Archive

Archive for the ‘Script Analysis’ Category

Endings: Grace note?

September 1st, 2011 No comments

The ‘Holy Trinity’ of Story

Every screenplay has a beginning, middle and ending – and, as has been noted more than once before in For Bards Blog, the ending is usually the hardest part to get right. For those reading a novel or otherwise immersing themselves in some form of entertainment, reaching the ending is usually a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you have a feeling of accomplishment, but it is inevitably tinged with a sense of loss: this vicarious experience has drawn to a close. For a screenwriter, creating a solid ending that resolves their story to the audience’s satisfaction is a tricky balancing act, but hopefully it gives birth to the urge to create anew. Often it leads to re-examination, second guessing and unlimited fussing in the name of ‘getting it right,’ even though it’s possible the first choice may have been the right one. In other words, it’s hard to let a project go, but it’s necessary. Your script must be complete before it can be produced – and the desired throngs can enjoy it on the big screen, from beginning to end – at which point it will be their turn to yearn for more …

Lasting Impressions

Whether your script is a comedy, a drama or anything else, it will first be judged on its ending. Just the way making a good ‘first impression’ is important when meeting someone, the ‘final impression’ a reader or studio executive takes away from your script’s last page is likely to make the difference between a ‘consider’ or a ‘pass.’ (If you’re lucky enough to garner a rare ‘recommend,’ you probably nailed it way before the last page.) So the ending of your screen story is vital to the success of your project – and you should ensure that it hits the correct notes to offer your audience an entertaining, insightful and emotionally satisfying experience.

The End… or is it?

One of Hollywood’s latest ‘innovations’ in terms of story endings harkens back to the earliest days of film, when all movies were shorts, and many were serials. Now movies have ‘bulked up’ into $200 million behemoths, so studios must hedge their bets by implanting a cryptic plot point at the end of their tentpole films so that they have pre-positioned a sequel in their (presumed) franchise. All superhero films have them, every ghost story, all genre-mashups… If you are lucky enough to get your script made these days, it had better have franchise potential – if you decide to work for a big studio, that is.

Still a place for dignity

Fortunately, there still is a market for original films with challenging themes and endings. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: if you’ve written a screenplay with a ‘downer’ ending, or something that is open-ended, be prepared for requests to change it to something ‘more commercial.’ Because even if you’re fortunate enough to sell your screenplay, the people who bought it still would like to make money off of it, and if that means changing the ending, they will. It’s called show business, not show art. The best way to avoid having your script’s ending changed is to write the strongest one possible in the first place. And that’s where an experienced story analyst can help make a difference.

Omega and Alpha

Endings are part of the nature of things. Everything that has a beginning has an ending. In screenwriting, the one trick to an ending that is emotionally resonant and satisfying is this: there is no trick. There is only hard work, trial and error, and solid writing. So go out there and write – and re-write, if necessary – your screenplay’s ending. But finish it, with a real ending you can justify; if you can argue successfully for a downer, open-ended absurdist nihilstic finale, then that’s probably the right ending for your work. Get it right, and get it done. That way you can start your next  script with a clear conscience…

Homework during summer? BUMMER!

July 27th, 2011 No comments

 

 

Dude, hope you’re havin’ a bitchin summer!

OK… you’re a screenwriter. So where’s your homework?

HOMEWORK?! Nobody said anything about homework…!

WHAT Unwritten Rules?

Aha! Homework is another of the unwritten rules of screenwriting. (As the saying goes, “There are no rules to sure success in the movie business – but you break them at your own peril.”) And everyone has to do homework – even if they’re the teacher.

Homework, but no Phys Ed, right?

No Physical Education, but you should get off the couch, your movie theater seat or desk chair every once in a while. In the case of screenwriting, homework really consists of knowing your business. Literally. The more movies you have seen, the more scripts you have read, the better your chances of writing a strong, original screenplay. Although it may seem illogical, being original is really a matter of knowing what’s gone before – so you can avoid the same territory. As a story analyst, I can usually tell a writer’s formative film and scripting influences as soon as I read their work. It’s human nature to emulate writing which we think is ‘quality,’ even if it involves unconscious borrowing or, in the worst cases, plagiarizing. It’s helpful to know if you’re unwittingly channeling a story that’s already been told (and which you saw and didn’t remember) before you submit your script – afterwards is too late, particularly for that script opportunity or your reputation.

