When it Comes to Characters, Fewer is More

I recently sat down to work on another draft of a script. I had an idea for a new character, a professional mentor for my protagonist, someone who was really in his corner. And the kicker was, right when the going got tough, she would die, leaving our hero on his own. It’s a pretty standard movie trope (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Vitruvius, Mufasa), but I ultimately decided against it.

The problem is, it would have required me adding three more characters: the mentor, who was our hero’s boss, the mentor’s replacement, and the person who would appoint the replacement. Yes, I would have gained something, but at what cost? Like the timeframe of your plot, which I discuss in my previous post, you want your script to achieve its goal with as few characters as necessary.

Aristotle didn’t discuss a “Unity of Character,” but Greek theater had other conventions to restrict the number of characters in a play. Unity of Action also implies some Unity of Character. In any event, Unity of Character or the “fewer the better” has become an unofficial rule of thumb for effective screenwriting.

To be clear, you want the worlds you create to feel authentic. Your protagonist needs a family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, cashiers, and bank tellers. But it’s going to be easier to create that realistic world inhabited by three-dimensional characters if you have fewer, not more characters.

There’s a basic math problem. With any script, you’ve only got so much screen time. Do you want it to go to your main characters or a bunch of walk-on roles? Let me illustrate my point with two pictures of Amy Adams.

The first is an absolutely enchanting photo of Amy staring dreamily into space.

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Then we have a shot of her in the background(?!), out of focus, crowded out by extras, and upstaged by a bunch of Muppets!

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Both pictures are the same size. One is a great photo of Amy Adams. In the other, you can barely see her. Fewer characters means more screen time for your lead roles.

The problem isn’t so much with secondary characters (the best friend, the love interest) or tertiary characters (the boss, the comic relief), but with bit parts (the valet, the cashier, the security guard). How important is the line, “Here’s your receipt. Have a nice day.” or “Place all metallic items in the plastic dish.”? Blake Snyder calls this “place holder” or “Hi how are you I’m fine” dialogue. It’s the kind of thing anyone can say, and it contributes nothing to the story. Unless the receipt or the items going through the metal detector are critical to the plot, you don’t need to mention them. What if your security guard has some critical piece of information to deliver to your hero? Consider giving that line to a more important character. It gives them more screen time and makes them more integral to the plot.

Fewer characters makes the writing and acting better as well. Say your valet has one line. “Your car is ready, Mr. Anderson.” How do they deliver it? Earnestly? Concerned? Full of contempt? Deferentially? What kind of valet is this? A kindly old man who loves cars? A college kid with a summer job? An undercover secret agent?

The thing is, if your actor imbues this character with any personality, it will detract from the scene. The movie is not about them! But why would you write a character who you want to be as bland and forgettable as possible?

“But my protagonist is a rich snob who always stiffs the valet!” you’re saying. “I need that dialogue.”

Aha! Well, in this case, your “bit part” has a bigger role to play in your story. The way your protagonist treats your valet is a defining character trait. Gauging this interaction throughout the course of the script will show the audience how your protagonist has changed. Is he still stiffing the valet in the middle of the script? What about when the love interest is present? How does he treat the valet at the end?

Now that your valet has three or four scenes, it’s no longer a bit part. You have the opportunity to give him some personality. Maybe he even plays a role in your protagonist’s journey. Either way, the actor has something to work with, and your world is going to feel a little more realistic.

For my script, it wasn’t feasible to create three more fully fleshed out characters. I would have needed to add another ten pages or take screen time away from my main characters. For what it would have added to my script, it wasn’t worth it.

For your script, you’ll have to make your own judgment call. But remember, fewer characters means more screen time for the characters who matter. It’s going to make a more realistic world and engaging story. When it comes to good screenwriting, there are no small parts, only poorly written walk-on roles.

Unity of Time (or why biopics have good acting, but are really boring)

A few years ago, a biopic about Magaret Thatcher came out. Merryl Streep did a fantastic job in the titular role of The Iron Lady. She won several awards including the Oscar for Best Actress. But as a whole, the movie was virtually unwatchable. Halfway through, I started folding laundry, and by the end, I was scrolling through Twitter. The reason is that The Iron Lady violated an ancient, very clearly spelled out screenwriting rule: the Unity of Time.

