When a writer introduces a character to a screenplay, he faces a difficult decision in ‘reader exposition’ (information necessary for the script reader, not the audience at the cinema). Usually it comes down to the basic characterisation or leading traits that the character possesses and the writer wants the reader to know. But how to do this successfully without pissing the reader off?
The standard advice is to be clever and evocative, mixing a sense of their visual vibe with something from their past or a neat visual metaphor of what they’re like. What you don’t want to read is this:
“JOHN SMITH enters the bar. He’s a humble accountant, way out of his depth, but he looks like he can hold his own because of his big frame and rugged good looks.”
This kind of stuff appears in screenplays all the time but this is the bad version of reader exposition. What’s generally preferred is this:
“JOHN SMITH enters the bar. If this was a western, the joint would come to an immediate standstill. But the women certainly notice his presence and the disgruntled barflies observe him with a jealous scowl. As John heads for the counter, his big frame stumbles on a chair, a moment of embarrassment. He dusts himself off and sheepishly avoids everyone’s stare as he reaches the bar.”
This is better because it’s more visual and let’s the reader subconsciously grasp the basic characterisation of what John is like. The fact that he’s a humble accountant isn’t part of the scene, so it shouldn’t be part of his introductory description. If it is important that we know that he’s an accountant, then maybe he’s at the bar to sort out the barman’s taxes, but that too should be visualised and dramatised, not just spoon-fed to us in the description.
For the novice screenwriter, this is a small but important part of screenwriting craft that requires immediate usage. And you know what, people seem to be quite good at it. Neat, visual, clever and evocative description is everywhere these days when a new character is introduced into a screenplay. But there’s a problem. The style of description is becoming ‘samey’.
This might seem like confusing or contradictory advice but the best introduction of a new character comes with no visual description at all. Maybe just his age to help the reader when he starts to make his own mental image of what the character is like:
“JOHN SMITH (38) enters the bar.”
The neat and evocative description is all very well but the clever, creative and often amusing descriptions are becoming a distraction for two reasons.
One: they are not consistent with the character in the story. John Smith may well be a man whose eyes suggest a dark past but what’s that got to do with the romantic comedy he’s in? His tattoo that’s just visible on his right shoulder may be a cruel reminder of his time spent in juvenile prison but is it really necessary information to the road movie he’s just started?
Two: they are just clever descriptions and have no bearing on what the character is like at all because he behaves in a wholly different manner to the style in which he was introduced: “John Smith enters the bar. Here’s a guy you want for any party, always first to buy a round and even faster with a joke or witty aside.”
And then during the course of the story, John never buys a drink or makes a joke. Not once. Despite many screenwriting advice reporting this phenomenon It. Still. Happens. All. The. Time.
Another regular intro: “John Smith enters the bar. What you need to know about John is that he’s an alcoholic so he’s either here as part of his step programme, or he’s about to hit a bottle of tequila”. The ‘what you need to know’ phrase was probably used in somebody’s successful screenplay once but it’s been copied ever since. It now seems tired and lazy.
Personally, as a script reader, I don’t pay much attention to the character descriptions, whether they’re clever or not. I’m going to make up my own mind on what the character looks like, and how they behave, simply from their actions in the story. Sometimes I’ll be told beforehand what they’re going to look like - “this one stars Nic Cage” - but that just helps to associate his particular acting style to a character that may have been a bit flat or two-dimensional on the spec pile.
As a spec writer, it’s up to you whether you give the reader the basic characterisation of a new character but an introduction that includes a visual representation of the character’s main traits works better than a bland or clever quip about who they are and what they’re like.
This isn’t to say that everyone should stop writing character descriptions. This post is more a personal observation on how the spec pile seems to have embraced the accepted uniform way of introducing a character. It’s fine, it works, but if the character behaves differently or the writer has an erratic command over his creation, then all that clever description becomes redundant. Readers, just like the audience, make up their own minds about things. Show them what your characters are like. Don’t tell them.