Dimensional characters have a true nature, and a false face they present to the world.

Writing characters is a varied art form and there’s a million ways to develop characters that are “great” “dimensional,” “original.” Here’s a simple trick I like to use:

  1. Who is this character, really?
  2. How do they present themselves to the world?

These are also good questions for life. If you want to know how someone wants to be seen, look at their instagram. If you want to know who someone is, share an inheritance with them.

This trick allows you to use two simple judgements to create a character that seems more complex.

Examples:

Terminator 2 – Sarah Connor wants to be a tough, merciless warrior. At heart she’s a traumatized survivor and a good mom.

Die Hard – John McClane wants to be seen as a good husband. At heart he’s a warrior who tends to put action over family (this works out well for the story he’s in).

Zootopia: Judy Hopps wants to be seen as a progressive, enlightened person who busts old stereotypes. At heart she’s as much a slave to to stereotypes of her culture as anyone (she gets better).

The Office: Michael Scott  pretends like everybody loves him and that his coworkers are his family, but he is actually pretty lonely. He thinks he is hilarious, but nobody laughs at his jokes. (credit to Moebius23)

Other examples: A coward who dreams of being a heroic gunslinger. A sucker who thinks they’re on the verge of cracking a conspiracy. A sexual addict who thinks they’re pure and virtuous.

Creating a simple dynamic like this allows you to create a character that’s both contradictory and consistent, and it also hints at a profound character want.

To deploy this in a story: whenever a character has time to think, let them do something consistent with the self image they’re selling. Whenever they’re pressured, tired, or think they can get away with it, let them be their true self.

Movie characters tend to be archetypes. The hero, the love interest, the villain. That’s not a bad thing, it’s baked into storytelling, and it allows for a narrative clarity that allows a varied audience to relate to a specific story.

The trick is to hide this with artifice. Despite the fact that everyone basically responds to archetypes, people also like to fancy themselves as discerning and smart, so if you’re too on the nose, you’ll get dinged for it by readers, by contest judges, by the talent you want to attract to your projects.

Related:

Archetypes

Behavior

Arc

Don’t Write Generic Dialogue. Speak to the specific complaint.

I hate generic stuff, moments that show something basic: the kid loves his mom! The cop works at a precinct! The couple is fighting! Any hack could write that, and it’s the screenplay’s job to show off what’s special about your writing style. You want to sell people on the idea of you.

Here’s a very generic scene:

INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT
A HUSBAND and WIFE are fighting.

HUSBAND: You’re driving me crazy!
WIFE: You’re driving me crazy!
HUSBAND: You’re crazy!
WIFE: You’re crazy!

Okay, I get it. Their marriage sucks, but I don’t know anything about the characters. It’s just a bland fight. When I read scenes like this, I’m reminded of something an improv teacher once taught me: scenes should speak to a specific complaint.

That’s a fancy way of saying that dialogue should specifically highlight WHY things are happening. If someone says “I love you,” do they say it everyday or does they want something today? If a husband and wife are fighting, who’s fault is it?

The characters become more clear if a scene becomes more specific:

HUSBAND: You’ve been snapping at me all day, and I’m sick of it!
WIFE: Get a fucking job! I’m sick of carrying you. I should have married John.
HUSBAND: Fuck John. Let him deal with your shit. I’m sick of you hitting on any guy with a six pack!
WIFE: You’re one to talk! You’d fuck mud if you thought it would wiggle!

This is a little on the nose, but at least we know a little more about the two lovebirds. If we wanted to further refine it, we’d have to think about what we’re trying to say about these people and the best way to manifest that broader truth in a few specific lines.

By making dialogue more specific, you get to show off your chops and you make your characters more distinct.

Three act structure may be bullshit, but it’s useful bullshit.

Three act structure falls into a category I call “useful bullshit.” Typically arguments over three act structure become a tedious fight about whether it’s always the best or whether it even exists. It’s a mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without necessarily holding it to be true. Therefore, I like to think of the three act structure as something that’s generally useful, even if it’s bullshit.

As a practical example: horoscopes. They’re certainly not scientifically rigorous. But they do represent a popular means of understanding the universe.

I know a lot of beginning writers who are really into horoscopes and bad at differentiating characters. I recommend that they assign star signs to each fictional character. It doesn’t even matter if the traits they assign are even “true” to the commonly held traits of Scorpio, Taurus, etc. It’s just a tool that makes sure characters seem a little different (as added bonus, we might even get a fictional birthday for the fictional character we’re trying to fob off on the world).

