So you know the basics of screenwriting, but you’re still staring at that blank page? Or you simply don’t like your own writing yet? Or you’re just ready to take your scripts to the next level!
I thought now I would write about the best advice I’ve ever received for screenwriting, and the techniques and exercises which I’ve found most useful.
This exercise really helped me and one of my writing partners to flesh out our characters, and get to know them better.
So the exercise is to write a journal entry for each character in your story that begins ‘This is what you need to know about me to understand my journey.’ I’ll give you an example of when I used it. In one of my screenplays a teenage character suddenly encounters a large group of teenagers, who might turn into potential friends.
For this new group of people I had names, and descriptions of how they appeared, and as I wrote their dialogue I had them say things that I thought contributed to the plot, and revealed a little of their character. But what was their character exactly?
I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know these people very well, and because they weren’t lead characters there wasn’t going to be time to really flesh them out unless I consciously put that time aside.
I was feeling pretty uncomfortable with that scene, because the character felt to me like plot functions, rather than fully fleshed out character with their own thoughts and feelings.
So what I did was put aside an afternoon to write journal entries for each one beginning ‘this is what you need to know about me to understand my story.’
Let me give you a hypothetical. Let’s say you have a step parent in your story and they are fulfilling the evil step parent role that we know from Cinderella. It might feel to you that this character is not fully three dimensional. The truth is that most people are the hero in their own story in their own mind.
Most people think of themselves as doing the best that they can in the circumstances they have been given. So if you were to write the journal entry from the POV of the step parent, you might find that their thoughts and feelings are more complex than you originally planned for, and that ultimately they are far more sympathetic than first imagined – and this is good.
Ernest Hemingway has a famous line which is that as writers our job is not to judge, but to understand. That step parent might have had a tough childhood, or fear that the step child will turn their spouse against them, and perhaps the feel that their spouse is the only person who has ever understood or loved them, and they are desperately afraid of being alone.
This kind of detail might throw up a scene where the step parent begs the step child to like them, for instance.
Hopefully once you understand a character from their own perspective it will really deepen your compassion for that character, and enrich their emotional life and motivations.
One brilliant product of this exercise is that you will probably also end up with a biography of your character. The more details you know about a character the better, because, almost like magic, they will make their way into the world of the screenplay.
You might figure our your character’s favourite music, favourite food, favourite country – and each one of these things is going to show up in unexpected places.
Let’s say the characters are sitting around in the living room and are bored, well of course Janet is going to put her favourite album on, say Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’ in the hope that her new friend might like it too.
The more deeply you know your characters, the richer the world will be with detail, and the richer the viewing experience will be.
I hope that exercise is useful to you, and I hope that it’s also a lot of fun. Some writers say they don’t find the process very enjoyable, but sometimes mining these realities can be a really wonderful experience.
Here’s another maxim, or piece of advice that I return to all the time. Have you heard the advice that every line should reveal character or advance the plot?
Let’s say you’ve got a line in your screenplay that doesn’t feel quite right. Or you’ve got a passage, or an interaction, that feels a little flat or a little uninteresting to you. I think it’s generally accepted that there are two things that viewers find particularly interesting, and that’s moments in which they learn more about the character or their motivations, and moments that are crucial to the advancement of the story.
So let’s say John and Georgina are having a chat. And they’re talking about the weather, and it’s feeling a little flat to you. You might ask ‘Is this advancing the plot, or revealing character.’
If the answer is no you have two options. Firstly, cut it! Have you heard the phrase ‘in medias res’. It’s generally translated to ‘in the middle of things’ and refers to moments when a story starts in the middle of the action somewhere – and skips the set up. This is a great technique, and also applies to moments within a story too – so let’s say you cut this section that isn’t working, and choose to start your scene a little bit further along than you might instinctively first want to.
The second option is to rewrite so that perhaps character is revealed. What does Georgina really think about the weather? Does it remind her of the winter she spent in London, and does she swear never to live through another British winter, except for if work took her there?
And so now we know how important work is to Georgina, and how she will brave the cold for professional opportunities. This is a very useful little test to get flat moments or moments that currently have dubious value to your story back on track.
I hope those exercises help with your projects. Here are a few more of the most crucial tips I’ve ever received.
Firstly, detail! There’s a great word that I return to all the time: Verisimilitude, or the extent to which the artwork is drawn from and reflects real life.
Here are some things to consider, and you absolutely don’t have to include any of these things in your scripts, they are just examples. If we are in a forest, tell us which forest. Tell us which trees, which birds we can hear singing. Tell us the season, and the temperature.
It’s amazing how every detail in a world will inform another detail. If we have the season and the temperature, that will tell you what everyone is wearing. If you know what everyone is wearing then you know what kind of events they might be attending, or how other people are going to interact with them.
If they are wearing immaculate three piece suits they are going to be having a certain kind of interaction. If it’s very hot they might have to stop somewhere to get a cool drink, where they might meet your next important character.
Are they wearing a Rolex? What music do they play? You will know when you have too much detail – but that line might be much further along than you think at first. Readers of screenplays are hungry for detail!
It’s also making the director’s job easier. If you know what band features on the protagonists t-shirt, then the director doesn’t have to work it out for themselves!
I’ll give you one more technique that I regularly fall back on. If you don’t like a moment or a section of your screenplay, write down some more choices for that moment.
Think of what’s there as your first choice, and come up with a second, third, fourth, fifth etc. This technique has lots of benefits. One is that you will end up with lots of alternatives to chose from, and hopefully in there will be something you like a bit better.
And secondly, this might lead to more moments of originality. If you feel that your scene feels a bit stale, or that it is a bit too derivative, your fourth and fifth options might have forced you to dig a little deeper.
It’s funny how as writers we’ll often reach first for the things that other people reach for too. That’s why we see the same things popping up again and again. When we dig beyond our first instincts, we might find things that a little more idiosyncratic, a little more personal to us perhaps, and that are perhaps a little more off the beaten track, a little more original.
Also, with comedy, this often has the weird affect of throwing up things that you might find funnier.
I hope you found these tips useful – and please consider sharing so others can benefit too!