Character Is Plot

I was recently sent a script by a friend. She was being offered the opportunity to direct it, but she knew something wasn’t quite working. I read it and the issue was immediately clear.

The story was flat; the dialog was on the nose and wooden; the formatting and grammar were a mess—all the basic mistakes newbie writers make. While I tried to set aside my own frustration over why undercooked scripts by undertrained writers sometimes get greenlit, my friend called to ask for my thoughts. She spoke of engaging themes and her excitement over the potential social commentary. “That’s all great,” I said, “but none of that is on the page.”

The main issue: there was no character development. It was obvious that the writer set out to exorcise demons from a negative personal experience, rather than to tell a well-crafted story. As I’ve discussed previously, that sort of approach leads to two-dimensional antagonists that aren’t worth your protagonist’s time. Further, when we base protagonists on ourselves, we forget to do the character work that allows us to get some distance and objectivity, which are crucial to making choices that best serve the story. We think we don’t have to do the work because: don’t we know this character well enough already? You might be surprised.

What is your protagonist’s worst fear? What is their core wound? What are their greatest hopes? What do they most admire in others? What do they need most? How is that different from what they think they want? These are just some of the questions that help you build textured characters. When we base characters on ourselves, these may be questions we’re not ready to answer. That will show on the page.

When we build antagonists out of someone we’re angry with, the flatness can be even worse. We need to take the time to understand what motivates people we don’t like, if we’re going to put them in our screenplay.

One of the secrets of screenwriting is that character is plot. The character-building work generates necessary story points: not only does it ensure decisions that any character makes are believable and organic, but it also provides a blueprint for a screenplay. If I know a character’s worst fear is being unloved, then most likely at the low point of the story, she should face a situation where she is unloved. How she decides to cope with that gives me the final challenge of act three. If I know her goal is to exact revenge on someone who hurt her, then I also know that at that low point, she needs to be far away from accomplishing that. Now I can tie her potential failure to reach her goal to her emotional fear of being unloved. This gives me a chance of writing a scene that pops off the page with gut-wrenching authenticity, and one that is absolutely necessary in the flow of the story. On the other hand, if I decide what my plot points are before I’ve done the character-building work, my story will feel like reportage rather than a strong arc we are completely invested in following. It will be as dull as a list of events in a high school history textbook, dry and lifeless.

At the end of our talk, my friend was armed with an arsenal of questions to take into her meeting with that writer. How the writer deals with her questions will define the quality of the project. If they’re willing, that script might truly become the wonderful story my friend envisions.

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Art Sale

When I was 6 or 7, I decided to hold an art sale. I loved coloring. I was good at it. Why not make some money at it? I sat down with crayons and paper and made a whole series of drawings. Enough for a gallery show. There were dogs, and horses, and ladybugs. Mountains, and houses, and flowers. Sailboats for my dad. And I distinctly remember one KITT from Knight Rider. The pictures themselves were not enough. For that special finishing touch, I went across the street and helped myself to a bunch of the small rocks covering the neighbor’s yard. They were smooth and white and perfect for coloring. I made matching paperweights for every masterpiece I had created. Genius. Finally, I made signs reading “ART SALE TODAY” and posted them all over the neighborhood.

I sat with my pictures spread over our front lawn, each held down by its special rock. And I waited for the sales to roll in. Who would not want such a beautiful thing? A picture AND matching paperweight? So thoughtful. There was much to choose from. Art for every taste. And each piece was only ten cents!

After a while a woman came by, parked her Seventies mega-sedan and got out. To my young eyes she seemed old and bloated, but she could have been a fit middle-aged woman for all I know. “This isn’t an art sale!” she growled at me. “I was looking for real art. You shouldn’t lie to people this way. What do you think you’re doing?” I sat in shock while she huffed back to her car, slammed the door and drove off.