Remember, drama isn’t real life. Your real life is probably pretty boring. You wake up. You commute. You suffer through work. You commute home. You play with your kids, watch TV, go to bed, and do it all over again. Not that gripping. When something out-of-the-ordinary happens (your daughter is abducted, you see dead people, an alien lands in your back yard) we have a story. Or at least the beginning of one. But in order to keep that drama, we also need a sense of urgency.

Imminent, terminal cancer like we saw in Breaking Bad (even if it’s mostly manifested as a cough) launched one of the best television shows ever made. An increased risk of Alzheimer’s at some vague future point probably won’t. Film happens now! That’s why it’s written in the present tense. And if nothing’s happening, your audience will tune out. The audience’s ordinary lives (i.e. Twitter) have just become more interesting than your movie.

This isn’t a new idea. Aristotle pointed it out over two thousand years ago. (I did say ancient.) For those of who you like classical learning, check out Aristotle’s Poetics. And if ancient Greek is a bit much for you, Michael Tierno did an excellent job updating it in Aristotle’s Poetics for the Screenwriter.

The key thing for this article is Aristotle’s Unity of Time. To sum it up, the action of the drama (screenplay), should take place in as little time as possible. I think it was Robert McKee who said that a script should be as long as it needs to be, then it should end. Fox’s 24 with Kiefer Sutherland took this to the extreme when each episode happened in real time. One season of twenty-four episodes covered a single day.

That’s a little over the top and the premise wore thin as the seasons went on. But you’ll notice many of your favorite thrillers take place over the course of a few hours or days. If your daughter’s been abducted and we see the seasons changing, it’s hard to hold suspense throughout the script. If the bad guys haven’t done her in over the past few months, she’ll probably be okay for another fifteen minutes. Sounds like a good time to check Twitter.

This is also the reason montages are generally weak storytelling. The “learning to play baseball,” “series of quirky dates,” “watching your business grow” montages get the point across, but aren’t good drama. Are you telling me that your emotionally immature love interests who fought like cats and dogs for the first twenty pages suddenly went on a series of fun, carefree dates to a musical montage and nothing interesting happened? That’s kind of whacky. I thought they were more interesting than that. And yes, you will see these kinds of montages all the time. That doesn’t mean you should do them. You’re better than that.

And of course, this is why biopics tend to be kind of boring. It’s hard to condense someone’s entire life (Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar) into a compelling story arc. (The first half of Life of Pi literally made me want to throw a TV. In another post, I may tell you how that movie could have been immeasurably better.) At the same time, these movies often have fantastic performances. Now you know why those two things aren’t necessarily related.

Just this Thursday, I heard NPR’s Eric Deggans review the amazing true story of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In it he praises Oprah Winfrey’s performance as “one of her best roles yet,” but criticizes the film for being “uneven” with “deeply affecting moments” that “don’t quite knit together into a consistently powerful film.” Does not surprise me in the least.

If you’re writing a script, and it’s not keeping readers on the edge of their seats, Unity of Time may be your problem. Add a concrete deadline. “Get that report on my desk by tomorrow morning.” “You have until midnight to deliver the money.” “Death Star approaching. Estimated time to firing range: fifteen minutes.” The added pressure tests your characters’ mettle and focuses your story. No time to stop and smell the roses with a Death Star on the horizon.

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Aristotle also advocated for unity of space and action, theories I may discuss in another post. But right now I think I’m going to advocate unity of blog subjects and see you in the next post.

A Good Premise

The hook, or my preferred term “premise,” is what “hooks” your audience. It’s also what hooks your investors, your producers, your significant other if you’re looking for a movie to watch, and what’s going to drive your script. If you’ve got a good premise, you’ve got a marketable idea. If not, well, keep writing. Below are some things to keep in mind when you’re working on a premise.

Potential

When you say your premise, people should immediately think of the possibilities. If you’re writing a comedy, the potential for humor should be obvious. (Two men join an all-girl band to avoid the mob.) Thrillers should sound, well, thrilling.

