Screenwriting is all about character.
This is my conclusion from many years writing and editing scripts for feature films, television series and serials. However marvellous the story, if there’s no compelling character at its heart it’s not going to sing. I’m embarking on a new script at the moment, and I’m telling myself just what I tell my students. A strong character gives rise to their plot when they set out on a quest for something they want, long for, or need. This story couldn’t happen to another person. It must fit the main character like a beautifully-made glove.
It helps, I find, to think about how screen stories differ from other forms of storytelling. Classically, you’d sit in a cinema for two hours to consume a movie, devoting your time – and all your senses – to the story. In this immersive experience, where you are yielding some degree of emotional control to the rollercoaster of the film, your relationship to the characters – and particularly the protagonist – is very special. By virtue of empathy, you fully engage with the main character, feeling what they feel. When they triumph, you feel elation. When they struggle, your own levels of tension rise. And I think this is true even if the main character in a film is not eminently likeable, or perfectly easy to relate to. Skillful manipulation by the screenwriter – aided, of course, by performances from the actors – makes you care deeply what happens to these main characters. Watching films as a child, you probably felt this most strongly. By means of our empathic engagement with the story, we are, by some magical process, participating in the story ourselves. And this vicarious participation enables you to experience the plot fully, as if it were happening to some part of you. It’s very primal; we see another human being striving to achieve something and, for a short time, we kind of become them.
Cut to the sofa on a Friday night and you’re binge-watching box-sets. While the immersive dark cave of the cinema has been replaced by your sitting room (bedroom / kitchen / train), with all the distractions of your home (other people / kids’ toys / the chaos of unfolded laundry to be done), you still immerse yourself in the drama with a powerful emotional engagement. Whatever the genre, you’re compelled to keep watching because you’re interested in the characters’ journeys. It’s a profound need, I think, and this is what makes the form so perennially popular and wonderful to write. We all want to experience life through other characters’ eyes, at least for a few hours.
Our job, then, as screenwriters, is to create characters who will pull our viewers in, and make them care. How do we do it? How do we create characters with whom viewers can joyfully and wholeheartedly engage?
To answer that question, we first need to think about what a screen story is. Whether it takes place over two hours as a feature film, or a long-form television box-set, screen stories are finite. They don’t stretch out into time from the page as novel stories do. We watch them over a limited time frame, and of course, in sequence. So a screen story is a story circumscribed by a limited time frame too: usually an intense chunk or slice of a character’s life in which they are attempting to solve a problem, or achieve a goal, or even just make some significant shift in their mind.
In a big genre movie, there will likely be a clear external goal. Succeed in pulling off the heist. Find the murderer. Get the girl (boy), etc. But even in a subtler drama, the protagonist will likely have needs or longings, and through the course of the story they will shift from one state to another or from one understanding to another. So as screenwriters we need to set up our protagonist’s goal early on in a script, or if not a conscious goal, then most definitely a clear (if unconscious) need. The story will come into being when the protagonist starts their attempt to reach it.
Then, screen stories tend to be carefully structured. They don’t work well as a loose set of episodes in a character’s life, linked vaguely by a common theme, or lined up in simple chronology. Great screenplays give us a carefully constructed series of scenes charting a character’s attempt to overcome a sequence of problems, or the same problem in different forms, and overcoming the obstacles in their path in pursuit of a resolution. So a screen story generally deals with one central problem, if it’s a single character story. Of course, in a long-form series you might have several characters, pursuing several goals, and these might intersect, and inherently provide obstacles to other characters’ goals.
But thinking about a single character’s journey we, as screenwriters, need to give the audience the understanding that this goal or need is massively important to our protagonist. The stakes must be high. This person needs this journey in order to complete some part of themselves. So even if the story is to achieve an external goal, there should probably also be an accompanying internal need. We need to make it crystal clear why this matters to our main character and why they can’t settle for not getting what they need.
The goal must be specific and binary: either they will or won’t achieve it. To say your character just needs to achieve happiness, or come to peace with themselves, won’t quite work. Where I teach screenwriting at UEA I have the privilege of working with many young screenwriters, brimming with brilliant ideas. Sometimes they come up with a general goal like this for their characters, and then I encourage them to dig deeper and find out what is the (maybe tiny) specific goal to which that bigger need might be anchored. An audience may not grasp the importance of a character’s need to belong, but as soon as that character states they want to pass the audition, or be accepted in the football team, or gain the love of a particular person, we’re on their side, willing them to succeed.
This is my starting point as I set about planning my new screenplay. I have something I’m burning to say about an important social issue, and a whole list of possible events which might be formed into plot. I have a handful of characters all clamouring to have their stories told. I’m going to start by setting one of those characters off on a quest, setting up events as obstacles in the way of her success. What I’m aiming for is to give her the most arduous, but ultimately satisfying journey. Once I start to feel something along with her, I know I’m on the right track.
Christabelle Dilks is a writer and script consultant. She trained as an actor at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and worked at the Royal National Theatre, performed Shakespeare in the West End, and after training as a film director, joined Channel 4’s Drama department as Assistant Commissioning Editor. At the BBC she story-lined and script edited series The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, as well as Casualty 1906, the series Casualty 1907,and event pieces Krakatoa: Volcano of Destruction and The Sinking of the Lusitania. Christabelle script edited several episodes of The Bible for History Channel, and worked with independent production company Blast! on Soundproof, Sex and Lies, Animals, and Sex, the City and Me. She has developed original movie scripts with independent film companies Tigerlily, Warp and Inflammable. Christabelle now works freelance as a screenwriter and script consultant and teaches screenwriting at the University of East Anglia.
Christabelle is also an NCW Academy online course tutor, and will be leading our upcoming beginners’ screenwriting course. Find out more →
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