Friday, August 24, 2018

5 Ways to Give Your Character a Memorable Entrance

(Spoilers: Well, I mention a lot of films in this post, but since I’m describing character entrances, I wouldn’t call these spoilers.)

There are a lot of reasons to give your significant characters a memorable introduction into the story. It helps the audience know who they should be paying attention to. It can help attract movie stars to the part. And the best introductions establish a core aspect of the character’s nature. First impressions matter, after all. Here are five techniques you can use to make your character’s first appearance on screen fantastic:

1. Advertise the Character. Build anticipation for the character by having other characters talk about them before their appearance. In Casablanca (screenplay by Howard Koch and Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein), we hear about Rick and Rick’s bar from several people. Renault tells Strasser that “Everybody comes to Rick’s.” In the bar, a patron asks to drink with Rick and is told Rick doesn’t drink with the customers. By the time we see a hand sign “Rick” to a bar tab and pan up to reveal Humphrey Bogart, we are very interested in who this Rick person is.

2. Give the Character a Grand Entrance. The way the character literally enters the scene can draw attention to them. Sometimes this can be as easy as simple as something like Satine lowering down from the ceiling to perform in Moulin Rouge (written by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce). Other times you might have to be more clever. Consider Jack Sparrow’s entrance in Pirates of the Carribean (screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, screenplay by Elliott & Rossio). We see him standing gloriously on the mast of his ship… only to realize the ship is slowly sinking. Jack steps off the mast onto the dock just as the ship goes under. This entrance perfectly encapsulates everything important about Jack’s character – his unreasonable confidence, how he constantly skates on the edge of disaster, and his ability to escape by the skin of his teeth.

3. Create a Defining Scene. If we first meet the character in a challenging situation, you can use that scene to show what kind of person they are and why we want to pay attention to them. For example, In Inglorious Basterds (written by Quentin Tarantino), the villain, Landa, is introduced interrogating a farmer as to the whereabouts of a hidden Jewish family. Landa is upbeat and friendly, but very clever, finally tricking the farmer into revealing the family’s location. And once he gets what he wants, he proves to be incredibly brutal. We know exactly what kind of villain Landa is by the end of this scene. Similarly, Indiana Jones’ introduction in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), recovering the idol from the booby trapped cave despite betrayal by his “helpers,” shows us how resourceful the character is.

4. Show Us the Character’s Environment. Introducing the character in their typical environment can reveal a lot about them as well. In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the dowdy, sparsely populated classroom where Richard is giving his presentation belies his claim to know the secrets of success. In Get Out (written by Jordan Peele), we meet Chris in his stylish city apartment, decorated with photographs he’s taken. This establishes him as hip, urban, and urbane. And when we meet Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone (written by Diane Thomas), she’s in her apartment putting the finishing touches on a book she’s writing. She celebrates by having a drink… alone with her cat. Her environment tells us what kind of woman she is, in contrast to the sexy, adventurous characters in her books.

5. Use Other Characters’ Reactions. How other characters react to a character can tell us a lot about them. For example, when we meet Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (written by William Goldman), he’s being accused of cheating at a game of Blackjack by Macon. Butch enters and tries to get Sundance to leave. But when Butch finally mentions Sundance’s name, Macon becomes terrified. We can guess from Macon's reaction what a proficient killer Sundance must be.

The introduction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) demonstrates ALL of these techniques. First, we have Clarice being escorted to Lecter’s cell by the warden. Along the way, the warden tells her how dangerous Hannibal is, and the rules for engaging with him (advertising). We them go deeper and deeper into the facility, through barred gates, to an almost dungeon-like level (advertising, environment). Clarice walks by herself to the last cell which finally reveals Lecter standing ramrod straight in anticipation (grand entrance). The cell is the only one protected by a solid wall of Lucite, and it’s decorated with excellent charcoal drawings (environment). In the scene that follows, Lecter is polite, but uses his wily intellect to manipulate, intimidate, and psychologically torment Clarice (defining scene). Throughout the scene, Clarice is clearly nervous, and when she gets outside, she breaks down crying as she realizes how accurate Lecter’s analysis of her was (character reaction).

It’s no accident Hannibal Lechter is remembered as one of the greatest screen characters of all time.


The third edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is out! If you are in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a book signing at Book Soup at 7 pm on September 26th. We’d love to see you there! You can RSVP here which will help us ensure we have enough books on hand.

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