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.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Five Ways to Defeat Writer's Block

The subject of writer’s block comes up fairly frequently at writing panels and conferences, which suggests it’s a pretty big concern for a lot of writers. There is some debate about exactly what it is, or even if it actually exists. My position is that if you think you can’t write because of some kind of mental block, then by definition you have writer’s block.

I think writer’s block can come in many forms and have many sources. I’ve certainly experienced that feeling of being stuck, that I don’t know what to do next on a particular story or script. But I’ve also developed a writing process and techniques to get past that. I can’t remember the last time writer’s block held me up for a significant amount of time. Here are the five most common techniques I use to keep the words flowing:

1. Outline

This is potentially controversial, so let me explain. Fiction writers often divide writing processes into two approaches: pantsers and plotters. Pantsers – as in “seat of the pants” just start writing and see where the story takes them. Plotters outline first. I’m a plotter. When I talk to pantsers, most readily admit they end up throwing away 70-80 percent of the first draft, or that they often go off in the wrong direction for dozens of pages and have to backtrack. This leads me to believe that both pantsers and plotters are doing the same thing in those early stages – figuring out the story. It’s just that pantsers are doing it in draft format while plotters are doing it in outline format. (Not that plotters’ first drafts are perfect, but we typically need to do a lot less revision.)

Personally, I’d rather not spend time working out dialogue and details for scenes that have a high likelihood of getting cut later. And once I have an outline, I always know what comes next. That eliminates most instances of writer’s block. And I’m not married to the outline – if for some reason the story takes me in a new direction, I’ll often pause to re-outline the remainder of the screenplay.

But there are plenty of successful writers who are pantsers, and I feel that writing process is a very individual thing, so if pantsing it works for you, go right ahead. However, if you’re a pantser who often gets writer’s block, maybe you’re not really a pantser. Maybe you just fell in love with the romantic idea of “letting the story guide you.” Maybe try outlining and see if it makes your life easier.

2. Try It Both Ways

Sometimes I get stuck because I can’t decide which way to go with a character or story. For example, do I want the love interest to be an ex-girlfriend coming back into the hero’s life, or someone the character is meeting for the first time? One of the advantages of outlining is I can try the story both ways. I’ll do a quick-and-dirty outline one way, and a quick-and-dirty outline the other way. These outlines may only be a page or two, just to follow through on the reverberations of each choice. Then I can decide which way I like better. Usually I know the answer before I even finish the two outlines. One just feels right. Even if you’re a pantser, you can try this technique when you get stuck – it won’t kill you to think ahead a little bit!

3. Let It Be Bad

Sometimes I get intimidated by the scene to come and kind of freeze up. I think this is common for writers. We’re imagining this great scene, but we’re afraid we won’t be able to pull it off. Or we know the plot point we have to deliver, but don’t have a good idea of how to realize it. My way to solve this is to just let myself write a bad version of the scene. Then I’ll have something to rewrite later, and I’ll be able to keep moving forward. I tell myself that I'll make this scene great in the next draft. This helps me get over the intimidation, and often the resulting scene turns out to be pretty good. And if it doesn’t… well, that’s what rewrites are for!

4. Let Yourself Be Bad

This is for the times you just don’t feel like writing. You’re tired, you don’t feel creative. But I’m a big believer in writing every day. Making it a habit makes it easier to sit down and get something done. So I tell myself to just write for an hour, even if it’s bad, even if I only get a few usable lines of dialogue out. The goal is to establish the habit. And once again, often these “bad” writing sessions end up being quite productive. (I prefer setting a goal of writing for a certain amount of time per day rather than producing a certain number of pages. It takes the pressure off.)

5. Take a Walk

If I’m wrestling with a particularly thorny scene or character issue, I find it helps to take a walk. (Other writers I know go for a drive or take a shower, but a walk seems more environmentally friendly!) There is something about a little minor physical exertion without the need to concentrate that seems to free up creativity. In fact, there’s actual scientific research that backs up the idea. So if you find yourself stuck, a walk around the block might just be the solution.

What techniques do you have for overcoming writer’s block? Let us know in the comments!


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review