Friday, 20 October 2017

All I need is a blank page (and maybe a machete)

My screenplays are currently circulating in Hollywood thanks to some of the heat I've gained this year, particularly with ScreenCraft and AFF.

So far, nothing but rejection. 

Does it get me down? Hell no! 

The way I see it is this:

I made a CHOICE to sit down, write my stuff and send it off.

Nobody owes me an opportunity just because I chose to do so. 

I grew up in a society that values storytelling culture to the point that there is so much industry surrounding it and quite a lot of exposure to it from a young age. 

The fact that one can be so inspired by this that they can sit down and start filling out a blank page with the realistic hope it could lead to a prosperous career in said industry points to how lucky and privileged they are to have been born into such a society.

Which is why I'm not particularly despondent at the rejection.

To despair at it speaks to a sense of entitlement that I simply do not have. Nobody owes me anything. Nobody is obligated to recognise me and reward my efforts. Nobody forced me to pursue this.

I can tell you that I REALLY enjoy the process of screenwriting. Like the carpenter who enjoys the feel of working with wood regardless of whether their wares will sell, so it is for myself with my screenwriting.

I would do this in a zombie apocalypse ... 

In between hacking zombies to bitty pieces, scavenging for food and running like buggery, I would continue to immerse myself in the blank page. (Obviously, in this scenario, there is NO industry, let alone a Hollywood, in which case some would question the point of writing a screenplay.)

That doesn't mean I'm not committed to forging a career. Of course I'd love to be paid to do this. And on a regular (if not semi-regular) basis at that.

And I'm not sharing all this to pat myself on the back! 

I just wanted to throw it out there because I see so much despair and frustration in many of my screenwriting buds at their own lack of progress career-wise. And I thought my take on it all would be of some comfort. 


Monday, 28 August 2017

Thursday the 28th of August, 1997

On this day twenty years ago I scored the first feather in my cap as a dramatist.

I'd been at it as a serious pursuit for just over two years, and at the crusty old age of twenty-two that felt like an eternity.

As a last-ditch effort I had decided to enter a contest called the Stages Young Playwrights Studio. After two years of knock-backs and failure I resolved that if I didn't place in this one I'd take it as a sign that I just don't have what it takes.

It was a Thursday when the notification letter came. I'd become accustomed to rejection arriving through the mail so I took it as such. 

Then I opened it ...



And there it was. Validation at last. Permission from the universe to keep at it.

After calling my sister to let her know the good news I decided to celebrate with a cuppa tea and chocolate. So off I went to the shops.

I swear this is absolutely true: all the way to the shops I sang the chorus to this song on repeat. All the way. For every step. Man was I alive!


I hated this song at the time and still do. But right then it felt so apt. I certainly was on my way. 

I was going to be a success. 

This one little accolade was the precursor to my ascension and by the age of twenty-five I was going to be well established and admired in the industry. 

Surely?

Chocolate had never tasted better before that day, and it hasn't tasted better since.

If I'd known that twenty years later I'd be writing this very post as a still unestablished aspirant, in spite of the many other feathers I'd scored for my cap, that block of Cadbury's might not have tasted so sweet.

But that was a completely different version of me. 

He was yet to understand the true joy of working at mastering the craft of screenwriting regardless of "career" progress. 

He had no idea, as I do now, just how thrilling it is to reflect on a finished first draft and only then discover where the story had subconsciously come from within him that was personal, and that said discoveries about himself would build and even change certain aspects of his character and attitude to life.

In the twenty years since then I've come to understand what it means to have been born into a society and culture that values the act of storytelling to the extent that there's so much industry surrounding it, unlike in many other cultures.

Back then, at the grizzled age of twenty-two, I felt that just because I had a little teensy bit of talent and bothered to make the effort to write something and send it off, that the industry owed me.

What a naive and arrogant little twerp!

Twenty years of steps constantly taken forward and backward again has taught me to appreciate just what a privilege it is to be able to send off a script with a realistic expectation that like many who've done the same before me, it just might be the start of something bigger. Slim, ever so slim, but realistic all the same.

Monday, 15 May 2017

There is no orange juice on the Death Star

In the past several years we've had a spate of sci-fi/action movies and TV shows that simply didn't work for me. According to the myriad professional and audience reviews for these films and shows, I'm not alone. They're universally condemned across the board.

Recently my brother noticed something most of these films and shows have in common ...

They almost always feature a scene where someone at a breakfast table pours orange juice.

Not that orange juice is hated by sci-fi/action fans. I don't mind the odd tipple myself. But often when a sci-fi/action entry is generally panned by audiences and critics alike you'll find a scene with a breakfast table that's laden with the stuff.

I couldn't help but think there has to be a connection. So I decided to look into it and see if these films and shows had any other common threads aside from orange juice. 

Was there some other element that unified them and was there a reason this element resulted in the consumption of OJ?

