Saturday, March 5, 2011

MAIN CHARACTER: Failure Matters

“What do you have to lose?”

Too few screenwriters ask this question of their main character.

You can nail the dialog, render authentic characters and portray realistic events. You can imagine internal/external conflicts and take your reader through an emotional journey. But still, people will set down your script with a dismissive “that’s nice” if your character has nothing to lose.


What went wrong? In “real” life, we rarely have moments of compelling victory/defeat. When we learn lessons and make changes, they are generally slow in coming and we change one thin layer at a time. But in “reel life,” if there’s no drama, your reader falls asleep. You have to hold their interest. Victory needs to feel like victory.

And Defeat Needs to Feel Like Defeat.

Raise the stakes.

Whether your main character is a hero or anti-hero, he is set on a path toward a probable result. The trials and obstacles of the second act take him into unexpected places and “what he thinks he wants” transforms into “what he really needs.” If the audience doesn’t feel like he “really needs it,” they’ll put down your script to go get something cold to drink.

In “The King’s Speech” – What if King George never overcomes his debilitating stutter? Well ...he will never be able to deliver the speech that needs to unite his country in opposition to the Nazi war machine.

In “The Fighter” - What if Micky Ward fails in his last chance bout for the light welterweight title? He will never earn redemption for himself and his brother. And his brother will likely slide back into his drug addiction, leading to his eventual destruction.

In “Cinema Paradiso” - What happens if Salvatore doesn’t return to his tiny home village and confront a heartbreak from his past? He will keep living a life that looks successful on the outside but is empty of love and true caring, moving from one unsatisfying relationship to the next.

In “The Wizard of Oz” – What happens if Dorothy doesn’t learn that everything she needs is already inside her? She will always believe that somewhere over the rainbow is where her answers lie and miss out on the blessings right in front of her.

Failure matters. It is through the risk of failure that your main character’s success gains importance and keeps your audience engaged, whether reading your pages or watching your story up there on the screen.

Have a great writing day!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

THE ANTAGONIST: Even the Enemy is the Protagonist of His Own Life

“I believe in the law. I seen towns where a man used to earn enough for food on his table and grow a family. Then outsiders come in, get drunk, start fighting and before you know it that family man is lying out there face down in the mud with a bullet in his back or his head smashed in. Big Whiskey used to be one of them kinda towns before I got here. Three steps from Hell, I’d say. No law at all. I fixed that. I got simple rules: You can get drunk and whore around all you need, after all, a fella’s got to have some fun. But you leave your guns back home. And if you don’t do that, you best drop ‘em off at my office first thing. Don’t make me come and get ‘em. Hell, now I heard that some whore down at Skinny’s offered out a reward for killing a coupla drunk fool cowhands that cut up one of the girls. That’s gonna slow things down on getting my house built before winter, dammit. Well, I’ll be there every time that stagecoach comes in. And any men looking like they got ideas about that money, I’ll give ‘em a whippin’ they won’t soon forget. After a few of them gunslingers get bloodied up, word’ll get out. Don’t come to Big Whiskey. Ain’t no amount of money worth going up against Lil Bill Daggett. “ - Sheriff Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven

“We have a situation, but I’ve got it handled. One of our operatives went missing. He had an assignment and missed his target. I don’t know why. We thought he might be dead but now he’s turned up in Switzerland. He cleared out his box. Took everything. Hell, he showed up at the Embassy and tore the place up. I don’t know what his game is but it’s stopping right now. Police? First of all, police are useless in this situation, you know that. This is a man we trained to be invisible, get past any obstacle and kill whoever gets in his way. And second, I can just imagine what the press would do if they ever did get this guy behind bars. The story he could --- forget it. I have the entire team on ‘stand-by.’ Castel is on him. If he fails? He won’t fail. And even if he does, I got another dozen right behind him. I don’t know if Bourne went rogue and I don’t need to know. All I want to hear is that he’s dead before he brings this whole thing down on our heads.” - Conklin, The Bourne Identity

In great writing, the Antagonist is right.

That doesn’t mean you agree with him.

