The best way to stay out of shallow water with your screenplay is to work with material that you connect to, that has resonance for you as a person. And the best place to find this material is right on your menu. After all, one of the columns is Discoveries That Made a Difference in My Life. You might find an idea for a discovery that makes a difference by looking at your own life. If you do, of course, feel free to depart the donnée and fictionalize the idea for the screenplay you write.
Look at the other column on your menu—your loves, hates, fears, beliefs. You may have a strong passion or opinion that spawns an idea. This can be a wonderful place to begin. One of my students, Fatima Mojadiddy, believed passionately that the homeless should work, and she wanted to write a short screenplay about this. I agreed, on one condition: She had to talk to homeless people at the shelter in Tallahassee. And there, to her surprise, she discovered that many of the homeless do work, an important discovery for Fatima as a human being and screenwriter, and as it turned out, a discovery that makes a difference to the main character in her screenplay. Such is the power of research, which is essential when you're creating characters that do not come from your own experience, and they will be more convincing and compelling as a result (for a thorough discussion of the power and importance of researching your characters, see Script Partners: What Makes Film and TV Writing Teams Work, pp. 121-125).
You may decide to set your menu aside and create an idea from something entirely different—a bit of dialogue you overheard or an image that struck you just as the image of the river struck Lani Sciandra. Maybe even a sound. Once, walking by a dumpster, I heard a cell phone ringing inside. That scene has stuck with me, and one of these days I'm going to start a screenplay that way—a character hearing a cell phone ring in a dumpster and making a discovery that makes a difference when she answers the phone. Whatever idea you choose, be sure that you feel some connection. And be sure that the idea is small and specific so you can create a pattern of human change that we can see happen on screen in three minutes.
Why the discovery makes a difference depends entirely on the character you create. In Lena's Spaghetti, Hannah has just moved to a new town. She's lonely, disconnected. When she discovers a personal ad from Herbie, she answers.
And in Cool Breeze and Buzz, Paula's discovery that her father is back has tremendous significance for her because she hasn't seen him in years. You have to know—and show—your character so that your audience understands why the discovery matters.
Some writers write a character bio—a brief (or long) description of the character. Television writer Renee Longstreet calls them "character notes," though her notes may run several pages, as they did for her character Andrea Linden in the Lifetime movie, Mothers and Daughters. In her notes, Renee describes her character's profession ("Community college art history professor"), appearance ("Attractive naturally—not chic ... dresses in comfortable clothes. Doesn't pay much attention to appearance. Doesn't exercise much, eats whatever she wants ... one of those rare birds that other women envy"), situation ("Parenting and working on career—getting degrees, etc. kept her too busy to involve herself with dating, etc. Likes men, has friend ships, but not a focus for her"), her time line (College—'73—18 years old— REED College on ROTC scholarship; Pregnant—'75," etc.) and miscellaneous notes ("Jazz buff—has learned to play keyboard as an adult"), including those that offer glimpses into what the character is feeling ("Misses her daughter—harbors some anger at both daughter, mother and sister").
"No one has to see them," Renee told Matt & me, "but I have to write them. So when I do the plot, I already know the person. I really do that. I really have to have my characters."3
Then again, her husband and writing partner, Harry, doesn't do character bios, so even within the same writing team, writers have different approaches to creating character.
To be honest, I'm not nuts about bios. All that (albeit important) inert information feels, well, inert. So you may prefer, as I do, to create and explore your characters by answering the following questions:
3. Backstory? (the character's story before the screenplay begins)
4. Present circumstances? (occupation, income, geographic location, dwelling, key relationships)
5. Values, beliefs, world view, attitudes, opinions?
10. Imperfections and contradictions?
You may come up with different questions to ask. Great. Add them to the list. And the more incisive you are with your answers, the better you'll know your character, inside and out.
All this information, of course, cannot end up in your screenplay. Knowing isn't showing. To show, you have to find what Thornton Wilder called "shortcuts to the imagination." Ways of embedding important information— preferably visually—in your screenplay. Ways to give important glimpses into your character and your character's world.
A good place to start is carefully crafting your Character I.D.—the brief but vivid description of your character when you introduce him for the first time in your script, the way Lani describes Buzz McKinney:
He stands in slacks and a tight short-sleeved V-neck. Upon his belly, a huge brass buckle with a race horse and a large ring on either pinky.
The huge brass buckle with a race horse is a glimpse—just a glimpse— into his life as a gambler. A shortcut to our imagination.