In fathoming the answer I contrasted these films and shows with some that had actually worked for me as well as for audiences and critics. Below are some pics of main characters from such favs that are devoid of orange juice:












Pleasant surprise in Mad Max: Fury Road



Q) What is something these characters have in common that renders their onscreen lives virtually free of orange juice...?

A) None of them have children who they are obligated to put first and foremost.

The orange juice scene usually comes in the form of a breakfast sequence in which we're shown the character pouring a nourishing glass of the stuff for their kids. 

It's become a standard cliche during which we get to see the ordinary life of the character and just how much they care about their children.

Nothing wrong with that, really. 

So long as it's not sci-fi/action. (For the most part, at least. Sometimes it works. Just not often.)

I think the orange juice scene stands as an attempt by the screenwriter, or perhaps the director or the producer or the development exec, to make the audience care about the character by showing us that they love their kids. 

Of course, I'm being metaphorical when I say "the orange juice scene"—I merely put it forward as an all-encompassing paradigm for those sci-fi/action productions that would attempt to sway our empathy by using the trope of the caring parent.

But everyone loves a caring parent, right?

Well, yes, of course they do. At least most people do. 

So why does this paradigm fall flat in sci-fi/action, especially where the plot involves the character having to rescue their beloved kids? 

I believe it has to do with the reverence we feel when a character makes an altruistic choice in the face of unrelenting pressure.

Can we truly revere a parent who chooses to do that which they are obligated to do, i.e. save their own children?



Added to which, is there any real suspense surrounding the prospect of whether a parent will choose to save their own child? 

Compare this against the moral choices some of the above characters face.

1) Ripley in Aliens

Aliens is not only one of the most well-known films in the sci-fi/action genre, it's now attained legendary status. 

Protagonist Ripley returns to planet LV-426 to help investigate loss of contact with a colony there, which might be due to the hostile alien species referred to as the xenomorphs. She and a team of marines discover that this is in fact the case and there's a lone survivor, a traumatized ten-year-old girl called Newt.

Although Newt is not Ripley's child she vows to protect her at all costs. She's not obligated to, however, as she's not her mother. 

Towards the end of the film Newt is snatched away by a xenomorph and taken back to the xenomorph nest to be cocooned. 

Ripley goes all out and takes a dangerous risk by storming the nest to rescue Newt, a choice made all the more admirable because she's not morally bound to do so. 

And later, when the Queen xenomorph turns the tables and hunts for Newt in the hangar deck of the Sulaco, Ripley appears in the Power Loader and utters her famous line, winning an even greater level of our admiration.



Had Newt been Ripley's biological child, the act of saving her would have earned our respect for stepping up as a parent should, but not our reverence. 

2) Riddick in Pitch Black

I think Pitch Black is the single-most underrated sci-fi/action film of all time. 

It's unfairly written off as an Alien clone, possibly because the monsters that antihero Riddick grapples with were seen as lesser versions of the xenomorphs. But to label it so is like saying the Eiffel Tower doesn't work because it has no helipad. 

The monsters (known as bioraptors) were merely supplemental to, if not solely symbolic of, the real monster Riddick battles: the cold-blooded killer he has become. 

It's this struggle that's truly at the heart of Pitch Black, not the face-off with the xenomorph-esque bioraptors (which aren't even a centerpiece to this film as the xenomorphs are to theirs). 

Is his soul pitch black, or is there some light within? 

Riddick is a prisoner aboard an interstellar passenger ship. The bounty hunter who caught him is also along for the ride to oversee that he's dropped off to a prison colony to serve time for multiple killings, but when it crashes on a remote planet he manages to escape custody. 

The other survivors of the crash band together for survival, but when it becomes clear that they have no choice but to find a way off this planet they reluctantly enlist his help to get to an abandoned base where an escape shuttle awaits.

The suns on this planet are setting for what could be a very long time, and it's apparent that the vicious bioraptors, who are highly photosensitive (all light burns their skin), are awakening in the looming darkness to go on the hunt. 

Riddick is physically well built and a superb killer. One-on-one he can hold his own with a fully grown bioraptor, making him the best hope for this group who are out of their depth.

He forms a burgeoning attachment to a young boy by the name of Jack, who turns out to be a girl in disguise, and it's through this hero-worship Jack develops for him that Riddick's struggle with his inner-demon emerges.



In spite of being presented with a few chances to abandon the group and go for self, Riddick chooses to stay with them. One final turn of events lands the group with no choice but to wait in the safety of a cave while Riddick goes ahead to get more light to fend off the photosensitive bioraptors.

One of the group, a female officer named Fry, eventually surrenders to her distrust of Riddick and rushes ahead with the little remaining light they have (a jar they filled with bio-luminescent worms they found in the cave) to see what he's really up to.

Alone at the shuttle, Riddick is ready to take off by himself when Fry catches up and confronts him. She resists his tempts to simply join him and abandon the others. In fact, she aggressively launches her tiny frame at him in a seemingly futile attempt to make him go back with her with more light. 

It's this spirit that finally tips Riddick to make the positive moral choice to abandon the demon within and go back for the others.

