“Writing screenplays is hard” is an assertion easy to grasp but this neat summary of the task doesn’t quite describe just how hard and difficult it is to get from page one to fade out.
There are so many aspects of screenwriting craft to consider and get right: concept, tone, pace, structure, visual narrative (cinematic), plot, dialogue, setting, theme. These areas can be studied, taught and learned but there’s one key aspect that is much more difficult to define and dissect.
Characters. The people that populate your story will be the main reason why the audience will want to stick around and be swept away by your concept, tone, pace, structure…
This applies to TV and film. Favourite dramas, sitcoms, movies of the week, whatever, all have a great foundation at their heart to make their ideas and story lines work. Great characters. Friends, Frasier, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, Sopranos, ER, Queer as Folk, Cracker, Shameless, State of Play, The Office…
The tone, energy and humour of the show/film will largely come from the characters’ characterisation and behaviour. If a script is chugging along with two-dimensional characters who are contrived into a situation and provided with dialogue that isn’t credible, emotive or amusing, then the script is reading flat and uninspiring.
Kimberly Simi, writer of Casanova (the film version, not Russell T’s delightful romp), has this to say: “I think it's always a struggle to make sure your characters are engaging and have some basis in humanity so that people care about them. [But] at the same time, you need a plot that's interesting. You can't just have interesting characters, you have to have a plot that supports your characters. So I think the struggle is creating a plot that is worthy of your characters and characters that are worthy of your plot."
And therein lies the rub. So much advice from books and gurus will tell you how to mould the perfect plot with the pinpoint three-act structure but like moths to a scalding light, new screenwriters focus on the craft and forget about the care needed to make the characters work.
The week before Christmas, I went to Dublin to attend a meeting with Parallel Films who are developing one of my scripts. Previously, I took their (valuable) notes and went away to write a new draft. I was pleased and confident that I had strengthened the characters and structure, and made the script a much more appealing and rounded story.
They hated it. They thought it had taken a step backwards (from the first draft), and worse, that it felt like it had been written by a different writer. They were very disappointed. All because of one glaring inconsistency (for them): the characters. They felt my rewrite lost sense of who the characters were and what they wanted.
It was the worse reaction to one of my scripts, ever. And I got paid! I sat there, in the producer’s house, gobsmacked. The writing was good, no question (towards the end of the meeting, we discussed the possibility of me writing for a TV series they’re making) but the new scenes and structure had altered some of the characterisation of the key characters, and they were too disconcerted to appreciate all my finely honed craft.
I disagreed with them. I felt the script, and characters, were stronger but it wasn’t a case of “I’m right, you’re wrong”, it was a fascinating and compelling exercise to listen to their response and learn why they felt that way.
If this had happened a couple of years ago, I would have probably bawled my eyes out and thrown a silent tantrum but instead of feeling sensitive and insecure, I was calm and even about their reaction as opposed to what I had intended in the script (more people have read the script and opinion is divided: some love the new draft but Parallel dislike it and they’re the ones who’re paying).
Focus on the characters. Get them right. Clarify their motivation and characterisation, and keep them consistent whilst developing their emotional journey throughout the story. It's best not to confuse or mislead the reader/audience with ambiguous character behaviour. Try not to contrive a plot or situation to fit the characters, it's better to dramatise the characters’ needs and conflict so that it becomes the body of the drama.
And don’t forget the pace, tone, structure, dialogue, subtext, visual narrative, plot, setting, theme…
Writing screenplays is hard? Damn straight.