In Part One, I discussed the idea that to understand any characters you create and to make them more alive to your audience, you need to understand their baggage, the emotional and psychological events of their past that informs/moulds their behaviours and responses today. Today, I want to talk about making sure you let your audience in on the cosmic joke.
A couple years ago, I wrote a pilot episode for a new sitcom that I was developing—and still am; oh producers, where are’t thou?—and I asked my long suffering wife to read the teleplay.
My concern, I explained, was that of the four main characters, I didn’t feel I had a handle on three. The protagonist I nailed—knew him inside and out—but the other three seemed a little superficial. I wanted a second opinion, though, in case I was just being hard on myself.
Upon reading the script, she asked me a question. [SIDEBAR: Keep all friends who ask questions before offering opinions.]
Which of the four characters did I think I was most like? The protagonist, hands down. She smiled.
Based on her single reading without any background information, she proceeded to describe the other three characters in the script. And nailed them! She matched almost perfectly what I had had in mind for them.
But as was her wont—never in a malicious way—she then burst my bubble by telling me that she had almost no clue as to who the protagonist was, other than he was very similar to me. Without the benefit of 10 years of marriage, the protagonist was a black box. A name followed by narrative action or dialogue.
We walked through scenes and I explained motivations. My explanations made sense to her, but they weren’t on the page. My protagonist was so close to me that it never occurred to me that things weren’t obvious.
More recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading other people’s developing screenplays, and very often, one of the problems I find as a reader is that I don’t have a clear vision of a character’s motivations in a scene. Why did they do what they did, say what they said?
One fellow student in particular I pressed for explanations about some characters in her otherwise amazing script (which horrified the bejeezus out of me btw). She waxed eloquent on her characters’ motivations and histories, offering amazing little vignettes from their pasts that helped explain why her characters were now behaving as they were.
But it wasn’t on the page!
Before I go further, this is NOT a call for more flashbacks (or cowbells). I am addicted to flashbacks, so I understand their power. Please avoid unless it is really there to move your plot along and not just a underhanded form of exposition designed to keep you from having to learn how to write subtext.
My recommendation to my friend, and something I will do on occasion, is to actually write out those vignettes, full narrative and dialogue, but only for myself and not for inclusion with the screenplay. Don’t just think about them, though. Actively write them out. For it is the act of writing that you will find the emotion of the scene, and it is that emotion that will provide the subtext of your screenplay.
That emotion will inform your dialogue and narrative word choice. That emotion will mould the flow and cadence of your dialogue (e.g., short, terse response vs. raving diatribe). It will also help inform how other characters will respond.
As I have experienced, having this information in my head makes it an intellectual exercise, with all of the cold aloofness that goes with it. But putting it on paper forces you to acknowledge and release those demons. It activates your lizard brain, as another friend of mine liked to call it. It is more visceral, more real.
It also has the added benefit of giving you something back to which you can refer when working on the story after six months of doing something else.
When someone reads your work or an actor performs it, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to get your characters, to understand the turmoil in which your characters function. Except at the highest levels of your story, do not ask your audience to think. It takes them out of the story.
You want them to feel the anger; the amusement; the sadness. If your protagonist is being oppressed, you want your audience to feel angry at the mistreatment, frustrated by the inability to change what is happening, and vindicated/exhilarated when your protagonist triumphs.
They can think on the way home from the theatre or after they close the back cover of the book.
If it is not on the page, none of this will happen. You audience will not engage and your story will suffer.
Sure, it sounds like extra work—it is!—but you’ve already invested this much time and effort on your story. Do you really want to risk that being all for nought because you’re the only one who gets why this story is important?
Who is this man and what is he thinking? What is he waiting for? If he looked at me, would I see boredom, anger, fear, joy?
(Taken in Tofino, British Columbia.)