(Spoilers: The Breakfast Club)
I happened to watch the fantastic 80’s high school movie The Breakfast Club (written by John Hughes) this week, and I was struck by how effectively the film illustrates character through dramatization. Of course, this is a very dialogue driven film where a lot of the characters’ thoughts, beliefs, and back-stories are delivered in conversation. But that conversation always grows out of conflict. There are also several great moments where character is revealed with effective dramatic shorthand. I want to examine two of those types of scenes.
The first place I want to look at is the opening, where we see the five characters arrive at school on Saturday morning for detention. Character introductions are always very important. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, so most of the time you want to establish the primary attribute of the character when they enter the movie. The Breakfast Club uses the arrivals to quickly and efficiently define each of its five major characters. Let’s look at each entrance in turn:
First to arrive is Claire, being driven to school in her father’s luxury car. She expresses disbelief that he can’t get her out of detention. And he apologizes and offers to make it up to her! Immediately we see that Claire comes from a wealthy family where she is spoiled.
Next to arrive is Brian, in a station wagon. His mother berates him for getting detention and insist he find a way to use the time to study, even though that’s against the rules. Also, Brian’s little sister is in the car. We see that Brian comes from a “normal” middle class family with a lot of pressure to do well in school.
Next, Andrew is dropped off by his father (in an SUV). Andrew’s father chews him out – not for the prank that got him in trouble, but for potentially jeopardizing his chance at a sports scholarship. We know right off the bat that Andrew is a jock and that he’s facing pressure to be good at sports (and traditionally masculine) by his father.
Alison arrives next. She gets out from the back seat of a car, and when she moves to talk to whoever’s in front (presumably a parent), the car drives away. There is a communication problem in her home.
Bender arrives last, walking up to the school alone.
These introductions tell us two things about each character: First, we see the “stereotype” that the character occupies. Second, we learn something about their relationship with their parents (Bender being the only one not brought by his parents tells us volumes – without a line of dialogue). Stereotypes and parental relationships are two of the biggest themes in the movie. It's no accident that those are the things Hughes focuses on when introducing his characters.
(These introductions remind me of the very efficient way Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) introduces each of its characters in quick bits of dramatization.)
The Breakfast Club does a similar thing in the lunch scene. What each character brings for lunch tells us a lot about them:
Claire brings sushi. This is an exotic and sophisticated lunch for suburban Chicago in the 80’s (some of the characters don’t even know what sushi is – and likely much of the audience at the time wouldn't know either). In addition to reinforcing Claire’s wealth, it shows that she's cultured and sophisticated. That adds a nice dimension to the "rich girl" stereotype.
Andrew has a huge lunch. It becomes a joke as he takes sandwich after sandwich out of his bag. This is, of course, because he’s an athlete and therefore burns a lot of calories. It emphasizes how much of his life centers on his athletic endeavors.
Alison tears her lunch apart and remakes it into a strange sandwich of corn chips and pixie sticks, reinforcing that she is someone who marches to the beat of her own drum. It also suggests her creativity.
Brian has soup, juice, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off. This is the stereotypical suburban lunch – a fact Bender makes fun of. And it tells us that Brian’s household is normal and his parents take care of him. Which makes his later revelation of why he’s in detention – for bringing a gun to school – all the more powerful.
Bender doesn't have a lunch at all, once again emphasizing that he does not have a good home life.
On the surface, giving the characters distinct lunches may not seem particularly revolutionary. But I’ve read many scripts that miss this kind of opportunity to show character. Many writers would simply give each character a brown bag with a sandwich and an apple in it - they're high school students and that's what high school students eat, right? John Hughes carefully figured out not just what kind of lunch each character would eat, but what kind of lunch would give the audience important information about their lives. The characters do comment on some of this (Bender making fun of Brian’s normal lunch for example), but the revelations are mostly dramatized rather than expositional.
When working on your scripts, look for places like these where you can dramatize your characters' lives and personalities. Then you won’t need to resort to clunky, expository dialogue.
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