The young girl Jack is especially pleased to see him return like the hero she thought he was. "Never had a doubt," she says.

Riddick is not Jack's father, so much like Ripley's choice to rescue Newt, Riddick's decision to go back for her and the others is one to revere. 

Had Jack actually been his biological daughter there wouldn't have been quite so much admiration for making a choice that's expected of him.

3) R.J. MacReady in The Thing

An Antarctic research station is infiltrated by a hostile alien organism that can imitate other lifeforms perfectly. It wreaks havoc on the crew of the station, leading them to a state of distrust and paranoia. They turn on each other, believing one of them is the alien, and many gruesome deaths ensue.

Helicopter pilot R. J. "Mac" MacReady takes charge of the situation, eventually finding a method of revealing which one of them is the alien. No sooner have they dispatched this impostor, they then realize that another crew member was also an alien in disguise that's been planning its escape.

Fatigued, battered and with their nerves and wits at their end, the survivors follow Mac in trying to hunt down the remaining alien, only to find that it's destroyed the generator for the station's heating system.

They're going to freeze to death for sure, because help can't arrive before Antarctica's icy temperatures take their very lives.

But the alien impostor will simply hibernate and wait for the rescue crew to arrive, after which it will be able to make its way to human population and start infecting the rest of the world.

So what can they do?

Mac poses that although they're doomed, they have to ensure that the alien is too.



There's something incredibly noble and stoic about this scene and the decision of these men to sacrifice themselves. 

None of them mention children or family. Perhaps we're supposed to take for granted that they do have loved ones. But as it's never mentioned directly all we know about these men is that they're laying their lives down for the good of all humankind, who are nothing more than strangers to them. 

The above three examples demonstrate the kind of sci-fi/action characters who inspire the altruist within. 

Unlike parents, who's moral decision is telegraphed way ahead of time ("Gee, I wonder... Will they or won't they choose to save their own children?"), such characters could go either way, and there's an added sense of anticipation around this that you simply can't get from parents morally obligated to rescue their own children.

I suspect sci-fi/action fans have a need to root for characters who represent those who would stand up for them in spite of having no DNA in common. It's certainly reassuring to see such selfless heroes on screen.

But there's also a sense of awe in vicariously putting yourself in the place of these characters and wondering if you'd make the same moral choice as them.

As a result, certain hypothetical questions arise. For example: "Would I risk myself for a total stranger...? Perhaps." 

In pondering this we find comfort in knowing that if we would so turn the question, surely others would do likewise and reach the same conclusion. And not only would they go all out for us, but also for those we hold dear and would want protected in our absence. 

So perhaps sci-fi/action works best when it provides us this psychological comfort?

The characters who drive orange-juice-scene-containing sci-fi/action films and shows strike me as an afterthought—a way of grafting an easily recognizable character trope onto an anemic story where the writer has a great (in their opinion) concept but little in the way of stakes or substance. 

In such sci-fi/action productions, the work on character simply isn't there, so instead we're given cardboard cutouts and expected to just go with it from the outset because there are some interesting conceptual elements and plot-twists on the way.

Sci-fi/action fans are not so easily duped. We demand more than mere concept and spectacle. We demand fully developed characters and a real human story. 

In fact, we demand it above all else. 




Friday, 28 April 2017

It’s all about character

Ten years ago I was paid to adapt my play Keeper as a feature film. It was my first professional contract as a screenwriter.

I haven’t listed this in my bio or my LinkedIn profile.

That’s because it was a total disaster …

I accept my part in my own downfall in this instance, however, because my skill set as a dramatist was lacking at the time. If only I’d known.

The funding, from a private financier, fell through and I was only paid for one draft in spite of promises from said financier to fully fund the development of the script and production of the film itself. A plucky and bright female producer had put the whole thing together. It was to be her first feature as producer and we were both excited about the project.

We were both eventually let down. The financier broke contact with her but gave no reason. At the time I chalked it up to the possibility that as we had just sent the first draft (the writing of which did not go swimmingly—my bad!) they were turned off by my shoddy and unappealing script. Better to bail out at the first sign of problems than chance things won’t get worse.

I harbour no resentment, though. That’s the business. I made a choice to enter this gladiatorial arena and nobody owes me a damn thing.

But it wasn’t a total setback. In fact, it was probably the most important step in my development as a screenwriter.

The producer paired me with a brilliant script-editor who I came to refer to as “Sensei” and still do even now. “Sensei” was the first professional script-editor for film I’d worked with in my writing career, having spent ten years working mainly with theatre-professionals and dramaturgs as a playwright.

We met a couple of times to hash out the script, but the task was impossible because in spite of having gained a few feathers in my cap I was yet to come to grips with a major aspect of writing drama …

… CHARACTER

“Sensei” had no issue with the stage version of Keeper because she felt the immediacy of the theatrical experience transcended the film adaptation’s shortcomings. 

The dialogue, tension and structure of the stage version weren’t to be dismissed either, because it had garnered a few accolades and had a couple of successful productions off the back of those elements.