Your premise is the reason you’re writing this script! Not everyone has the same idea of a premise. Use the word alien, dragon, or time travel and some people will immediately tune out. If I hear “struggling with cancer,” I’m probably going to pass. (I’ve had enough real-life experience with cancer.) At the same time, I think a cancer subplot is a requirement of most Lifetime scripts. And plenty of people watch those. Whatever genre you’re going for, your audience needs to see potential.

One of my friends came up with a fantastic premise a few years ago: Killer Cardboard Box. It’s ridiculously straightforward and even conveys that genre blend of horror and comedy. (There’s a killer—terrifying, but it’s a cardboard box—laughable.) You can visualize it, too. Box flaps clamping onto an unsuspecting victim’s head, or the heroine fighting for her life with a dollar-store box cutter. It’s brilliant. The script (penned by yours truly) hasn’t been produced for a few reasons, but potential isn’t one of them.

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Short

On the other side of the spectrum is this heaping pile of beauty: six frenemies are trapped in a shopping mall with a killer. Another (amazing) script penned by me, but I’ve found it hard to explain to others. It’s a little too clunky. What’s a frenemy? Why are they trapped in the mall? Why not just text 911? All great questions, which are revealed in the thrilling final act, but not necessarily a great way to get people excited. Lord of the Flies in a shopping mall? Not necessarily any better.

When you go back to “why” I wrote this film, it was because I wanted to do a teen horror movie in a shopping mall where no one was sure who they could trust. Unfortunately, the premise shows that the production considerations were just as important to me as the story considerations. And unfortunately, I think the script suffered for that reason.

 Unique

A friend of mine challenged himself to watch 366 movies last year. I asked him what the worst one was. He answered that, by far, Thor: The Dark World was the most bland and boring. He said he actually forgot he watched it.

The problem is, there are just so many superhero movies now. They’re predictable. They run together. So if you’re writing a script for Lifetime (and it has the obligatory cancer subplot) how do you make it interesting? What is it about your script that we’ve never seen before? How will your gangster movie stand out from The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Untouchables, etc? How will your Superhero movie stand out from X-Men, Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Birdman? How about you make it ridiculously gory and full of profanity? Poke fun at the other superhero movies and break the fourth wall. Sounds a lot like the best selling R-rated movie of all time (Deadpool).

Are there going to be any dinosaurs in this, uh, dinosaur film?

When you actually get to writing, you need to fulfill the premise. It’s one of the most common mistakes I’ve found with first time screenwriters. If you write a script “about” outer space and your characters don’t make it into space until the script is three quarters over, well, your script isn’t really about space, is it? If you write a script about dinosaurs, you better have some dinosaurs in it. Jurassic Park expertly mocks this mistake when they fail to see any dinosaurs on their “dinosaur” tour.

Writers of horror films have probably heard the adage “Don’t show the monster.” Psychologically, once you see and identify something, it loses its fear factor. Practically, if you don’t have a budget, your monster probably isn’t very scary looking. But just because you can’t show your monster doesn’t mean it’s not there!

Creepy sounds, footprints, and severed limbs should litter your script. Remember, the premise is the reason why you wrote your script. You better include that reason early and often.

A great premise sets your script up for success. What drama, comedy, or horror does your premise bring to mind? How many ways can a cardboard box kill a person (eat them, paper cuts, fall on them)? What kind of weapon would you use to fight a cardboard box (box cutter, fire, box crusher)? Who’s the best protagonist to fight this unlikely killer of yours (Dwight Schrute)?

The premise is only the germ of an idea. It can come from watching another movie, a news article, a conversation with a friend. Depending on your genre, some things may be more appropriate than others. Hostage situations are a bit of a stretch for RomComs. Alzheimers doesn’t work that well for comedies. But no matter what, if it’s unique, short, and full of potential, you’re on the right track. And a good premise is going to make writing your script a little easier and a lot more fun.

Extraordinary Worlds

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Movies take us to worlds and times we could never see on our own. It’s one of the hallmarks of performance drama: spectacle. But writers must also deal with another world to make their characters engaging: the extraordinary world. The two occasionally overlap and coincide, but it’s critical to know the difference.

