Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Step Into Another Dimension

The quality of the spec pile is improving. Despite contrary belief, aspiring screenwriters aren’t stupid. They’re attending the seminars, reading the books, analysing the films. They’re getting better. Screenplay craft and its application has become common knowledge, even for those with just a passing interest in the medium.

Of course, there is still a lot of stuff out there that ranges from bad to mediocre, and this will continue to give the spec pile a bad name. There are many scripts that vary from good to excellent (although the latter category is subjectively rare) and these screenplays are often on a par with films that are already in production or enjoying current release.

The overall improvement in the spec pile is both reassuring and disappointing. The general advance in quality comes from a good appreciation of craft. Writers know their three-act structure and how to execute it with pinpoint precision. They’re aware of set-ups and pay-offs. A great opening sequence. A good ending. Style, tone, structure. Check. At the very least, scripts are better written than they ever were before. What’s disappointing about this progress is that the characters in the scripts fail to emotionally engage, and this leads to the regular rejection on the script’s coverage.

It seems that new writers have developed a knack for writing serviceable screenplays but they’re not writing interesting characters to fulfil their respective stories. And this, above all else
, is what matters in a script. Forget about the long list of disposable films that would offer a sound argument against the statement. They’re nothing to do with you or me. In the spec pile, you’re judged by the quality of your craft but also by how well your story engages the reader on an emotional level. This is achieved through the script’s cast of characters, and how well they are defined and developed.

Characters fulfil a certain role or duty in a story. The protagonist. Chirpy sidekick. Love interest. Villain. Best friend. Boss. Parent. Whatever. A script reader’s seen them all, just as much as a cinema audience. What we’re looking for is something new, fresh and distinctive. We don’t want to see characters behave in the same stereotypical way based on their role in the story. But that’s what happens all the time. The hero is the hero, flawless and brave. The sidekick is comic and supportive, and might even die for his trouble. The love interest’s romance is assured from the outset. The boss is unfair. The parent doesn’t understand. And so it goes…

Superior screenplay craft will ensure an easy read and an appreciative response from a reader but a story with only one or two dimensions of character will leave the reader dissatisfied and unimpressed with the script’s emotional range. Three-dimensional characters are considered favourable but this isn’t entirely true anymore because we can usually predict a character’s behaviour or response from his general characterisation in the story.

What’s desirable now, but more difficult to achieve, is the multi-dimensional character: complex emotional people where their behaviour can’t be easily categorised or predicted. This isn’t meant to encourage erratic or uneven conduct. Quite the opposite. It’s meant to establish a range of conflicting emotions and challenges for the characters to experience. This extra dimension of character is usually borne out of the writer’s particular insight into the situation. It will probably avoid cliché and predictability, and enrich the character’s emotional development with the difficult choice that he/she has to make. ‘Enrich’ doesn’t necessarily mean a positive outcome for the character; it could be a detrimental action that increases the story’s emotional or dramatic appeal.

Due to the particular demand of screenplay craft, getting a multi-dimensional character down on the page is tough. A well-written script with effective emotional characters mightn’t be as obvious or appealing because of what the writer hasn’t written
, and what’s left to the subtext. You just have to trust the reader’s instincts and awareness, something that may not be in evidence if it’s an inexperienced intern.

And then there’s what an actor can bring to the part. What really wasn’t on the page is suddenly lifted into a whole new emotional character dimension because of the actor’s particular talents. But for the moment let’s just assume we’re lazing in the spec pile, a million miles away from actors and directors on set. It’s our job to give the characters a chance to breathe and develop; to react and respond to the story on an emotional and practical level.

Whether it’s a genre movie or a more personal piece, the characters have to ring true and be consistent. Think of the best and most lauded genre movies: they all have great characters. And, more importantly, they all have interesting personal stuff going on that had to be dealt with in the course of the film’s plot. Star Wars, Back to the Future, Jaws, Raiders, Shaun of the Dead, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot.

Well-defined characters. Multi-dimensional. Emotional. Human. Real. That’s the secret to screenwriting success. Craft has a lot to do with it but if the characters don’t engage, excite, inspire or amuse, then they’re probably serving the plot in a two-dimensional fashion rather than driving the narrative with their multi-dimensional needs.

Treat characters with care and respect. Explore other decisions or reactions that they might make: more complex and emotional rather than easy and predictable. It will help to defy a reader’s expectation but also increase the emotional attachment to the story because of the characters’ interesting and unexpected behaviour.


Tim Clague said...

I think that is where the Mike Leigh approach pays off. His improv and then write method has many benefits. But perhaps the main one (and one that is never mentioned) is that is spending A LOT of time with his characters and less time staring at structure cards and trying to make stuff fit.

English Dave said...

Excellent post Danny. I see many arguements on writers boards about format and structure. There are dozens if not hundreds of 'How To' books in this field.

Of course structure is hugely important but without living breathing characters serving your story you have a perfectly structured dust bowl.

writergurl said...

There's a thread on Triggerstreet that is just beginning to discuss "structure", so I'm going to link to this on the message board.

Don't be surprised to see your stat counter jump.

I'm in the "If there's nothing interesting to structure, then there's nothing interesting" camp. Story before structure...

Danny Stack said...

Thanks WG, that's cool.

English Dave said...

I'm in the 'good story is good structure' camp so I think I'll stay out of that one. lol

susiesoap said...

Hi Danny,
How's yourself?. You worked some nifty characterisation into your eps of "Doctors" - the fantasing lonely pensioner and "Torn Between Two Lovers, So Elbow the Pair of 'Em" girl with CF -broadcast in the spring.
With Doctors off air until Sept, (so no chance of scribbling down credits,) is Script Editor Peter Eryl Lloyd the best person to send a calling card script?
Naturally it will follow to the letter, or more pertinently word count, the guidelines of your Writing for Doctors post.
Indebted for your advice. Cheers.

Danny Stack said...

Hi Susie. Peter Earl Lloyd would be a good person but I'd recommend sending an original work that you've written rather a self-penned sample episode of Doctors.

Better still, send the original sample to the writersroom but mention in your letter that you want to write for Doctors...

susiesoap said...

Hi Danny, Great advice and thanks for putting me right on the spelling of Peter's name. (Those pesky credits flash past so quickly.) Already Script Number 72,000 -and- something at Writersroom - do hope they're not all on the same person's desk- so will send something fresh 'n' perky to BBC Birmingham.
Hard to create a setting that doesn't in some way touch on Leatherbridge, as it contains everything to from mansions to crumbling council estates, homeless soup kitchens and designer bars. Representing such a wide swathe of sociey, wonder have pollsters ever thought of using Leatherbridge to predict elections?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Danny.

I stumbled across this site whilst looking for an answer to the same question as Susie's . . .

Was intending to send an ep of Doctors to Peter Lloyd - now wondering whether to 'anonymise' it by changing character / location names and sending it to the BBC Writers Room . . .

Any thoughts would be much appreciated!



Danny Stack said...

Hi Ed - yes, it's best to submit original work as that way they can't be accused of plagiarising your script, plus they get to see what your 'original voice' is like as a writer. Any one of the script editors on the show would be a good point-of-contact, otherwise the BBC writersroom is the place to start.