I didn’t know mine was not real art. I didn’t know there were rules. I didn’t know sharing my pictures was in fact wrong—especially hoping to be paid for it. I quietly gathered up my papers and stones and scuttled back into the house. I didn’t tell my parents. What was there to say? I had clearly done a bad thing. It was better if they didn’t know.

Today it seems astonishing to me that someone would speak to a child that way. My adult self wants to rage up out of my tiny child body and punch that woman square in her hateful mouth. “How dare you speak to me that way?” Another adult in me realizes she must have been a truly miserable person, or had been having a desperately bad day to have taken her hurts out on a child. “Do you need help today?”

And yet another adult self in me remembers the other part the wounded child overlooks: before that cruel woman, there had been another woman who had come by and laughed in delight. She’d paid her ten cents and chosen a flower picture. I cannot remember what she looked like. But I remember the cruel woman clear as day.

I wish someone had told that little girl that it’s perfectly natural for what we create to appeal to some and not to others. What a valuable lesson to have learned so young. I wish I had held onto the delight of the first woman and dismissed the ugliness of the second.

We have all been shut down in our creativity at one time or another, in one way or another; an ill-timed criticism, a failed audition, being passed over for inclusion in a show or journal, disappointing sales. I’ve had every single one of those. And yet there is still a side of me—a version of that little girl—who sits down to create every day. Why?

Because I still need to create. I still need to say, “Hey world, here is how I see things,” and hope that my view resonates with some. I have called myself a writer for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until recently, when I flashed back to that art sale memory, that I realized for an equally long time I’ve said, “I can’t draw.” I call myself a creative person, but an artist? That’s always been too presumptuous. Can I draw? Am I an artist? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. But I do know I should see for myself, instead of letting an angry woman from decades ago decide.

For some of us, creating is an instinctive need, and if we don’t, we feel bottled up and unfulfilled. My guess is that you, too, yearn for your voice to be heard, or you wouldn’t be reading this. I just started drawing lessons. I walked into the art supply store and said, “Sell me the stuff you’d sell a kid just beginning.” I felt the same giddy zing I’d felt that day I gathered my neighbor’s stones for coloring. (Sorry, Mrs. Owens!)

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Secondary Characters

I’m working on a script right now, and I have been intently focused on nailing the protagonist and antagonist arcs to perfection. They are best friends who end up as enemies when a difficult coming-of-age event sets them on different paths. Their arc has to be nuanced so that you feel deeply for both of them. They have to be fully human, so that you see this film and cry and give it tons of awards.

I’ve been intently focused on making all of that sing on the page. During our last reading, my partner and I noticed a little issue. We had some less-than-subtle scenes with the antagonist, Estelle, and her mom. We also noticed that her mom was literally just called Estelle’s Mom. Who doesn’t like to be wholly defined by their relationship to another character? How about I just call you Joe’s Daughter or Karen’s Brother from now on? Funny thing, it works about as well for fictional people as it would for you. See the Glenn Close/Jonathan Pryce movie The Wife for more on that.

We’d only thought of this woman as Estelle’s mom. We knew her basic function in those scenes. We knew what Estelle needed to play off of, and how her mom’s issues complicated and motivated some of her own choices. But Estelle’s mom was just a paper tiger.

We started talking about her: what drove her to become the person she was; why she was hard on Estelle; what she feared, loved, needed, and wanted. In other words, we did all the character work we’d taken the time to do for our main characters. As we talked, it emerged we both knew people who weren’t as extreme as Estelle’s mom, but who were driven by the same motivations and fears. Suddenly, we had a whole new insight into her and what made her tick. The scenes between her and her daughter took on new depth and felt less Movie-Of-The-Week. Even better, they felt like scenes a name actress might love to sink her teeth into, to raise the profile of our little script without taking too much time commitment.

This character finally had a name. Beatrice is a far more interesting and nuanced human than Estelle’s Mom ever was, and Estelle will shine all the brighter because of it. I highly recommend you do the work of developing and exploring all your characters, not just your main characters. It’s the details that make any piece of art great. Secondary and supporting characters are where your script can shine.