Right now, you and I are living fairly ordinary lives. We get up, regret our life decisions while fighting rush hour, play on our phones at work, come home, procrastinate from writing or working out, and do it all over again. It’s not particularly interesting. In fact, from a screenplay perspective, we call this the “ordinary world.” Then something happens. You get a mysterious phone call. You meet that special someone. An asteroid is discovered hurtling toward earth. All of a sudden, your routine has changed.

This event—usually called the inciting incident—is what makes your story. Without it, your script is just another, ordinary day in the office. When you decide to take action, you have left the ordinary world and moved to your “extraordinary world.” This transition or turning point also moves the script into Act II.

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But it’s important that you don’t mistake an extraordinary setting with an extraordinary world. What might seem extraordinary to us may be quite mundane to our characters. Luke Skywalker lives on a desert planet orbiting two stars. He’s a moisture farmer who works with droids and Jawas. He has a hovercraft. It’s all pretty incredible to us. But to him, it’s quite ordinary. If Luke never gets R2-D2’s message, there is no story. Two hours of moisture farming does not a good movie make.

On the other side of the coin, contemporary, realistic movies have much subtler extraordinary worlds. In Nebraska, David Grant takes his father on a road trip to Nebraska to claim his sweepstakes prize. It’s fairly mundane, and some people found the film boring. But Will and his father’s lives change significantly the moment they hit the road.

The extraordinary world often involves a change in venue. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke leaves his “backwater” planet. In Nebraska, it’s when David and his father get on the highway. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s everything outside of the Shire. But this isn’t always the case.

In Office Space, Peter Gibbons doesn’t change his venue, but rather his attitude. In Juno, Juno’s extraordinary world is the world of being a pregnant teenager. In Limitless, Eddie Morra changes his life with a pill. The important thing here is that the character’s normal routine has been interrupted, and rather than crawl under a rock, they’ve committed to living in this new world.

At the end of a movie, characters often return to their ordinary worlds as changed people. Their experience in the extraordinary world has taught them something. The return to the ordinary world also gives the writer an opportunity to show how much a character has changed over the course of their adventure.

In Star Wars (although it happens two films later), Luke returns to Tatooine as a Jedi. In Nebraska, David and his father return home without the sweepstakes winnings, but they have a new truck, a new compressor, and a better relationship. In Office Space, Peter Gibbons returns to work, but this time it’s not in an office. (Limitless has a bad ending.*)

This extraordinary world is really what drives your story. Your protagonist’s reaction to these extraordinary events and circumstances are what define their character. It’s part of the premise: battling an evil galactic empire, taking a road trip with your father, dealing with teen pregnancy. Without that extraordinary event, there is no story.

So remember when you craft your next great script—whether it’s about a Jedi master or a paper pusher—to your characters, the next ninety pages of their story need to be nothing short of extraordinary.

 

*The ending to Limitless was rewritten and reshot multiple times without any improvement. But if you look at the movie from the perspective of Eddie Morra’s extraordinary world, there’s an obvious, satisfying solution.

In the beginning of the movie, he’s a poor, struggling writer. The end of the movie should reflect that point. Ideally, the biggest thing he would have learned from taking NZT was that he shouldn’t be taking NZT. It makes sense. After all, at the midpoint Eddie says, “You know what, let’s not invade Russia in the winter. Let’s go home, let’s pop a beer, and let’s live off the interest.” The movie should end with Eddie working on the great American novel the hard way. Maybe with a bag of cash under his bed.

Instead, there’s this vague ending where Eddie doesn’t really learn anything or change as a person. He’s still on top, but only because of the drug. And the only takeaway for the audience is that apparently mind-enhancing drugs are amazing.

Your Script is Too Long

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I think Robert McKee said, “Your story is as long as it needs to be, and then it ends.” Hopefully (for a feature), this is between 90 and 110 pages. I aim for 100 even. Some people will quibble with that number. They’re wrong.

I’ve read dozens of scripts and never once said, “If only this script were fifteen pages longer, I could recommend it.” Once you hit 90 pages, you’ve proven that your script has enough material to make a feature. Beyond that, you’re just adding days to the shooting schedule.

