Script Secrets: Visual Storytelling in Character-Driven Drama —X Marks The Spot!

Writing a character-driven drama? How do you show the character’s doubts and fears and emotions and small moments where they inch closer to their goal? William C. Martell looks at last year's "Brittany Runs a Marathon" and techniques like an "active lifestyle" and incremental goals.
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One of the things I frequently say when teaching a class is that “If you don’t show it, the audience can’t know it”—but how do we show hope and depression and other things that may seem abstract? The problem with elements that are more personal (and internal) emotions is that people just don’t talk about those things, and if you create that conversation in your screenplay it might easily ring false to the viewer. 

One of the other things I frequently say is they take us inside the character—if you give the audience the same information as the character, the audience can make the decisions along with the character (or worry that the character has made the wrong decision). So our job is to find ways to give the information to the audience so that they feel the same emotions as the character... hope and depression and everything else that we never talk about as humans. This is done by turning abstracts into something concrete and visible.

But what if you are writing a drama? Something without a big physical conflict that will naturally bring out the emotions of the characters? How do you show the emotional struggle of a character who has problems with substance abuse or weight issues or self-esteem issues? All of those actual crippling emotional conflicts that real people face every day but are not visual?

Well, it’s our job as screenwriters to turn emotions into actions. To turn things that characters *feel* into things that the audience can *see*. If we are not able to do that without misusing techniques like voice-over narration or flashbacks as “crutches,” perhaps we would be better off writing a novel? 

Using a form that allows the reader to know what the character is thinking and feeling? Nothing says that our stories must be screenplays, and some stories are better told as novels than as films. But this is a site for screenwriters, so let’s look at methods to turn emotions and feelings into actions that we can show to the audience, so that they will know what is going on inside the character.

ACTIVE LIFESTYLE

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2019's BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON, screenplay by Paul Downs Colaizzo, based on the real-life story of Brittany O’Neill, is the true story of a 27-year-old woman (Jillian Bell) who moved to New York City from Philadelphia to follow her dreams... and ends up a hard-partying, obese, off-off-off-Broadway theater employee addicted to Adderall. When she goes to a doctor to talk her way into a new Adderall prescription, she gets a warning instead: lose weight or die young. This is the story of Brittany kicking Adderall and the partying lifestyle and losing weight and dealing with depression and gaining self-esteem and getting her life back on track. All of those things are internal conflicts. Things that we can’t actually see. So how do we make emotional problems into something visual?

Give the character an “active lifestyle.” 

Since our job is to turn emotions into actions and situations that we can see, step one is to frame an internal and emotional drama with a story that provides physical conflict. Since not all stories can be Jumanji: Back to the Jungle where characters get sucked into a video game, we will need to find something physically active for our character to do.

In the Visual Storytelling Blue Book I look at one of my favorite movies, Oscar Winner for best original screenplay, Breaking Away, is about a blue-collar high school kid fighting against his fate to end up like his father. This is kind of my story, and I suspect the screenwriter Steve Tesich’s story as well... but who wants to watch a movie about a high school kid *typing* and dreaming of a better life? So Tesich gave his kid an active lifestyle—and made him a bicycle racer. That allows the story to be told through bicycle races and a great scene where he tries to race a speeding truck. It turns a vague dream of a better life, into something that we can see—a trophy for a bicycle race. Racing the truck shows us his progress.

[Script Extra: Script Secrets - The Emotional Journey]

I have a Script Tip in rotation about an aging man who has screwed up his whole life and lost contact with his daughter, has no one who cares about him, and feels as if his future is hopeless. How do you show those things? Well, in this case, screenwriter Robert Siegel made the protagonist and ex-WRESTLER (played by Mickey Rourke) which allowed them to show his fears of aging in the square ring. Sports are a great way to give your character an “active lifestyle” so that their emotional problems can be shown as part of their occupation or hobby...

And the same works well in Brittany Runs a Marathon (the title gives it away). Instead of thoughts and feelings being trapped in the character’s head, they are now turned into physical actions and goals... and failing or success in making those goals.

Brittany’s upstairs neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins) who seems to have the perfect life runs every morning, and runs the New York City Marathon every year. So Brittany, who has never run a day in her life, sets that as her goal—New York City Marathon in a year. Now that we have framed her emotional struggles in a story about running, we can show the thrill of victory and the agony of her feet as she attempts to turn her life around.

BE SPECIFIC!

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Because we are dealing with emotions and feelings and other abstracts, we need to be as specific as possible to that the audience will understand the changes. Brittany weighs 207 pounds, and her doctor says that she needs to lose 55 pounds. For her height, the most that she can weigh and still be healthy is 152 pounds. All of those are specific numbers. She isn’t just “losing some weight,” she is losing 55 pounds so that she weighs 152 pounds. The goal must be something that we can see—something that is specific so that we know when she has achieved that goal. 

She owns a scale and weighs herself throughout the film... so that we can see her getting closer to (or further from) 152 pounds. We need to get the information about her goal weight to the audience as soon as possible, so that they will become involved. If they know that her goal is 152 pounds and she was 207 pounds and she steps on the scale and is 205 pounds—that’s progress! We need the specifics so that the audience can mark her progress. 

Part of what makes this film work is that we want her to succeed, and every time she loses a pound or two we cheer. And if she gains a pound or two, we worry. If the audience doesn’t have a very specific number that she wants to see on that scale display, they won’t know how close or far she is from the goal. 

Specifics are also required for the “active lifestyle” goal—she doesn’t just want to be a runner, she wants to finish the New Your City Marathon. That is 26.22 miles that goes through all five boroughs of the city and is held on the first Sunday in November. This gives Brittany and the audience information on how far she will have to run as well as a deadline for her to get into shape—a deadline. You always need s concrete deadline when dealing with emotions and feelings that are abstract—one of the reasons why romantic comedies have the object of affection hopping a plane or getting married to somebody else on a specific day. 

