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.