The way you introduce a character is extremely important in a screenplay. How we meet a character will be the fist thing that shapes our perceptions of them. It will color how we feel about them. It also alerts the audience as to who they should be paying attention to. Here are three techniques for bringing your major characters into your story.
1. Dramatize the character’s most critical quality.
There’s a reason why Indiana Jones is introduced as the swashbuckling adventurer before we see him as the slightly bewildered college professor in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan). The filmmakers want us to see Indy as heroic, resourceful, and clever. And think about how Marion is introduced in that same movie – the lone American in a bar in Tibet engaged in a drinking game with a very large man. A game she wins. We immediately learn that she is feisty and tough, perhaps an equal match for our hero.
When deciding how to introduce a character, ask yourself what their most critical quality is for your story. In Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle), we meet Andrew practicing drums alone at night, an entrance that highlights his goal in the movie, his dedication, and his solitary nature. Then Fletcher comes in and torments poor Andrew – a preview of their relationship throughout the movie. Chazelle could have chosen any number of ways to introduce Andrew – in class, at the movies, with his father. But this introduction establishes the most important aspect of his character within this story.
You can also consider the theme of the movie. In The Breakfast Club (written by John Hughes) each character is introduced as they arrive at school for detention. Each character introduction highlights their relationship with their parents: Claire is spoiled by her father, Brian is pressured to do well academically, Andrew’s father cares primarily about his athletic success and expects him to be macho, Allison’s parents drop her off and drive away without talking to her, and Bender arrives on his own – no parent in sight. Parental relationships are a major theme of the movie and that theme is set up by these respective introductions. (For more on The Breakfast Club, see this post.)
2. Advertise Your Character
Advertising your character before they appear will build anticipation in the audience and help define the character’s nature. A great example of this is the introduction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally). In the ten minutes or so leading up to his entrance, all we hear is how dangerous Lecter is and the safety procedures that must be used in dealing with him. That’s matched by the visuals as we see Clarice led ever deeper in the psychiatric prison until she’s brought to a dungeon like hallway. When Lecter is finally revealed, standing primly in a neat cell, and greets her politely, we’re already terrified of him. His good manners come off as creepy!
The movie Notorious (written by Ben Hecht) introduces Alicia coming out of her father’s trial. But before she appears, the reporters in the hall talk about her. Then someone shouts “here she comes” just before she steps through the doorway. Her importance is emphasized by the reporters surrounding her, taking pictures and asking questions, and the cops keeping an eye on her from the corner – even though she doesn’t say a word.
3. Give Them a Dramatic Entrance
Like Alicia stepping through the courtroom door, you can give your character a dramatic physical entrance to show us how important they are. Whiplash gives Fletcher an entrance by having Andrew reacts to someone off screen. We cut to a figure standing in the shadows. He then steps forward into the light. It’s a simple but effective way to focus attention on the character.
The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) gives Don Corleone an entrance with a surprisingly common technique: not showing the character's face until deep into their introduction scene, building curiosity in the audience. The first scene of the movie opens on a minor character, apparently talking to the camera and making a speech about America. But we come to realize he’s talking to an unseen individual whom he’s appealing to for justice – justice he couldn’t get from the cops. The first thing we actually see of Don Corleone is his hand gesturing. And that gesture causes a shot of booze to appear out of nowhere for the on-camera character. The unseen Don seems to have almost God-like powers. This all serves to advertise the character. And then after we’ve become intrigued by this obviously important person, the camera finally cuts around to show us his face.
Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces Indiana Jones in a similar fashion. We only see the mysterious man-in-the-hat from the back as he leads his small band through the jungle. It’s not until one of his men draws a gun and prepares to shoot him that Indy’s whip cracks out, disarming the man, and Indy turns, steps into a beam of sunlight and reveals his face.
The characters are the audiences’ way into the story. We don’t care what happens if we don’t care about the characters. Use these techniques to start that relationship between audience and character from the character’s first appearance on screen.
A note to my readers: I have typically been posting on this blog on Thursdays or Fridays. But because of recent schedule changes in my life, it will be easier for me to post on Mondays for the foreseeable future. I will start this transition by posting on Wednesday next week (11/11) and then Monday of the following week (11/16).
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