FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

OPENING WITH CHARACTER


I often begin a script by introducing my lead character in the middle of a personal conflict. The type of conflict we can all relate to. But I make sure the conflict is dramatic enough that you'll want to find out how our hero resolves it. After introducing the personal conflict, and gaining the reader's sympathy for the lead, I thrust him into the script's main conflict... All within ten pages. (more or less)

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That means you need to find one scene that gives us as much information as possible... in an emotional situation. Screenwriting is *condensed* writing, so we are looking for a scene that does many different things at once and gives us the most information in the fewest number of pages. If your protagonist suddenly develops a wife and child on page 30, the audience is going to wonder where the heck they came from. It’s like you just created them, instead of like they were there all along. You want to give the audience as much information about your protagonist as you can right away, so that you can jump into the story.

Part of that is not wasting time by introducing your protagonist again and again. You introduce him as a cop in one scene. You introduce him as a husband in another scene. You introduce him as a father in a third scene. You introduce him as a New Yorker coming to Los Angeles in a fourth scene. You introduce him as a normal guy - human and vulnerable - in a fifth scene. By introducing each aspect of the character in a separate scene, you may burn through 20 pages just giving us the basics of who this guy is! That's wasting a lot of time before you get to the story.

Instead, find the one scene that gives us all of this information at the same time, so that we can jump right into the story. That's what happens in that first scene on the plane in DIE HARD - we get one scene that gives us all of these aspects of John McClane. He's estranged from his wife and children and has come to Los Angeles to be with them on Christmas Day. Oh, and he's carrying a gun onboard and airplane! He explains that it's okay, because he's a cop. There's an emotional aspect involved with his estranged wife and children... before we introduce Hans Gruber and get to the action. Oh, and we know the action is coming because of that gun we see in the first minute or two on the airplane.

That airplane scene doesn't give us the names of his children - you don't have to give us every detail right up front - but it gives us a sense of exactly who this character is in *one* scene instead of a half dozen scenes. We know he's a dad - he has Christmas gifts for his kids. The details can be filled in later - but the important aspects of his character are all there in *one* scene. The audience knows all of the important stuff about the protagonist and we can dive into the story.

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THERE WILL BE BLOOD is all about Daniel Day Lewis' character. He's a relentless man. Driven. Probably crazy. In the opening scene he's deep in a vertical mine shaft, chipping away with an axe - relentlessly chipping. He finds some gold or silver (I forget which) trapped in the rock... and lights a stick of dynamite, wedging it next to the gold. Then has to climb up a rickety wood ladder as the fuse burns. Suspense! He gets to the top, just as the dynamite explodes! He climbs back down, gets halfway out before part of the wooden ladder breaks... and he falls all the way to the bottom of the mine. Breaking his leg. *Really* beaking it. He drags himself to the place where the gold was... finds the chunk of ore-rich rock, puts it in his pocket. So he's laying at the bottom of the mine shaft with his leg at an unnatural angle and some gold in his pocket... and he climbs his way out and drags himself all the way back to town to cash in his gold. Laying on the floor, leg still messed up, while they cut him a check. That's who Daniel Plainview is - relentless, almost emotionless, and all about the money.

My script ALTITUDE begins with Jason Bolt's girlfriend breaking up with him. A couple of pages of painful drama, as he tries everything to keep the relationship, but fails. She dumps him. Distracted by his personal problems, Bolt boards a plane for a business trip. When the pretty Stewardess flirts with him, he doesn't even notice. He's down in the dumps. Then, on page nine, the plane is hijacked by terrorists.

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WHAM! I began by involving the reader in Bolt's relationship problem. Only TWO characters to introduce. I keep the breakup scene dramatic and suspenseful... Then, just when you think they'll patch up the relationship, she dumps him. We've all been there, and we can all identify with his problem. Will he reunite with his girlfriend? If not, will he get over her and love again? Will he go out with the stewardess?

While the reader is worried about Bolt's love life, I hit them with the action plot. Adding more problems to be resolved.

But first, I INVOLVE them in Bolt's life, make the reader CARE about Bolt, worry about him. So when the action kicks in, the reader has a stake in the outcome. It's not some stranger on the hijacked plane, it's their friend.

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There may be times when you want to with hold information about your protagonist *on purpose* in order to reveal it later - kind of a "character twist" (like a plot twist) where the audience discovers the protagonist we thought we knew has a secret that changes the direction of the story in some way. Again - this is done *on purpose* - you are revealing that the protagonist has a wife and kid on page 30 for a specific reason. The story would not have worked as well had we known about them beforehand.

You want to be in control of your story at all times. You want your writing to be *precise* rather than sloppy. And you don't want to waste the audience's time with a half dozen introductions for a single character. Find the scene that does it all - and does it in an emotionally involving way, so that you can get into the story.

Opening with character requires the ability to create compelling characters and dramatic situations. It isn't easy. But characters ARE the backbone of story. A chase involving people we don't care about is boring, not exciting. We need to involve the reader in our lead character's life as soon as possible, so that what happens next on screen happens to someone they care about.

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SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING

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Each Blue Book is 48 pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings.
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