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Friday, July 11, 2008

Do You Neglect Important People in Your Life?

Guest Blog

By Robert Chomiak

Oops, anyone read that title and experience a pang of guilt? Or are you able to strike a balance by spending enough time with those who matter to you? And what in the world does this have to do with screenwriting?

As someone who has written analyses on hundreds of specs, I’ve noticed a conspicuous number commits the cardinal sin of ignoring important characters. I’ll be knee deep in Act 2 when it occurs to me that the hero’s friend hasn’t been heard from for some time.

That’s why I prefer reading searchable PDF files rather than hard copies of scripts. It’s so much easier to type in a character’s name to confirm in seconds that, yup, the friend doesn’t appear from pages 23 to 61.

Usually it’s the confidante. Another casualty is the parents. The love interest is also neglected big time. And even—nope, I’m not making this up—the protagonist.

Now, I am not advocating equal time for everybody. It’s impossible to do it in real life, so don’t even attempt it in your script.

The key here is balance.

Some people don’t enjoy being the center of attention. But more importantly, no one likes to be forgotten. As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

Remember what happened to Michael Douglas when he stopped paying attention to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Eventually she turned up with a carving knife and the ominous line “I’m not gonna be ignored.”

What follows are actual examples of scripts in which writers neglected significant characters. Details have been altered to protect the innocent.

In one screenplay, a detective has fallen for a deli worker while trying to solve a case. The relationship takes a few baby steps in Act 1 and starts to flourish at the top of Act 2. But from that point to the middle of Act 3, the detective is mired in his case and makes no attempt to contact the love interest. There is one obligatory scene somewhere in Act 3 in which she shows up to offer tea and sympathy, then the detective doesn’t bother to meet with her until the resolution.

The major problem is that it’s unconvincing the detective could hook up with this woman again without some issue over his absence. The relationship offers no chance to shake things up for him. This is a clear example of the value of subplots. The love interest here isn’t threaded into the story to give the detective opportunities to explore the emotional aspect of his life. Instead, for a large chunk of the story, we are made to feel the importance of his case. For 40 pages the script feels like a police procedural instead of a detective story.

In another script, a single dad suddenly finds himself pink slipped. He has to move heaven and earth to secure employment, which will allow him to maintain custody of his two daughters. No problem here, the stakes are pretty solid. The dad takes on a crappy job completely beneath him in order to pay the bills and later becomes embroiled in a kidnapping plot. He tries to mind his own business but keeps getting pulled into the caper until he has no choice. An unlikely low-level worker is suddenly forced to play hero by saving a teen girl from her captor.

Hm, and all the while, who exactly is taking care of his own daughters? Apparently his prepubescent offspring can feed, entertain and discipline themselves. When we do check in with them, there is little conflict with the dad’s original goal of trying to maintain custody. Think Pursuit of Happyness without the actual day-to-day routine of raising the kid.

In this final example, a down-and-out fighter enters a championship contest to pay for his pet’s operation. In the first 12 pages we are made to feel the importance of that pet, because it represents the fighter’s glory days; symbolically he wants to keep the dream alive. For the next four pages he makes half-hearted attempts to earn some money before settling on the boxing competition. He spends the next 15 pages convincing others to help him: his mother, his brother, a former fighter. He jumps headlong into his training for the next 20 pages, getting into all sorts of trouble and finding his goal to be an uphill battle. And what is all this for, exactly?

I almost couldn’t remember. For there is a 40-page gap where the pet is absent, even though its presence is vital to remind us of the fighter’s goal. As with the detective and the dad, the fighter becomes focused on the task at hand until the story is all action and little heart.

The careful management of characters should be thought of as a host who spends just the right amount of time with guests to make the party a success. Of course, that doesn’t mean running around trying to please everybody and ending up pleasing no one.

Sometimes a character isn’t heard from for the specific purpose of creating mystery, yearning, tension, anticipation. But you can pretty much tell the writer who is intentionally keeping characters off-screen versus the writer who is merely neglecting them.

So, if this article has inadvertently guilted you into getting in touch with someone you haven’t talked to in a while, sit down later with your script to see if an important character hasn’t been heard from for several pages.

Odds are you’ll suddenly be struck with inspiration to write incredibly cool scenes that seemed to be missing from your script. Scenes that allow your characters time to reflect and to develop, to have their goal or beliefs challenged, to bond together or break up.

In other words, to make your characters complex and interesting.

This awareness of your cast will also prove to be a useful tool when you get stuck asking “What happens next?” The better question will be “Who hasn’t been heard from in a while?”

Robert Chomiak is co-writer of the zom-com feature Fido. He has also written a sitcom episode and adaptations for three animated theatrical features and 207 episodes on seven animated series.

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Anthony Peterson said...

Re-reading "Crash" this week, I am completely astounded at how Haggis keeps us in touch with all the characters in this ensemble piece. It's inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Hey Julie,

Another cool article.

Sheila G, also has some wonderful points on this topic.

Both, educational and worth the price of gold.