Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Character Development

As I’m outlining the story of my scripts I’m simultaneously developing the major characters. At some point in the process (hopefully), something “clicks” in my head and the characters starts to feel like real people. Once that happens it gets significantly easier to write scenes. I don’t have to consciously think about what the character's traits are. They just talk to me in their own voice. I try not to start writing until I get that “click” for all my major characters.

Many books on writing recommend developing your character by writing a detailed biography of their life. It makes logical sense. If who we are today is a result of our accumulated past experiences then figuring out our character's past experiences should tell us who they are today.

Except in my experience it doesn’t really work.

The trouble is if I’m trying to write down what happened to a character as a child, and I haven’t yet cracked that character, then the results always seem mechanical and forced. Not organic. The “click” seems to get farther away, not closer. It turns out I can’t tell you who a character was until I know who they are.

In other words, I don’t find my character by developing their back-story; I find their back-story by developing the character.

Now maybe that’s just me. But I’ve asked several working writers about this and every one of them tells me it’s the same for them. If writing biography first works for you, then good, absolutely you should do that. If it doesn’t work for you, though, don’t worry. You’re in good company.

So then how do I develop character? Good question! Usually the initial source of the story idea, whatever it was, will suggest at least some aspects of the major characters. The first thing I do is identify the main character’s want and need, which are usually dictated by the story and theme. I’ll also think about the want and need of the other major characters.

Next I think about the personality traits and demographic elements that are suggested by the things I already know about the character. If the story is about a doctor, then I know he’s going to be well educated. I’ll need to decide how long he’s been a doctor and how much experience he has. I’ll think about what kind of people are doctors. They’re often smart, motivated workaholics. Usually they make a lot of money. They’re respected.

While I’m doing this I’ll also look for contradictions – character aspects that separate my character from the norm. What if my doctor is actually lazy? Or maybe he’s broke… why would that be? Does he have a gambling problem? Or maybe he’s been divorced a bunch of times and spends most of his paycheck on alimony. Some things will feel right, others won’t. I just keep asking the questions, figuring out what kind of guy he is. And this is pre-writing. I can always change my mind if something doesn’t work out.

I’m looking to fill in the key blanks of personality, demographics and beliefs. I don’t have a checklist. That’s too mechanical for my tastes. I approach it more like brainstorming, letting one decision lead to the next. And this will happen over weeks or even months, concurrent to outlining the story.

For personality I’m placing the character on the scales from caring to selfish, aggressive to passive, smart to dumb, ambitious to lazy… and so on. For demographics I’m defining where they are on the various social scales – wealth, popularity, class, religious upbringing, politics, age, etc. For belief systems I’m figuring out their opinions about religion, politics, sex, relationships, race, etc.

The key here is to be specific. The more specific you are the more real the character feels. It’s a paradox of storytelling that the audience identifies more with a character who feels real – even if they aren’t much like the audience member – than a more generic character. So rather than saying the character is a protestant, I’ll decide she was raised Presbyterian but now only goes to church on Easter and Christmas Eve.

And at some point I get the “click.”

Then I can begin to figure out the character’s biography. Some biographical information will likely be necessary for the story. Sweet Home Alabama was about a woman who had to get a divorce from the high school boyfriend she married then ran out on. Obviously I had to figure out why they got married and why she left.

It’s also useful to develop some biography that will never find its way into the script. If you say a character is greedy the audience will believe you – you don’t have to explain the experiences that made them that way if it isn’t relevant to the story. It may be helpful to you, though, to know those experiences.

But, like research, biography can be a way to avoid actually writing. You probably don’t need to know the name of your character’s third grade teacher to write the script. Once you get that “click” you are good to go.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Structure of Up in the Air

(SPOILERS: Up in the Air)

I know I’ve just spent several weeks analyzing a movie, but I want to take a quick look at another one – Up in the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) – because it follows the traditional three act structure pretty closely but uses it in some clever ways. And if you haven’t seen the movie, I’m serious about the spoilers. Stop reading until you’ve watched it – there are some surprising twists that I’m about to ruin for you.

