Category Archives: The Tools

The Screenwriter’s Toolbox: Character

What is your most interesting quality? What is your deepest fear? When are you the happiest and what always makes you cry? What makes you angry, gets you annoyed, or brings you peace?

When you answer these questions you reveal character.

Obviously you can’t base every character you write on your own character traits, but you can use them as a template. If your deepest fear is being trapped in a room filled with spiders then:

  1. You would not willingly enter into a situation where spiders are involved (let alone a tight, closed space crawling with them)
  2. You would do everything in your power to stay clear of such a space
  3. You would probably freak if circumstances beyond your control forced you into such a space

But consider this scenario: in order to save the life of someone you care deeply about you have to brave the spider-filled room.

How do you react? Do you try to find a different way to save the life of your loved one due to your unwillingness to enter into this heart-attack-defying situation? When you realize there is no other way – do you try to find an excuse and give the task to someone else, or simply turn and run for the hills? Or do you finally accept the challenge and venture into the space to conquer your fears?

Your reaction to facing danger is anchored in your character traits: if you’re more prone to selfish choices you will ignore the challenge and pawn it off on someone else, or worse, leave your friend to die; if you’re constantly in a battle with yourself over wanting to be more courageous and up until now always having failed to, then your friend’s peril might be the push you need to finally prove to yourself that there’s more to you than what you deep down believe yourself to be.

You see what I’m doing here, right? Groovy! Because by deciding whether your protagonist is a diamond in the rough or already a full-fledged leader on the hunt for a mission you will have the advantage from the get-go. You see, your character and your plot are like a pair of Siamese twins – ultimately they are sewn at the hip and there is no use trying to separate them because they share one heart – and this beating heart is what will touch the audience and make them want more, or even better, make them come back for a second, third and fourth viewing!

You could fill your movie with stereotypical characters, sure, but then you will have to force them into a plot that really has nothing to do with them, because it hasn’t sprung from their goals and growth. At the same time, if you work too hard on filling your movie with quirky characters and forget to put them through the trials and tribulations of a well-structured plot, then their goals and growth will be unclear, leaving the audience with the feeling of what, really, was the point of all that?

How to avoid such dire straits?

Sit down with your protagonist, have a cuppa and just chat. Doesn’t have to be long. But once you have the answers to the questions I opened this post with they will undoubtedly present you with at least a handful of situations that these characters really should be placed in during the progression of your plot. Your protagonist’s answer to what their deepest, darkest fear is will be one of the more crucial ones as this will give you an immediate idea of a fitting antagonist.

Ah, the antagonist. The most important thing to remember when it comes to the antagonist is to ask them the same questions you asked your protagonist. The Lazy Writer creates an antagonist that is evil for the sake of being evil, kicking puppies and dicing up children for the fun of it. You don’t want to be a Lazy Writer.

So when you have quizzed your characters (all of them) and learned their character traits it’s time to ask why they have given you these particular answers. This is something you might do once you’ve gone through the blaze of glory that is finishing your first draft, but the sooner you make the word Why your screenwriting mantra, the better.

The reason is simple: you should strive to find situations that pit your protagonist against their own view of themselves and flips that view clear on its head. Head-flipping is very effective. If you haven’t done the quiz then it’s much harder to pinpoint the needed situation because you can’t ask why the character needs to go through it in the first place.

So, here’s some food for thought when striving to reveal character:

  1. The Quiz – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Write your own quiz! Write down ten or twenty or one hundred things you’d like to know about each character in your story and see what you come up with. Perhaps you realize that sideshow Marjorie shouldn’t be happily married with kids because that does absolutely nothing to create tension with your protagonist. Perhaps instead sideshow Marjorie lives in a loft and likes to play with knives. And perhaps your protagonist will desperately need to borrow said knives by the end of the second act. Just saying.
  2. The Siamese Twins – your plot should grow from the needs of your characters and your characters’ actions should service the momentum of the plot. If you really think about it, every movie does this in some way. Okay, every good movie does. Your idea is: an alien invasion threatens the survival of every person on the planet. You could make a bombastic blockbuster out of this, but unless you people it with relatable characters that the audience can root for your blockbuster ain’t gonna be bustin’ no blocks.
  3. The Situation – you people your movie with relatable characters by placing them in situations where they get a chance to interact with each other, with the world, with the threat of that world/their lives. These situations are what make up your scenes, that then build into sequences, that then – with sweat and toil and through rewrites – pearl themselves into a string of plot that is cohesive and engaging. And that leads us to…
  4. The Why – truly one of the most important tools you can carry with you always when it comes to every aspect of writing anything ever is the ability to question everything. Why is this important? What does this say about my character, the character relationships, the plot, the world? If my character is eating a burrito, is it because she loves it or is she trying it for the first time? Why has she never tried it before? Why is she trying it now? Why, why, why is this important? But then, of course, eventually you must stop questioning. And be satisfied. Or you’ll never be done.