Homework was never this fun

Cheer up. Screenwriting homework, like the ‘work’ of writing, isn’t too tough. In fact, screenwriting homework  is easier than writing. Basically, it involves two things: your mind and subject matter. The instructions go something like this: combine the two, ponder, and repeat. That’s about all there is to it. In other words, stimulate your mind with a film or film script, absorb the story elements, note the tone and pacing, appreciate the characters and plot. Above all, remember. Remember the general story and structure, recall the overall theme. This can all be done from the comfort of your couch – or a movie theater seat – at your leisure. But it needs to be done. Otherwise you may end up writing “Casablanca” due to the fact that you had a great idea for a ‘retro love-triangle story’ because you failed to remember that ‘arthouse movie’ an old girlfriend dragged you to years before…

Look at the blueprints, visit the building

As a story analyst, I have read thousands of screenplays, plays and teleplays (along with treatments, manuscripts, you name it…). And I have seen more than several people’s shares of films and television. While I may lack the zeitgeist sophistication of my youthful nephews and nieces, I could beat the tar out of any one of them when it came to ‘movie trivia,’ (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘knowledge’) or story precedents. And, while I intend to learn the entire Lady Gaga canon some day, knowing whether someone’s script is perilously close to “Blade Runner” comes in a lot handier right now, for me and my clients.

In terms of actual homework, a great exercise is to read the film script, then see the movie. There are a lot of film script sites allowing you to read scripts for free, among them The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb). Once you’ve read the script, it’s time to see the film. Apart from heading to theaters for current releases, multitudes of films are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with streaming titles and on-demand titles, so there shouldn’t be much of a barrier to find the film you are looking for. Ideally, you’ll hang on to the script and make notes if you notice anything that is meaningful to you – but in any case you will have developed a greater understanding of how screenplays are ‘stitched together,’ and what Hollywood looks for in a finished script.

Cheer up – there’s extra credit

Doing your ‘screenwriting homework’ during the summer isn’t so bad. It gets you inside from the blazing heat that seems to be everywhere, and hopefully it’s entertaining. But if it isn’t, that’s where the real work starts: why was it slow? Which character was weak? Did you spot the plot hole? It’s sometimes easier to find the seams in a bad movie than a good one, usually because they’re so obvious – and it’s the same with the script that went before. While reading a script, be aware of the flow and pace, its overall story and characters. Does the dialogue sound right? If any aspect of the script seems questionable, pay extra attention to that when you watch the film – sometimes it really was ‘fixed in editing,’ but often the same deficiencies persist from script to finished product.

The Lone Exception

Of course there’s one screenplay that is simply perfect just the way it is: yours. Or so you hope. Unless you’ve done your homework, you may only find out you’re not ‘completely correct’ when your script gets sent back to you. So do your homework – or benefit from the services of someone who’s helped writers like you by offering constructive criticism. But whatever you do, always put your best effort forward.

Style? …or Substance?

May 10th, 2011 No comments

It’s been a little while, but the victory of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Academy Awards in February for Best Picture and Best Director has gotten us thinking: is there such a thing as a ‘style over substance’ bias at the Oscars?

The Academy Award Best Picture victory of “The King’s Speech” (along with Best Director, Tom Hooper, as well as best original screenplay by David Seidler) over its notable competitor “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher (although “The Social Network”‘s screenplay, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book, also won), says a lot about Academy voters. They like an underdog, it seems, even when the Directors’ Guild or the Writers’ Guild feel otherwise. Stylish films (or films which emphasize direction over story) from first-time directors have scuttled Oscar hopes for master director Martin Scorsesetwice. And other great directors (ever heard of Steven Spielberg? Stanley Kubrick?) have had their hopes dashed by ‘flashy’ entrants in the Oscar race.

