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Why Spec Scripts Fail: Relationships Not Consummated, Part 1

When a screenwriter gives birth to a character s/he creates an unspoken pact that promises the audience, “My Story and Character Will Not Bore You.”

How does the writer live up to this commitment?

Reach back into your personal journey and recall the people and incidents that stick with you. Why do you remember them? What was it about their journey or the activity that resonates in either a positive or negative manner with you? Go ahead, just think back to the most recent and write it down. See if you can recall how you were affected then, and the feelings or emotions that bubble up now?

Believe it or not there is a straightforward explanation for why you still feel “connected” in some manner.

What was said or done, or simply the behavior you observed or participated in, affected you on some emotional level. You identified, to some degree consciously or unconsciously, with either the behavior or the circumstances from either first-hand experience or what you “learned” from others. To some degree you had “felt” this “emotion” before. The truth is that with stories in any media the audience bond is enhanced when the writing merely triggers recall of a personal incident vs. some explicit description or representation of the activity of others. This bond evokes the “Been There Done That” response.

All characters reveal themselves not by an event but by their response to that event. It’s this action or reaction that defines “what they are made of.” This “character behavior” drives the plot. This revelation is what endears them to you. It’s how their behavior makes you feel about them. Even a well-written antagonist will evoke begrudging respect if s/he is as strong as the protagonist. Character is plot and plot is character.

The more you are invested in a character the stronger the emotional bonding and the more compelling the plot.

Audience Emotional Bond

All writers have an affinity for each of their characters. They must transfer this affinity to the audience. Too often, many writers squander valuable page space on pedantic character description instead of character behavior. Even this behavior should be suggestive rather than overly descriptive. Unless the character is significant to the story, the first audience (reader) has no interest in the character or scene description minutia. Even with the major characters, it is important to keep their descriptions to a bare minimum. Only include details that convey the characters’ uniqueness.

Those who first see your novel or screenplay need to understand in short order why they should invest time, money or both in anything you submit. Unfortunately, in this spin-off world of “Tent Pole” stories, some of the more passionate and skilled storytellers many times write boring, uninspired, flat, stale, and derivative material. This is especially true for those who write in the same old stale style.

The best way to capture your audience is to come at a familiar story or incident in a unique, fresh writing style (Pulp Fiction) that encompasses the shared human emotions. Then you have a page turner (Hunger Games). All that said, each major character must have a unique measure of positive traits in addition to their flaws. It is necessary for a writer to not only humanize the character by providing them flaws that must be overcome in order to achieve self-growth, but to also provide strengths and positive characteristics. We admire these strengths and characteristics in people we associate with. It’s important that the reader have this same admiration for your character. Think of it as you, the writer, playing Cupid between the reader and your characters. The challenges each of your characters experience are a metaphor for the adversities that each audience member is going through in their own life.

Create an audience “personal reality” to this metaphor. The unspoken pact we started with is the reason the reader must be hooked right after the protagonist and/or antagonist is introduced, preferably by a clever and intriguing first line of dialogue. Give the reader reason to believe that your story and characters won’t be a bore. Consummate the relationship between reader and character by sympathy and/or empathy via a high-stakes moment that compels the reader to turn the page in order to discover what happens next. This is what is commonly referred to as a hook. However, hooks by themselves are only good for a short while.

How does a writer set the hook to keep the audiences’ attention? Subject for Part II, next time!

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