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Kevin Nelson

Improving Your Screenplay’s Characterization

By Advice, Screenwriting 101

Characterization is important. Script readers consider strong characterization as one of the single most important traits of a good screenplay. Your characters are typically judged based on their authenticity, uniqueness, and story arc. A common mistake that beginner screenwriters make is to focus on the plot of their script; however if you focus on creating great characters first, then your story’s conflict and plot will flow naturally from your characters authentic needs and desires. 

How can you improve the characterization in your screenplay?

 

1. Make Their Introductions Matter

Always show, never tell. Don’t tell the reader that a character is shy. Show their shyness through an interaction with another character. 

Let’s look at the protagonist’s introduction in Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 

The platform across the tracks is empty. As an almost empty train pulls up to that platform, one of the suited men breaks out of the crowd, lurches up the stairs two at a time, hurries across the overpass and down the stairs to the other side, just as the empty train stops. The doors open and the man gets on that train.

As the empty train pulls from the station, the man watches the crowd of commuters through the train’s dirty window. We see his face for the first time. This is Joel Barish.      

Joel’s actions tell you everything you need to know about him before his physical characteristics are even described in the next paragraph. He breaks away from the mundane workday in desperation.

An added bonus is that his actions are a visual representation of the overall plot and directly reflect the premise of removing a strand of memories from one’s busy brain. 

Here’s a great blog post from our partners at ScreenCraft: 

100 Examples of How to Introduce Characters in Your Screenplay

 

2. Develop Their Backstory

A character’s story begins long before we meet them on the page, so it’s good to develop their backstories during the brainstorming process to create well rounded characters. Think of their backstory as the iceberg below the surface, even if the only hints of their backstory on the page are just the tip of the iceberg. 

When tackling your screenplay, try not to slow the reader down with a block of exposition describing past events that are not directly pertinent to the story. 

When Johnny Cash is introduced in Walk the Line, screenwriters Gill Dennis and James Mangold use a single detail that foreshadows Johnny’s past.  

A MAN IN BLACK (37) OUT OF BREATH, LEANS ON A TABLE SAW. 

His face etched with hard living. His brow wet. His eyes dark, staring at— A FEROCIOUS SAW BLADE. Jagged teeth gleam.

Being a biopic, Johnny Cash’s past is later revealed, but this brief description epitomizes his character’s backstory with a single image. The saw blade foreshadows the inciting incident that ultimately drives young Johnny off his farm and into stardom.

Practice character development with this great exercise from our partners at The Script Lab

 

3. Find Their Defining Feature

What makes your character relatable? 

Why should a reader care about their story?

A great tool for finding your character’s defining feature is the Enneagram of Personality. 

The Enneagram Institute, created by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson in 1997, helped establish these nine basic personality types.

  1. The Reformer – Rational, Idealistic, Self-Controlled, Purposeful
  2. The Helper – Caring, Generous, Possessive
  3. The Achiever – Driven, Excelling, Image Forward
  4. The Individualist – Sensitive, Withdrawn, Temperamental
  5. The Investigator – Intense, Cerebral, Perceptive, Isolated
  6. The Loyalist – Committed, Responsible, Suspicious
  7. The Enthusiast – Fun-loving, Spontaneous, Scattered
  8. The Challenger – Dominating, Decisive, Confrontational
  9. The Peacemaker – Easygoing, Reassuring, Agreeable

This tool is especially helpful when developing supporting characters. 

How do your supporting characters compliment your main character? 

Each supporting character serves a function for the protagonist — that’s why they’re called supporting characters. Whether it’s the bully that threatens to meet our hero at the playground after school, or the quirky friend who provides comic relief and advice. 

They are an integral part of your protagonist’s story. What is their purpose?

 

5. Make Their Character Flaw Count

How does your character’s flaw prevent them from conquering their conflict? 

How does it steer them away from their main goal? 

Often, the character’s main flaw is the obstacle they need to overcome in order to defeat their antagonist or accomplish their goal. Their major flaw should tie into the plot and be relevant to the character’s journey.

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry has a hard time committing to a relationship. As soon as things get serious, he bails. After making love to Sally, he returns to his flaw as a defense mechanism and jeopardizes their relationship. He has to overcome this flaw or lose the love of his life. 

 

6. Make Their Motivation & Goal Clear

Why is your character doing what they are doing? 

What are the stakes?

In the film Apocalypto, Jaguar Paw saves his family from Mayan raiders by lowering them into a pit. They’re temporarily safe, but if he doesn’t return they won’t survive. He’s taken captive and must escape certain death in the city, survive his pursuers, and beat a ticking clock scenario in order to save his family. 

