From the archives: Introduce your character with character

BETTIE, mid 20s. Don't let her all-American looks fool you. Trouble goes out of its way to avoid HER.
BETTIE, mid 20s. Don’t let her all-American looks fool you. Trouble goes out of its way to avoid HER.

Author’s note: had a great in-person notes session this week. Among the many topics we discussed was character intros, and what made for a good one, as well as a not-so-good (i.e. boring) one. That reminded me of this post from April 2014. Enjoy.

“When we, the reader, first meet an important character in your script, how do you describe them? What are the important details?

A lot of the time, the emphasis is on their physical traits – “tall”, “imposing”, “blonde”, “handsome”, “drop-dead gorgeous”, etc.

Or maybe it’s a simple adjective or two – “bubbly”, “funny”, “a nice guy” and so on.

These are okay, but you have to admit they’re kind of dull, which makes it more challenging for us to be interested in wanting to follow their story.

So how do you fix this? Time to ramp up that creativeness and really focus on what kind of person this character is, rather than what they look like. Unless a physical description is a key character trait, don’t worry about it.

One of the most memorable intros I ever read described the best friend of the teenaged protagonist – “James Dean cool at 15.” That’s it. Pretty effective, and in only five words.

Doesn’t this give you a better idea of what this character is like than say, “cool and aloof?”?  This is the kind of writing that catches our eye AND makes an impression.

A former co-worker of mine used to describe a very talkative friend as “If you asked him what time it was, he’d tell you how to build a watch.” See how it goes beyond the good-but-simplistic “chatty know-it-all”?

Cliched as it sounds, we really are painting pictures with words – not just for the story, but the characters in it. You’re already crafting a unique and original story, so why not develop a unique and original way to tell us about the characters in it?

This isn’t saying you should always strive to be clever and witty about it, but at least try for something different. This is just a small part of showing off your writing skills.

Take a look at how you introduce the characters in your latest draft. Does it really tell us what you want us to know about them? If not, how could you rewrite it so it does?”

Solutions sought (and found)

The past few weeks have been all about working on developing this new script.

After a bit of a rough start, I’d come up with what seemed like a solid storyline. I had my plot points mapped out, and started filling in the blanks between them.

The ideas were coming at a decent pace, but things started to feel…odd.

I got to around the midpoint when things suddenly came to a grinding halt. Something just wasn’t clicking, and it was up to me to figure out what was wrong AND how to fix it.

My mind started racing for potential ideas. But the more I thought about it, the worse the ideas became. It was getting to the point of ridiculousness.

Being so laser-focused on this was severely messing up my creativeness. Since you can’t force inspiration, I took the easier path:

I stepped away.

Like any good writer, I’ve got more than a few projects in various stages of development, so I let this one simmer and turned my attention to something else.

Over the next couple of days, I made some progress plotting out this other project and didn’t even think about the first one.

I’ll also admit to spending some time doing some script notes and indulging in some pulp-y books featuring tales of adventures

And all of it really helped.

Feeling a bit more prepared to face my story problem, I opened the file and looked things over.

Thus did the wheels start turning…

I’d originally thought I’d have to delete a majority of what I’d already come up with, but a lot of it still worked, so I needed to figure out another way to utilize it.

Taking a closer look after a bit of a break helped to shine a spotlight on the problem as well as presenting an effective way to resolve it. Without going into too much detail, it involved expanding on what I already had for the first half of the story (along with a little rearranging of scenes), then expanding on those results, along with some relevant subplot goings-on, for the second half.

I’m sure there are many more bumps in the road ahead for this script, but it’s still great when you make this kind of headway.

Now – back to the story and filling in the rest of the blanks.

Hope your weekend is equally as productive, if not more so.

Q & A with Cody Smart of Next Level Screenwriting

Cody Smart is an L.A.-based Latina writer, script consultant and script doctor with degrees in English Literature & Linguistics, Screenwriting, Development, and Producing, who prides herself of helping writers take their work to the next level, in both English and Spanish. She moved from Santiago, Chile to L.A. to pursue her masters, fell in love, and now enjoys family hikes chasing her toddler around in the perfect L.A. weather.

She worked as a script analyst at Sony for three years, reading hundreds of scripts, and honing her craft and learning to appreciate the development of scripts and how to best guide writers to deliver the best script possible.