Before breaking down the structure of a movie it’s important to take a moment, step back, and ask “what is this movie about?” Up in the Air is about Ryan, a man constantly on the move who has worked very hard not to be tied down to anyone or anything and the events that cause him to question this lifestyle choice.

This theme is explored in two parallel storylines: First, the company that employs Ryan is contemplating a change that would allow him to do his job over the Internet from one location, threatening his ability to constantly travel (we’ll call this the corporate story). Second, Ryan embarks on a sexual relationship with Alex that starts to become a romantic relationship (we’ll call this the romantic story). Both of these story lines are about a threat to Ryan’s lifestyle.

What’s interesting to me is that both storylines contain all the three-act structure beats, usually occurring in back-to-back scenes. And most interesting, one ends “happily” and one “sadly” from a structural standpoint (the movie is a bit ambiguous about what exactly would make Ryan happy at the end). So the individual story beats function in opposition.

Let me walk through the beats for the two storylines:

There is no prologue or domino (though Ryan’s boss foreshadows the catalyst for the corporate storyline when he tells Ryan he needs to come back to home base.)


ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan meets and seduces Alex. She seems perfect for him – a casual, no-strings-attached fellow traveler.

CORPORATE STORY: Natalie makes a proposal to the company to do their work via teleconference, which will bring Ryan off the road.

COMMENT: Meeting Alex actually doesn’t really function as a catalyst because there’s no problem yet for Ryan. This kind of works since the romantic story will end sadly. However, without the corporate story catalyst, there would be no drama in the movie yet. So the movie at this point is being driven by the corporate storyline.

Act One Break:

CORPORATE STORY: Ryan takes Natalie on the road with him to show her the ropes (and to try to protect his way of life by convincing her that the job cannot be done by teleconference).

ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan calls Alex and arranges another meet-up. It’s now no longer a one-night stand. They have a relationship – as devoid of commitment as it might be.


ROMANTIC STORY: Natalie is dumped by her boyfriend and comforted by Ryan and Alex. Ryan uses this opportunity to defend his lifestyle. Then they all have a good time and Ryan and Alex spend the night together. Ryan is disappointed to see Alex leave.

CORPORATE STORY: Natalie is asked to fire someone by teleconference, though the person is in the next room. At this point Natalie is seriously questioning the wisdom of her idea.

COMMENT: The midpoint should reflect the resolution of the storyline. Since the romantic story will end with Ryan failing to make a connection with Alex, their casual hook up and ultimate failure to commit to anything deeper reflects that. Meanwhile, in the corporate story, the resolution will be happy (in that the teleconference project will be abandoned), so Natalie’s doubts here reflect that.

Act Two Break:

ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan brings Alex to his sister’s wedding. They act like a real couple, not just sexual partners. Ryan saves his sister’s wedding by defending the institution of marriage and the idea of companionship to her groom (the opposite of the speech he made at the midpoint.)

CORPORATE STORY: Ryan returns to corporate home base where he will now work.

COMMENT: The act two break is the moment of biggest failure in a happy story and moment of biggest success in a sad story. In the (ultimately sad) romantic storyline Ryan actually forms a real connection with Alex. It looks like they may become a real couple. While in the (ultimately happy) corporate storyline it seems Ryan’s life on the road is over.


ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan finds out Alex is actually married. He hits his mileage goal but is no longer happy about it.

CORPORATE STORY: Natalie quits after one of the people she fired commits suicide.


ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan is alone again.

CORPORATE STORY: The teleconferencing project is shut down – Ryan returns to the road just like he wanted.

COMMENT: Here we have the opposite endings. Ryan fails in his romantic storyline but succeeds in his corporate storyline. Though, as mentioned, success and failure don’t quite mean the same things at this point in the movie.