In the above examples both Daggett and Conklin are set to destroy the Main Character. The stakes are raised when the Antagonist is correct from his point of view and committed to his path. He becomes a formidable obstacle to overcome and casts doubt as to whether the Main Character will succeed. Or sometimes, whether he should succeed.

In Unforgiven, by David Webb Peoples, Bill Munny is a bad man who has tried to leave his past behind. But he has killed dozens of people. Should he be allowed to kill the two cowhands and get away with it?

In The Bourne Identity, adapted for the screen by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron, Jason Bourne is a trained assassin for the United States government. He is a cold blooded killer. Some part inside him has been broken and he is a very dangerous man.

These two examples are from dramatic mainstream movies. Does this principle also apply to kinder, gentler movies and independents?

In Toy Story, by Joss Whedon & Andrew Stanton and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow, the Main Character is Woody. What does Woody want? To be Andy’s favorite toy. It’s important to be the favorite. The favorite gets played with and doesn’t end up in a yard sale box. Life is good. Until Buzz Lightyear arrives. How can an old cowboy doll compete with a doll that’s new and modern? How can Andy not tell that this Buzz Lightyear is a simple-minded idiot who believes he is an astronaut?

From Buzz Lightyear’s point of view, he doesn’t know why he is in Andy’s house. Playing is alright, but he must get back to his home planet! Buzz’s existence is an obstacle to Woody getting what he wants. Is Buzz wrong? No. He just has a different agenda. He can’t help it if he is so incredibly cool to play with.

In Lars and the Real Girl, by Nancy Oliver, Lars Lindstrom is an emotionally damaged young man who works in a bland office, minds his own business and tries to keep the world at arm’s length. He has no friends, has never had a girlfriend and is painfully shy. He spends most of his time alone. But there’s a girl at the office who likes him. He might like her if he didn’t cut himself off from the risk of feeling his emotions.

The Antagonists are his brother, Gus, and sister-in-law, Karin. Gus loves his brother but is tired of being embarrassed by him. Why can’t Lars be normal? Karen wants Lars to be part of the family and is frustrated that he avoids coming to dinner, spending time with them.

Gus and Karin are completely reasonable. But their behavior and expectations add to the stress that Lars feels. Part of Lars longs to live more fully, but he doesn’t know how. It is through falling in love with a lifelike doll that he is finally able to express the feelings he has for other people. And it is his experience of loving the doll that allows him to get past the deep and painful scars of his childhood and, ultimately, transfer those loving feelings to real people.

Gus and Karin are not bad people. Gus sees the pain that Lars feels. He witnessed the scars as they happened as kids. But he is from the same family – why can’t Lars just let it go as he has? Karin means well. But Lars confuses her. And when he brings the doll to eat with them at the dinner table, she does her best to understand. But how can anyone help Lars? He may be nice. But he also may be crazy.

As you write and rewrite your script, look for ways to humanize your Antagonist. The conflict in some stories is black and white; in other stories, it’s much more subtle, like life. The important thing is to keep in mind that your Antagonist doesn’t know that he is the Antagonist. He thinks he’s the PROtagonist.

Yes, your Antagonist needs to have an opposing view from your Main Character. But he doesn’t need to be all bad.

After all, even Darth Vader loved his son.

Have a great writing day!

Monday, September 6, 2010

THE VERDICT: A Case Study in Character

An outstanding example of excellent character development can be found in THE VERDICT (1982) screenplay by David Mamet, based on the novel by Barry Reed.

Frank Galvin, a washed up, ambulance chasing, alcoholic lawyer whose life is in shambles, is handed a medical malpractice case against a large, Catholic hospital in Boston. He is expected to take the Archdiocese’s offer and settle the case out of court. But the more he learns about the case, his long dormant idealism and desire for justice are reawakened. He decides to go up against the church and one of the most powerful and connected lawyers in the city – an opponent who will stop at nothing to defeat him.

Galvin graduated second in his class at Boston University law school and became a partner in one of the major firms in Boston. He married and had a successful life. Then Galvin learned that one of the senior partners in his firm had tampered with the jury in an ongoing case. He confronted the partner and told him that he was going to the authorities. In a heartbeat, Galvin found himself framed for the jury tampering and thrown in jail. When he realized what he was up against, he told the partner that he had made a mistake. The firm exerted its influence and Galvin was immediately released from jail. But Galvin was fired, his wife left him, he began to drink heavily and became an ambulance chaser for personal injury suits.