She also works as a judge for seven film and screenplay competitions, where she’s learned what makes scripts engage readers and attract the attention of managers, agents and producers. As a writer herself, Cody has placed in multiple competitions, and won some awards.

Cody is also the head of coverage of Story Data, a script-hosting site, where she does a bi-monthly vlog with tips for screenwriters.

She also currently teaches two courses about Screenwriting, Script Doctoring and Get Your Script Contest Ready, as a UCLA Extension instructor in the Writers’ Program, and is developing a new TV Workshop for the fall quarter.

Cody has worked with a wide variety of clients, helping to provide in-depth script analysis, and also rewriting/doctoring hundreds of scripts in order to get them ready for production. She loves working directly with her clients, understanding their needs, and staying true to the essence of the story the client is trying to tell, in order to elevate the story and characters.

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. I was a little bit late watching it, as it came out in 2020, but I was so legitimately impressed at the quality of the writing. They managed to take chess, a “boring” subject that doesn’t lend itself to be that visual or entertaining, and turned it into an exemplary work of character development.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

While I was in grad school, I started interning at Sony, and that’s were I fell in love with the development side of things. Before that, I always thought my path was to be a writer only. Then I discovered how interesting developing and consulting was, helping other writers improve their work, and getting scripts ready for production.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Yes, definitely. I believe everyone can learn if they have the will and want to do so. If you study scripts and films, and study your craft, you can learn what good writing is. That’s also what makes any writer a better writer: studying the best in the craft, lots of practice, and lots of rewriting.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script is a great mix of different things: amazing characters that are three-dimensional and realistic, with real wants and needs, and great arcs. A world that aligns with the tone and genre, and that hopefully is also new in some way. A premise that either feels fresh and new or that is a new take on old ideas, making it feel fresh and new. Writing that has a voice of its own, and that makes you want to keep turning pages.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

As a consultant & doctor as well as a judge for multiple festivals, I’m constantly looking at issues in scripts. Doing that, I’ve found these to be the most common:

– A premise that doesn’t work from the start. Usually this means you just have an idea, but no plot. Or you have an unoriginal concept or one we’ve seen hundreds of times before.

– Not proofreading, which leads to bad formatting, typos, grammatical errors, etc.

– Not outlining first – then you don’t know where your story is going, and it shows in your draft, as the story loses aim. Part of this could be when the story/the protagonist has no clear goal.

– Dialogue that doesn’t feel natural or no use of subtext.

– Starting scenes too early and leaving them too late.

– Not killing your darlings – some scenes may be greatly written, but if they don’t advance the plot, then you don’t need them in your script.

– Directing in your script – this tends to take the reader out of the world of your story.

– Not grabbing your reader/audience in the first 10 pages (or even the first 3!)

– Overusing transitions.

– Use of flashbacks that don’t move the story forward or don’t reveal any new information.

– Zero character introduction/description. No memorable introductions, so we forget them. Also too many characters being introduced at the same time, so we forget who’s who.

– The world of your story isn’t clear.

– Long chunks of descriptions – Readers are known to skip past these. 

– Too much exposition.

– No subplots or interesting supporting characters.

– Antagonists that are two-dimensional or formulaic.

– Writing a formulaic script just with the intention of selling it, instead of writing a unique story you’re passionate about that’ll definitely get you noticed (even if just as a writing sample).

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes work for a reason—audiences expect certain things in certain movies, like a falling in love montage in romcoms. But just because people expect them, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be surprised. The tropes I’m tired of seeing are those that just follow tropes to the letter. I love when a writer turns a trope upside down and surprises the audience. When they don’t and deliver the same old things, then that’s when they’re boring and I don’t want to see them anymore.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

– Show your voice in your script. That’s what will set you apart from the thousands of scripts being written every year.

– Write the story you want to tell as a writing sample to impress people, and open doors for you, even if it doesn’t get bought or filmed.

– Formatting exists for a reason. Follow it and don’t play games, or your script won’t get read, even if it’s amazing.

– It’s hard to come up with new ideas that haven’t been told. But new takes on old ideas that make the ideas feel fresh can be a great way of creating something that feels new.

-The best antagonists are just as interesting as the protagonist, and they’re the hero of their own story. When we understand their reasoning, that makes them much more powerful.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I remember when I read the script for JUNO. It had such a unique voice and point of view. It had a protagonist that felt real, with flaws and dreams. It explored what felt like real teenagers. It had amazing supporting characters, and we could understand everyone’s POV in the story, as different as they all were. And it was pretty contained. It could be shot for cheap. But most importantly, it wasn’t something completely new: we’ve seen stories about teen pregnancy before but it turned the idea upside down, making it feel so fresh that it ended up winning so many writing awards.

