Comments (0)

Character -- Building Between The Lines

Hollywood Script Consultants
One of the key - and most challenging - aspects of screenwriting is the use of visual aids between the lines of dialogue. The descriptions that are threaded throughout character voices are the screenwriter's prose-built camera within the script. It guides the reader's inner eye, dictating what s/he sees as the characters talk, what details are worthy of noting. It reveals subtext, unveils layers within a given scene, grows story, mood, suspense, tension under the very noses of heroes and heroines. This word crafted lens directs the reader's gaze to land on the gun in the corner of a room, to catch the taboo clasp of hands under a diner table. It is the virtual eyepiece that allows the reader to be a voyeur of all, noticing that which the characters notice as well as everything they may miss.

And most writers struggle with the management of this screenwriting equipment. The majority I've spoken to get caught in the conventional "dos and don'ts" snag of how this aspect of screenplay writing should be used, often wary of including too much or too little and in doing so interfering with the director's vision or actors zeal for the part. Some do overkill, showing such blow by blow detail that the script risks turning into a novel, running pages upon pages of solid paragraph, where all good pacing is sacrificed and the reader is made to become overly conscious of reading rather than viewing. Other writers keep their material anorexic to the point the reader is moving through a dark tunnel of all but disembodied character voices in at best a foggy location.

It's not easy and finding the right balance most often comes from simply writing then editing, writing then editing, until you can get a tight rein on what you need your reader to see in order to guide them along your very controlled narrative.

Because when done right, the camera-like descriptions can be the genius of a script and provide the most crucial story telling, emotion-building elements in the entire movie.

While recently re-watching The Godfather, I meditated on this very notion.

What is the Godfather about? A lot of things, the list of which I will not get into. But at its very core the movie is a character study of the Al Pacino character, Michael and his inability to deny the nature of who he really is. What is interesting is that this character arc is primarily dramatized NOT through plot turning action scenes or stellar dialogue but via the voyeuristic visuals of this character's face.

The epic-long exploration of how one man tries to deny his nature and cannot is SHOWN to us in paused moments of his expression within a room, at glances at how HE glances, at the ways in which he looks at other characters. We see how he shifts inside from being an innocent to a killer, a would-be "good American citizen" to a powerful criminal, an honest man to a poker faced liar through the gentle observations we are asked to make of how his face changes.

When the Don is first shot, for example, we see Michael Christmas shopping with his American girlfriend. There is a beat on him crouching to hear as he takes the news on the crowded streets of New York and the next thing we know we are in the bosses' office with all the sons and his henchmen. Michael's face has already visibly shifted, the continuity of his former demeanor swiftly disappearing. We watch him sit quietly off to the side, taking in the room. We see him watching, studying these men who are already trained killers, well-adjusted foot soldiers for his father and the family business. The very soft, boyish naivete of the opening earlier scenes has already faded. Now we see a sharpening in his eyes, a more pensive, calculating expressiveness which is mixed in with the silent rage and grief he is also obviously experiencing. The diplomatic, would-be worrier, the very wholesome gentle- ness of his appearance so palpable at the start of the film is vanishing before us as we watch his surveillance of the room. When he finally opens his mouth to speak, his gesture has been foreshadowed: He announces he's the man to "off" the culprits, which of course makes the others laugh uproariously. Until THEY too take a second to really look at him, see the seriousness of his expression and so the men begin to plan...

So too in the subplot of Michael's romances, do we visually follow the change of his persona. By the time he has been sent to live in exile in southern Italy, we can see that his whole demeanor has been altered as he strides through the hillsides with local farmers. When he comes upon the beautiful peasant girl, Appoline, his look upon her is possessive, full of testosterone and machismo. It is a far cry from the sweet, gentlemanly fellow who smiled shyly across the table from his American girlfriend at the start of the movie.

Our eyes watch HIS eyes as the film progresses and his face arcs out for us the very heart of the story. His paused looks, his study of others, his visible thought process before speaking, provide the narrative connective tissue that then makes the plot turning scenes, action sequences and dialogue so resonant. When he finally pulls that trigger, we saw it coming through the most underlying, hushed visual cues of him in varied given moments.

How does one write this?

Again, many would argue, well it's unwritable! It's all up to the actor and director's interpretation.

But I would argue NO.

The screenwriter is the one putting the film in the reader's head. The screenwriter's job is to convey to the reader how the story is being told. Yes, the screenwriter's job is not to micromanage every single blocking move, every camera angle, every prop and character gesture. The screenwriter does need to leave room for creative interpretation.

But the screenwriter is entitled and expected to show the reader what they NEED to see in order for the story to be aptly told.

So whether your movie is - like The Godfather - ultimately character driven, and the character is unfolded not so much through dialogue, action, plot development but through the more subtle evolution of that quiet, camera lens between the lines, or your film is more reliant on other aspects of the story telling machine, it is always the screenwriter's prerogative to cultivate and fully exploit the visual aid of that word-built camera. Keep that lens clean, well trained on specific, narrative creating details. And enjoy what it can do for you.

It makes all difference between what we readers read and what we remember. Copyright, LLC 2005 All Rights Reserved.

More recent articles in Articles


Only logged-in members can comment. You can log in or join today for free!