All of this happened before page one.

When the story opens, Galvin only has one client, the Doneghys. Mrs. Doneghy’s sister was given the wrong anesthetic when she went to the hospital, which resulted in her vomiting into her mask & suffocating. She was revived but is now in a vegetative state. Galvin has had this case for eighteen months but has not yet met with the family. The case is due in court in five days. Galvin, finally visits the young woman in the hospital. As the first act proceeds, he understands that this case represents something bigger. A doctor’s negligence turned a vibrant, young woman into a vegetable. If he settles out of court, the doctors, hospital and Archdiocese will sweep this under the rug as they have with how many other cases? Nothing will change.

Galvin sees his opportunity to stand up against the system and the “old boy network.” He can win justice and find redemption.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned how when a character has four traits, they feel more real. Every action they take, every word they speak somehow reflects one of those four traits. Do Galvin and the other central characters have four traits? Let’s find out:

FRANK GALVIN (Protagonist):

Galvin is intelligent. He graduated second in his class from an excellent law school. He was a full partner at a major Boston firm. He understands case law and precedent. He knows how to focus his case into the key concepts that the jury can understand.

Galvin is idealistic. He became a lawyer for all the right reasons. He went up against the senior partner in his own firm. He doesn’t give up, even after Concannon, the defendants’ attorney, has used inside connections to win himself a friendly judge, get stories placed in the local press and even plant a spy in Galvin’s life to get inside information. Galvin believes that jury members will do their best to deliver justice, no matter what the court directs.

Galvin is na├»ve. Perhaps because he is such a moral man at his core, Galvin doesn’t consider how low his opponents would stoop in order to win this case. He is careless with information and too trusting of other people. He is also honest, even when it is politically unwise. He tries to be honest about himself, but looks less carefully at other people, whom he considers to be on his side. Dr. Gruber takes a payoff and disappears. Laura betrays him.

Galvin is self-destructive. He is alcoholic. He blindly enters into a romance with Laura, even though he is in the middle of the most important case of his life. He fails to tell the Doneghys about the settlement offer from the Archdiocese – in clear violation of professional ethics. He insults the judge.

ED CONCANNON (Antagonist):

Concannon is arrogant. His success and the trappings of his lifestyle have resulted in his belief that he is better at the game of law than his opponents. He believes he will win because he almost always does. He bullies Galvin’s key witness, even going so far as to suggest that this profoundly decent woman has lied on the stand.

Concannon is manipulative. He seduces Laura into believing that she will be welcomed back into the fold and practice law at a prestigious firm again – but only if she leaves her personal integrity at the door and, like him, is willing to do anything to win. He curries favor with the judge. When he discovers that Galvin’s expert witness is African-American, he makes sure that he has an African-American lawyer sitting among his law team to counter possible accusations that they are racist when he cross-examines. He has stories favorable to his client placed in the local press to manipulate the jury pool.

Concannon is amoral. He bribes Galvin’s first expert witness, Dr. Gruber, to withdraw from giving testimony. He hires Laura to spy on Galvin and provide inside information, even going so far as encouraging her to sleep with Galvin in order to get the job done. His client’s guilt or innocence doesn’t matter to him – it’s not about the law – it’s about winning.

Concannon is ambitious. He relishes his lifestyle and excuses his tactics as a way to justify his taste for good whiskey, a fine house, travel and all the perks of wealth. He further justifies representing guilty but powerful clients as the means to afford his firm’s pro bono work. He represents Boston’s large institutions, like the Catholic Archdiocese and the hospital, as well as the old boy network throughout the city.

LAURA FISCHER (Ally and Enemy):

Laura is ambitious. She wants to return to practicing law. But hanging up her own shingle is too much work and joining a small firm seems beneath her. She wants to practice in the big leagues, at a major firm. And she’s willing to betray her personal sense of what’s right & wrong in order to get it.

