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Posts Tagged ‘character’

What should I write about?

December 10th, 2010 No comments

The question frequently arises among writers: “What should I write about?” It’s not coincidental that the most frequent answer is “Write what you know,” especially since it’s easier to draw on personal experience than create a new world from whole cloth. But both approaches have their merits, and their adherents. It’s really about which you do best, since writing well is the goal…

Recently I attended a holiday dinner party which came together almost spontaneously. At the dinner I was joined by a high-level film studio executive-assistant, a Tony-nominated playwright, a British screenwriter (son of a Knight!), a set dresser and a costumer. As the lone blogger, I was both intimidated and fascinated. Talk ranged from gossip to philosophy, from food to metaphysics, and I did my best to take it all in (meal included, truth be told). By evening’s end, I had enough ‘material’ to write several screenplays, from the “Big Chill” aspect of this rag-tag group of celebrants to the farcical “Home for the Holidays” spirit of the day; if I wished, I could tap darker undercurrents which would lead the tale an entirely different direction.  Regardless of what direction I wished to go, from comic to heavily dramatic, I gained enough inspiration (and story material) from our dinner together to keep me busy for a while.

Knowing what to write about is half the battle. What remains is a difficult – albeit frequently fun – task of defining your story, identifying its beginning, middle and end, and applying a plot structure to it which moves the story forward while satisfying audiences’ desires to be entertained. It’s a careful balance of  plot, character, dialogue, pacing and tone – and any one of these elements can ‘tip’ the overall project off-kilter – and into a studio’s ‘reject’ pile. So it’s obvious that knowing your story is paramount to your screenplay’s success, but getting it right is just as important, and that takes an artist’s touch.

Personal experience is a tricky thing: we often lack the perspective to ‘open-up’ our own stories and instead get bogged-down in minutiae, so it’s important to step back to see the bigger picture (the one the audience deserves) to ensure your story is being told completely. It’s no accident that many of the best novels are adapted into screenplays not by the books’ authors, but by experienced screenwriters who understand the structure and demands of a screen story. Many book authors get the opportunity to adapt their work for Hollywood, but few see their efforts get to the screen unchanged; conversely, those writers who eschew Hollywood work in favor of writing more books often score a higher success rate in getting their titles to theater marquees. A prime example of the latter is Elmore Leonard, who gave up adapting his works in the 80s, although he continues writing novels to this day – and movies continue to be produced (“3:10 to Yuma”) based on his enormous volume of work.

So what should you write about? The answer to that question is as varied as life itself. Material should present itself, whether it comes from a dinner party, a walk to the store or a phone call with a loved one. It’s up to you as a writer to recognize this opportunity and write it down.

Once you’ve finished writing, don’t forget to make sure your work is immune to critical nit-picking. Every successful story, play, screenplay, teleplay and novel became a success because the author took the time to get it right. Story analysis from an experienced professional is the best way to gain perspective on this very personal work. Constructive criticism is the key to refining your project into the ‘bulletproof’ property that will increase your odds of success!

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…