Thursday, November 16, 2006

Character Description, follow-up

Back in March, Dan Owen asked about US and UK TV spec scripts, and I responded with this. He got in touch again to ask about character descriptions, which I’ve already covered, back in July, here, but he made specific reference to group introductions: “for example, you could meet a family of FIVE people in a scene for the very first time (on a car journey), so are you expected to describe each family member in turn? This could mean quite a chunk of the page being taken up! Or do you describe them once (broadly) and flesh them out later in the script? Or will that bore a reader and be considered overkill?”

This is a good question and seemed deserving of a follow-up post. Group introductions are always tricky as it asks the reader to remember names and details when (usually) nothing has happened in the story to get us interested. You’ve probably seen it yourself:

“LAURA, JANE, HUGH, MARK and MICHAEL walk into the bar. They're all in their early twenties but they’ve been friends since college. Laura’s the leader of the group, attractive and witty, although she’s quite insecure and neurotic underneath it all. Hugh’s the charmer, a keen eye for the ladies, which he’s only using as a cover for his homosexual urges.

Mark’s the shy, quiet type but has bouts of wit and personality; he has a secret crush on Hugh. Michael’s the mysterious one, the kind of person who’d turn out to be a psychopath and everyone would say: “but he seemed so normal”. He’s got a secret crush on Laura.”

If you're meeting a family of FIVE people in a scene for the very first time, I would try to make it as visual as possible, for example:

"In the driver's seat is MOM (38), attractive, her eyes fixed on the road but they make discreet annoyed glances at DAD (40) to her left.

Dad stuffs his face with a packet of crisps, seemingly unaware of his middle-age paunch and his wife's disapproving looks.

In the back, MICHELLE (12) gazes out the window wearing large earphones that pump the Sugababes' greatest hits into her pre-pubescent head.

This helps to block out the din from unruly twins HARRY and MIKE (8) who battle it out with swords, Lord of the Rings style-ee.

Dad turns around to the twins but instead of telling them to shut up, he roars:

"I am your father!"

- and proceeds to join in, imitating lame lightsabre noises a lá Star Wars.

Mom's white knuckles grip the wheel even tighter as she drives."

Something along those lines would tell me pretty much everything I need to know about the characters, and that the story is probably going to be about Mom's dissatisfaction with her life and marriage, or will be a part of the story at least.

When introducing a character, or a group of characters, ask yourself: "What's the defining characteristic of this person and how can I dramatise it visually in this moment?" or "What is the most important quality or dynamic that I would like the reader to understand about this character, and how can I dramatise it visually?"

This will help focus the scene because when I used the example above, I thought: family dynamic, Mom's dissatisfied with Dad, daughter's in her own world and twins don't make life any easier, which enabled me to come up with the specific details. There's lots of exposition there but it all comes across visually and hopefully the script reader's paying attention so he doesn't miss the details.

Anybody with any follow-up questions, or new queries, or whatever, feel free to holler. And keep those guest posts coming too, by the way, they’re really popular and you get some free publicity for yourself in the bargain.

Oh, and my good friend Samantha Moore has her recent short film, Doubled Up, on view at BBC Film Newtork. Sam's body of work could be described as offbeat animated documentaries (hope that's a good ballpark, Sam) and Doubled Up is about the shock, and joy, of discovering she was going to have twin boys. Check it out if you have five minutes to spare, and feel free to review and rate it at BBC's site.

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