Laura is manipulative. She seduces Galvin, knowing just how to play him. She trades sexual intimacy for information, which she passes along to Concannon. Her dialogue is double-edged in many places – is she questioning Galvin and Mickey as she would a witness on the stand or is she simply curious? If the audience doesn’t know her agenda, she seems to be one thing. If the audience knows that she is a spy, then her dialogue reveals something else entirely.

Laura is self-destructive. She is alcoholic. She sells out her integrity for very little money in hopes that she will get a larger pay-off when she is hired at a large law firm. She betrays the man whom she has grown to love and admire.

Laura is idealistic. Her life and failed marriage have turned her into a cynic, but through her involvement with Galvin, her own idealism is reawakened. When his case seems to have fallen apart, Galvin comes to her, feeling sorry for himself and ready to give up. His words hit her like a blow. If he gives up, it isn't only Galvin's idealism that will be lost. Her words to him might be those of a woman who can no longer stomach defeat or they might be a prayer that he pick himself up and do the hard work that must be done. As soon as she has delivered her final report to Concannon and taken his money, she repeatedly tries to talk to Galvin to tell him the truth.


Mickey is loyal. No matter how many times Galvin has failed, Mickey always stands by him. He knows the true story of the jury tampering accusations and feels he must help and protect Galvin because he knows that his friend is a good – but deeply flawed – man.

Mickey is even-tempered. He never gets rattled. Even when Galvin makes mistakes or their case takes a sudden downward turn, he never complains – he simply helps Galvin accept it and take action on their next step.

Mickey is a realist. More than once, he is ready to walk away from the case, because the odds against them are too great. As Galvin’s case is destroyed piece by piece, Mickey knows that sometimes the bad guys win.

Mickey is a follower. While his legal knowledge is excellent, he lacks the ability to deny the odds and lead the fight for what’s right. He plays it safe. But if his friend Galvin is going into battle, he’ll put his shoulder to the wheel and do the work.

In each scene of this script, these four characters exhibit at least one of the above traits through their words or actions.

Galvin's intelligence and idealism support one another. His naivete and self-destructiveness work against him.

Concannon's ambition, amorality and manipulativeness move his personal agenda forward. But his arrogance represents his blind spot, and ultimately brings him down.

Laura is caught between these two characters. In the beginning, she is closer to Concannon’s view. But by the end, her reemergent idealism brings her closer to Galvin's - but is it too late?

As the loyal friend, Mickey’s traits are less in conflict with each other but instead serve to help illuminate various qualities and reveal information about the main character.

This Oscar-nominated & WGA-winning screenplay is also a case study in structure, conflict, dialogue and theme. Studying great scripts is some of the best education any screenwriter can get. You can download a copy of The Verdict for free from

Have a great writing day!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

CHARACTERS: Bringing Them to Life

Scripts with vague main characters get set down by studio or agency readers by p.10, if not sooner. Enhance your characters by giving them 4 traits. Of the 4, have 1 of them contrast with the others.

Example, your main character might be ambitious, arrogant and uncaring about others. But his/her 4th trait might be that he/she is secretly afraid that his/her world is meaningless.

Each word & action by that character then comes out of one of those traits. More than four is too confusing. Fewer & s/he will feel “flat.”

Keep in mind the difference between a trait and a characteristic. A characteristic might be that s/he is a gourmet chef or gifted pianist. But a trait would be that your character has a fragile sense of self which manifests as always needing to be the center of attention. Traits take your reader inside your character and how they view and feel about the world.

A characteristic is an action your character does. A trait is why s/he does it.

Do this exercise for each of your key characters and watch your script come to life and your characters come off the page.

Have a great writing day!

Monday, July 5, 2010

CHARACTER BIOGRAPHY - Knowing the Past. Finding the Present.

It’s Christmas. Supper is almost ready. Everyone has been waiting to open presents. But your brother John hasn’t arrived, yet. You always wait for him. It is so irritating.

Your mother finds some puttering to do in the kitchen, even though she already knows that she has done absolutely everything. She watches the clock, concerned that the turkey will dry out if she lets it cook much longer.

You get short-tempered – John has always been the favorite child. If you ever came late, there would be hell to pay. But not him. He is Mr. Perfect.

