MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
STORY FROM CHARACTER
Story can be grown from character or
character can be grown from story - it's a chicken and the egg
situation. The two are so closely connected it's hard to tell
where one ends and the other begins. In a pair of other tips I
showed you how I started with the story for my Showtime film
BLACK THUNDER and found the lead character who could best tell
that story by finding the theme within the story (betrayal) then
creating a protagonist who would not only be forced to solve the
"plot" conflict of the story but would also have to overcome an
emotional conflict based on betrayal. When you begin with a concept
you reverse-engineer that way to find the best character for your story.
The results are a character with an emotional conflict that is not only
connected to the concept, but connected to *you*. This is not only a
good method to use when you come up with the concept first, it's the
best method to use with assignments when you are handed a story or
concept or script and need to make it *your* personal story in order
to maintain interest and do your best work. If a story isn't personal and emotional
it will just be a bunch of things happening - and we don't want that. We want
screenplays with soul. This time we're going to do
it in reverse - we're going to start with a character and grow a
story from him. This is the method I usually use when writing a spec script. I begin with character - and
usually that character is some aspect of me. So let's create an interesting story from character.
1) Take one protagonist...
Let's take a computer programmer who has just turned thirty
and realizes he's stuck in a dead end job. Is this what he'll be
doing for the rest of his life?
2) Now we're going to look for an emotional problem. When we
start with story, we have a plot problem - some sort of physical
conflict - but with characters we're looking at emotions. There
are several places to find emotional conflict in your
A) What does he fear? I don't mean a physical fear, like
spiders or the dark, I mean something emotional. Does he fear
commitment? Is he afraid he's not good enough? Is he afraid that
he'll never find happiness? That nobody loves him? That he's not
worth loving? That he'll never measure up to his father? That his
best days are over? Dig deep to find this fear, because it will
become what the whole script is about. This won't be easy,
because our protagonists are really ourselves... and that makes
their fears our fears. Hey! Those things scare us!
B) What is his flaw? What is the mistake that he keeps on
making over and over again. In LIAR LIAR Jim Carrey believes that
a lie is better than the truth - that's his flaw. Again, these
are difficult to dig for because they end up being OUR flaws -
and who wants to admit they have any flaws?
C) What is the one thing in life they could not imagine
themselves doing? The one thing they absolutely refuse to do?
Make a list of all of the things you would NEVER do. Would you
make out with someone of the same sex? Would you become a
cannibal? Would you drive cross country with a serial killer?
Would you live in the wilderness - sleep on the ground and eat
bugs? Now pick the one thing that you absolutely will not do and
give that to your character.
D) What is their dream... and how can it turn into a
nightmare? I love to use this in thrillers - to let a character's
big wish come true and have it go really wrong. Now they are
stuck with this thing they've always wished for... and the
baggage that comes with it. Want to be married to the sexiest
person alive - the person everyone in the world wants to sleep
with? Okay - now you get your wish, but how do you hang on to
this person when everyone else in the world also wants them?
Let's have our protagonist wish that he was someone special,
not just a guy in a tie. He wishes he was Superman... but that
turns into a nightmare when people expect him to actually save
3) Now we're going to find the story that forces them to deal
with whichever of the above you've decided on. If your
protagonist has a fear of commitment, the plot will force him to
get married - THE BACHELOR did this. If your protagonist's flaw
is that he believes a lie is better than the truth, we're going
to force him to tell the truth for 24 hours. If your protagonist
can't imagine themselves living in the wild, we're going to crash
their plane in the wilderness and force them to live off the
If our protagonist has wished to be Superman, and people
expect him to save the world... there's an actual threat to the
world and he HAS to save it.
4) The story we come up with takes the character to the limit.
It's not a minor conflict, it's the conflict that really pushes
them to deal with their emotional problem. If a character isn't
going to lose everything if they don't resolve the story problem,
you haven't found the right story!
So our 30 year old computer programmer who is afraid his
destiny is a dead end and wishes he was Superman meets a woman in
a night club who tells him that he is the chosen one - it's his
job to save the world from The Matrix.
Suddenly "Agents" arrest him at work and interrogate him about
Morpheus and the underground movement. He is taken to meet
Morpheus, who tells him the future of the world is in his hands.
