Toolbox Lessons from Cal Arts Writer

Writing a good screenplay starts with interesting characters. This rule applies to the entire cast, not just your protagonist. By using some simple brainstorming methods and being mindful of a film’s budget and shooting schedule, your characters will come to life and tell their story in a financially fiscal way.

Most new writers start with a rough idea of their “people” and let the story evolve from there. This is backwards. The character must take the writer to where to story goes, and that’s done by giving them the breath of life. To begin with, make a rough draft of the beginning, middle and the end of your story. Amplification will come in full detail as the script develops in your head. With a basic outline of the characters, now give each one a backstory, from the hero to the last name on the credit crawl. This detailed information will not be filmed, but as a writer, you need to know your people intimately and bring out interesting nuances through their dialog. For example: where were they born? Do they speak with an accent? What was their home life like and what kind of student were they? The education level of your character is crucial to the way in which you craft his dialog.

These deep details will help you to sculpt an interesting background for each player who brings his or her own uniqueness to the plot.

Film differs from novels in that the story is told through pictures. It does not allow for feelings and emotions beyond what the actors can portray. We see the emotions displayed, but cannot see why it is so. Though clear conveyance to the audience from each scene is through visual imagery, the story is always moved forward by dialog.

Having a strong command of your characters will enable you to press forward with biting dialog while keeping the audience entertained. However, there is not enough time or budget to shoot the backstory for every character, so clever incorporation is required from the writer. Example, if you have a stern, unyielding father of the bride, you may relate his tough outer shell to the Vietnam War through a military photo collection in the living room. This type of imagery brings backstory and understanding to the audience without the need for additional costly scenes. Producers and directors will look for powerful images and dialog without having to create unnecessary filming.

As a professional screenwriter, it is your job to be aware of cost and pave the way for an economical shoot.

Research is a key component to developing interesting characters. For instance, your protagonist is going to solve a crime on his own. You must create a backstory to make this a believable situation. The common thought is to make him a police officer or lawyer, thus qualifying him with knowledge about crime. But, to bring this character out of the shadows, how about he’s a plumber with a basement library stocked with crime novels? Or, perhaps, he’s the lab technician that fingerprints dismembered digits at an FBI office. Better yet, he served 10 years in Levenworth.

Your careful research efforts into crime-related fields will open up fresh, new ideas that will make your development skills stand out.

By keeping a detailed journal on each player, you provide yourself with the tools for crafting clever dialog to propel your story forward. Include at least 10 personality traits, likes and dislikes, even physical limitations are important for characters that breathe. Director David Lynch was a master at this, often putting himself into the film with quirky traits and unusual speech habits. The overall effect of deeply crafted characters adds to the dimension and dynamics of the writer and will set you apart from the pack.