In Part One of this post, we examined Paul Chitlik’s approach to reviewing the structural elements of a story, including the idea that a screenplay is actually comprised of four stories: The plot-based Main Story, the relationship-led Emotional Story, the protagonist’s internal Personal Growth Story, and the humanizing Antagonist’s Story.
To truly understand your main characters, Chitlik recommends building something of a character profile that you can use as a steady reference while examining how the character acts and speaks within the screenplay. This is critical, Chitlik says, because often when you start writing a screenplay, you really don’t know your main characters and as you write, they will become more defined.
For assistance and more insights, Chitlik highly recommends Lajos Egri’s book The Art of Dramatic Writing.
Physiology – develop a sense of what your character looks like even if you don’t incorporate it into your story (something beyond “tall man in his mid-20s”)
Sociology – imbue the character with a social history: family life, school, jobs, etc.
Psychology – how does your character think and respond to his or her environment? Here is where the personal flaw comes to the fore
How is the character reflected in his/her dialogue? – in how he sounds, the word and grammar he uses, and how he acts
What is your character’s defining line? – Think Dirty Harry, a battle-weary cop with a strong moral center who is begging the criminal to make him shoot “Go ahead, make my day.”
Human quality – what makes your antagonist more than a 2-D character? Why should we empathize with him or her?
How is the character reflected in his or her dialogue?
What is the antagonist’s defining line? – Think Terminator and “I’ll be back.”
Dissecting the screenplay itself
Chitlik then lifts his view slightly higher from the page, offering ways to dissect the screenplay in a more technical manner from its content to the paper itself.
Seeing the Scene
Each scene has all 7 of the structural elements of your story, so be sure you can identify them, although be aware that some elements may not occur within the lines of the scene but rather are implied or referenced within the lines.
Does the scene have any/enough/appropriate conflict? Chitlik finds conflict to be the #1 problem of new writers, which leads us to a discussion of goals
He is adamant that every character within a scene must have his or her own goal, however prominent or minimal to the plot. The conflict, he suggests, comes from the points at which these goals thwart or oppose each other.
Also, look at the emotions of the characters within the scene. Do you maintain them throughout the scene or when they change, do they change when something acts to cause the change?
And for emphasis, re-examine the conflict of the scene.
Looking for Cuts
Chitlik suggests he has never read a screenplay that couldn’t benefit from cutting about 10%.
He suggests you start by looking for scenes that lack conflict, don’t move the story forward (treading water) or fail to illuminate one or more characters in some manner.
Either eliminate these scenes or find some way to incorporate the missing ingredient.
Then look to cut off the heads and tails of scenes, starting later or ending earlier. An example he gives for the tails is leaving the scene when the final challenge arises or is issued, and he points at the work of David E. Kelley in this regard. The resolution of the challenge, he argues, can easily be worked out by the audience through the start or context of a subsequent scene. You don’t have to always spell things out.
This is the challenge of first impressions. Chitlik gives the example of a former student who sent him a screenplay she wrote and on the title page, she misspelled her own name. This, he says, did not bode well for what was to be found inside.
Chitlik describes this as the Mercedes Benz theory of script presentation. If you are going to spend $100K on a new Benz and you are presented with two cars—one that is absolutely beautiful and immaculate and one that is dinged up and dirty—which one would you choose to spend your money on?
Look at the pages of your screenplay and ask yourself how much of the page is black and how much white. Before looking at a single word, readers will be repelled by heavy screenplays with long descriptive sections or heavy dialogue. Find ways to break this up to leave more white space on the page.
Chitlik’s other cautions are: Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar.
The Rewrite Plan
Chitlik’s plan is straightforward and iterative:
- Write a biography of the protagonist in his/her own words/language
- Write a biography of the antagonist in his/her own words/language
- Reread the screenplay, making notes on the above topics
- Create a new beat sheet of the screenplay, adding new scenes that help your story play out and cutting old ones that don’t work or aren’t necessary
- Write new pages and rewrite old ones from the beginning
- Go back to Step 3
If it sounds like a lot of work, it is, but Chitlik promises that with each iterative run, the work gets easier and the outcome improves.