What I like is how the movie takes the concepts of three-act structure and uses them to create a story that is ambiguous and bittersweet. This works because both storylines are focused on the same main tension: “Will Ryan protect his lifestyle or will he connect with someone?” This tension is established in the dual catalysts and resolved in the dual resolutions. Thus both storylines are a part of a single story arc. What’s unusual is the way they function in opposition.

It strikes me that an important element of the success of the story is that Ryan’s want and need are clear. He wants freedom (which he defines as not being tied to anyone) and he needs to make a connection with someone. The plot points all serve this character arc. And that is the real story – what the movie is about.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

E.T. Analysis Part 11 – Final Thoughts

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

I’d like to wrap up my analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) with a few final thoughts. At the beginning of this exercise I noted that I am not an expert on E.T. My goal was to show you how I approach a movie when I set out to analyze it. I’m trying to learn something myself by doing this.

(This is NOT how I approach a movie when I go out to the theater on a Friday night, by the way! I love movies and this process necessarily leaches a lot of the joy out of watching them. Please try to hang onto that joy upon first viewing of any movie.)

Throughout my previous ten posts on E.T. I’ve mentioned a bunch of things that I was impressed by in the movie. I’d like to note one more: the use of signifying objects. This is a term for objects that are given special story meaning. E.T. does this particularly well. One example is the key ring hanging off the belt of Elliot’s primary nemesis among the scientists. This object becomes the way we identify the character until his face is shown in Act Three.

Another great signifying object is the pot of flowers that E.T. brings back to life. The relative heath of the flowers allows us to track E.T.’s health. Rather than give us clunky expository dialogue, the movie imbues this object as a visual signal to help the audience understand what's going on inside E.T. It also reveals Mike and Gertie's inner feelings when they carry the flowers around during the third act.

I also never really focused specifically on the characters, though of course I addressed character in many of my posts. So let me talk a bit more in depth about Elliot. I have noted that this is a coming-of-age story. It’s also a story about dealing with loss – Elliot deals with his feelings about his absent father as he comes to terms with having to say goodbye to E.T. Finally, there are themes of belief and faith that are expressed through Elliot's arc.

The movie starts by showing us a boy who is alone. His father has moved out of the house and the older kids he wants to play with don’t really want him around. Moreover, once he sees E.T. nobody believes him. This backstory makes Elliot an excellent character to find an alien in need of rescue. It gives us thematic and emotional reasons why this particular story happens to this particular character.

Over the course of the movie Elliot finds a friend – E.T. This new friend is in danger. It will fall to Elliot to save him. From this we can start to see two key elements of Elliot’s character, his “want” and “need.” Elliot wants to be accepted – he wants a friend. And he wants to be taken seriously. What he needs is to become responsible and mature.

Elliot’s want is pretty obviously defined in that opening sequence. His need I find a little more difficult to detect. I think it is most clearly shown when Elliot runs from the shed after E.T. throws the ball out. He looks for someone else to deal with the mystery. It is only when nobody takes him seriously that he heads out into the yard on his own.

This is again reflected around the midpoint when Mike reminds Elliot in the garage that he’s in charge – that it’s up to him to figure out a solution. And we see Elliot’s arc completed in Act Three when Elliot directs the other kids in executing the escape. Finally, we see his maturity in letting his friend go home even though he really wants him to stay. He's learned to do the right thing even if it means personal sacrifice.

It strikes me that what draws us into the movie the most is our identification with the love Elliot feels for E.T. We feel Elliot’s yearning for a companion, we feel the bond created between the two, and we are afraid when something threatens that bond. In other words we hope that Elliot and E.T. will stay together and fear that they will be kept apart.

Hope and fear are the elements that cause an audience to become emotionally invested in a story. One of the big things I take away from this movie is how well it builds our hope and fear in the early scenes and then plays on those feelings. I think it’s wise to identify those elements in your own stories and tailor your scenes to heighten them.