From a reader’s perspective, 120 pages looks intimidating. It’s thicker and heavier than the last script they read (and the last script they read was probably a heaping pile of garbage). Since most scripts are shorter, it also suggests that you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s two strikes against you before the reader even gets past the title page.

Think about it this way. 120 is 33% more than 90. In minutes, that’s 2 hours versus 1 ½ hours. A reader could already be at happy hour if it weren’t for your extra 30 pages.

All of this may sound arbitrary, but it actually helps your writing. Forcing yourself to choose the most important scenes, the best lines, the critical story beats will give you a tighter, better script. All those decisions you vacillate about in your rough draft will be crystal clear when you force yourself to make cuts. Do your characters really need to take that fifth trip to White Castle?

I’ve included a sample scene from my latest script here so you can see what it looks like before and after I trimmed the fat.

(To give you a visual, if this post were 33% shorter, it would end here.)

What if you are literally writing an epic? Fine. Go for it. But a professor of mine pointed out that you could cut 30 minutes from each Lord of the Rings movie and the ending would still be the same. (Don’t even get me started on The Hobbit.)

If you follow McKee’s story outlines and Snyder’s beat sheet, you’ll find that your script tends to fall in that 90-110 page range pretty easily. That’s what 100 years of filmmaking has taught us. I actually prefer if my rough drafts run 120-130 pages because I know I have more than enough material to work with. But when I trim the fat, that’s when I know I’ve got something worthwhile.

What’s This Script About, Anyway?

People like to joke that in movies there’s always a parking spot right in front of the courthouse/airport/lawyers office/spaceship the protagonist is trying to get to. There’s a reason for that. Finding a parking spot is boring. Nobody cares. I watch movies to escape the mundaneness everyday life. Unless your script is Parking Wars*, I don’t want to see people looking for parking spots.

Occasionally, I’ll see writers include this kind of stuff in their script. If it’s a neurotic Woody Allen-esque comedy, it works. Fast and Furious 17: The Later Years? Maybe. Schindler’s List? No. The bigger landmine you have to watch out for is accidentally getting on a tangent that you didn’t mean to.

I’m currently reading a novel that has multiple characters pray or mention praying at multiples times. So what? Well, this is purportedly a legal thriller. But when you have enough characters come to Jesus, you’re actually looking at a religious novel set over the backdrop of lawyerly intrigue. I don’t think this was the author’s intent. She’s gone on a tangent.

“But people pray!” you’re saying to yourself. “I’ve seen it. At least in movies.” Yes. They also park cars. But they always have a parking spot. If you have created a character who prays before meals and blesses themselves every time they hear an ambulance, prayer is just a manifestation of their character. If all of your characters pray, talk about prayer, struggle with prayer, use prayer to solve problems, you’ve just written a script about prayer.

I don’t want to knock prayer—or parking for that matter. Tangents can be anything: folding laundry, having sex, checking your email, playing Frisbee Golf, or going to the bathroom. If a character uses the bathroom, no big deal. But if they go multiple times, it becomes a character trait (Irritable Bowel Syndrome?). If multiple characters need the bathroom throughout the script, your audience is going to think someone poisoned the craft service table. They may have. But is that what your movie is about?

Here are 2 great exceptions that prove the rule. Hanna and Stranger than Fiction both include tooth-brushing scenes. Nobody cares about brushing their teeth. But Marissa Wiegler and Harold Crick do. Their meticulousness contrasts them with the rest of humanity and defines their character. This seemingly benign act is critical to the story. The prayer mentioned above? Not so much.

Remember, you’re writing fiction, not documenting daily life. Everything in your script is there for a reason. If it doesn’t contribute to the story, don’t put it in. Don’t confuse or bore your audience with mundane details. Don’t go on a tangent!

 

*I worked on Parking Wars. It was a “reality show” about fighting tow truck drivers. I thought I would die. Not figuratively.

Screenwriting VS Everything Else

When I first graduated college, I wrote a novel. It took about six months. The second draft took an additional three months. Today, it remains a total POS. (That’s a technical film industry term that means Piece of Shit.)