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Why not workshop your characters with us? We’re off to Orvieto, Italy, for this year’s Italy Screenwriting Retreat from Sunday, September 1 to Saturday September 14. There’s only one spot left. It only takes $50 to reserve yours, so apply now.

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Wrong Reasons

I was chatting with a fellow script coach about her new client. She was excited about his project; it was a really cool premise; and he seemed open to feedback—always important to ask even though it seems obvious. She was, however, a little concerned about a teeny red flag.

She’d asked why he wanted to write this particular story. He responded that he wanted to prove to himself he could write it. Great. He also wanted to prove wrong all his friends and family members who’d doubted he could do this. Fair enough. Who hasn’t wanted to exceed loved ones’ opinions of our limitations? And—this was the kicker—he wanted to throw it in the faces of all the women who’d made the colossal error of rejecting him.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.
“I know, right?” my friend sighed.

Didn’t the Isla Vista shooter say something similar? OK, maybe that’s extrapolating too far. I’ve certainly wanted to make exes envious of all I’ve accomplished without them. However, the difference is that he intended these exes of his to be characters in his script.

Often characters are inspired by people we know. The problem is that writing characters (antagonists, usually) based in anger or revenge against someone who has wronged us rarely yields robust, artful creations. Most often, it leaves us with two-dimensional characters who can seem oddly out of place against a more multi-dimensional story.

We need to find love for all our characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, so that we can fully understand and empathize with their motivations. This makes them richer on the page where they can act as bigger challenges for one another. Authentic characters arise from the writer’s empathy for those characters. When a character is based on someone who hurt us or someone about whose villainy we want to be right, finding any empathy can be tricky.

When I have writers dealing with this, I encourage them to do what work they can to find forgiveness. Not for the real life villains. For all I know, they should be in jail. But for us. For the sake of our own health and that of our art.

If you can forgive, you can more easily get to a bird’s eye view of the story. You can begin to see this person as just another character you need to shepherd through your pages. You can begin to see that their actions are consistent with their fears, wants, needs, and goals. Then you can write that character from a much more grounded and authentic place. As an added benefit, you may find you can bring more empathy to the real person or situation as well, and release some of your hurt.

For example, I am currently working on a piece with a character based on someone who I feel hurt by. As I did my character work and the intertwined forgiveness work, I found I could see this person’s choices with more clarity and empathy. As a result, I feel less wronged by them, and I have a richer character emerging as the story develops more depth and balance, thus giving the script more emotional resonance. That’s worth far more than being right or getting revenge.

I wished my friend luck in dealing with her new client. I hope she can get him to see the value of simply writing from the desire to tell a really good story. If you get a little revenge along the way, bonus points for you. But give us a solid story with fully fleshed-out, relatable characters over broadly drawn paper tigers. When you’re walking that red carpet because your work has been nominated, you can strut in the knowledge that an ex or two is watching, thinking, “Dang, I let that one get away.” I know I’m counting on it.

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Roma and the Passive Protagonist

I’m pleased to turn this space over to my partner in PageCraft (and life), Carlo Cavagna: 
We just saw Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant ROMA, which has us thinking about passive protagonists. Every screenwriting resource (including us, we admit) will teach that protagonists must be active. They must try to solve their problems and become masters of their own fate. No audience will care about a protagonist to whom things just happen. Why is that an interesting story?

Cuarón’s ROMA is enjoying accolades despite a passive heroine, the nanny Cleo. [Spoilers follow] In most of the scenes, she is just trying to fulfill her employers’ wishes to the best of her ability. Things happen to her: she gets pregnant; Fermín (the father-to-be) refuses to have anything to do with her; her employers’ family falls apart.

