Friday, May 29, 2015

Why Writing Specific ‘Character Moments’ Matters

Like all first impressions, when you introduce an important character for the first time in a screenplay, what they say and do immediately sets up expectations about who they are and what’s troubling them. Which is why it's so important to be specific.

Lana later said:"The fact that she smoked
immediately told me she was a strange one." 
I’m currently working on a rewrite and part of the rewrite process involves writing a new synopsis. This forces me to check whether the way I present characters in the synopsis is actually how they appear on the page in the screenplay. Which is a humbling exercise, to say the least. One of the key ways to establish a character as quickly as possible in the mind of the reader, is to make sure that whatever the character does and says when they first appear, illustrates what makes them specific or intriguing and what might be troubling them. This first impression sets up expectations in the reader’s mind, and raises questions about how the story is going to proceed. It evokes curiosity. Put differently: If the introduction of a character doesn’t raise any questions or suggest any kind of drama, there might be something missing.

Unexceptional Action: The specific behaviour is descriptive
The action itself might be a generic action, such as putting on a shoe or sending an email, in which case the specific way the character performs the action is what illustrates who they are. Take for example the opening of Philomena (screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope), where Philomena (played by Judi Dench) sits in an almost empty church looking at the Madonna and Child. Not particularly exceptional or telling as an action, although the image is a symbolic foreshadowing of the story of Philomena the mother, and her lost child. However, when the priest approaches and addresses Philomena, we instantly know from his words that they know each other and that the priest is concerned about her. We also learn from her evasive answers to his questions that she has a secret. Now the moment has become specific to her. We intuit that this is going to be a story about Philomena’s secret, and it clearly has some connection to the Catholic church.

Exceptional Action: The activity itself is descriptive
Alternatively, the action might be something extraordinary, such as someone catching a fish with their feet or stitching up a gaping wound on an injured lioness. In that case, the action itself tells us something about the character. An example of this might be the character of Eric Lomax (played by Colin Firth) in The Railway Man (screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson), who is introduced during the opening credits as very ordinary looking man lying on his back on the floor of a study reciting a children’s rhyme to himself as a kind of mantra. Not something we all do every day, and suggesting that this ordinary man has something very extraordinary on his mind. When we next meet him he is hurriedly changing trains and telling us in a voice-over about minute details of a railway timetable. Another clue that we are about to embark on a journey with a man with a strange obsession.

Generic vs specific in the rewrite
...and then I realised 'holding a roller skate'
didn't describe what was troubling her.
I used to try as hard as possible to avoid rewriting. I just liked the feeling of finishing a first draft and then starting on my next masterpiece. Big mistake. In fact I’ve come to enjoy rewriting just as much as writing the first draft, because it’s in the rewrite that I really get to know the characters properly. The rewrite feels a lot more like craft, which I guess is an acquired taste (at least it was for me). In the rewrite I have more room to analyse and approach details from a more rational point of view. Whereas an initial draft is more of an intuitive attempt to express the general shape of a story. Once it’s out there on the page, though, I can begin to hone it.

Going back to page one and looking—with the benefit of hindsight—at how I initially introduced my characters might reveal that I’ve gotten to know a character better during the course of writing the screenplay, or that I got them right the first time round. Or that I actually still don’t know the character well enough. Maybe I thought I knew what the main dramatic conflict was for a particular character, but it turns out I need to articulate it more precisely.

So, simply asking myself whether I’ve opened with enough specific ‘character moments’ for a reader to get an adequate first impression of the character, reveals whether I know the character well enough myself.