Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
So you’ve got an idea for a screenplay. You’re ready to write it but you’re not sure how to get started. It’s intimidating so you buy a couple screenwriting books, look in on a few of the 10,001 screenwriting websites and blogs, read the message boards on Black List or Done Deal Pro diligently, take a class, attend a seminar, maybe try a tutorial or a webinar, and of course pay consultants to tell you the best way to go about it. It won’t be easy and you’ve never done it and your head is spinning from all the advice.
Good Reader, may I suggest... take a breath and let’s step off…far from the maddening crowd.
If you’re at Idea Stage, here’s what you can do: Play to your strength. As you sit here today you’ve got the idea for what the story might be. You’ve also got, most likely, some or all of the characters populating this world already in your mind. Sit down and write out Character Biographies. This will be a page description of who each character will be. It will help develop the arcs of the characters–their journeys from Point A to Point Z–which will define the world you’re going to write.
Break down characters using an outside-in approach. What seems to be reality vs. what is reality.
People are not as they appear to be. There is a veneer, a front, a lie, a witches brew of ingredients to any character. Complexity, by definition, means pouring some badness into your good guys, and some goodness into your serial killers. Why is Hannibal Lecter so fascinating? Because the dude is suave. He can tell you all about Sibelius just before he munches on your face. Tony Montana might be a psycho drug-dealing killer, but when it comes time to blow up kids during an assassination, he draws a line, which eventually gets him killed.
Draw your characters from the outside-in. Start with the biggest character, your protagonist. How does he/she appear to the world? Write that down. What does their life look like 24/7? Where are they during the course of the movie? Write down every location. Who are the secondary characters-- the important people in the lives of the protagonist, and how do we see them? Write it down. Now think about who they are on a deeper level…what does he/she love? What are they hiding? What are their wants and needs? Who or what is stopping them from attaining those needs? This leads to the antagonist, if there is one.
Remember that conflict can come from many sources. Sure, there’s man vs. man, but there’s also man vs. self, man vs. nature, man vs. technology, etc. This isn’t brain surgery–I’ll give you three guesses on who the antagonist is in Twister.
Work the Antagonist now. Write down how they appear to the outside world, physically, economically, sociologically. What defines them? What is their world 24/7, the locations where we’ll find them? That will give you the locations you'll need to write. Now onto their insides–what do they want that puts them in direct conflict with the protagonist?
Move to the secondary characters. Think of subplot characters are tributary rivers moving into, and out of, the Mississippi river. Take a guess who the Mississippi is? Correct, the protagonist. All subplot characters exist to define and forward the journey of the Hero, your protagonist. Secondary characters might be on screen for less time but it doesn’t mean their journeys are ill defined. They, too, should have a beginning, middle, and end. They too should be broken down by how they appear to the world vs. who they actually are, deep down.
Character biographies should absolutely have backstory information. The fact that something happened before the movie doesn’t mean it’s not important to understanding the character. Think about the Russell Crowe character in L.A. Confidential. The beating death of his mother by his father was utterly formative and instrumental to his character. It’s central to Crowe’s motivations, and it happened decades before the movie started. Feel free to take the character biography back as far as you need.
Now that you’ve sketched out the characters with basic biographies, look at the character arcs. The A to Z journey of each character. Does the protagonist fundamentally change during the course of the movie? Inevitable change is crucial to the Hero’s Journey. Many a great movie doesn’t have resolution, but very few have POV characters whose worldview doesn’t change during the course of the movie. 90+% of all movies have this fundamental protagonist change. Without it, what’s the point of the journey? Even worse, why am I dragging my ass out to a movie theater and paying $12 + parking to see your movie?
There are no absolutes in screenwriting. Sure, there are movies where characters don’t change. Tony Montana in Scarface, phenomenal character, starts out as a take-no-shit killing machine and ends that way, but look at what happens to his world. From Cuban political prison and dishwasher to international drug lord. That is a journey! Harrison Ford’s character in The Fugitive is a loving husband whose wife is murdered. He ends up as the same essentially good guy, a loving husband, internally little changed. But look at his journey in proving that…that’s the movie! Internally little changed, but his world, and ours, rocked.
So, write the character bios, inside-out approach. Then write the character arcs for the protagonist and antagonist, then the major secondary characters. A to Z journeys for each. Make sure that every subplot character is necessary. How do you know that? Secondary characters must advance story or protagonist’s journey. If they’re not pushing story or character, they’re gone.
So you’ve got your Principle and Secondary characters mapped out, with full A to Z journeys including all the locations of the movie. What now?
Make a sandwich. For each character visualize the scenes we’ll see them in during the course of the movie. Write them down. I do this individually, seeing each character clearly, writing down their movie’s journey, every scene. I work on the protagonist’s arc first, then move down to the secondary characters. Once you have all the character scenes, it’s a matter of folding the movie together, like a sandwich–figuring out what goes where.
Outlining the screenplay is where industries upon industries, books upon books, have been written. Organizing the movie in your mind. It’s why everyone and their Aunt Ethel has read Save The Cat, or Syd Field's Screenplay. This is the landscape of the guru, but honestly, it needn’t be complicated. You just have to get your arms around the thing.
Character bios are a great place to start. Script Magazine has talked about this before, here.
A seriously detailed X-Men character biography list can be found here.
Here's one I wrote for my movie Chat. Mary Rose (pictured above) is Falcon's daughter. When she disappears after starting a job in an Adult Chat job, her father is forced to search for her in this seedy landscape. Remember, this description does not go in the screenplay. It's for you before you write the script to flesh out the character, and hopefully for the actor playing the role to get to know what the writer had in mind when creating the part.
P.S: If you're planning on watching my movie Chat, do not read this bio! Pretty much gives the whole movie away.
- MARY ROSE
21. She’s Falcon’s little girl who wanders into a den of inequity, a strange, sexualized world where no one actually has sex. She disappears after only a week and Falcon must search for her. Not much is known about her disappearance—she stayed the week and moved on, says Syd the owner. Falcon POV (what SEEMS to be): Had a tough relationship with her father, with his eye disease and headaches, she would raid his stash of pills often. When mom died suddenly, the bottom fell out. Dad went to pieces, Mary Rose raided the pill stash, skittles parties, disconnected from dad, maybe even arrested. She split the house and, needing some fast cash, came to work in xxx-chat. Annie is a mentor, helping protect her from the bad guys (Syd, Godfrey, customers). We see her new to the game, dealing with cybersex losers, zero connection. This is a gig; the cam interaction is painful and painfully funny. People have no connection. The computer screen acts as a filter, a layer of protection. There’s no need for contact or even fucking. POV(the REALITY): She’s actually OK working this job, doesn’t need rescuing, despite having this weird guy--internet name Falcon--stalking her. When she bans him she’s surprised--and freaked--when he shows up at her work calling himself her father, totally delusional. The old guy is tossed out but she's not seen the last of him. Like the Stones said…she got a mind of her own, and she use it well.
Get your story on the page with the help of Paul Peditto's Screenwriters University class