Does the guy appearing only in the second scene of your script for half a page really need a two-page intro?
Christina Hamlett shows you how and why you should put your energies into the characters that count.
EXT. CHICAGO STREET – NIGHT
JOSEPH TAMBERLIN, a homeless man of 47 is asleep between two garbage cans in a trash-littered and stinky alley. He has long; dirty blond hair streaked with grey and pulled back in a ponytail secured with a child’s discarded scrunchy. His eyes are bluish-green and he has a large mole on the left side of his bulbous, sunburned nose. If he still had his guitar, he could maybe make money singing on street corners but he broke it two weeks ago hitting an attacker over the head who was trying to steal his shopping cart.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
While savvy screenwriters will be quick to point out that it’s detail-intensive and smacks more of a meandering novel than a tight and well focused script, there’s a bigger problem that may not be as obvious but is especially prevalent among novices:
Joseph is a one-scene, ambient character who has nothing to do with the plot.
In my work as a professional script coverage consultant, at least two thirds of the screenplays I review contain minor players to whom the authors have thoughtfully ascribed first and last names, physical characteristics, specific ages and ethnicities, poignant backgrounds, latent talents, and aspirations to be something other than the fictitious roles in which Fate has cast them for the purposes of the immediate story.
On the one hand, the writers don’t seem to realize that no one except the reader will ever be privy to Joseph’s heartache or, for that matter, wonder if he’ll ever get his act together, land himself a record contract, and jet on over to England to reconcile with his ex.
As far as the audience is concerned, he’s just HOMELESS MAN and one who, for the short duration of this scene, isn’t even awake.
On the other hand, perhaps such writers are only being sensitive to the egos of aspiring actors who make the rounds of studio auditions, earnestly clutching their 8×10 headshots and resumes and hoping for The Big Break.
Actors love this kind of logic. The rest of us, however, see it as unnecessary clutter. Here’s why.
Imagine, for instance, you’re at a party and engaged in a conversation with someone you’ve wanted to get to know. Unfortunately, your host keeps dragging a succession of new guests over to your corner to make your acquaintance.
While decorum dictates you acknowledge their presence and engage in chit-chat, you know that the likelihood of ever seeing them again is pretty remote and, further, that they’ve taken valuable time away from the person whose company you’re trying to enjoy.
The more intrusions, the more often you find yourself saying, “Now where did we leave off?”
In real life, that can be irritating. In screenwriting, the inability to keep your reader focused can spell rejection instead of a sale.
In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish—along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make—is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space.
In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:
1. Advances the plot,
2. Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
3. Provides crucial background, and/or
4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.
If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfil one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.
Let’s make an analogy to studying for an exam: Would you force yourself to memorize an entire book when the only portion of it that you knew you were going to be tested on was Chapter 3?
The same principle applies to audiences: Don’t make them memorize anything more than is absolutely necessary to follow the plot.
SPECIFICS AD NAUSEUM
Could the HOMELESS MAN in the opening paragraph of this article have been played by a brown-eyed redhead in his early twenties? Could he have been Latino or African American?
And what if we made his bulbous nose an aquiline one and moved that mole from the left side of it over to the right?
Even if the hapless Joe were promoted to the protagonist of this script, too much specificity is off-putting rather than endearing to a prospective producer.
Helpful as most writers find it to envision actual personas in every single role they pen, it’s best to be wary of overdoing it in the following areas:
Keep references to age as generic as possible. Labelling someone as a “19 year old coed” or “a 37 year old drunk” could preclude those actors and actresses who fall on either side of those numbers from being called to audition.
Use, instead, the terms “toddler,” “teen,” “young adult,” “middle aged,” etc. or refer to characters by the decade in which they would most likely fall for the sake of the plot; i.e., “twenties,” “forties,” “eighties,” etc.
Unless there’s a familial relationship, an identity/fashion statement being made, or a direct reference to what is atop someone’s head (i.e., “From the red of it, I’m betting you’re Irish”), hair colour and style are irrelevant to the role.
Whether a bank teller parts his hair on the left, the right, or is bald has no bearing on his ability to handle money in a two-line role.
Why do we care if a bartender in the background or a girl on the bus has brown eyes or green? If no one’s going to comment on it, neither should the writer.
Even for major characters, minimize the use of specifics (i.e., colours, patterns, textures) and name brands in outfitting them. I have actually read client scripts where everything was itemized right down to underwear.
I’m always amused by references to minor characters who are described as “fussy Brits, cool Germans, and flirtatious Frenchmen” and yet don’t say a peep for the entire scene.
If you’re not going to let them to open their mouths, assigning a dialect to them doesn’t make any sense.
Last but not least is the faux pas of identifying characters by gender or occupation (for example, CARHOP) and subsequently attaching actual names to them on the heels of brief dialogue with other players.
The result of this is a skewed cast count, especially if that character’s lines are initially attributed to CARHOP and then to MARGIE.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with an occasional tag (“Hey, Pete!”), your script will be stronger if you resist the urge to give everyone in it an ID and 15 minutes of fame.
If a minor character needs more than that, take heart: he or she can always assume centre stage in your next script!
Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author and professional script coverage consultant whose credits to date include 21 books, 118 plays and musicals, 4 optioned features. Her articles appear throughout the world and in trade magazines such as ‘Writers Digest’, ‘The Writer’, ‘Screentalk’ and ‘Writer’s Journal’. Her latest book is titled ‘Could It Be A Movie?’
I studied acting for three years and hold a graduate diploma in writing from Sydney’s UTS. My interest in film and writing was solidified through interning at The Story Department and gave me the opportunity to fine tune my skills. I’ve been involved with several film projects, the most recent of which was shortlisted for Tropfest.
With the knowledge gained from university and my experience at The Story Department, I’m now specialising in professional feedback on short films and documentaries.