[Script Extra: Goals vs. Needs - What Defines Characters And Writers]

Now we can show a calendar and count down the months and weeks and days until the marathon—and create a “ticking clock” which will create a mild form of suspense for the viewer. Will she be in shape in time? We also know the specific distance that she needs to be able to run, and can chart her progress as she increases her distance. Cheer her on. If the audience knows that she needs to be able to cover 26 and a quarter miles, we can celebrate each smaller goal along the way. She ran a whole mile today! She ran five miles today! She ran ten miles today! We need to know the specifics!

The more your story deals with emotions and feelings, the more you need to translate them into specifics. Not “around 150 pounds,” she needs to weigh 152 pounds. Exactly. That way every pound that she loses matters. Every time she steps on the scale is a step in her goal. Thoughts, emotions, feelings, fears... all tuned into numbers on the scale. Things that we can see.

BABY STEPS

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She buys running shoes and running clothes and psyches herself up to run, steps onto the sidewalk in front of her apartment and states her first goal: run to the end of the block and back. We see the end of the block. Looks easy. Then she sees her reflection in the side of the hot dog cart on the sidewalk—fat! She goes back inside her apartment building. This is a great way to show her thought process and her courage dissolving. The image of her body in the hot dog cart reflection is exaggerated—the way she sees herself. She is ready to run, until she sees that image. The basic job of the screenwriter is to find things like this that can show what is going on inside the character’s mind—to have them go on inside the audience’s mind as well.

That doorway to her apartment building is a *threshold*—a line that she needs to cross. When she is leaving through that doorway or entering that doorway, she often encounters her upstairs neighbor Catherine on her way to or from a run, so it becomes symbolic. Look for thresholds in your stories—a marker that the character must move beyond or that has a symbolic meaning. In my Implicated film for MGM (which sucks) I have a detective who isn’t supposed to get involved who is invited into the home of an attractive suspect—and crossing through that threshold is a big moment in the screenplay. If you draw a line in the sand and someone steps over it, that’s better than if someone just takes a step in the sand. We want to infuse larger meanings in small actions so that we can see emotions through decisions and actions. There’s a great moment where Catherine leaves the building’s door open for Brittany—nothing can stop her from stepping out and running...

When Brittany crosses that threshold and prepares to actually run to the end of the block (specific goal), we get a great dolly-zoom shot that makes the end of the block a million miles away. Running that far is not easy, and she is winded halfway there. But she eventually gets to the end of the block—and we see the curb where the sidewalk ends. The goal. Again, we have a tangible, physical goal. She made it! Now she staggers back to her door. Through a series of brief scenes, we see her get to the end of the block and back—each time it has become a little easier. Each time she is a little faster. There are big close-ups of the “finish line”—that door threshold. Hey, and scenes where she steps on the scale in between shows that she is reaching her goal!

CHANGING LIFESTYLE

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Brittany’s roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee) is still a party girl who wants her to go out drinking with her—a symbol of the temptation of her old lifestyle. Brittany always has to turn down these invitations... and at first, it’s difficult. She *wants* to go out and get drunk. But as she makes progress with both the scale and running, she finds it easier to say no... and Gretchen thinks that she is boring. When this relationship blows up, it’s like Brittany walking away from her old self. The great thing about having a character like this, who is a mirror of Brittany’s old life, is that it creates dramatic scenes showing what is going on inside Brittany’s mind. Instead of her *thinking* about how great it would be to go out drinking, then decides that she has made too much progress to do that, we can have a dramatic scene with Gretchen that *shows* all of that. The dramatic scene is natural. Gretchen may be a “symbolic character” to the writer, but if you go out drinking with friends every night, those friends are part of reality. The audience expects them to exist. So why not use them to help tell your story?

[Script Extra: Plot Development: Strengthen Your Plot through Character Creation]

Brittany ends up working for a pet and house-sitting service, which allows her to go from that crappy apartment she shares with Gretchen to a series of very nice apartments. She’s moving on up! The nicer apartments reflect how Brittany is feeling about herself. Again, the doors to these nice apartments are thresholds that she crosses.

One of the long-term pet-setting jobs brings her into contact with Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) another pet sitter who has been squatting in the luxury apartment. Jern is sarcastic and funny and cute and helps Brittany with her online dating profile... and once again doors and thresholds become important because each closes their bedroom door in the luxury apartment at night... until Jern allows her to enter his room. And she crosses that threshold, and falls in love.

Visual Storytelling Blue Book for more techniques!

Visual Storytelling Blue Book for more techniques!

As Brittany continues to run, we see her progress through specific milestones. Instead of having setbacks be internal, they are turned into actions—and at one point a major problem sends her back home to Philadelphia where she ends up living in her sister’s basement. The basement, not a bedroom in the house. Down in the dumps. But Bridget gets her life back on track and ends up running the New York City Marathon. Crossing that finish line is a big moment, and the audience *feels* her success. The abstract elements of turning her life around are turned into concrete goals that we can see and experience along with her.

Screenwriting is writing for the screen—writing actions that the audience can see, even if your story is a character drama about finding self-confidence and self-respect. By giving the character an “active lifestyle” and then finding physical goals and specific “markers” to show the progress along the way to those goals, you can take the audience “inside the character” and have them experience each step along the way to that goal. “She made it to the end of the block!” “She made it to 152 pounds!” Our job is to externalize all of the emotions and thoughts and feelings—turn them into things that we can see.

More articles by William C. Martell

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