’s premise. 

The greater the conflict in the characters’ lives, therefore, the greater their growth. End-to-end growth as a result of the journey from jealousy to trust, or from hatred to love, and how it happens, makes for the most satisfying and successful stories.

Summary

Conflicting story characters promote growth by causing contradictory traits to collide and resolve themselves into an outcome, allowing one trait to gain prominence over the other.

Short Films and Stories — how to write them


Short films
2 + 2 = 5 is one of the best short films I’ve seen in terms of a social and ideological message.

Short films featuring stories that roughly run five to thirty-five minutes in length are one way for new writers to introduce themselves to the film industry. This post, based on Raymond G Frensham’s book, Screenwriting, discusses the shorter film format and offers some guidelines.

Writing for short films requires different skills from the writer to those demanded by normal length versions.

Like short stories, short films are one of the most difficult formats to master, demanding precision, economy and compactness on the part of the writer. 2 + 2 = 5 is a prime example of this.

1. One of the most important things to understand about short scripts is that the idea should fit its space. A short is not a longer story squashed to fit the allocated time. It’s not a sketch forcibly stretched to fit its format, nor is it a promo for some longer version of a future project. 

2. The cardinal rules of screenwriting, such as making every lime count and showing, not telling, are even more crucial in the shorter format. The writer has only a few pages to tell the story. Economy of form and execution are paramount. Swoop straight into the world and life of your protagonist. Explore some crucial incident in your Hero’s life, which explains, informs and defines the wider story.

3. A twist in the tail tends to be more difficult to pull off in the short story format, since misleads and red herrings are less in evidence. Also, readers and audiences have grown wise and cynical in equal measure and are likely to predict all but the best crafted endings. So, look out for that.

4. Humour tends to work well in the shorter formats too, as long as it is ably managed.

The opportunities for producing short films are far more plentiful than they are with the longer formats. National and international TV stations often have slots for such shorter formats, not to mention the ubiquitous opportunities for showcasing work through the internet on sites such as YouTube. Despite denials, industry executives still see the short film as an opportunity for new writers and directors to showcase their ability. So should you.

Summary

Short films and stories require a different approach to that of feature scripts and novels. This post briefly looks at some of these differences.

Story Through Character

Story through character in Scarab 2
Story through character in Scarab 2

Story through Character. But what comes first, character or story? Does story create the character, or character create the story? This perennial chicken-or-the-egg question has many supporters on either side. The topic has serious implications for the way we approach writing a novel or screenplay.

One of the dangers facing an inexperienced writer crafting what he considers to be a thrilling action-packed story is that he may loose sight of writing story through character. One big event slams into another, and before he knows it, he’s written a story which uses characters like puppets in the hands of a novice puppeteer – their movement is trite, abrupt, and artificial.

So how do we avoid this without sacrificing pace and excitement in the stories we tell, or, without weighing down our thinking with reams of character traits and back-story?

The simplest and most unobtrusive way to do so, I’ve found, is to take the central thought/philosophy/emotion of a character and keep it foremost in mind when writing the scenes.

In my science-fiction novel, Scarab II, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler is drawn into a rerun of the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the North West Province of South Africa some five years previously.

In Scarab 1, Jack is swept along by events, forced to react rather than initiate action. But in the follow-up novel, Jack has a better understanding of what lies in store. He is also haunted by what occurred in the past and driven by one overpowering question: can he do anything to prevent the suffering and mayhem that is standard fare in the world today?

This question, born out of a troubled conscience and the knowledge that he may indeed have the power to intervene, motivates most of his underlying thoughts and actions. Understanding this essential aspect of Jack’s character allowed me to write scenes that are powerfully motivated – an important part of fleshing out an inner journey that explains and fuels the outer one.

Summary

Identifying the essential preoccupation of each character, and keeping this foremost in mind as you chart the outer journey, allows you to write scenes that are inwardly motivated and stay on track.

Winning Story from Winning Concept

Winning story - Forest Gump
Winning story – Forest Gump

Winning story

How do you come up with a winning concept that gives rise to a winning story? In other words, how do you take an idea and turn it into a concept that causes movie producers or book publishers to sit up and take notice?

Start with the Basic Idea. Let’s say you have an idea for a story that goes something like this:

A story about the dangers of DNA experimentation.

Or

A story about a psychopath who skins his victims alive.

Or

A story about a man who keeps ending up in extraordinary situations.

Put the ideas in a “What-if format”:

1. What if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong?

2. What if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations?

3. What if a psychopath, who skins his victims alive, keeps evading the police?

How modifiers make for winning stories

Modifiers are specific techniques used to trigger or inspire an improvement to the story idea. Listed below are some of the most important ones:

1. Take the idea to an extreme level.

2. Collide two opposites together.

3. Raise the stakes.

4. Make the environment unique.

5. Ensure you have the most appropriate main character.

6. Ensure you have special inter-character relationships.

7. Include a unique dilemma.

8. Ensure it has a powerful twist.

9. Change the sex, age, race, nationality, species.

10. Change the norm.

11. Ensure your plot includes a fascinating plan or strategy.

Here are three examples of modifiers used to create a winning story:

If we apply Modifier 1 to our first example, (what if unregulated experimentation with the DNA structures goes wrong), we might end up with a story about a theme-park full of prehistoric animals grown from the DNA acquired from the blood of mosquitos preserved in raisin—Jurassic Park.

Applying Modifier 2 to example 2 (what if an ordinary man keeps ending up in extraordinary situations), we could end up with a story about a simple-minded man who accidentally acquires wealth and becomes part of the most important political events of the 1960’s—Forrest Gump.

Applying Modifier 6 to example 3 (what if a psychopath, who skins his victims alive, keeps evading the police), might inspire us to come up with a story about a young female FBI agent who enlists the help of a brilliant cannibalistic psychiatrist who agrees to help her in exchange for playing mind-games with her—Silence of the Lambs.

As an exercise, try applying the remaining modifiers to some of your existing story ideas.

Summary

Taking an ordinary idea, putting it in a what-if format, and applying a modifier to it often strengthens the central concept and helps you write a winning story.