When you craft an I.D., you want your character to walk off the page into the head of the reader and stay there the whole screenplay. It drives me crazy when I can't see characters the first time I meet them. I know, I know, many screenwriters don't bother, but the very best do. Look how brilliantly William Goldman describes Butch Cassidy the first time we meet him:
A man, idly walking around the building. He is Butch Cassidy and hard to pin down. Thirty-five and bright, he has brown hair, but most people, if asked to describe him, would remember him blond. He speaks well and quickly, and has been all his life a leader of men, but if you asked him, he would be damned if he could tell you why.4
Or how vividly George Lucas, Gloria Katz, and Willard Huyck describe The Toad when he first appears in American Graffiti:
Terry Fields ("The Toad") maneuvers the scooter next to Steve's Chevy but misjudges and ricochets off the trash can before stopping. Terry grins sheepishly. He's seventeen, short but plenty loud, both vocally and sartorially in his pink and black shirt, levis, and white bucks. He looks slightly ridiculous but always thinks he's projecting an air of supercool.5
It's one of my great pleasures in screenwriting classes to explicate these two passages, showing how they briefly but brilliantly give us a glimpse of three crucial aspects of character (3-D I.D.s, I like to call them): (1) what the character looks like, (2) how the world perceives him, and (3) how he perceives himself.
Talk about exquisitely crafted. Perfectly packed little snowballs. Okay, they're a bit on the long side—I'd shoot for two or three sentences, max, especially in short screenplays—but notice that they don't stop the story. Each I.D. is floated on action—casing a bank and ricocheting off a trash can—and even as we're introduced to Butch and The Toad, the story keeps flowing.
So take all you know about your character from the Checklist and boil it down into a beautifully crafted 3-D I.D. Avoid like the plague clichés like "avoid like the plague" or sleep-city descriptions like "an attractive female" or "a typical Dad" or the overloaded APB description—six feet tall, brown hair, blue eyes, big feet—actually, big feet has nice possibilities. Select high details—specific, illuminating details—that give us a glimpse of the outer and inner person, and write the finished I.D. down on a three-by-five card or a sheet of paper.
Now that you know your character, you need to develop your pattern of change. When and where does the story begin? What discovery does your character make? Where? When? And what difference does it make?
When your character makes the discovery—early, middle, or late—in your screenplay is up to you—but the audience must understand the difference it makes to your character. Why it makes a difference. If the discovery happens early, the rest of your short screenplay might be dramatizing the difference it makes. If the discovery happens late in the screenplay, you'll have to set up your character and situation carefully so we understand the significance of the discovery when it occurs. If you've set your character and situation up well enough, you may not even need dialogue when the discovery happens. In film, such a moment is often more powerful without words.
In Grosse Pointe Blank, Martin Blank is speechless when he discovers his home is now an UltiMart. But as he stands there stunned, staring, as this awful information sinks in, we know what he's thinking—and feeling. We supply his thoughts and emotions. This is the height of connection between character and audience and the height of success for a screenwriter. The moment is so beautifully crafted, character and viewer become one.
One way to dramatize the difference a discovery makes is to show the shift—however subtle—in your character's life. Martin Blank is heading home, but when he discovers it's an UltiMart, the physical and emotional flow of the story shifts. "You can't go home again," he says to his shrink, "but I guess you can shop there." He calls his secretary, tells her to find his mother, and when he finds her in a mental ward, he finds that she doesn't know who he is. "You're a handsome devil. What's your name?"
Once you've created a pattern of change out of one or more discoveries, decide how your screenplay will end. You don't have to—or want to—tie up all the loose ends. That leads your story into hunky-dory land, and few of us believe it exists. Just find a simple way to bring the magic carpet and your audience back to the ground.
Once you've developed your story, you're ready to create a Scene-by-Scene—a list of scenes in the order they occur. I strongly recommend that you work on index cards first—one scene per card—so you can move the scenes around on your desk or table or floor until you find the most effective order and emotional flow. Sticky notes work well, too. The point is to stay flexible, to see all the possibilities your material offers, before you lock yourself and your story into a structure.
If you get inspired about a scene and the index card isn't big enough for the notes or dialogue that you want to write, write them out on a separate sheet of paper (never argue with your Muse) and file it, making a note on the index card to look it up later.
Once the order of your scenes is working, type up your Scene-by-Scene. There are no rules about the right way to do this, but I find it useful to give each scene a slug line, double space, then give a brief description of what happens and why, i.e., your dramatic purpose in the scene. An example from "Killer Kite" might look like this:
EXT. HARLAN LaRUE'S MANSION—NIGHT (FILM)
The ancient stone building sits dark and lifeless. THUNDER. Establishes setting and mood.
INT. LaRUE'S MANSION—NIGHT (FILM)
PROFESSOR HARLAN LaRUE and his assistant, JONATHAN SCOTT, prepare to conduct their experiment and carry the kite to the roof. Sets up the experiment.
A bolt of lightning hits the kite and LaRUE. Jonathan finds LaRue's empty shoes and realizes he's become one with the kite. Launches the horror story.
EXT. LABORATORY ROOF—NIGHT (VIDEO)
Liz yells "Cut" and the VIDEO CAMERA zooms out until we see the CAMERA and the DIRECTOR, COLIN KISHMAN. Establishes that this is a documentary about the making of the "cult horror classic," "Killer Kite."
You may find it helpful to make a note about the emotion you hope to elicit from the audience in the scene, but don't bog down in too much detail. The simpler your Scene-by-Scene is, the better. That way you—and others— can read your screenplay in a skeletal form, letting the movie run in your— their—head, and confirm that your story and structure are, in fact, working.
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