 

This Year’s Model

It’s not hard to see why “The King’s Speech” won the Best Picture Oscar over “The Social Network,” since Toby Hooper’s ‘Speech’ is playful, studied and gimmicky. Audiences love that in a movie, and the Academy, despite their above-average member age, usually loves audience favorites. Besides, the story behind David Seidler’s truth-based script is practically a movie on its own: a stutterer himself, Seideler got the Queen Mother’s permission to write her husband’s story, on the condition that he wait until after her death to sell it – and she then proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 101! (In the process, Seidler became the oldest winning screenwriter in Academy Award history.)  Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” served as the basis of Sorkin’s adaptation, “The Social Network,” under David Fincher’s direction. Although both pictures were nominated for Best Picture, screenplay and director, Fincher’s coolly calculated, challenging evocation of the Silicon Valley start-up explosion and birth of Facebook lost out to Hooper’s frenetic and occasionally slapstick historical tale. Although both pictures did well at the box office, it’s a good bet that 20 years from now more people will be citing the influence of Fincher’s work in “The Social Network” (or his previous film “Zodiac,” which similarly evoked a recent period setting with astonishing effect) than will be pointing to “The King’s Speech” and its effect on film. 

Freshman curse?

It sure seems like veteran film director Martin Scorsese has been the victim of this Academy ‘Style vs. Substance’  bias. Multiple times. He finally got his Best Director Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” but was nominated (and, of course, lost) 6 times previously. I was at the Academy Awards in 1981 when Scorsese lost to the first of three first-time directors, Robert Redford, who won for “Ordinary People” over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (argued by many cinephiles to be the best film of the 80s). Scorsese would go on to lose (with “Goodfellas”) to Kevin Costner and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and again to first-time feature director Rob Marshall, whose “Chicago” beat “The Aviator” in 2005. It was only after his 7th nomination, for “The Departed,” that Scorsese defeated this ‘freshman curse.’ Even still, his ‘loser’ films like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull” and “Gangs of New York” are considered ‘winners’ in the pages of film history.

Always the Bridesmaid…

 Martin Scorsese isn’t alone in terms of being a powerhouse director with an empty shelf full of near-misses at the Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg has been nominated 9 times, and won three of those Oscars (he won for Best Picture and Best Director in 1994 for “Schindler’s List,” but in 1998 had to settle for Best Director only for “Saving Private Ryan”). The Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 went to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which many in Hollywood attributed to a savvy “For Your Consideration” Academy Award trade publication advertising campaign. Again, regardless of “Shakespeare in Love”‘s wit and frothiness, its importance to film history is bound to be overshadowed by its losing Best Picture competitor “Saving Private Ryan.”

How about Light versus Dark?

Although 2010’s Best Picture battle underscored the ‘style versus substance’ debate in Hollywood, it’s really nothing new. The Academy has been choosing between light entertainment and heavy drama since its inception. In 1951, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” lost to “An American in Paris” at the box office. Vincente Minnelli’s popular musical film beat Kazan’s gritty drama that year (although Kazan – and ‘Streetcar’ star Marlon Brando – would win golden statuettes a few years later for their work together on “On the Waterfront” ). A similar situation would arise 14 years later when “My Fair Lady” faced down “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1965. Despite its vaunted place in film history (and multiple Oscar nominations), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic black comedy lost to George Cukor’s refined adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe classic, which practically swept the 1965 Oscar ceremony. Even still, I don’t know of many people whose ‘desert island movie collection’ would leave out ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Can’t say I know a lot of people who would include ‘My Fair Lady,’ either, but that’s just me…

Doesn’t visionary count? 

Finally, one of the more obvious ‘style over substance’ choices for Best Picture has to come from 1976, in which heavyweight Hollywood dramas “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Taxi Driver” (there’s that hapless Scorsese again!) and the late Sidney Lumet’s classic “Network” (from Paddy Chayefsky’s original Oscar-winning screenplay) all lost to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which clealy struck a chord with underdog-lovers everywhere. A tremendously-successful independent film, “Rocky” spawned five sequels.  “Network,” on the other hand, predicted the rise of reality TV, ratings wars and global media, not to mention airwave-hogging ideologues. So there is that

Who says it’s just style or substance?

While discussing the subject of style versus substance, a friend asked an intriguing question: “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?”

So – coming up next: ‘Nature versus Nurture: Creativy or Experience?’ 

ARE MOVIES GETTING smaller?

February 17th, 2011 No comments

In our last For Bards blog post, we posed the question “Are movies getting bigger?,” citing the number of sequels, prequels and reboots coming down the pike for the next couple of movie seasons. Everything looked to be bigger! better! (And more of the same!!)

