Screenwriting is about two things: imagining and then communicating. The problem is that imagination doesn’t work like people think it does.

There’s a romantic idea of imagination being like a holodeck, or a magical process. Imagination is actually incredibly limited, because movie making is incredibly limited. Take Star Trek TNG – an entire universe is implied, but most of it was contained in a few sets on a sound stage in Paramount.

Imagination is like a keyhole. We can only see a piece of that world at a time, just like we can only see a small piece of our world at a time. Think of the extruder head of a 3D printer. Things are developed layer by layer, line by line.

This is a lot like how screenplays work – no matter how vividly we’ve imagined something, we can only communicate it to the readers line by line.

I like to run clients through this exercise:

 ME: I want you to imagine a man running for a bus?
 GUY: Okay, got it. 
 ME: What is he wearing?

This usually gives half of them a pause because they weren’t actually imagining the guy real well. They weren’t pretending, they were pretending to pretend. The other half half will dutifully record what the person is wearing. The vast majority of them will say “a suit” because it’s the easier to describe.

ME: What color is his tie? (1)
GUY: Uh... it's red.

This gives almost everyone a pause, because even though they may be picturing a guy with a suit, few people have the visual imagination to summon up an entire suit along with tie and belt. Once they look for the tie, it fills in, and they begin to see it. (2)

So now we have a well-dressed man running for a bus. There are a few avenues to explore: where is he going? Why doesn’t he have a car? Why didn’t he call an Uber? Sometimes I’ll ask these, most times I’ll ask this:

 ME: What are in his pockets?
 GUY: ...Uh...

This always gives people a pause, because honestly, when was the last time you imagined the inside of a character’s pockets? Like the tie in this example, it’s not there unless you look for it. The more specifically you imagine the guy, the easier it is to populate his pockets. (3) Usually I get some version of this answer:

 GUY: Uh, his phone... and a pocket watch (or handkerchief, pen, condom or the like).
 ME: Okay, we already have a problem. He's running for the bus, but he doesn't have his wallet or any money.

Now, this is the world of imagination, if we want him to have a wallet, we just fill it in. But this is a writing exercise, so the lack of the wallet is more interesting. This raises some questions. Where is his wallet? How did he lose it? Does he know he doesn’t have it or not?

GUY: He knows he doesn't have it. But he's going to ask the bus driver nicely, and he'll probably get on.
 ME: Okay, I can buy that. Bus drivers let people slide all the time, and he's plainly desperate. Where is he going? 

And here’s where things get interesting. He could be going to work, he could be on his way to a job interview, a lot of people say he’s going on a date (which leads me to question how he’s going to get around the fact that he has no money). The more urgent the need, the more fraught with dramatic possibility the scene becomes.

But let’s say they remembered to account for the wallet.

ME: So he's got a wallet? What's in it? Credit cards, money, a driver's license?
GUY: Yeah.
ME: So if he has a license, there's stuff on it. What's his name?

This gives everyone a pause, because imagination simply doesn’t work this way. So now they have to look at the blurry, shittily formed license facsimile they’re imagining, look for a name that isn’t going to be there, and then come up with one.

GUY: Roy.. Smith.
ME: What year was Roy born?
GUY: Aw, come on. 
ME: If he has a license, it has his age. How old is he?
GUY: Uh...

This exposes another flaw of imagination, because people tend not to see an actual person, but a vague man shaped blur. Now they’re forced to envision the guy better, and do the math and determine a birth year. If they know anything about horoscopes, I’ll ask them to give him one. Most of my clients don’t.

Then I’ll ask their address. Because they’re not really seeing the license, they won’t know it, so instead, I’ll ask them to say the kind of dwelling they live in, if they have roommates, how they feel about the roommates, etc.

At the end of the exercise, we’ll end up with Roy Smith, age 37, who lives on Orchard Lane in a two bedroom apartment he shares with his roommate Kenny, a lazy stoner. He’s running to a date with a dream girl who he met at Costco, and now he’s desperately hoping that Kenny can meet him downtown and hand over his wallet, which he lost at his girlfriend June’s apartment when they broke up.

We now have character, stakes, a world, and many fraught scenes. We’ve imagined Roy with a deeper clarity and understanding than many beginning writers have for the characters in the feature scripts they’ve spent months developing. And it all started with the simplicity of a man running for a bus.

Try this for yourself, or more interestingly, try it on an unexpecting victim. You’ll be surprised what you come up with.

NOTES (1) Not everyone has the same level of visual imagination. Some people are better at image, some people are stronger at coming up with relationship, emotion, or fraught scenarios. Your average costume designer is going to be way better at this job than your average carpenter.

(2) This exercise becomes much easier if you picture a specific person, like your dad or Harry Potter. Most people don’t, if they’re too good at this, I’ll explicitly ask them to make an original character.

(3) Movie characters rarely have anything in their pockets because it ruins the lines of the clothes that wardrobe has picked out. A few actors like to have some objects to ground their character plus the clout to get their way, but it’s rare.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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