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Monday, May 12, 2008

Q. I come from an Improv and sketch comedy background, I've written 3 TV spec scripts that were good. For some reason the ability to plug into voices of characters created by others comes fairly easily to me. However, my 2 original feature scripts and my pilot were all severely lacking, there's obviously a hole in my writing education somewhere when it comes to creating original characters and stories that have legs. I've read all the usual suspects: McKee, Vogler, you...any pointers as to where to look to fill these holes?
I don't think you need to read any more books. I think you just need to write more scripts. Looking back on all my scripts, the first feature spec I'm still willing to show people comes in around #15 or so. It takes a while to learn how to write screenplays.

To write great characters, try writing some screenplays that depend entirely on their characters. Stretch in the direction you're weakest. If plotting was your weakness, I would say write a closely plotted thriller. If people are saying your dialog is too flat, try writing a script about bitchy fashion people, or create a character who speaks outlandishly, or has Tourette's.

I wouldn't expect you to be able to write a good pilot after writing only three TV specs. Everyone's asking for spec pilots these days, but it used to be you were expected to put in three to five years on staff before anyone wanted to see a pilot from you. You need that long to learn your craft.

The key to becoming a better writer is writing, and rewriting, and rewriting, for years. Do you think people would get paid so much if it was easy to learn how to do it?

As to characters, it's not enough to plug into the voices. You're using the preset characters as a crutch; you know how they sound, and you're making them sound like that. But you don't want to just write lines that Phoebe on FRIENDS could say. You want to write lines that only Phoebe could say: "I wish I could help you, but I don't want to."

Similarly, character isn't writing things that your character would do. It's writing things that only your character would do. Dr. Richard Kimble is a fugitive on the run. He sneaks into a hospital to investigate the one-armed man who killed his wife. He notices a kid has been misdiagnosed. Most people would ignore the kid; there are doctors for that. He scrawls a new diagnosis on the kid's chart and rolls him to where he can get the help he needs -- nearly getting caught in the process.

Character isn't about character bios, which I find vastly overrated. It's about giving your character things to do and say that only they would say and do. And then doing it again.

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5 Comments:

I like that point about how writing characters isn't just a matter of having them say and do things that they could say or do, but rather writing things that only they would say or do. I'll have to remember that as a trick for making characters distinctive.

By Blogger Steve, at 7:48 PM  

Wow, it seems that I am in a good time for reading screenwriters' blogs. You latest entry certainly helps and is encouraging for me a budding writer.

I don't usually do this, but I have this question that I posted on my blog. Since I am collecting answers from different writers, too, I think it would be best if I read your answer through a comment on the latest entry. Your help would be very much appreciated. Thank you.

The blog address is http://graphiteleaves.blogspot.com

By Blogger Nick, at 5:31 AM  

Thank you for your answer! :D

By Blogger Nick, at 9:45 AM  

An interesting tip on character development. I would say however, that too much is made of 'writing 10, 20, 30 scripts before one of them is readable'. Any writer who takes that long to write something of worth is on the wrong track. Don't you think?

By Blogger Massimo Volpe, at 8:39 AM  

On the wrong track? I dunno. I wouldn't show anyone my first ten scripts. Not any more; at the time they seemed frakking brilliant.

"Readable" isn't the point. "Shootable" is the point.

I wouldn't focus on the number ten. I'm sure there are people whose fifth script is just fantastic. But you have to be WILLING to write ten scripts, or you're not in it for the long haul.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:15 AM  

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