Ultimately I think E.T. has withstood the test of time because of our emotional attachment to Elliot and the bittersweet outcome of his relationship with E.T. Doing this kind of deep analysis of successful movies can help all of us become better writers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

E.T. Analysis Part 10 – Act Three

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

We’ve made it! We’ve reached the final act in my analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). You’ll recall the turning point from Act Two into Act Three is E.T.’s apparent death. Let’s quickly look at how Act Three plays out structurally.

The act is divided into two sequences. The first begins with the aftermath of the Act Two break. We get an extended scene of mourning. We see Keys close E.T.’s eyes, see Mary comforting Gertie, and then Keys gives Elliot time alone with E.T. In this scene Elliot says a heartfelt goodbye to E.T. He assures him that he will “believe in you all my life.” It’s an emotional payoff to the theme of belief set up in the opening act, and it tears at the audience’s emotions.

Then we have the “twist” or “epiphany.” E.T. is actually alive! This is an interesting moment because it might seem to be a deus ex machina twist. Elliot hasn’t really done anything to achieve this surprise success, has he? Actually, yes he has. He is the one that enabled E.T. to build the communicator that called for rescue. It’s just that we didn’t know it worked up until this point. So this twist is indeed grounded in the main character’s actions.

E.T.’s resurrection also runs the risk of seeming awfully convenient and thus unbelievable. I think it works because certain clues have been slipped into the story earlier that it’s possible. We’ve seen that the scientists don’t know a lot about E.T.’s physiology. And, when Mary is comforting Gertie, Gertie asks, “is he dead?” and Mary responds, “I think so.” She doesn’t say “yes,” because she doesn’t know how aliens work – and neither do we. Also, there was that bit of foreshadowing when Mary read Gertie the section of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell is resurrected. It’s a tricky bit of subtlety. The film doesn’t want to broadcast the resurrection but it has to lay enough groundwork to make it plausible.

This sequence ends with another scene of aftermath, but this is a celebration – Elliot telling Mike that E.T.’s alive. And that becomes a scene of preparation when Elliot starts telling Mike the plan (which we aren’t privy to).

Now we’re into the final sequence, which is an escape/chase sequence that leads to E.T. being reunited with his people and an emotional ending (both of which I’ll deal with in a moment.) The key to solving Elliot’s ultimate problem has been revealed – E.T.’s people are here – but there’s a new challenge. Elliot must get E.T. out of the government’s clutches. The movie ends with a successful resolution as E.T. boards his ship.

One of the things to note here is how many payoffs we get. Act Threes should be climactic – all action and emotion, no exposition. We’ve spent the movie preparing for this big ending. Look at some of the payoffs in E.T.:

  • E.T.’s heart light comes on when he comes back to life. The heart light was planted in the opening sequence and tells us his people are near.
  • The flowers coming back to life is actually what lets Elliot know E.T. is still alive. E.T.’s connection to the flowers has been well established throughout Act Two. The flowers are also paid off in the final scene when Gertie gives them to E.T. as a goodbye present.
  • This one I love: Michael driving the van. The movie set up early in Act Two that Mary sometimes allows him to back the car down the driveway. But he’s not very good at it – he doesn’t know how to drive yet. This is paid off when he has to drive the van and shouts, “I’ve never driven forward!” We get the joke immediately – no explanation necessary.
  • The flying bicycles. This power of E.T.’s was established earlier and now he uses it to make the final escape during the chase.
  • The word “ouch” at the end. Note the emotional element of this payoff. Previously E.T. has used this word to indicate a physical wound. Here he uses it to indicate he is in emotional pain. What a touching one-word line of dialogue! And it would be meaningless out of context of the preparation.
  • The line, “I’ll be right here.” Elliot said it to E.T. in their first evening together. Now E.T. says it to Elliot while pointing at Elliot’s head (indicating he’ll live on in Elliot’s memories). Again, the context created by previous usage gives the line its emotional impact.