But when it came to the film adaptation “Sensei” said it was problematic because, as she put it, “I just can’t see the journey of the character”.

What the hell did that even mean? Up until then I’d been a staunch proponent of the Aristotelian view that action is character and character is action. A character pursues a dramatic objective. And that’s all there is to them, or rather, that’s all the audience need know about them.

In spite of my protests “Sensei” insisted that although my faculty with structure and dialogue was more than sufficient, my capacity for character was wanting.

There was just no way I could ignore this. The literary associate of Melbourne Theatre Company had said words to that effect only a few months earlier.

After a year as an associate playwright with MTC, which involved working with him on a play I was writing, he sat me down for our final meeting and let me know where I was strong and where I was weak.

He stated that although I was adept with dialogue and structure, I needed to figure out this crazy little thing called “character”.

When two doctors tell you to sit down, you sit down.

So down I sat—literally as well as figuratively—with five very complex words “Sensei” had stressed now bouncing around in my head: “It’s all about character, mate!”

But even without a firm grip on character I’d somehow managed to have a radio play and a stage play professionally produced. 

Was that down to pure luck?                                                                                                                                                                         
Turns out it wasn’t. I would later deduce that both of those scripts were something of a fluke and that the necessary character work had come through almost subconsciously. 

The stories had told themselves, and the characters had landed fully formed and fleshed out, tied in with palpable character journeys, as a result of the ego simply giving way to the id. 

Most of the books I’ve read on screenwriting, as well as the courses I took on the subject, barely satisfied my thirst to get a grip on character. They mostly expounded on the idea of a character as an individual, and how they take a “journey of self-discovery” and so on. It wasn’t enough.

Over the past ten years I’ve really knuckled down and intensified my analysis into film and TV drama to see if I could tighten my grip on character. As both a writer and avid audience member I’ve made some insights and revelations that I wish I’d known back then …

The following points highlight those revelations and insights—none of which are unique or original or way ahead of their time, I’m sure—I wasn’t the first to unearth any of this, and if anyone had written about or spoken on any of it then it was simply my bad fortune not to have come across it. (Some parts are actually coupled with things I learned from certain books, so don't be surprised if I mention something you're familiar with.)

[As I’ve stated before, this is not a “how to” screenwriting blog. None of what follows should be deemed as expert advice. This is just what works for me. Note also that when I refer to a “relationship”, that isn’t limited to the coupling of a man and a woman in heterosexual romance but extends to the scope of all human bonds.]

1. If the relationships/dynamics between your characters aren’t changing and evolving, all you have is a very flat pursuit of the dramatic objective.

Structure and objective are only the spine and bones of a screenplay. The heart, guts and flesh are found in the relationships between the characters and the way their dynamics are changing/shifting.

Love turns to distrust then back to love again. Hate turns to trust then to genuine respect. And so on. There are so many iterations and these shifts don’t only come in twos.

I first became cognisant of the strength of these shifts when, as a young boy, I really took to the evolving dynamic between Luke and Han Solo in A New Hope as well as that between Flash Gordon and Prince Barin in Flash Gordon. (Even Ming the Merciless reached out to Flash for a potential truce, bringing a momentary but brilliant shift to their dynamic as protagonist and antagonist.)

I say “cognisant” because I was too young to fully grasp that it was the notion of shifting character dynamics that was moving me, not just all the laser guns and spaceship battles. All I knew was that I thought it was pretty cool that guys who started out hating each other could become best buds.

But the idea of shifting the character dynamics over the course of a feature film is difficult to get a hold on. It’s especially difficult integrating those shifts into a three-act structure with several plot twists and reversals.

It’s easier to understand this concept when you observe it as applied to your favourite films and TV shows.

My favourite film of all time is Aliens. You see quite a bit of this shifting of the dynamics at play between Ripley and the marines as well as between her and Burke.

A good example of shifting dynamics can be seen between Ripley and Gorman. At first he’s totally ambivalent about having her come along on the mission.

“Thanks for the coffee,” he says at the end of their first meeting, clearly meaning “All you’re good for is making coffee and I really don’t need you there to gum up the works of my smooth running military operation.” (If you didn’t understand subtext before, you should do now.)


As the dynamic between Ripley and Gorman progresses we see he gets more irritated at her presence and interference, and she grows more frustrated with his arrogance.

“The area is secure—”

“Wait, it’s not secure—”

“The area is secure, Ripley.”

At the midpoint their dynamic really comes to a head—when the marines are getting their asses kicked and Gorman turns to a blubbering mess. Ripley takes command and heads off with the APC to save them. Gorman tries to stop her but Burke, her ally at this point, holds him off.

Later, when Gorman comes out of his unconsciousness, the dynamic between them takes a major turn. He tries to apologise but Ripley’s not hearing it. He’s basically admitting he was wrong all along. What a contrast to “Thanks for the coffee.”

From this point Gorman consolidates his newfound respect for Ripley by going along with her. She’s taken command and he’s not arguing.