His pregnant wife and young child are his motivators. They inspire him to rise when he hits his low point. Every character should have a clearly defined goal.

 

7. Map Out Their Character Arc

Characters can’t remain stagnant. They need to overcome their flaws to reach their full potential. 

Whether your character achieves their goal or falls short, they will change in some way. Even if they revert back to their main flaw, they would have learned something about themselves. 

A character shouldn’t be the same at the end of the story as they were in the beginning.

Download the ScreenCraft’s newest eBook for free! 

Exploring the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey

 

8. Find Inspiration in Real People

The goal for every character is to make them feel real. With this in mind, sometimes reality is where you can find the best traits to use for your characters. 

Think of the people in your life who stand out in your memories — whether for good or bad. You don’t have to use their names but you should definitely use their mannerisms.

What makes them stand out? 

Why do you remember them? 

Some of the best characters are the characters you already know in real life.

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Over the course of the rewriting process, your characters will continue to evolve. You’ll get to know them better and have more of an understanding behind their motivations.

The more you learn about your characters, the more depth they gain. The goal is to create memorable characters that readers will never forget.

You’re well on your way.

If you want to find more ways to improve characterization in your screenplays, search this Coverfly blog, as well as our partner websites for related screenwriting articles:  The Script Lab or  ScreenCraft.


Kevin Nelson is a writer and director based in New York City, baby. He has written and produced critically acclaimed short films and music videos with incredibly talented artists, worked with anti-human trafficking organizations in Nepal, and would rather be in nature right now. Check out his Coverfly profile, see more madness on Instagram or follow his work on https://www.kevinpatricknelson.com


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Writing a Riveting Logline for Your Screenplay

By Advice

A lot depends on your logline.

A logline is a brief (usually one sentence) summary that states your story’s central conflict, conveys the genre, and often reveals dramatic irony.

A logline is the first impression a reader will have of your story, so it should be considered an extension of your screenplay, not a separate entity. The goal of a good logline is to hook a reader with a single sentence so that they need to crack open your script. It’s the cover art for your project, a movie poster strategically composed of words that draws an audience closer to your script. 

How does a writer even approach condensing 90-120 pages into just one or two sentences? 

It’s not an easy feat, but it is an essential skill that all writers need to develop.

The logline is a one or two sentence paragraph composed of 25-50 words that clearly defines the characters, concept, conflict, plot, theme, and genre of your story. It’s common for all of these elements to get jumbled up in a writer’s head after working on them for so long.

Luckily, there is a general consensus on the four main elements that make up a strong logline. These elements are interchangeable and can be reordered in order to elicit stronger reactions depending on their content. We’ll explore more on that later. 

For now, let’s check out the general format of a great logline.

PROTAGONIST +  PROTAGONIST GOAL/ACTION + CENTRAL CONFLICT/IRONY

Let’s look a little closer at this formula with the logline for Jaws:

“A police chief with a phobia of open water battles a killer shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains, in spite of a greedy town council who demands that the beach stay open.”

1. Protagonist

The main character is the driver of your story, thus your logline. 

Unless the character is based on a historical/public figure, it’s best to leave out the name of your protagonist and find creative adjectives to bring the character to life. 

The description of the police chief’s phobia reveals the flaw that the protagonist must overcome in order to conquer the central conflict/antagonist. This adds layers to the character before the reader ever starts on page one.

2. Protagonist Goal/Action

The protagonist’s goal is the driving force or engine behind every story. What action must the main character take in order to achieve that goal?

In the case of Jaws, the police chief must hunt down the shark before more people are killed due to bureaucratic negligence. 

3. Central Conflict/Irony 

What is your character up against? 

The central conflict and antagonist should be well defined by both the inciting incident and the protagonist’s goal. The antagonist is the foundation of the character’s plight and the reason behind the inciting incident. And if there’s dramatic irony in your logline, all the better! 

Both the shark and the greedy town council are the obstacles our protagonist must overcome in order to return the beach community to any semblance of normalcy. The dramatic irony, of course, is that the protagonist has a phobia of open water, and to achieve his goal, must battle a shark out on the open ocean. 

Ways to Improve Your Logline

1. Careful Use of Syntax and Diction

Syntax

The order in which you place the elements of your logline can lead to different effects on the reader. A writer should try to introduce the character with a strong lead, followed by the engrossing conflict of the story, then leave an impactful final statement. 

The logline for The Surveillance of Ordinary Things by Susan Brunig is a great example of how a writer can lead the reader through different emotions to arrive at a satisfying finish. 

