Friday, August 28, 2009

Barney Lichtenstein: A Story Analyst's Top-10 List: #4

Having taught story analysis for film in the classroom and online through the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, I’ve trained a number of students who have gone on to cover screenplays for studios, production companies, and Sundance Institute. One of the tools used in the course is a top-10 list of professional screenwriting skills industry readers look for when evaluating material and writers. I call these methods “in-between details,” which are neither at the heart of premise, plot or characterization nor important issues of formatting and presentation -- they exist somewhere between the two. These in-between details often make a critical first impression, the following among the most significant, elaborated upon with examples and illustrations, which I believe can be quickly utilized. Lessons will be posted on Fridays.

#4 Secondary Characters
Do secondary characters and even minor ones speak with their own distinct voices? Not every extra or store clerk must have something witty or profound to offer, but whenever appropriate, supporting or minor characters with distinct points of view should be adding color to the mosaic (i.e. Oracle’s musings in The Matrix; “plastics” touted by a materialistic party guest in The Graduate). Secondary characters who interact with your lead throughout the plot should ideally bring out some inner quality in your hero we might not see otherwise.

Watch a musical or epic with lots of well directed extras but a weak leading man or woman -- the experience won’t be wholly satisfying, but the overall production will seem much more professional than the other way around: A terrific lead but poorly written and directed supporting cast. The same can be said for your screenplay. Even if the story analyst has some issues regarding your hero or plot, if minor characters are written with vitality and engaging, unique details, it goes a long way towards promoting your work.

One way to approach minor characters is to go scene by scene, once the screenplay is written, polishing lines of dialogue and actions, giving distinct points of view to characters your hero bumps into. Better yet, when creating minor characters initially, consider situations or points of view on their behalf which may intensify, enhance or conflict with the overall scene. A woman who sells tickets at a metro train station, for instance, may love her job and with each ticket sold offers every bit of information about the fare, platform, departure and arrival times. Perhaps the ticket line for her booth is twice as long as others due to this quirk in her personality and the hero on the run has to hide in this line, slowing down his escape. Now you’ve used a minor character to add suspense and possibly new twists to the plot.

A great variation on this type of minor character can be seen in A Few Good Men, when Tom Cruise picks up a magazine from a news vendor on the street. Rather than mundane pleasantries, each keeps trying to top the other with time worn phrases such as, “A rolling stone gathers no moss," “Catch you later,” “Unless I catch you first,” etc. The playful banter with this minor character quickly makes us like Cruise’s character as an unpretentious attorney with a sense of humor, while the news vendor adds texture and appropriate comic relief to an otherwise intense drama.

One needs to be careful though and not make every minor character too distinct. Too much spice, so to speak, with minor characters can be detrimental in its own way. Finding a balance between creating background characters who stand out or blend in with the scenery is the key.

For tip #1, click here.
For tip #2, click here.
For tip #3, click here.

Barney Lichtenstein, former story analyst for Amblin Entertainment, New Line Cinema, and Largo Entertainment, teaches story analysis online for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, and periodically assists with the training of new story analysts for the Sundance Institute and major production companies. He has served as a story editor for a multi-award-winning installment of the PBS series P.O.V., and for Voices, which won the Peabody Award, and is recipient of the UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Screenwriting, 2006. Mr. Lichtenstein will be conducting a one day screenwriting seminar in September at UCLA Extension, comparing narrative structures of three 2008 Academy Award-nominated screenplays. Please click here for more information.

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