I hope you’ve enjoyed my blogs from the London Screenwriters’ Festival: this tenth post pretty much exhausts the good material. I want to close on character, and the excellent workshop by Pilar Alessandra (left), director of the writing programme On The Page.
But first, a confession. My earlier screenplays, I realised after far too many years, were plot-based. That is, I had a good premise, puzzled it through a variety of twists [my first was a time-travel movie eerily reminiscent of Looper], and then tried to shoehorn the characters into them. As Julia Roberts would say, “Big mistake. Huge.”
Drama is conflict that emerges from character. It is not clever plotting. And as any writer will tell you, when your characters are alive, in your head, they do all the work for you: they decide what to do and say; you just take dictation.
My grandfather was a famous novelist: Richard Hughes, author of A High Wind in Jamaica and The Fox in the Attic. There is a family story that he came out of his study one day, white as a sheet. My grandmother rushed up and asked him what was wrong. “It’s Molly,” he said (Molly was a character in the book he was writing). “She’s just fallen from her horse. I rather think she might die.”
Back to Pilar Alessandra. She took us through an intriguing exercise in brainstorming a film structure from scratch, based on character. You can do it yourself, now. You’ll see you have the framework for a workable film within minutes.
First, pick a flaw, any flaw – vanity, laziness, wrath, mendacity, greed, whatever. Then give it to a character.
Now: what’s the worst situation a character with that flaw can find themselves in? So a lazy person might have to win a race; a wrathful person might have to control their temper; a mendacious person might have to tell the truth. [Having written those three things, I realise they already are movies: the first might be Simon Pegg’s Run, Fat Boy, Run; the second might be Jack Nicholson’s Anger Management; the third, Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar. See? It’s working already.]
And now: what does he/she do about that situation? Then: how does this backfire?
Next: what is their overall goal? Next: who would be the absolute worst/least likely person to help them out with it? Now, what action might this person push the protagonist to take? And who or what might now get in the way?
The protagonist needs to be learning something, maybe helping someone else – so now, how can that flaw be turned into a skill? What final action can they take that is the least likely thing they would ever previously have done to take us to the resolution?
Try it. You’ll see it generates plot; interesting/funny scenes; and of course has a built-in character arc.
Two more things I liked from Pilar’s workshop.
One, her description of “3D” characters. The three dimensions she identifies are A) Public: what is your character like when out and about? B) Personal: in one-on-one scenes? C) When he or she thinks no one else is looking? [Contrast with Graham Linehan’s distinction between “above the line” and “below the line” character in post 7.]
Two: her simple rule for introducing a character in a script. You must express essence, and action. An example from one of her students: “EMMA BALE, tough by necessity, furiously packs the crabs into straw boxes.” From that short line we have character, location, employment, history and some idea of looks without just describing the heroine as “pretty” or “brunette”. Note that the less specific detail about physical attributes you give, the more widely open to casting the role is, and the more actors who might be interested in playing the role.
And th-th-that’s all for now, folks! But y’all come back now, y’hear?
Tickets to next year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival are currently available to pre-book at a £70 discount. There are also monthly instalment plans to spread the cost. http://www.londonscreenwritersfestival.com/lsf2014/. For my other blogs from the festival, including a lot of wildly entertaining stuff from Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas, start here.