But there’s change afoot in the cinema. By the looks of this year’s Academy Award nominees, movies may be getting smaller. A quick look at the ten nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture reveals that at least 6 of them are smaller-budgeted, character-driven ‘arthouse’ films: “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours” and “Winter’s Bone.” And another Best Picture nominee, “Inception,” is a contradiction in terms: a  huge-budgeted, arthouse film made by a studio (which returned the favor by delivering blockbuster global box office).

But a strange thing happened on the way to making these ‘small’ pictures… For starters, they actually got made – truly a testimony to the creative talents behind the projects. Their budgets were squeezed for every dollar – and the filmmakers often suffered for their art; the entire “Winter’s Bone” budget was $2 million, yet that picture has earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Leading Actress (Jennifer Lawrence). The highest-budgeted (with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s anomalous “Inception”) of these so-called arthouse films is $25 million for “The Fighter,” but Lisa Chodolenko managed to make her “The Kids Are All Right” for a little over $4 million, and that garnered Academy nods for Best Picture, Leading Actress (Annette Bening) Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), and Best Original Screenplay. “The King’s Speech” cost $15 million to make, but this past weekend it walked away with 7 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards (in addition to receiving 12 Oscar nominations).

But something even stranger happened – something few folks predicted: these films made money. “The King’s Speech” is rapidly closing in on $100 million in the US, and has made $86 million overseas. “Black Swan” has earned nearly $100 million in the U.S.,  “The Fighter” has earned $82 million in the US, and another $11 million abroad, even Chodolenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” made about $20 million domestically. The micro-budgeted (by Hollywood standards) “Winter’s Bone” made a significant profit, returning $10 million in B.O. receipts. Ironically, the one ‘small’ Best Picture nominee that has underperformed is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” which was budgeted at $18 million and has brought in only $15 million domestically, and another $13 million at the box office overseas. Poor word-of-mouth is probably to blame: while audiences thrilled at Boyle’s bravura filmmaking and James Franco’s charismatic (and Leading Actor Oscar-nominated) performance, word of the picture’s emotional climax, in which Franco’s character cuts off his own arm, hurt potential sales. It didn’t help that the media picked up stories of people fainting at screenings, although Boyle’s films have always tested audience’s fortitude – think ‘plumbing-diving’ sequences in “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” (and don’t forget: for the latter, Boyle – and his film – won Academy Awards).

It’s not uneard-of for a ‘small’ film to make money – studios are always looking for the next money-making phenom like “Paranormal Activity,” “Napoleon Dynamite,”or “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but it takes a certain sensibility to find and nurture these off-the-radar projects. It’s rare that a studio gets behind such a project – it used to be the province of the studios’ ‘specialty film’ units, but most of those have closed since every studio began throwing money at ‘small’ films, effectively turning them into conventional studio product. In the case of this year’s ‘small’ nominees, every film represents the vision of a strong-minded director and a solidly-written script, and, despite this, many of these projects struggled for years to find funding and support to get made.

The lone exception is Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which resembles an ‘arthouse’ film in its mind-bending originality, but is betrayed by its $160 million budget. It speaks volumes that Warner Brothers executives greenlit Nolan’s film, a convoluted puzzle-within-a-puzzle, but it is very representative of the filmmaker’s work: turning genre works on their head is Nolan’s specialty – just watch “Memento,” “The Prestige” or even “The Dark Knight” to see how this cinephile subverts conventional storytelling to elevate the antagonist and invert audience expectations. He may be too ‘smart’ or original for conventional Hollywood fare, but Nolan’s auteur sense suggests a keen understanding of art and commerce; after all, despite critical brickbats, “Inception” has gone on to make $824 million at the world box office. Not bad for a giant ‘arthouse’ picture!

So – are movies getting smaller? The simple answer is no. But as long as ‘small’ films make money, look for studios to hedge their big tentpole bets with lesser-budgeted projects in hopes of landing ‘the next big thing.’

Why Analysis?

October 12th, 2010 No comments

Story analysis? (At this point, we touch our fingertips together, lean forward in our chair and observe, while asking “How do you feel about that?”)