“A middle-aged, suburban housewife in the midst of a dark, existential crisis decides to run away and end it all. But when she stumbles upon an unplugged community of creative misfits, she rediscovers the artist she once was.”

Brunig introduces the character and conflict right off the back with great adjectives to build up her protagonist’s backstory. The serious subject matter leaves the reader low at the midway point, only to lift their spirits again with the positivity found in her renewal.

Diction

The words you use matter. The less words you use, the more weight each one carries. By using an active voice, a writer can engage with the audience rather than merely explaining to the audience. Active adjectives and verbs can increase the stakes and pull a reader in.

The logline for Brian Kazmarck’s Emergent is succinct and provides the reader with everything they need to know before heading into the story by using sharp words that jump right into the action.

“A brilliant programmer gets embroiled in a bizarre and dangerous love triangle between a co-worker who saved her life and an artificial intelligence that nearly killed her.”

2. Throw in Some Stakes

Drive home the severity of the central conflict by ramping up the tension. You can build on the inciting incident by introducing a character or situation that makes it harder for the protagonist to carry out their goal. We saw it with the greedy town council in the Jaws logline.

We also see it done well with Gil Seltzer’s The Delivery:

“A Jordanian history professor turned radicalized terrorist is tasked with delivering a car bomb from Dallas to New York City. His cover – an unwitting 12-year old boy who joins him for the tenuous drive through the American heartland.”

The introduction of the 12-year old boy into the equation ups the stakes of the professor’s journey and will ultimately lead to some tough internal conflict.

3. Elicit Questions With a Statement

It’s important to lead the reader by creating questions in their mind that can only be answered by reading the screenplay. Consider it a little inception tactic used by writers. By planting certain pieces of information regarding the protagonist’s journey into the logline, a writer can use it as leverage in making the reader want more.  

Ernestina Juarez’s Labyrinth of Destiny shows how strong wording can lure a reader into the story by forcing them to ask multiple questions through the use of a statement.

“Ulysses Grant’s experience of love and death as a young officer in the Mexican-American War influences an important decision he makes as the commanding general of the Union Army during the Civil War.”

What were the experiences? How did they influence him? What important decision did he make? Instilling these questions into a reader’s mind will make them want to know more, and there’s only one way to find out.

4. Sprinkle in a Little Irony 

Dramatic irony is irresistible. The simplest definition of dramatic irony is when the audience understands something that the characters do not. It can come about when two opposing and/or conflicting forces meet and depend on each other. In The Silence of the Lambs, a detective seeks out the help of a serial killer. A diametric concept provokes interest.

We can look at the logline for Robert Axelrod’s Tucked as a great use of irony:

“After being excommunicated from the Hasidic community, a mother works to regain custody of her children and adapt to secular life while working at a wig shop run by a black Muslim drag queen.”

This logline juxtaposes characters from two very different walks of life, and places them in a compromising situation. The contradictory elements influence the protagonist’s main goal and thwart a reader’s expectations — creating an element of intrigue that can’t be ignored. 

5. Add a Twist

It’s important to end your logline with a solid finishing statement. It’s the cliffhanger or the button that impels a reader to seek more. 

Aaron McCann’s Big Red waits until the right moment to reveal the true nature of the story.

“A desperate mission to colonize Mars goes horribly wrong after a freak accident involving freakish mutants leaves only two sole survivors: a pair of moronic reality show contestants who are going through the world’s worst break-up.”

The logline begins with a horror/sci-fi lean, only to flip the script with the reveal of the characters. The twist sets up the genre much in the same way as the punchline of a joke. We go into the script expecting hilarity and surprises. 

Things to Be Cautious Of

  1. Contest Wins — Writers might feel the need to tout their accomplishments in the logline. While you should advertise your successes, we’d recommend that you save that sort of info for your writer bio. Let your Coverfly Score speak for itself.
  2. One Long Paragraph — If you haven’t been able to break 100 pages down to one or two sentences, yet still find yourself with a short synopsis made up of several lines — keep chipping away. You’re getting close. Keep it as short as possible.

Loglines are every writer’s secret weapon and a difficult craft to master. They open doors, create opportunities, and are a vital component to every writer’s skill set.

How will you craft your screenplay’s calling card?

 


Kevin Nelson is a writer and director based in New York City, baby. He has written and produced critically acclaimed short films and music videos with incredibly talented artists, worked with anti-human trafficking organizations in Nepal, and would rather be in nature right now. Check out his Coverfly profile, see more madness on Instagram or follow his work on https://www.kevinpatricknelson.com


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