In a later scene, when a facehugger attacks Ripley, Gorman’s right there with Hicks and Vasquez trying to pry the thing off her. So clearly he now regards her as valuable.


When the xenomorphs cut the power moments later, Ripley says “Gorman, watch Burke.” To which he says “Yeah, I got him.”

What a change that is from when Ripley commandeered the APC and it was Burke who was on her side against Gorman! And now look at the relationship between Ripley and Gorman. (Notice, also, that her dynamic with Burke has also shifted, but for the worse.)

Gorman’s last act is to go back for Vasquez in the tunnels. He’s basically doing the very same thing he tried to stop Ripley from doing when she went to rescue the marines.

This represents the full realisation of the shift in dynamic between Gorman and Ripley. He’s learned from her example and his final act is one of honour and glory.


Just watch the changing dynamic between Dutch and Dylan in Predator. Or Sarah and Hoggle in Labyrinth. They’re constantly changing as the plot moves. It’s an integral part of most good films.  

But character dynamics also shift between characters on serialized TV. Brilliant example: just look at the way the relationship evolves between Arya and the Hound over the course of season four of Game of Thrones.



2. It’s in the relationships between your characters that true depth of character emerges.

A lot of my early scripts show a depth of character in terms of their values and backstory.

But I now believe there’s more to character than that.

When I develop my characters of course I explore their values, attitudes and backstories. I write a one page bio minimum for my main characters.

But I feel that true depth of character is revealed through their relationships with those closest to them.

So I always ask the following questions when fleshing out any character (this also goes for the antagonist):

1)      Who does this character value?
2)      Does that other character value them in return?
3)      In that dynamic do we see a real human relationship?

As a bonus question I ask the following:

4)    If that other character were to die in our character’s arms, would we feel sympathy as an audience?

Think of it like this—Captain Kirk is torn between his cold, logical side and his compassionate but fallible side, both of which are represented by Spock and Bones respectively. This trio forms the heart of Star Trek (the original) and we did see Spock die (though not in Kirk’s arms but close enough) in Wrath of Kahn. And boy did we feel it as an audience.

3. We do not care so much about whether a character achieves their objective, only how it affects their relationships with the characters closest to them.

This wasn’t a revelation. This one I got from this article.

When I read it a few years back it was like everything instantly shifted around in my head and I started seeing story in a whole new way.

Take Jack and the Beanstalk ...

On the one hand, it’s a story about Jack, who goes through a series of tests (plot points) when talked into swapping the family cow for some magic beans.

But if you really look at what’s at the heart of it all, it’s about a boy whose naivety dislodges his mother’s faith in him and damages their relationship. When the beanstalk grows it presents Jack with an opportunity to restore his mother’s faith in him and by extension save their relationship.

It also helps that in doing so he successfully makes off with a golden harp that solves the outer problem of the story—their destitution.

Consider how this mechanism works in Die Hard. We don’t necessarily care whether John McClane defeats the terrorists. Well, we do in a way. But we mainly care about how it will affect his rocky relationship with his estranged wife.

Die Hard is a good example of how shifting character dynamics are important to the story. John is basically on his own throughout the film. Or is he? There’s a very real dynamic at work through his relationship with Al Powell, the cop on the other end of the walkie-talkie.

John and Al’s relationship gets off to a bad start when John drops a dead body on Al’s car. But that dynamic evolves to a real friendship as the story develops. How will defeating the terrorists affect John’s burgeoning relationship with Al? 

Similarly, Aliens is nothing without the developing mother/daughter relationship between Ripley and Newt. To a lesser extent, Ripley’s relationships with Hicks, Bishop, Vasquez and Hudson also imbue the film with intrigue that goes beyond whether Ripley will survive the overall ordeal.

Your antagonist’s relationship with the character/s closest to them could also be made more real if the audience cares about where their relationship might end up if they don’t achieve their objective. This might also get the audience to develop some sympathy towards them.

Consider Kingpin in season one of Netflix's Daredevil and the relationship he has with his best friend Wesley. The pair share a bond of mutual respect and genuine friendship. 

When Kingpin discovers Wesley's been murdered, we feel the loss as an audience because their friendship was not merely that between a maniacal boss and his sycophantic lackey. The audience was made privvy to the depth of their dynamic, which was genuinely human. 



4. Your character’s main relationships work best with supporting characters who possess a trait or set of values that are lacking in themselves.

Ripley lacks a soldier’s perspective. Enter Hicks.

Hicks lacks leadership experience. Enter Ripley.

Ripley + Hicks = interesting dynamic

But this can become clich├ęd when you make it too obvious, as in the buddy cop movie where the two cops clearly and blatantly complete each other. I think this was a staple of the 80s and early 90s. I feel it doesn’t work so well now.

We know all too well that they’re going to rub off on each other in a way that aids them when the bad guy turns the tables halfway through act three.

For example, a routine cop will do something unorthodox and their unorthodox partner will be similarly affected to take an action they themselves would never take, but that the routine cop clearly would. 