I also want to talk a bit about the escape and chase. This is an important sequence because it makes the final challenge the most dramatic part of the movie. Now all the government forces are arrayed directly against the kids. Notice how the elements of the chase such as the under-construction neighborhood and bicycles have all been laid out for us previously. That’s not always the case but it works well here. I think the key is the forces arrayed against the kids are greater than any they’ve faced before so it feels fresh.

Notice how many nice twists and turns we get in the chase. Escalating obstacles are key to a good action scene. Elliot and Mike aren’t able to just sneak off quietly. Gertie reveals their plan too early and one of the government men spots Mike in the van. They have to deal with the two guys in the tube hanging off the back of the van. Then they have to escape the police by going overland on their bikes. Just when one of the characters shouts, “we made it,” they’re faced with a roadblock. And then E.T. flies them off into the sky. The near misses and reversals of fortune keep the tension high.

When they finally reach the landing site and E.T. is reunited with his people the main tension is over. The question asked at the catalyst – “Can Elliot save E.T.?” – has been answered. Now the movie luxuriates in emotional aftermath as the kids and E.T. say goodbye. The movie takes its time with this. Why not, it’s earned it!

But notice how as soon as the spaceship flies off into the sky we get one close up of Elliot and then the credits. The movie doesn’t spend any time showing us what happens to the characters. Many writers, perhaps even yours truly, would add a scene where Elliot is back in the kitchen playing the role-playing game, but now fully accepted by the older boys. The doorbell would ring. It would be Keys coming to pick Mary up for a date. But E.T. doesn’t do that.

What the movie does is end at the peak of triumph, joy and heartbreaking farewell. Those are the emotions the audience feels as they walk out of the theater. I think this is a good lesson to take away from E.T. Think carefully about the emotion you want the audience to leave with. Don’t undercut it by trying to wrap up every loose end.

I will make at least one more post with some final thoughts on E.T. In other news, I was a guest this week on the Popcorn Mafia podcast. If you’d like to hear me discuss Crazy Heart and Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus with the hosts of the show, you might like to check it out.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Best Written Films of 2009

I’m going to take a quick break from my ongoing analysis of E.T. to give my picks for best-written films from 2009. This turned out to be a pretty good movie year. There maybe weren't any more great movies than in recent years, but it seemed like there were a lot more pretty good movies.

Of course I must make my usual disclaimers. First, these are not necessarily my favorite films, although there is a lot of overlap. Sometimes the final film doesn’t quite live up to the screenplay and sometimes bravura filmmaking can overcome a flawed script.

This year has the biggest example of that in a long time: Avatar (written by James Cameron). I think it may be the most important movie of the year and one of the top five most enjoyable. And the script isn’t actually that bad, it’s just kind of mediocre. But it’s the visuals and spectacle that make the film great, not the writing. Thus it doesn’t make this list.

Also keep in mind that although I see a lot of movies I’m not a professional critic so I don’t see every major release. The candidates are obviously limited to what I’ve seen (some notable 2009 films still on my “to see” list are Precious, Fantastic Mr. Fox and A Serious Man). Anyway, with all that said, here are my top ten:

1) Up – (story by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson & Thomas McCarthy, screenplay by Docter and Peterson) Pixar does it again. I think this is their most emotionally sophisticated and honest movie yet…and the most emotionally sophisticated and honest movie of the year. Plus it’s funny. The characters are complex and original, the story is perfect, the world of the movie is delightful, the twists and turns are unpredictable, and it’s moving and thematically deep. A wonderful script and wonderful movie.

2) Zombieland – (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick) A hilarious and original genre spoof, well structured with sharp characters and dialogue. Don’t go expecting a zombie movie. This is much more about the relationships among a quirky band of survivors. If you want to get deep, there’s actually some rich thematic material about the risks of connecting with other human beings. But don’t get deep. This one’s just a lot of fun.

