Monday, November 07, 2005

Character Vs Plot

A lot of wannabe writers have taken on board the rules and regulations of many screenwriting books and gurus. This has led to some advantages. Scripts are certainly better written in terms of screenwriting style, and display a keen awareness of the structural demands of the three-act template. Great. They make my day easier as a script reader because they’re efficient and professional to a certain degree.

But. There’s something missing. There’s no heart. No soul. The main characters of the story are being overlooked. They are not given any time to breathe and develop. The plot is taking centre stage with the characters backing up the action rather than being the ones leading the narrative. The script has no theme, no discerning emotion. It may touch on one or two character moments but generally won’t develop an emotional through-line or ‘story arc’ for the protagonists to expand.

Someone, somewhere, I don’t know who I don’t know where, came up with this nugget: “scenes should be no longer than three pages”. Whoever claimed this must have a lot of clout and respect within the industry because it’s clung on to for dear life in the scripts that I read on the spec pile. As more and more scripts whiz by their plot, characters and action with scenes no longer than three pages, it seems that writers are petrified of upsetting the reader/exec too much, and keep the story moving at all costs in the fear of never, ever making a sale.

This, and I can’t stress this enough, is poppycock. My own experience, and personal preference, has led me to believe that your script will be judged and appreciated based on how much the reader/exec will engage with your characters, and be involved with their particular predicament right up until the unpredictable ending.

In my Q&A with Justin at Working Title, he refers to “the underlying, invisible qualities present in a piece of work... the ‘mythic’ quality to a film – the thing that makes a work memorable, important and dramatically whole.” While there are a lot of characteristics present in a screenplay to generate this ‘invisible quality’ - tone, pace, structure, emotion, theme - the responsibility largely rests with your characters to conjure these main emotions into your story.

Perhaps this is why there’s the never ending debate between ‘genre scripts’ and work of a more personal nature. It’s not that difficult to follow the rules of a particular genre, and join the dots of its applicable structure to make a polished and presentable piece. After all, you’ve seen the latest Hollywood blockbuster and it’s devoid of any discerning qualities. You can do better, right?

The trouble is that while it may be a workable script, the fact that you’re a new “unknown quantity” as a writer will usually prevent a production company or agent looking on your work with the favour you desire. Sure, the execs require a writer to know the demands of format & structure but far more important is the writer’s particular insight and point-of-view with regards to the characters and theme of the film. The theatre has become the first port of call for many a film company because on the stage, the writer’s original voice is clear, expressive and significant, and playwright qualities are easily transferable to the big screen.

Of course, there are notable exceptions to the ‘genre’ approach. New writer Richard Smith got his psychodrama script, Trauma, made last year with Marc Evans directing and Colin Firth starring. It didn’t make a splash at the box office but having the benefit of reading the script prior to production, it did have a unique edge and tone with regard to its style and story. Also, fellow blogger James Moran is in post-production with his feature debut Severance. I haven’t read that script but I’ll bet there’s something about it that makes it a genre flick a cut-above the rest (an attractive or unique hook, and characters you care about - check out James’s blog for a run down).

The debate between ‘commercial and mainstream’ tastes and more distinctive, emotive fare will no doubt rage on but ‘commercial and mainstream’ doesn’t have to mean that your characters get overlooked by the plot’s need to crank up the action at every turn. Think of your favourite genre films and they’re probably led by a distinctive central character who we care about and is three-dimensional with their particular personal foibles. John McClane, Indianna Jones, Martin Riggs (in the first Lethal Weapon anyway), Peter Parker...

Let your characters breathe. Give them time to talk to each other. I don’t mean pointless every-day conversation. Provide them with scenes that embellish or develop their characterisation. Something funny or dramatic or interesting, something to make us engage and raise our empathy even more. Once we care about a character, we’ll follow the story no matter what. And you can go over three page scenes to achieve this.

I think on Wordplay’s Hall of Fame posts (check them out now, I’m not going anywhere), someone said, and I’m paraphrasing, “that your first act is your set-up, and the third-act is your pay-off. The second act is where you get to write the film you really want to write - between your characters.” It’s a neat notion. You don’t have to follow this exact structural mark up of course but hopefully there’ll be a few valuable moments in our scripts that make our characters more human, fully defined and three-dimensional in order for their story to really entertain and inspire the audience.

5 comments:

Ben Yeoh said...

One way of looking at this: it is the actions and choices that characters make which reveal characters and reveal plot. If it’s characters backing up action, then are current screen writers not allowing characters the space to make true and interesting choices, and thus true and interesting plot and charactisation?

Are you saying this is mainly because there’s too much action? Perhaps a la inferior “school of David Mamet” screenwriters are investing in getting close to the “turning points” of scenes and not enough investment in character? Or perhaps good characters are simply harder than quick action?

Just some thoughts from a playwright, who’s not really an expert on the sister skill of film writing.

Danny Stack said...

Hi Ben

Lately, scripts have been falling into two camps. One being lots of chat and 'banter' between a lot of characters but no plot or story taking place. The other being pointless plot being pursued by disposable, expendable or interchangeable characters...

sretherf said...

I think what you are picking up on is the crux of where film is struggling right now to move forward as a medium... and it's befitting that you would recognize this, since you are reading so many scripts...

I think the answer is that you need both plot and character to make a good film. However, I think you want to lead off with character. We've seen so many plots in our lifetimes... nothing seems new. Pick something a bit offbeat. In terms of character, there is still a lot of unexplored territory, you just have to be willing to go there. And once you have intersting and new characterization, it will open the way to the resonant themes. I just use the plot to ensure that there are stakes and a defined, terminable direction for the whole story.

James Moran said...

Couldn't agree more. I heard that 3 pages rule too, can't remember where from, and it stuck in my mind - while it's probably a good idea not to have all your scenes going on and on, there's no need to go to the other extreme. The trouble with all these rules is that they're too strict, and based on averages - someone decided that scenes can't be too long or too short, so they plucked the 3 pages figure out of the air. I agree that you should enter and leave scenes as late and early as possible, but there's no harm in letting the characters talk and live for a while.

For Severance, I thought it would be funny to take a bunch of "real" characters, people who work in an office in London, and then stick them in a horror movie to see how they react. They're used to office politics, getting the tube to work, and waiting for 5pm - how would they handle it if they were suddenly getting picked off by an unseen psychopath in the wilds of Eastern Europe? Some people would find hidden strengths, some would just go to pieces, just like anybody else in a crisis. I'd probably just sit in a corner and cry...

Sonny said...

Good post. I don't favour effective plotting over strong characterisation, and indeed one won't work without the other, as they serve to complement the overall piece - but hasn't trend always been focused on plot when it comes to bang for your buck, commercial cinema (your exceptions considered). Sure, there won't be another Toby Emmerich (Frequency), or to use a better example, Andrew Kevin Walker for a while yet and while they manage on page on create the perfect world where the characters serve and accommodates the plot, which in turn creates an honest character arc, these are the few success stories around town. Which makes for thousands of "unsuccessful" scripts, but as far as piss poor characterisation in a finely plotted thriller goes, these elements can be repaired, but all faith rests on the reader who you hope will see through the story to the very last page for The Greatest Final Act Ever(TM) and not be bored to death by the world weary cop and hot headed rookie.