Predictable, really.

We see a good example of how to do it in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The film wouldn’t work without the evolving dynamic between Eddie and Roger. On first viewing it’s not obvious that Eddie will overcome the weasels in act three by doing a comedic song and dance number as Roger would.

It comes as a surprise, but isn’t pulled out of thin air—all the way throughout the film Eddie softens towards Roger and his worldview. He also resorts to dealing with his problems in a way only a toon would, and even uses a toon weapon to defeat Judge Doom.



5. Irony can make a character more interesting.

Aren’t the best characters riddled with irony? 

You wouldn’t expect a high school chemistry teacher to be a likely candidate for taking to meth production and murder. 

You wouldn’t expect that one of the best contenders for the throne of Westeros would be a cynical, philandering dwarf who happens to be compassionate and understanding (both of which aspects come from the same source). 

You wouldn’t expect the most dangerous and feared gangster in Baltimore to be an affectionate gay.


6. Backstory will only serve you well during act one, after which it starts to become redundant towards the midpoint.

In my early days I could write a knockout act one and an interesting first half of act two. More often than not, after the midpoint the story went to mud. Why?

Usually it was because I’d really fleshed out the protagonist and their backstory but failed to change that up during the journey of the film.

Here’s what works better for me now …

During act one the protagonist is very sure of who they are and how they would go about pursuing their objective. The first half of act two puts that notion to the test. It’s here that the protagonist goes about their objective according to who they are and where their values stand. They even gain a minor victory.

But then it all goes to shit. They suffer a major setback at the midpoint. And it’s all their fault!

They have a major flaw that saw them go about their objective the wrong way. Though they were very sure they were doing things right, the midpoint defeat forces them to re-evaluate.

They recognize their flaw as the reason things went wrong. They failed to get all the pieces they need to truly win. One of these vital pieces comes in the form of a lack of information (that they should have realized they lacked but due to their shortcomings they chose to overlook the need to go in without having all the pieces of the puzzle).

For Ripley, her failure lies in her over-reliance on the marines and their ability to get the job done.

The marines get their asses kicked because their bravado gets the better of them.

And Ripley simply didn’t know that the xenomorphs were highly organized and as capable as they prove to be.

Indeed, when she sees the way the xenomorphs have forged a hive she admits she has no idea what it is as she never saw anything of the like in her encounter with a lone xenomorph on the Nostromo.

Later, a lone xenomorph kills Spunkmeyer and Ferro, causing the drop-ship to crash. 

They’re in some pretty deep shit. It’s game over, man! Game over!!

“I’m sorry, Newt,” says Ripley.


And in that apology Ripley comes face-to-face with her need to step up and take charge. She had made an oath to Newt that “these people are soldiers” and that they’ll protect her. She let her guard down and now it’s cost her. Now it’s time to make changes.

Unfortunately, in spite of the protagonist’s desire to go about things differently, it all comes to a head once more, leading to another defeat and yet another realization that they need to switch up their game—to adjust course, as they say—and undertake the journey of act three.

But the point here is that all the backstory and fleshing out of the character doesn’t really serve the writer after the midpoint, because the character should be taking steps to sweep aside everything they know and make changes. 

Of course, they’re not going to become someone else entirely, nor are they going to do things completely differently. They simply realize their need to change or grow stronger, and this new direction veers from the path they’re comfortable with.

This version of themselves doesn’t stem from backstory but instead from the lessons of the journey.

Put simply, the best characters are fluid in their worldview and tactics—at some point they will ask themselves “Perhaps I’m wrong…?”

After all, they’re only human and just like the rest of us they’ll allow doubt to rise to the surface.

7. You can take a character dynamic from A – Z once and only once.

Romancing the Stone treated audiences to the adventure of Joan Wilder, a romance author who takes off to Colombia to save her sister from ruthless kidnappers. She meets Jack Colter, who agrees to help her, and many thrills and spills ensue.

Aside from said thrills and spills, audiences were also on the edge of their seat at the prospect that Jack could be the man of Joan’s dreams, as well as the age-old question of whether they will get together.

The dynamic between Joan and Jack shifts back and forth throughout the movie until, finally, they actually do get together at the end.

The sequel, Jewell of the Nile, was a major letdown. Yet it treated audiences to the very same thrills and spills as its predecessor. So why did it fall flat?

The dynamic between Joan and Jack was simply set back in contrived fashion (Joan’s not happy with cruising on a yacht and writing all day), and the character dynamic merely went through the same cycle as we saw previously.

But not only was JOTN a re-tread of RTS in this respect, the story simply gave Joan and Jack a bump in the road that threatened to split them as a couple. 

Unfortunately we had already seen the story of “Joan and Jack the potential couple” and experienced the tension surrounding the possibility of whether they’ll get together.  

The tension surrounding the question of “can they get it back together?” was diminished by the fact that if they could get together in the first place, then surely getting around this bump would be a piece of cake?