Then I wrote a feature film. That took about month. The second draft took about a week. Curiously, that also was and remains a total POS. But I did learn something. Screenwriting is very different than other kinds of writing. For one thing, there are fewer words involved.

In a novel, the writer must visualize everything for the audience. Here’s the description of the protagonist’s office from my novel.

It was long and thin, about eight feet across and fifty feet long. In a bygone era, it had been the hallway that led to the boiler room. To the left, a single row of cubicles lined the left side of the wall. Naked incandescent bulbs hung from the ceiling at ten-foot intervals giving the room a certain film noir effect. The floor was dusty concrete. The walls were actually steel and copper pipes with a layer of newer PVC piping over top.

Here is the same description adapted for TV.

INT. OFFICE AREA – DAY

Four rows of cubicles nestle amid water pipes and spider webs in the basement of the Transportation Building.

A little more succinct, no?

Thing is, I realized I was kind of a minimalist. My prose wasn’t winning any awards, so why inflict more of it on the world? Sure, a handful of people will read your scene descriptions, but your audience never will. In fact, production will pay a dozen people (Art Department, Locations Department, Wardrobe Department, AD’s) to build, decorate, and populate your world. If you, like me, are more interested in the story than the set pieces, why waste your time writing about the curtains?

The trade-off for this is that screenwriters must abide by certain “rules.” The most important one is that everything must be visible. Your characters cannot “think,” “realize,” “feel,” or “remember.” (“Chuck realizes this is the girl he remembered from earlier.” How the hell can you show that?) Characters can, however, furrow their brows, smile, laugh, cry, and stare into space. (“Chuck smiles at the girl wearing the same bright red sweater from scene 5.”) Dialogue, which might sound snappy—or at least benign—may come across as wooden or “on the nose” when read aloud. (“Oh, I see. You think I was trying to get your attention with this bright red sweater.” Always read your dialogue aloud!) And just because something happened doesn’t mean it’s interesting. It especially doesn’t mean it’s visually interesting. Screenwriting is a different beast.

Screenplays are always written in third person present tense. I don’t know why. I’ve been told it makes things more dramatic. Some people use the first person plural “we,” but that’s pretentious and can create problems. (Strangely, I find the first person present tense particularly absurd. This was the primary reason I couldn’t read The Hunger Games. “Strong arms lift me as I blast the head off a mutt… I begin frantically pulling people up off the ladder.” Is she writing in a journal while all of this is happening?!)

Bit by bit, I plan to break down some of the mystery of screenwriting for you. I’ll augment this with samples of my own work to help illustrate my point. For now, I’m going to recommend 3 screenwriting books to you. You should read them IN ORDER. Even if you have some background in film or screenwriting, I can’t endorse these books enough.

The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Updated every couple of years, it’s currently in its sixth edition. It’s billed as 5 books in one. Depending on where you are in your writer’s journey, not all of the books will be applicable. But even if you’ve spent a decade on film sets and have a box full of scripts, you’ll find yourself dragging The Screenwriter’s Bible out every couple of months for formatting suggestions. Trottier also has a great blog www.keepwriting.com.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Snyder, God rest him, has a very unique and accessible approach to analyzing and writing scripts. He breaks things down into simple rules, and while I don’t agree with all of them, the unique take lets you look at your scripts in a new light. He doesn’t go into formatting or most screenplay terminology, which is why this shouldn’t be the first book you read about screenwriting. He does, however, give you lots of fun tips and tricks, and a fantastic tool for outlining (the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet). It really helps you look at screenwriting from a different angle. And the tips can get you out of that writer’s block. Much of Snyder’s work lives on www.savethecat.com (Bonus credit. If you have free time, check out Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.)

Finally, the granddaddy of them all, Robert McKee’s Story. This is a master’s level tome and I DO NOT recommend it unless you already have a grasp on the basics of screenplay structure. At times it feels like a philosophy textbook, but the sections about clichés, diction, and “slice of life” are priceless. I don’t want to scare you away from McKee-this is a seminal work-but it’s not a good place to start.

Once you tackle those, you’re lightyears ahead of the next “aspiring writer” or “idea guy” you know. Check back in, and hopefully I can offer you some more insight.