3) (500) Days of Summer – (written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) Takes all the clichés of romantic comedies and makes them fresh, while reminding us why they became clichés in the first place: because they have a basis in the dynamics of real relationships. The characters are wonderfully flawed, real and relatable. Plus, it made me giggle repeatedly.

4) The Hurt Locker – (written by Mark Boal) The directing and performances make this movie absolutely rock, but the script is pretty great, too. Tense from beginning to end, it’s more laudable for its construction of suspense scenes than for the rather thin overall story. Also don’t ignore the excellent character development. If we didn’t care about these guys so much we wouldn’t feel the tension as sharply. This is as pure a visceral experience as movies get.

5) Moon – (story by Duncan Jones, screenplay by Nathan Parker) I really liked this movie, though I think it’s somewhat carried by Sam Rockwell’s amazing performance. The story develops in a tense, interesting way and the concept definitely has a high degree of difficulty. It could have ended up a cheesy, cliché-filled B-movie but they really managed to turn it into something special…starting with the script.

6) Julie and Julia – (screenplay by Nora Ephron) I think this movie was underrated. It was charming, the characters were very rich and I found it continually compelling. The Julie part of the story took some lumps from critics, but I don’t think the Julia part would be that interesting without the modern everywoman counterpoint. And combining the two stories (which come from two different books) must have been a real writing challenge. I think Ms. Ephron found the perfect balance.

7) Up in the Air – (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) This is a charming movie with some nice unexpected twists. The real strength, though, is the complexity of its characters. The light tone and humor help sell some tough thematic ideas. A well-built piece of entertainment with intelligence and heft…all too rare in Hollywood today.

8) District 9 – (screenplay by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatcthell) This is a smart, unexpected sci-fi film with some real thought provoking elements. I did have a little problem with the main character. I loved that he wasn’t the typical sci-fi hero, but he was such an uncompromising loser and jerk that I had a hard time rooting for him. Plus, his refusal to seek help for his obvious illness was just one of several implausible character moments. But still one of the freshest and more interesting films of 2009.

9) The Hangover – (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) Not the most profound movie of the year by any stretch but let’s give some love to excellent comedy writing. The set pieces are deftly constructed and it’s chock full of great jokes. Plus, the characters are all nicely distinctive, a must for an ensemble film.

10) Star Trek – (written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) A great update of a beloved franchise that was really starting to feel archaic. I loved how the characters stayed true to their origins but were given added depth and dimension. The story is rock solid and action packed. A fine script for a big popcorn movie, another rarity in Hollywood.

There were half a dozen movies that were in contention for the number ten spot, and I want to mention just one of them that didn’t make the cut: Paranormal Activity. It’s a clever script with some surprisingly good character work that used production limitations as an advantage. But I have a sneaking suspicion it won't age well.

That’s the trouble with top 10 lists. Sometimes my opinions change with time and perspective. I noticed this list leans heavily toward movies I’ve seen recently. Is that because a lot of the best movies are released at the end of the year? Or is it because my excitement for them is just fresher? As I look back at my best for 2008, I’m surprised to see The Reader made the list (though it is at number 10). At this point I don’t remember it as being a very good movie at all.

So what does that mean? I guess it means these are, after all, just opinions.

Some meaningless stats about my top ten: Two were written by one credited screenwriter, four by a single team, and four by more than one writing “unit.” On four of the films the director also got some kind of writing credit.

And finally, worst written movie I saw this year: Public Enemies. Strange, it wasn’t an out and out screamer. Either Hollywood didn’t make many really bad movies this year or I did better than usual avoiding them (I did steer clear of Transformers 2). But Public Enemies was pretty bad. One dimensional, tedious, unbelievable (despite being based on a true story), completely unsympathetic characters and just generally pointless. It's pretensions push it to the winner's circle for my worst of the year.