JOTN also shat from up on high all over the happy ending of RTS. “And they lived happily ever after” should be the end of the story. It shouldn’t be followed with “But then after a while they started feeling discontented and began questioning whether it had all been worth it in the first place.”

Where JOTN fails as a sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is the exact opposite. The main character dynamic of the previous Star Wars entry A New Hope is the evolving bromance between Luke and Han.

ANH took that dynamic from a place of antagonism to absolute camaraderie.

When they first meet, Luke thinks Han’s a rip-off merchant and distrusts him. Han thinks little of Luke also. But necessities dictate that they have no choice but to team up.

Their adventure on the Death Star sees them bond and realize what a great team they make. But when Han decides to take the money and run before the big showdown, Luke is truly downhearted that his new bro has chosen to abandon him.

But then Han returns to rescue Luke at the crisis point of act three and the rest is history.

So the relationship between Luke and Han found its perfect level in ANH. Why deliberately sabotage that in the sequel just to have them go through the motions of finding that level again (as was the case for Joan and Jack in JOTN)?

Empire instead focusses on the evolution of other relationships, notably those between Han and Leia, Luke and Vader, Luke and Yoda and to a lesser extent Han/Leia and Lando.

Return of the Jedi focusses on the unfinished business between Luke and Yoda, Luke and Vader as well as Han/Leia and Lando. There’s no re-treading the same path each relationship took in the prior chapter. 

Empire and Return keep things fresh in that respect.

I think this is why both follow-ups to The Matrix didn’t quite hit. The first film showed us the way the dynamics shifted between Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. It was great to see the love develop between Neo and Trinity, so too the faith and camaraderie that emerged between Neo and Morpheus.

Once the film ended, these relationships had already reached their leveling-out point. So the sequels tackled the evolving relationships between B characters that just weren’t as interesting as those in the first film.

The result…?

The same thrills and spills but no substantial meat as far as the relationships between the characters are concerned.

On-again/off-again relationships in TV series hammer such meat to a point where it’s too thin and barely holds its shape. Such stories risk working the audience’s patience and diminish in impact the more the characters in question go through the same repetitive cycle.  This especially counts for serialized TV.

A TV series used to be able to slowly bring two people together, only to throw their fledgling relationship under a train then slowly scrape it all back together again. 

But some TV series abuse the concept by using it too much. Just like Jewel of the Nile, the tension is weakened because the audience knows that if two people can make it up a hill together once then it’s a no-brainer that they can do it twice. There’s just no suspense.

Those days seem to be well and truly over. Today’s best TV shows don’t press their luck in this way. They evolve the dynamics between characters without stretching the material too thin with constant repetition of the paradigm.

8. A character’s efforts to maintain the status quo of the relationships they value count as the pursuit of a dramatic objective.

The opening scene of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (both the stage version and screen adaptation [with Rafael Yglesias]) depicts the tension that mires the relationship between the two leads, Paulina and Gerardo, in a state of uneasy inertia.

Paulina is a former prisoner of a fallen military dictatorship. She was tortured and raped during her imprisonment and now lives in a state of post-traumatic stress and paranoia as a result.

Her husband Gerardo is a prominent lawyer and they live together in the safety of an isolated beach house. 

At the story’s outset Paulina is alone listening to the radio. The news announces that Gerardo has been named as the head of a commission assigned to investigate and prosecute suspected members of the fallen regime.

This puts Paulina on edge, the reason for which we don’t discover until after the opening confrontation between her and Gerardo, which is fraught with an undercurrent of unspoken angst and malice.

Approaching headlights send Paulina into panic mode—she retrieves a loaded gun, looks out the window and is relieved to see it’s just Gerardo come home. Late!

And why was he late?

Apparently he had to change the tyre after it went flat, only to discover that the spare was also flat. Without any trace of anger he puts to Paulina that she had promised to get the spare fixed but in spite of her assurances that she would it seems that she forgot.

Paulina, in turn, adopts a cold front, deflecting his obvious put-on pleasantness with casual remarks about his meeting with the President that day to discuss the commission.

So what is it these two people want from each other? What, exactly, is their dramatic objective?

Gerardo and Paulina simply want to stay together. They both suspect that something is on the other’s mind that could unsettle the relationship and that if only they could freely speak their views they might surmount whatever hurdle this is.

A character would lose credibility with an audience if they were to air this outright. 

Who in their right mind would actually say “I think there’s something on your mind that could unsettle the relationship and if only you would speak your mind we might surmount this hurdle”? 

That’s too blatant. Instead Gerardo almost offhandedly mentions her remiss regarding the flat tyre and Paulina casually inserts references to his meeting into what is clearly a flippant conversation.

They both want answers, they just don’t want to have to ask the questions. Two people who really love each other shouldn’t have to, right? And there you have it, the thing such characters really want from each other in scenes like this: to be reassured.

A character doesn’t need to be pursuing an actual physical objective. Their dramatic action, those things they do or say in order to achieve a result, can centre on simply maintaining the dynamic they have with those closest to them. Everybody hates changes to the equilibrium.