It’s tempting to look at ROMA’s success and decide the rules are meaningless. Who cares about a three-act structure? It’s so much work putting conflict in every scene! Why not a passive protagonist?

The rules exist for a reason. Usually, when your script isn’t captivating anyone, referring to the rules will help you diagnose the problem. The rules can be broken, but doing so requires careful thought.

It seemed to us that Cuarón knew perfectly well that he had a passive protagonist, but he was determined to tell this very personal story anyway. Further, Cuarón made several intentional and smart choices to overcome the passive protagonist challenge. Three stand out.

First, Cuarón chose an interesting context by setting the story during a tumultuous time, the Mexican Dirty War, which culminates onscreen in the Corpus Christi Massacre. This context touches his characters’ lives, most notably because Fermín is one of the perpetrators of the massacre. Thus the context creates tension. And, the film poses fascinating questions—without offering answers—about social structure and hierarchy, so it keeps the audience busy on the intellectual level.

Second, Cuarón has a deeply observational style. He uses static camerawork and long takes, but the shots are densely composed. There is always something to look at or piece together, even if only in the background.

And third, perhaps most importantly, Cleo is not entirely passive. It’s easy to miss because she is so quiet. But there are a few key moments when she becomes active. She searches for Fermín, to try to get him to face his responsibilities. And of course, at the climax of the film, she saves children from drowning, despite not knowing how to swim herself. The fact that Cleo occasionally takes necessary action, combined with her unshakeable goodness, is why we like her and root for her.

Rules can be broken, but they can’t be ignored. A master filmmaker like Cuarón could set aside one of the most fundamental rules of screenwriting, but he took the risk that his audiences wouldn’t be interested in his heroine. With his other choices, he minimized that risk and made one of the year’s best films.

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Barf Drafts

“The outline’s done! Write the script and we’ll be in production!” declared a director friend I’d been working with. My heart palpitated. As one of my favorite Coen brothers character says: “would that t’were so simple.”

We’d worked on the outline for weeks and were happy with the flow. The emotional content was there, the external goals and obstacles. It felt like we were going to hit all the right beats and create a compelling story. She was eager to get a script and share it with our production partners. I was too but I knew this next part of the process would be more involved.

I churned out that first draft and gave it to her. She was by turns excited and alarmed. It had little of the art of our previous collaborations. We started on an edit session. “Um, well, this scene is really one the nose,” she hedged, clearly not wanting to hurt my feelings.

For a moment I panicked: had we lost our excellent collaborative flow? Then it dawned on me, I hadn’t shown her such an early draft in our previous works. She might have been under the impression that scripts leapt, like Athena, fully formed from the mind of their creator. “Oh gosh! Of course! This is just the barf draft!” I realized I’d never shared the concept with her.

As writers, once we have our solid outline, once we feel like we know the mechanics of the script, we write the first draft. It’s called the barf draft because we are often metaphorically barfing onto the page everything these characters think, feel, want, need, etc. Few of these pages are things you’d want representing your creative genius but this draft has the important function of keeping us in the flow.

I always tell my writers: this is the time to avoid all self-censorship. Yes, “I’m so afraid that if I don’t kiss you now, I’ll lose you forever!” is a ridiculous line but it will help you get to the right line in the next draft. Write it down! My god, that big fight at the family reunion is melodramatic, but now you know how each character’s emotions arc through those beats. Write it down! The barf draft helps us transition from the outline which is more conceptual to the written scene which is more literal and concrete. It helps us see more clearly the emotional machinations of each scene and it helps us through the drudgery of blocking the physical movements of the characters and settings.

Only when these vital pieces are complete can we then dig into the next draft, the real first draft, where we can take all this information and elevate our garish ingredients. The next draft is when we begin the true craft of submerging all those emotions into the subtext, making dialog more oblique and natural, cutting scenes and moments we can now see are superfluous. That’s the draft to worry about what our characters sound like since we’ve worked out how their feeling and what they’re doing.