Yikes! The problem with being Superman is that bad guys want to
kill you and everyone expects you to be able to leap tall
buildings in a single bound, be faster than a speeding bullet and
more powerful than a train. That dream just turned to a nightmare
and there's no waking up! The more he tries to say "You've got
the wrong guy, I'm not Superman" the more the situation escalates
so that he HAS to be Superman. They need Neo to be the "chosen
one"! At the same time, everyone around him seems to have more
super powers than he has - there are kids who can bend spoons and
make blocks levitate. He can't even do the basic fighting
programs! He's a FRAUD and everyone needs him to be the real
thing! Because we need to take the conflict to the limit and make
things the worst they can be, Morpheus is captured and Neo is the
only one who can save him... from the super-powerful "Agents". He
HAS TO BE SUPERMAN in order to rescue Morpheus. He has to
confront his fear that he's just an ordinary guy, he has to
metamorphoses into the Superman he wished he could become. He has
to grow as a character in order to survive...
The story comes from the character. The story is designed to
force the character to deal with their flaw or fear or dream gone
wrong or do the thing they will not do. Every scene forces them
to deal with their emotional problem. Every scene is ABOUT the
character's emotional problem - whether it's Neo not believing in
himself enough to jump from building to building, or Neo
surrounded by the magical kids, or Morpheus sacrificing himself
so that Neo can live. The scenes all come from the character!
Now, when you write the screenplay, because it is all about the character you need
to make sure you make the scenes and situations and dialogue and actions all about
the character and their emotional problem. And make sure you have the big emotional
decisions and big emotional moments in the screenplay. It does you no good to start from
character, find the great high concept story that explores that character... and then
*fail* to explore the character. Story *is* character. Every scene, no matter what it is -
car chase, shoot out, big comedy scene - needs to be about character. If it's not about
people with problems, what *is* it about? Fireballs?
This works in any genre, because *story is character* - and the purpose of any story is to explore character. They are connected. When you remove the character, no one will care about your story - it will just be cardboard cut outs going through a series of incidents.
If you really want to explore a character with survivor's guilt, you will end up with a story where that emotional conflict will be pulled to the surface by the actions. You start with a character struggling with survivor's guilt - and usually your protagonist is secretly you... that doesn't mean that *you* suffer from some extreme survivor's guilt, but maybe you have some similar feelings that allow you to understand the character and you are using the extreme version of the emotional problem for dramatic purposes. One of the idea creation tools in my Idea Blue Book is *Magnification* where you take some small emotional issue and magnify it in order to make it exciting and dramatic.
1) Our protagonist is a war veteran - an ex-Airforce Pilot - who is in love with a woman but afraid to commit... so she breaks up with him. Like every character, he wasn't *born* afraid to commit - there was a cause to this effect. Part of our job as screenwriters is to understand human behavior and human motivation - to dig into our characters and find out *why* they do the things they do. We need this in order to create believable and consistent characters.
2) We obviously have a surface emotional problem, but what caused it? Our ex-Airforce Pilot who was the only survivor of a mission during the war. Because he was in charge of the mission, and those men and women who died were under his command... he feels responsible for their deaths. Yes, they were killed by the enemy, but if he had a different battle plan - would they have survived? If he had only (fill in the regret blank) - would they have been alive? Our lives are filled with regrets - and usually they are minor things. They may live on in the dark shadows of our minds, but they usually aren't big enough issues to control our lives. Except, this ex-Airforce Pilot may have caused the deaths of everyone around him - and *he* walked away without a scratch. This haunts him every hour of the day.
This is why he can't commit - because he's afraid of responsibility, afraid that everyone that he touches will die... and it will be his fault.
3) So you are exploring these character issues - what is the *worst* situation for someone with survivor's guilt to be placed in? What story will force them to be in that place and deal with their issues? What story brings out the character? What story allows you to explore the character deepest? What is the external conflict that will push that emotional conflict to the surface? Okay, we have the relationship issues - but will that really bring out the ex-Airforce Pilot past? Whatever elements of character we are exploring we need to find the *best* external conflict. The external conflict that is *connected* to the emotional conflict.
It's not some One From Column A meets One From Column B - all of these things are connected at a core level. Real life is random, we are telling a *story* - and that means things are connected.
Ted Stryker in AIRPLANE! feels guilty about getting George Zipp from his fighter squadron killed in the war and has not set foot on a plane since, so having your story take place on an ocean cruise is just stupid. Even in a silly comedy movie, it's all about exploring the *character*.
Wait... you thought we were talking about some heavy drama? No! *Every* genre is character based. Even silly parody films are going to be character based if they want to connect with an audience. Here's my "proof": AIRPLANE! was a huge hit but the ZAZ follow up which I also love, TOP SECRET! - was a big flop. *Both* have a zillion gags, *both* have a ! in the title, and I can quote the hell out of TOP SECRET! if you wish - no shortage of really funny lines. But there really is no emotional conflict for Nick Rivers. He's just an idiot rock & roll star who wants to know if your daughter is 18. I'm sure they thought they were making a parody of CASABLANCA - but Rick *says* and *demonstrates* that he sticks his neck out for no man in CASABLANCA, Nick doesn't have any character based emotional struggle in TOP SECRET! No Ugarte character. So where AIRPLANE! was a hit (because it had characters struggling with emotional problems), TOP SECRET! flopped (because it's a bag of gags - great gags, but all of the characters are there to service the gags, rather than the gags being part of the characters). Even silly parody movies need characters!