Lots of jokes have been made at the expense of touchy-feely psychoanalysis, which is typically represented by a patient unburdening themselves from a psychiatrist’s couch while a thoughtful, goateed doctor listens and occasionally inserts a probing question into the mix. Jokes aside, analysis is a powerful tool to correct deep-rooted problems, and it is why patients visit psychiatrists, doctors specially trained in treating disorders which may very well go unrecognized by others. In doing so, hopefully the analyst gives the patient a new control over their life, leading to success and fulfillment.

Story and script analysis, while mercifully short on comic stereotypes like couches or goatees, are just as powerful tools to offer a screenwriter perspective, focus and context involving their own work. A good story analyst has years of experience and (on the job) training, with a knowledge of film history and current film, as well as a feel for the ebb and flow of the movie industry in general. And at least 1,000 scripts under their belt – read and analyzed; 2,000 is better. Every script read and synopsized, every story analyzed, every set of reader’s comments informs the analyst’s next set of notes; in short, story analysis is cumulative. Over the course of many years, I have analyzed more than 3,500 scripts, manuscripts, plays, teleplays and treatments; as a result, my ability to identify writing missteps, story mistakes, plotting errors and the like has allowed me to assist writers of all kinds, from total neophytes to jaded Hollywood A-Listers.

Regardless of whether you choose a professional story analyst, it’s important to have someone other than yourself read and provide an independent assessment of your work. No one sets out to write a ‘bad’ script – but stuff happens… If you are so immersed in your work you do not recognize logic gaps, uneven characters, plot holes, strained dialogue, formulaic structure or one of the many other traps screewriters fall into, it’s time to bring in a fresh eye – hopefully someone with the skill set to offer constructive criticism that will make the writing process easier and less mysterious for you. I have friends and colleagues who pooh-pooh  the idea of paying a story analyst to read their work (hey – I didn’t say they were good friends…), but they are often the ones who come to me privately and ask me to look at their work. I’ve also offered to read pals’ work gratis and given them advice, but the majority of screenplays I have analyzed have come through the studio system to the production companies or film finance clients I work with, in addition to those personal clients who discovered Forbard Story Services’ website on their own.

So. Analysis. Hmmm… I know how I feel about that – but how about you? It may make all the difference in your pursuit of screenwriting success!

Pitch, Treatment or Script?

August 13th, 2010 No comments

 

At first the question sounds like a philosophical enigma. And, in a way, it is.

If you have a GREAT MOVIE IDEA, and want to share it with the world, how should you present it? As a ‘pitch,’ which usually involves a verbal presentation to a studio ‘creative executive,’ (meaning someone who got to the job fair a half-hour ahead of you… Although, to be sincere, some creative executives know what they are talking about – I met one. Once. To his credit, he’d actually seen some of the same movies I had.) In any case, your ‘pitch’ involves describing your GREAT IDEA using theatrics, rhetorical devices and basic drama. At the end, you’ll usually hear “We’ll get back to you,” but anything short of “Get out of my office!” should be taken as a good sign. Rumor has it that the most successful, shortest pitch ever was Tom Mankiewiecz’s “Dum de Dum Dum” reciting to get the 1987 “Dragnet” greenlit. Too bad… a little longer and the creative exec might’ve decided more wisely…

A treatment for a film usually covers 10 or so double-spaced typed pages. It is ordinarily a combination of characters, plot description and key dialogue, and imparts the general idea of the film’s structure and plot points with the pacing and tone included. I’ve read 10-page treatments that essentially spelled out the entire film (Think “John Carpenter’s ‘Ghosts of Mars,'”) or treatments which merely touched on the subject at hand. One of the more memorable treatments I read dealt with a novel-in-progress about organized crime involved during the rebuilding and reunification of Germany (along the lines of “Eastern Promises”). By the time the script actually appeared (a couple of years after the novel’s publication), the story was dated and diluted. It was disappointing, because the novel-in-progress (and its associated treatment) had a ‘Sopranos’-like appeal – which only faded as time intruded.

And the last choice is the ‘gold standard’: a script. They’re the hardest to complete (well), but they are what studio executives will ask for most (and usually first – “Do you have a finished script? – Or a writing sample?”) A finished – and bulletproof! – script is really the best way to go with anyone who is serious about producing (or investing in) your project. Your writing needs to be ready-for-production in a manner that won’t allow anyone to question its practicalities, characters, plot loopholes or other logic gaps so that you can lead with your very best. If your ideas can be called into question by a single query, does it make any difference what form it’s in?