“Don’t worry!” I comforted my friend “we’ve done the barf draft, now we can sit down and create art.” To say the least, she was relieved. I was happy our creative flow was on track.

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Coach Notes – The Book Of Henry

So many films would be better films had they gotten coaching and feedback at the script stage. By helping you avoid pitfalls that trip up even the pros, our goal at PageCraft is to help writers craft watertight scripts that go on to be sought-after, fought-over properties in Hollywood. 

The Book of Henry:

I went into this film knowing little about it other than it had an impressive team behind it. I love Naomi Watts; that kid from Room is amazing; the story sounded charming, a potentially compelling blend of light and lethal. Sadly, as you can read in many reviews, the film did not live up to its hype or the talent involved. It was both twee and dark with oddly contrived situations and on-the-nose emotions. Could it have been fixed at the script stage? I will share some coach notes here, avoiding spoilers as best I can.

The official plot summary is:

Sometimes things are not always what they seem, especially in the small suburban town where the Carpenter family lives. Single suburban mother Susan Carpenter works as a waitress at a diner, alongside feisty family friend Sheila. Her younger son Peter is a playful 8-year-old. Taking care of everyone and everything in his own unique way is Susan’s older son Henry, age 11. Protector to his adoring younger brother and tireless supporter of his often self-doubting mother – and, through investments, of the family as a whole – Henry blazes through the days like a comet. Susan discovers that the family next door, which includes Henry’s kind classmate Christina, has a dangerous secret – and that Henry has devised a surprising plan to help. As his brainstormed rescue plan for Christina takes shape in thrilling ways, Susan finds herself at the center of it.

Streamline!

You can see from the summary that the story is trying to marshal a lot of elements. Unfortunately, this gives us an overlong and plodding script, which speaks to the perennial need to streamline. Many story details and moments don’t relate to character goal or move the story forward. For example, Henry is always building Rube Goldberg contraptions. Beyond showing that he’s creative and good at stuff, they don’t really do much for the plot. There are numerous moments of Mom tucking the kids in. Yes, these establish ritual and intimacy, but we don’t need so many to get it. Mom is not very good at her waitressing job. We get from her finance avoidance, consistent lateness picking up the kids, and her video game obsession that she’s bad at adulting; we really don’t need the world of her job too. These sorts of things could have been cut, and the story would have been tighter and more compelling.

Protagonist gives story structure:

Whose story is it? From IMDb, the film’s log line is, “With instructions from her genius son’s carefully crafted notebook, a single mother sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather.”

The rule of a good log line is: describe the protagonist, the goal, and the obstacle. Often this set-up gives us the act one problem and the goal that takes us into act two. Based on this log line, it seems the producers feel the mother is the protagonist. However, she spends the first half of the film passive and inert, “an endearing mess,” while young Henry moves and shapes the world around him, creating said “carefully crafted notebook.” He seems to be the character most in pursuit of a goal at the start – one of the protagonist litmus tests.

Mom takes up the action well past the midpoint (in fact past the low point) when she finds Henry’s notebook. She has a sort of coming-of-age arc as she continues the ‘rescue Christina’ quest. In the end, her character changes the most in the story – the other protagonist litmus test. No wonder the script is overlong if the true action of the log line doesn’t start until an hour into the film! Because the log line essentially only refers to the third act, the film doesn’t fulfill the promise of its premise after we invest so much in Henry’s arc. As a result of this uncertainty, neither Henry nor Mom’s arcs are fully developed, and both leave the audience short-changed.

Without a clear protagonist driving the action through scenes anchored in their goals, any story will feel flaccid and plodding. While true masters can sometimes pull this off, switching protagonists mid-film almost never works. Psycho is the most famous example where it does work – but the lack of many other great examples shows you how difficult it is. (Of course this rule does not apply to ensemble stories like Short Cuts or Magnolia, but that’s another kettle of fish.)