AIRPLANE! is all about Ted Stryker's guilt and obsession with his past mistakes (mostly George Zipp's death). He has not set foot on a plane since then, and once he gets on this plane - all he can do is talk about how he screwed up his whole life by killing George Zipp. Whatever passenger is seated next to him would rather kill themselves than hear him go on-and-on about it. Character based comedy!
Why did he break up with Elaine? He was never himself after the war - and George Zipp's death. She dumped him. That's why he's on the plane, right? To get her back. So there is no movie without his emotional problem! No break up, no "smoking section?", no Howard Jarvis in the taxi - all of that comes from his guilt over killing Zipp... in a PLANE!
4) Remember, we have to take the character's emotional conflict to the limit. So Ted Stryker is on a plane for the first time since the war... and the pilots had the fish (while the doctor had the lasagna) and they get food poisoning and fart and have bird's eggs in their mouths, and we need someone who can fly a plane and did not have fish for dinner! And that's Ted Stryker - a guy who is racked with guilt for killing Zipp and the rest of his squadron IN A PLANE and hasn't been on a plane since the war.
It's *connected* - not some random external conflict glued onto some random emotional problem. Just like THE MATRIX, just like LIAR LIAR, just like introverted romantic adventure novelist Joan Wilder having to go on an adventure and finding romance - the pieces are connected and come together to create a whole. Your screenplay is like a jigsaw puzzle and in order for the audience to see the picture the pieces have to fit together. Forcing one piece into another does not result in a picture.
So Ted Stryker is the only one who can fly this plane who didn't have fish for dinner... but he does not want to be responsible for killing a whole plane full of people (including the woman he loves) just like he killed George Zipp in the war, so he does everything he can to get out of flying that plane. See how the situation is designed to bring the specific emotion al conflict bubbling to the surface? The pieces connect. Though AIRPLANE! Is a parody of another film, so it basically hijacks the character issues from ZERO HOUR (1957) - which is also about a guy named Ted Stryker who is haunted by a decision he made during the war that killed everyone in his squadron and boards a plane to chase down his wife and son... when the pilots get food poisoning and he's forced to deal with his demons and fly the plane. The took the serious character and serious story from ZERO HOUR and added jokes - but keeping that great emotional core... and using it for character based jokes like the passengers who get stuck sitting next to him being bored to death (literally).
And much of the other comedy in the film is character based, from Lloyd Bridges' Steve McCroskey picking the wrong day to quit sniffing glue, to the late great Stephen Stucker's Johnny who sees the world differently than you and I. The supporting characters have character flaws and fears and issues that create comedy.
What's the worst that could happen to the protagonist in AIRPLANE!? - Ted feels responsible for George Zipp's death - and now they want to make him responsible for all of the passengers on a pretty white plane with red stripes and curtains in the windows. What if he kills all of them? He must struggle with that emotional conflict, get through it ("Win one for the Zipper!" - this *is* a comedy) and literally sweat buckets of water to get that plane back on the ground safely so that everyone can go down the fun slide. It's a silly movie... that has real character issues at its core.
Emotional conflict and Physical conflict. Solve (or deal with) the emotional to resolve the physical. You can start with the character and the emotional conflict and find the physical conflict that best brings out the character. But first we need to really know our characters - what is their fear or flaw or worse case scenario or dream? What drives them? What is that thing under the surface that tints almost every decision they make?
Movies are about people with problems.
DESCRIPTION & VOICE Blue Book!
DESCRIPTION & VOICE Blue Book.
IS HALF OF YOUR STORY IN TROUBLE?
Most screenplays are about a 50/50 split between dialogue and description - which means your description is just as important as your dialogue. It just gets less press because the audience never sees it, the same reason why screenwriters get less press than movie stars. But your story will never get to the audience until readers and development executives read your script... so it is a very important factor. Until the movie is made the screenplay is the movie and must be just as exciting as the movie. So how do you make your screenplay exciting to read? Description is important in a novel as well, and the “audience” does read it... how do we write riveting description?
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E BOOKS PAGE
E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of
text to around 200 pages! Some are over 250 pages! See what is availabale and what is coming soon!Also, I've been writing Novelletes and there
will soon be novels.
E BOOKS: BLUE BOOKS & NOVELLETES
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B MOVIE WORLD
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THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The
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several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
CLASSES ON CD
CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!