Your spouse pours another drink, which can only mean that his/her playful drunkenness will give way to a loud and pointless argument later.

Everyone is miserable. But no one says a word.

The door opens, John strides in, wide grin on his face and arms full of gifts. The children crowd around their favorite uncle. The room comes to life with laughter. The party can start, now.

Is your brother oblivious to the misery he causes, or does he do this precisely so that he can bask in this joyous glow? Will he ever change? Will you?

Comedic or dramatic, our individual histories affect the way we go about our daily lives. The same is true for your characters. They each see the world from a different point of view.

Do you need to know everything about your characters’ biographies? It depends. Yes, you need to know enough to be able to effectively convey your characters motivations, emotions and actions. They need to feel real in each situation.

Is it important that your main character always wakes up before his alarm goes off but continues to lie in bed, watching his clock, waiting for it to ring?

Is it important that, no matter how vigilant he is, he can never toast his bread to perfection and always burns it, only to scrape off the char into the kitchen sink?

These things might be very important. Or not. It all depends on what your story is.

These are called “moments.” And, in a movie, moments are magic. They make your characters feel alive and draw the audience into the world you’re creating.

The only way your characters will help you find these moments is if you know their histories.

What do you need to know?

Basic facts: Name? Age? Where was he born? Where did he grow up? Does he have siblings? If so, what was the birth order? Was his family rich? Poor? Educated? Religious? Secular? Conservative? Liberal?

Current living situation: Where does your character live? Why does she live there? Does she get along with her family? Is she social? Anti-social? Shy? Emotionally stunted? Gregarious? Narcissistic? Approval-seeking? Do people find her difficult to get along with? Does she enjoy meeting people? Does she enjoy her life? How does she feel about her own body? Does she tend to criticize others? Does she lack the ability to discern when people are allies or enemies?

Emotional life: What is missing from his life? What is he most afraid of? What brings him the most joy? What does he want right now, in this moment? What is keeping him from getting it? What will happen if he doesn’t get it? What is his secret dream? What does he most need to learn?

In answering these questions, you may find that you your characters take over the writing and begin telling you things you haven’t even asked. You may write things that you will never use in your script. Or you might find that nugget that shifts your story into a new direction.

Let it all happen. The more real your characters are for you, the more real they will feel to your audience.

Do you need to work up complete character biographies before you start writing your script? Not necessarily. Some writers must have full character sketches done before they feel comfortable starting their script; others need to know only the basics, discovering more things along the way.

Writers who draw up complete biographies may have an easier time completing their first drafts, since they feel more of a connection to who the characters are and what they’re about. The downside is that writers can sometimes feel “locked” into their characters being a certain way. You must always be ready to let go of what you think you know and let your characters tell you when you’ve gotten something wrong.

Those who start with biographies that are less worked out may encounter writers block from time to time, requiring them to think more about their characters until they find the way out of their problem. You may learn things about your characters that will require you to change what you have already written. It’s okay. That’s what the rewrite is for.

If you were to stand your characters in a single-file line, have each of them walk into your living room and take a seat, no two of them would do this in exactly the same way. When you know what this scene would look like, then you truly know your characters. Character biography is one of the essential tools you need to get you there.

Have a great writing day!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

PITCH MEETINGS - The Art of Seduction

Ever land a pitch meeting and then feel like a deer in headlights? After all, how do you reduce your story to five minutes or less? It's impossible. ...Right?

Well, actually ...yes, you're right. But - you're going to have to do it anyway. Here is one strategy that works:

First, you need a log line. Your log line needs to set up the world & main character's journey and end with a tease, so they're asking for more. Don't reveal too much. A pitch meeting is a seduction. Don't hand them home plate. Make them work for it.

“A man, trying to escape his criminal past, moves to a small town, falls in love and builds a family - but sees it all threatened when a dangerous stranger appears and demands that an old debt be paid.”

The next steps of your story pitch are like concentric circles. Begin with the innermost circle and work your way out. After your log line, the next circle expands your story into a brief paragraph. More story details about supporting characters & conflicts, also more about tone. Your exec or agent is now on first base.