Remember: find people you trust to give you good, solid, supportive, honest feedback. Be kind to yourself, never berate, belittle or despair. You’re amazing and you can do this!

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The Screenwriter’s Toolbox: Show, Don’t Tell

Show, don’t tell.

This is a reoccurring part of any discussion regarding screenwriting. Well, at least a discussion concerning the more concrete building blocks of a screenplay’s structure. But what the hell does this statement actually mean?

Here’s the first thing you need to know: you don’t have to keep Show Don’t Tell at the back of your head for your first attempt at writing a movie. It helps you, in the long run, if you can, but it’s not a prerequisite to write your first screenplay. Once you’ve mastered the more basic formatting tools, and know how a script should appear on the page, you can pound out your story to your hearts delight and feel the triumph of putting the last punctuation mark on the final page. Now raise your fist to the ceiling with glee. You deserve it!

Here’s the second thing you need to know: your first draft will – without fail – be horrible. Sincerely bad. And I mean bad in a “You will look back at it in five years and hide your head in your hands and make snorting noises of derision” kind of way. No sweat. No, really, throw on another layer of deodorant and buckle down because this is where things get seriously fun.

Since thirdly: you’ve laid the foundation and put up the walls and hopefully the roof. So what’s left? The interiors, of course! The floors, the wall paper, the fixtures, the furniture and every last tiny little detail that will make your structure feel inviting, like a place a stranger would come into and go Hey, I think I’ll stick around for a while. This is what the second, the third, the fourth and so on drafts are for. See, if you only lay the foundation and put up some walls you miss out on making your creation into a home. And it must feel homey. Why? Because even if you can imagine what it will look like when fully decorated, the majority of people walking through the door into an empty shell of a house will not share that ability. In fact, they will most probably leave quickly. And, chances are, they will do so unimpressed.

Okay, ending this simile before it grows into an actual mini-essay on the pitfalls of interior decorating, I would like it to underline the importance of patience.

Because fourthly: It is pivotal that you allow yourself time to explore your story, to screw-up, to take wrong turns, to change your mind. The editing process is lined with nuggets of gold, but if you rush, or – God forbid – think that you don’t need to look for them because your script is donedonedone, then you’ll miss them. And your script will be all the poorer for it. And, believe it or not, this ties directly in with the statement that opened this post.

Show, don’t tell.

To show, and not tell, as a screenwriter, you must have patience. You cannot rush through your writing the way you might in that first glowing burst of inspiration that hopefully accompanies writing your first draft. Show Don’t Tell may come naturally to you, in which case I lift my hat and tip my head and mentally high five you. Or you may have to work at it. Fiercely. In which case I also lift my hat and tip my head and mentally high five you. Because if you’re working at it, it means that you’re being patient, and if you’ve reached the point of being patient with your writing that, to me, signals that you’re taking it seriously, which is all kinds of awesome.

So how, precisely, do you show and not tell?

I’m sure you know, but to be perfectly clear: a scene free of dialogue is showing the audience your story – its plot, character interaction, setting et al. while five pages of nothing but exposition heavy dialogue is telling the audience what would be much more interesting if shown.

However, quite possibly, the third option is preferable: neither show nor tell. You might be burdening your script with pages of unnecessary information. Perhaps you’ll serve the characters and plot by moving the information around, scratching the pages that are superfluous, but keeping what you find important in them by adding the information to a different scene altogether.

So, here’s some food for thought when you’re striving to Show and Not Tell:

  1. Too much dialogue? Scratch all dialogue (yes, all of it, you know you secretly want to) and look at your scene without it. Does the scene still work? What does it say about the characters, the character relationships, the plot and/or the world the story takes place in?
  2. Right perspective? Is the information you want to convey through your scene (regarding characters, relationships, plot, world) presented to the audience in the most effective way? Perhaps it shouldn’t come from the hero, but be more interesting if given by the villain?
  3. It’s all about the little details. No question-mark on this one because it really is all about the little details. The essence of the “show” is you, as a writer, making the right choices for the big and small revelations occurring throughout your script. Revelations dealing with – say it with me: characters, relationships, plot and world. And learning this skill takes practice. And practice takes patience.
  4. Read any scripts lately? The most failsafe way of learning how to show and not tell is to read scripts. Read and read and read. Find your favorites and read them ten times. Dissect them. Take note (seriously) of how they use show and how they use tell. The visual language versus the dialogue. See how the masters of the craft implement these tools and learn from them. They are the best teachers any budding screenwriter could ever ask for. And you can find them for free at!

Remember: be kind to yourself, never berate, belittle or despair. You’re amazing and you can do this! Find people you trust to give you good, solid, supportive, honest feedback. Be patient, always.

And keep an eye peeled for those inspiring nuggets of gold!

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