F. Scott Fitzgerald, not exactly known as an action writer, said it best: "In movies, characters are what they do, not what they say." This is the most important thing you can recall when writing any script for film or TV, and believe me I know how hard it is to remember.
|Pull the reader into your story and get them to tune into your characters.|
In a novel, we get into our protagonist's mind. We know his or her thoughts. In a stageplay, the flow of words is designed to both propel the story forward and illuminate the psyches of the speakers. But in a teleplay or screenplay, the only way we can know what a character is thinking is by his behaviour. We may never hear his thoughts, and the only time we hear him talking is when he's in conversation with other people, to whom he could easily be lying.
Action, then, is what conveys our characters' states of mind. An angry character throws a chair, breaks a mirror. A loving character holds a dear one tenderly. A character who can't face life, literally turns away. Whether the action is large or small, it has to come from within, driven by the needs of the individual, and therefore it illuminates them at the same time.
The next time you sit down to sketch out a script, think of yourself as a supreme existentialist. Sartre wrote, "Existence precedes essence." Your job writing for visual media is to make Sartre's words come true. Create events that infuse characters with existence so that the audience will understand their essence, making the entire piece come alive.
Even when I don't have a show in production, I receive tons of spec scripts. Many of these submissions share one common flaw. The writers tend to err on the side of underwriting the material, failing to draw the reader into the characters' state of mind.
Pull the reader into your story – be explicit about the feelings of the characters, especially the leads. If you don't, your script isn't going to work. It won't appeal to producers or actors or directors. And if by some chance it does get made, it will fail with the audience.
Writers write. Even in a spec screenplay, use the tools that make you a writer. Describe your main characters briefly. Let us know a little about what they look like or how they dress. These details communicate a lot about them as people. Similarly, a brief sentence here and there, at moments that are extremely emotional, expressing the characters' exact feelings about what's going down, can be the difference between a script that gets thrown into the return pile and one compelling enough to get a deal.
When you're scripting, remember this old adage: "If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage." I originally heard that from the late Stirling Silliphant – creator of and writing supervisor on the classic series Route 66 and Oscar winner for In The Heat Of The Night. How much of Virgil Tibbs was Sidney Poitier? How much was Stirling? The real sign of both their greatness is that the character's presentation and actions meshed so perfectly that we'll never know.
Read the previous part to this article.
Larry Brody – As a producer, Larry Brody has been responsible for thousands of hours of network television programming. As a writer, he has authored over five hundred different television episodes and movies of the week, serving as head writer, creator and/or producer of The Huntress, Star Trek: Voyager, Diagnosis Murder, Walker Texas Ranger and Star Trek: The Next Generation, to name only a few. He is also the author of the best-selling how-to book Television Writing from the Inside Out. As Creative Director of the non-profit Cloud Creek Institute For The Arts, he supervises http://www.tvwriter.com, internationally known as the top television writing site on the Web, and http://www.writesafe.com, the Web's fastest-growing registry of intellectual property.