How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Totally worth it. I even developed a course called “Get Your Script Contest Ready” for UCLA Extension that debuts in June 2021. That said, having a contest strategy, knowing what appeals to contests, identifying the best contests to propel your career forward, and understanding that you also need to network and take an active role in getting your scripts out there are key things every screenwriter needs to know.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

For information about my script consulting & doctoring services, or my writer services, they can check out my Facebook page (@NextLevelScreenwriting), my Instagram page (nextlevelscreenwriting), or send me an email (nextlevelscreenwriting@gmail.com).

I can share more about my services and background information, and we can talk more in detail about what they need help with, as I offer very personalized services.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Wow, this is such a hard question, because I have such a sweet tooth. But if I had to pick just one, I’d have to say my grandma’s pecan pie recipe. It brings back so many amazing childhood memories by the smell and taste of it, especially living far away from my family, and missing them all the time.

The path through is around here somewhere

The actual writing-of-pages for the current project may be underway, but wow did it take several attempts to get there.

A lot of it involved figuring out how to best set up the world in which the story takes place. I’d considered starting it one way, then thought “how about if…?”, which resulted in another way, naturally followed by “then again, I could try…”

At the time, I’d settled on the one I thought worked best. Feeling confident about the state of the outline, I started on pages.

Progress was slow, but steady. After a couple of days, I was already up to page 20.

Which of course was MUCH MORE than it should have been.

Not that I strictly adhere to the “THIS happens on Page ____”, but there was just too much going on, which was slowing things down a lot more than I’d intended.

What to do, what to do?

One option was to keep pushing forward and then go back and edit like crazy, but at the rate I was going, I’d end up with a script approximately 150 pages in length. Not an option.

Or I could go back to an earlier version of the outline that only includes part of what’s already there.

Yet another option was to go all the way back to how I initially envisioned the whole thing starting.

Quick side note – you know how they say the first page really sets the tone for the rest of the story? This is a guideline I’ve always tried to work with, especially in this case.

The first pass didn’t cut it, nor did the second one. Something needed to be done.

So I went through my extensive notes, hoping to find a solution.

And I found it. And it was the original idea. It had exactly what I needed, and I’ve seen variations of it in other scripts and films, so there was no reason I couldn’t make it work for my story.

I got to work reorganizing it and streamlining it to help things move along faster. This including having to jettison a majority of material I was very sorry to see go, but it was necessary. No reason some of those details couldn’t be implemented later on.

Oh, and another small detail I forgot to mention – my computer’s OS updated, which my screenwriting software hasn’t been adjusted for yet, so working with that became quite a pain. Luckily, some recent contest success resulted in me receiving another screenwriting program. After a quick installation and a few “how to” videos about using it, I was on my way yet again.

All of one page so far. But I like it better than the previous versions, and it’s significantly better than having no pages at all.

Let the pushing forward commence.

Taking my time

As challenging as it is to write a screenplay, let alone a good one, one of the biggest obstacles to get past is coming up with a solid story. Have a relatively firm idea of what’s supposed to happen from beginning to end and you’re already ahead of the game.

Which is just about where I am with my latest project. Some of it feels rock-solid, while other parts are a bit on the wobbly side. A few scenes and sequences have been rewritten numerous times, and there are still some blanks requiring some temporary filling-in.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m pretty satisfied with how it’s coming along. I may not have it done as soon or as fast as I’d originally hoped, but that’s fine. I’d rather spend the time doing what I am now rather than ramming my way forward, and then going back and fixing all the things, which usually results in more changes and further complications.

As much as I would love to be able to just plow through, it’s just not how I operate. Developing my story’s outline is the part of the process where a majority of the heavy lifting gets done. It’s a lot easier to figure things out here than after it’s been written.

Admittedly, there are times where I’ll second-guess myself. Is this the right way to tell this part? Would this work better here, here, or here? What if I switched this around, or took it out altogether? Taking the time to explore all options might seem like a lot of work for now, but in the end, all of it will come together, giving me the results I need.

And that’s when I’ll feel ready to start on pages.

-Next week’s post will be all about promoting a nice selection of creative projects, so there are just a few days left to submit the pertinent info.

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