Pitch, Treatment or Script? Do it the way you want to – but do it! And – this is important – if you’re submitting it for consideration, your work had bettter be the best it can. Otherwise the decision of ‘Pitch, Treatment or Script?’ won’t be important. At that point, the only important answer you’ll need is “Which way’s the door?”

“SPAM, for lack of a better word, is good.”

May 24th, 2010 No comments

I started a blog about screenwriters – and those who sought to aspire to screenwriter status – just a few months ago. I’ve done my best to write informative pieces about ideas and writing and films and writing about films…

But I’ve discovered the EVIL side of the commercial Internet… (Is there any other kind, you may ask? And I will tell you that here are a lot more aspiring  writers than there are sites targeted against them.) 

In recent weeks I’ve been bombarded by spam from commercial sites that calculate to raise their profile – and thus – potential profits because they have ‘linked’ to me. There’s no need to worry. “For Bard’s” blog is  secure – it recognizes this robotic/repetetive spam and is eager and willing to accept your NON-spam comments: (and we know the difference!).

If you want story guidance, or even just need to contact an experienced story analyst, you have an opportunity. Send us a message. Just DON’T send spam – it’ll only be ignored…

Categories: Rant, Script Analysis Tags:

What a character!

May 7th, 2010 No comments

 

Quick: name your favorite movie character!

Most people will choose a hero, or protagonist, as their favorite character, like Atticus Finch or Indiana Jones (the number one and two heroes, respectively, in the American Film Institute’s 2003 “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villians” TV special), while others opt for the villain, or antagonist, like those who made Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader their gold and silver choices in the same poll. Most actors will confess they enjoy playing villains more than heroes – ‘bad’ is always more fun than ‘good,’ at least movie-wise; it’s just a pity you’ve got to die at the end, though… (Or be incarcerated, or lose the girl, get a bloody nose… whatever). You know the drill: The hero wins, the villain loses. Those are their functions in the story. (In a conventional sense, although there are anti-heroes and likeable villains – just watch any classic Hitchcock film for this paradigm shift…)

What makes them memorable is character. But what is character?

The dictionary defines character as “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.” A bit lower down comes this alternate definition: “an account of the qualities or peculiarities of a person or thing.” In other words, ‘character’ may mean identity, or it could mean how someone is ‘unique.’ Different writers treat the issue of character according to their own concepts of it. Tough guy director Walter Hill, making “The Long Riders”, told American Film magazine back in 1980: “In my films, when someone has a gun pointed in his face, character is how many times he blinks.”

I’ve read thousands of scripts and I’ve ‘collected’ my own favorite characters in memory, like the transplanted marine biologist banished to ‘do time’ in Iowa because of university politics, or the creepy Gollum-like creature (years before the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed) who helped his pal get rid of dead bodies. A particularly memorable character was a whore in ancient Egypt  who threw her lot in with tomb plunderers – despite knowing the penalty was horrible death. None of these scripts ever made it to the movie screen, but it wasn’t because their characters weren’t memorable; if anything, their authors magnified the deficiencies of their stories by writing such contrastingly strong characters.

But character can successfully drive a story. And it it very important. As has been written here before, each story has a beginning, a middle and an ending, and usually the ending is the hardest part to get right. In a character-driven story, the plot is secondary to character development (think “American Beauty” or “Citizen Kane”), and the story is propelled forward by the protagonist. It’s a riskier venture, business-wise, so there aren’t as many character-driven films as there are plot-driven films, but occasionally you’ll see one ‘break out.’ “Napoleon Dynamite” is a perfect example of a character-driven movie that simply ‘hit,’ earning a respectable purchase price after a boisterous reception at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004; it went on, with the aid of shrewd marketing, to make millions for Paramount.

Character is a deciding factor in speculative (spec) scripts, meaning scripts that have not been ordered or paid for – in other words, most peoples’ scripts – because character is usually a solid indicator of whether the screenwriting is strong or simply frames a good idea. As a story analyst, I have recommended writers on the basis of their character writing – while rejecting their scripts outright for other reasons. Of course the ideal solution is to craft a solid script containing a cohesive story and plot, snappy dialogue and effective pacing and tone… But whatever you do, don’t forget good characters! They can be the best friends you’ll ever have – or the greatest villians you can imagine…