9. On the journey of the character as it applies to drama.

[This one is extremely scathing and unforgiving in its outlook. Let me repeat my earlier disclaimer: this is merely what works for me. In the case of this point, it's about what doesn't work for me, both as writer and audience member. Think of it as the writer I am today looking back like Krapp at his younger self and berating him (some might say unfairly) for his artlessness. I am not berating any writer who is a proponent of the school of thought this point derides.]

In poor drama we’re introduced to a character who clearly lacks a trait that would make their life more fulfilled if only they possessed it …

A coward …

A loner …

A grief-stricken lover …

(Ad infinitum …)

Can you guess where the journey of each of the above characters will take us…?

Gee, I wonder …

Maybe—just maybe—the coward will find their inner-hero.

At a stretch, I’d guess that the loner will learn to open up and connect.

At an even greater stretch, might I posit that the grief stricken-lover will learn to love again?

“Holy shit-bergs, Batman, give that guy three cigars!”


I’m absolutely right to be petulant. This paradigm doesn’t work for me, both as a screenwriter and as an audience member. 

The idea that the protagonist finds their true self or goes from one state to another strikes me as way too blatant and obvious. 

I believe that the development of a character can be shown through the way their relationships are shifting and changing.

The development of the sample characters the coward, the loner and the grief-stricken lover can be easily charted in the form of the novel—even without a great deal of involvement with other characters. 

The reader gets to hear the hero’s inner thoughts and introspection as they negotiate just who they are. And this can make for a great read.

But in drama we don’t get it so easy. We’re only privy to the way the character interacts with and reacts to other characters.

Absent the ability to penetrate a character’s inner-psyche directly, as in the novel, the dramatist has to induce the audience to wonder where a particular relationship might go.

Any shift in a character’s values, worldview and even their persona can be charted in direct relation to the way their dynamics with other characters are changing. The journey of their relationships is the journey of that character.

10. Final word.

Do computer games with stories give you the same experience as a film or TV show?

Computer games seem to focus more strongly on getting the protagonist from plot point to plot point. 

Their relationships with other characters are mainly limited to what those other characters can do to service the plot—there’s no real shift in dynamics. They mostly explain where the protagonist must go and what they must do/acquire to unlock the next level.

And this is fine because the player experiences the story by actually being the character. They get to feel vicarious tension by making the actual choices that lead the character to victory.

So when the protagonist achieves their goal it’s a victory for the player, having succeeded in steering the character to that point. As there’s no need for an audience there’s no need to have the character form important dynamics with other characters.

So computer games are designed without the need for an audience in mind.

This is where computer games diverge from film and TV drama, for the most part. 
It’s rare that a film or TV show can hold the interest of an audience by simply showing the progress of a character from one plot point to the next.

The game Alien: Isolation works very well as a computer game and brilliantly captures the atmosphere and aesthetics of Alien. In adapting it as a film, however, you'd have to keep in mind that the player character, Amanda Ripley (Ripley's daughter), will have to forge at least one palpable bond with another character.

Amanda Ripley investigates a space station where a xenomorph is loose, and she meets up with a survivor of the resultant chaos, Axel, who helps guide her through the station.

This would be a potential bond you'd want to explore in a film adaptation. So you'd seriously want to avoid doing this:


As a screenwriter, you would never kill off Axel, at least not so soon. You'd want to explore this relationship further. (Ironically, the film adaptation could not be called Alien: Isolation.)

Audiences need to be able to get involved with the lives of the characters, not just their progress towards a goal, and it’s this difference between computer games and drama that exemplifies (at least in my opinion) the need for my writing to focus on the way the relationships between the characters evolve and change over the course of the story, because that’s where the lives of the characters are truly made flesh.

Exercise.

I learned a great deal about the importance of character dynamics when I decided to have a Jack Nicholson night. I picked two of his films from the mid-seventies: Antonioni’s The Passenger and Polanski’s Chinatown

I watched them together. The cogs of my storytelling machine started to grind more productively as a result.

One of these films I had to take fifteen-minute breaks from due to boredom. The other remains an intimately watchable classic to this day.

One is a masterwork of cinematography from a master of the form, even if it is lacking in story. The other is an incisive character drama intertwined with an intriguing mystery—it’s well shot, too.

One depicts a character who forms no significant bonds with other characters and instead mostly takes its protagonist through a sequence of plot points. The other treats us to the development of a constantly evolving relationship that grips us and rips our hearts out at the climax, leaving us shaken but fulfilled.

To be fair, Nicholson’s Locke, in The Passenger, does form a bond of sorts with Schneider’s “architecture student”. But it’s fleeting in comparison to the way J.J. and Evelyn’s relationship in Chinatown runs a gauntlet of emotion and growth.


Have a watch of these two films with a mind for how the main relationships develop. You’ll see how The Passenger presents mostly a flat line, whereas Chinatown cycles through ever increasing peaks and troughs. (It’s also worth noting that Polanski also directed the film adaptation of Death and the Maiden.)