By continuing your playful seduction, they will be eager for more. Keep in mind that pitch meetings are like a chase. If you chase them, they will pull away. If you seduce them, they will chase you.

I know, I know, it looks like I'm reducing pitch meetings to a psychological game the writer plays with the producer, agent or development executive. And it feels that way because it is. Once your listener is on 1st base, there's a moment when they're deciding whether they want to go to 2nd.

If they want to hear more, that's a good sign. Your next circle would be equivalent to 1/2 to 3/4 of a page. By this time, they will know if they're interested. They may begin to ask questions. That's good. Anytime an exec or agent asks questions, it means they're engaged.

It also means that you haven't told them too much. You have given them space to come to you. You've made your pitch into a conversation instead of a 10-minute speech. From here, you should have a full story beat sheet worked out, just in case they ask for more.

Be aware, you should not leave your beat sheet behind for them. Although you may leave a paragraph description, if you want to. The reason for this is if they want the full pitch again, they should set another appointment. No one can tell your story the way you can.

If your exec or agent asks for a full pitch, keep it to 5 min. or less. No matter how complex the plot. Broad, compelling strokes are all they want to hear - and it's all they're capable of remembering. Your audience will begin 2 check out after that unless you are a truly gifted story-teller "in the room." Or they may continue to ask questions until they feel that 1) you know what your story is & have done the work to get it right and 2) that they can sell this to their boss.

Pitches are tough for so many reasons. Reducing your story to a brief meeting is the first challenge. You will also be expected to have ideas on casting and promotion. If your lead roles are right for hot actors, you need to have a few star names ready.

You will want to have ideas on "what the poster would look like." How might they promote this? How will this movie sell over another movie?

They will probably ask these things. Pitch meetings used to be about story. Now, the writer is expected to have thought about it all.

Is that fair? Yes. In a pitch, you are asking a studio or production company to pay you to write your script. Exex already have other scripts in development. You need to convey to them why they should add your idea to their list. The more work you do for them, the easier it makes things for them. And it also shows that you go the extra mile. A little respect goes a long way.

Have a great writing (and pitching) day!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Garbage Happens

OKAY, YOU'RE STUCK. You have a scene ahead of you and you have no idea how to write it. You know your dramatic elements and what needs to be accomplished to advance the story and characters, but you keep starting over because everything you write turns to garbage.

Seriously. It's garbage.

Don't give up hope. This doesn't sound like writers block, exactly. It's more like "scene block." Keep breathing. You'll get through this by simply accepting the following: you have permission to write garbage.

Norman Mailer once said that as he got older, his writing became more difficult because he was no longer just some writer working on his next book - he was Norman Mailer working on his next book. Pride can paralyze all creative thought.

But, unless you actually are the late Norman Mailer, you have nothing to worry about. Everyone else in the world writes badly, sometimes. Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk more seriously about garbage.

Allowing yourself to write garbage is liberating. When confronted with "scene block," you need to write the worst version of your scene that you can possibly think of and write it as fast as you can.

"Huh?" I can already see your heads turning in that sideways quizzical way, the way my dog's does when he's thoroughly confused. Stay with me a sec ...

You think too much. You need to stop it. You already worked your outline and know enough about your character histories to write this. You're thinking way too much from your left brain. You want this scene to "make sense." But life doesn't make sense sometimes, and neither does writing.

Just do what it takes to get it on the page.

When you give yourself permission to write something awful, you free yourself. Sometimes, you really do write an embarrassingly good example of bad writing. Other times, the expectations and demands that you put on yourself are the problem. Releasing expectations can access interesting things that you didn't know you had inside you. But in either case, the scene is written - and you have given yourself permission to throw it away later.

The other critical thing that writing a "garbage scene" does for you is that it allows you to move forward in your script. As you continue through your story, you grow to understand your characters even more fully. Everything sharpens.

When you finish your draft, review your script, paying special attention to your "garbage" scenes. Are they as bad as you thought they were? Have you learned things that now make these scenes easier to write? You might find that you have communicated the content of these scenes in other ways and don't need these scenes at all.

Screenwriters, like sharks, must keep moving forward or their story will drown.

Keep swimming and have a great writing day!