Update your story:

The script had been written twenty years before production. This can be fine; many scripts take circuitous routes to the screen. But technology and social norms change. Unless you’re doing a period piece, your story has to change too. For a while I thought this was a period film until Henry uses a new Macbook Air. Characters speak of six hundred thousand dollars as though it’s enough to retire on and support a family of three. Maybe twenty years ago.

Henry needs to gather evidence against the evil stepfather next door. What would any person do in that situation now? Shoot a video with their phone, right? Henry makes no such attempt because twenty years ago that technology didn’t exist. If the audience can solve your problem more easily than your protagonist, you’ve got a major plot hole. If you want to keep that situation, you better find a strong, logical way why our solve wouldn’t work for your protagonist.

Speaking of plot holes, Christina lives with her not-so-great stepfather. We learn her mother is deceased. So why can’t she live with her father? This is another point of logic that could be addressed easily, but it never is. If your audience can ask logical questions the script doesn’t answer, we hold onto a sense that the story is built on shaky ground.

Get dimension into your characters:

Another way this script feels oddly dated are some of the character tropes: the impossibly handsome, single, successful surgeon with the heart of gold who naturally becomes interested in Naomi Watts’ overwhelmed single mom. Come on now. Don’t forget Mom’s wonderful spunky mess of a best friend who has hidden depths. Been there, done that. These things may have been fresh twenty years ago but now we’ve seen them so many times (or simply wished they actually existed) that they come off as flat, two-dimensional conveniences rather than fleshed-out characters. Frankly neither of them were necessary to the story at all. If a character doesn’t bring something of great value to your plot, cut them.

Likewise, the main characters were full of tropes and easy indications. Mom can’t understand finances and doesn’t want to. Instead she is obsessed with single-shooter video games. So childlike! She’s ripe for a coming of age! Henry is a flawless brainiac of a kid who is kind to his average and adorable younger brother in a way that feels storybook perfect. These aren’t real people. All of us have good points as well as flaws and foibles. Your characters should too. It will make us love them more.

Look for ways to push beyond the obvious when creating a character. Start with what your character wants, and what they are willing to do to get it. What’s at stake for them? In what way are they desperate? Then build personalities, habits, and quirks around their wants and needs, instead of using copy-and-paste character types. I often tell my clients: each character thinks they are the star of the show just like we think we are the stars of our own lives. That means for a successful, meaty script, you have to give just as much thought to the character development of the incidental best friend character as you to do your main character.

OTN dialog:

In addition to on-the-nose characters, the dialog in this film is first-draft quality much of the time. Characters say exactly what they mean with extra earnestness. In real life, we rarely talk about what we’re really talking about, so when we see it onscreen it rings false. Most writers put on-the-nose dialog in their first draft, but it’s important to submerge it into the subtext in the following drafts. This makes for richer scenes that are more relatable and human.

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At the start of the screening I saw, the film’s director told us it had taken twenty years to get this script made. Sadly, it could have used more work. It can be frustrating when we struggle so hard to craft our own writing to see flawed work not only make it to the big screen, but also be championed by experts and artists we respect. All in all, if I had read The Book Of Henry script in competition, I would not have advanced it. I would have instead given it middling marks and many of the notes above. I hope they help you avoid the same pitfalls in your own work.

Have you seen a film that frustrated you and wondered exactly why it didn’t work? Let me know! I’d be happy to give it the Coach Notes treatment here.

Want to make sure your own script is watertight? Workshop with us in ITALY this summer or get one-on-one coaching HERE.

Italy Screenwriting Retreat

The 2017 PageCraft Italy Screenwriting Retreat takes place in storybook Orvieto, Italy, from Sunday, August 27 to Saturday September 9. The retreat is designed to move everyone’s project forward, offering analysis and discussion with our leader and collaboration with fellow writers. And this year we’re featuring a special, more affordable price! See our Registration page for details, or use the links below to learn more.

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