There are many ways to conceptual the complicated process of learning writing. I find it’s better to ask not if something is true, but to imagine ways where applying the bullshit can be generally useful.

Justify: When you get a logic note, ask it in the screenplay and explain it away.

A big part of writing is justification: anticipating common sense logic notes, asking them yourself in the script, and creating a plausible explanation

This maintains willing suspension of disbelief, and creates specifics of character that ends up paying off later. When people don’t get things, they’re not flawed or bad, they’re “calling out” a logical issue that you might have overlooked.

  • Why did he give up the gun?
  • Why did she go back to him?
  • Why would the town turn on the kids after they saved it?

Improv made me realize the best way to do this was to take the executive’s question, put it in a character’s mouth, and then give the defense I would give in the room. It always works. Sometimes we get non justifications (lampshade hanging), sometimes the justifications are lousy, but scripts get credit for anticipating the question that the audience was about to have.

  • Why did the hero give up the gun? Because he can’t bring himself to kill a fellow cop (I should probably seed that through act 1 and 2).
  • Why did she go back to him? Because of the fucking awesome “I’m sorry” speech I’m about to write for the abusive husband (you wouldn’t want to go with ’cause she’s dumb,’ which might cause the audience to detach from the character completely).
  • Why would a man marry a dolphin? Because they echo locate and thus are good listeners.

The really hard part is anticipating the common sense, zeitgeist, politics, and quirks of the average audience. Some people are really open and judging any idea as flawed or false is hard for them. Some people lack empathy and think every thinks like them. Some people spend pages justifying obvious things, like why a mother would run into a building to save her kids.

That’s why outside feedback is great. When people have notes, most of the time they’re reacting to a moment where the logic didn’t scan. Calling out and justifying is a powerful tool, you get better at it just by having a term for it, and you get good at it by putting it into practice.

Exercise: If you’re stuck on a plot, write from character POV

Goldman once wrote that screenwriting is structure. A lot of people take that to mean that screenwriting is plot, which is it isn’t.

Screenwriting is about story, and story is about the immediate moments. Take James Bond. All the classic plots are pretty much the same (action scene, M tells Bond to kill a guy, sexy girl shows up, Bond kills guy), but we remember the moments – cars turning into submarines, Jaws biting through a gondola cable, the cool action.

Story exists in sequences, moments of immediacy. If you look up your favorite moments on youtube, you’ll rarely see a summation of the plot, you’ll often see a excerpt showing a cool sequence. That’s the money part of screenwriting.

Plot is abstract and thinky. If you read through my old posts, you’ll see how uncharismatic and boring thinky shit can be. If screenwriting is structure, the structure and plot exist to showcase the cool moments or sequences in a way that makes sense.

I work with a lot of thinky writers who are all about the 10,000 foot view. Elaborate plots with a lot of twists, thinky concepts, highbrow references, characters that are about their arcs more than they are about being interesting. It’s a common trap to fall into. Fortunately there’s an easy fix. Write from the character’s point of view.

Rather than write something like, “In a world where the Nazis won World War Two, a secret program exists where scientists work to use the Hadron Collider to set the timestream right,” try this:

“I am a scientist. I have grown up in an evil fascist realm, and I know something’s not right. I hate the ruler of my country, he killed my father. I am working on a project to change the past… but I’ve started to suspect that one of my colleagues might be a sabateur…”

Writing this way cuts through the thinky stuff and forces you to tie all that happens to the immediacy of the character’s emotions, which shows a more immediate way into the story and keeps things in the moment, not in the abstract.

Most people picture language visually. Knowing this makes writing easier.

A screenplay is a de facto movie and anything presented will eventually have to be literally photographed (or said.)

Understanding why this works lends insight into human beings, your target audience. I learned this when I was taking an acting class. The teacher was stressing a point on how we should invest words with meaning. For some reason, he used this example:

“When I say dog, you’re picturing a dog. It may be a chihuahua or dalmation, but it’s a dog.” I’ve heard a version of this from a variety of acting teachers and improv teachers. It’s held to be true, and in most cases it is.

But I wasn’t picturing a dog. I was thinking of the word. Yes, canis canis, man’s best friend was hovering in my thoughts, but so was the verb, it dogs my thoughts, or the 50s slang, my dogs are barking.

When I asked him about this, he didn’t seem to be receptive to it’s possible truth or the implications. Some people are incurious.

A few years later, I read a memory book, which talked about visual pictures. They used an example like this to show how images can be subverted in interesting ways:

“A fellow hears a noise so he goes to his closet and grabs a bat. The bat flaps it’s wings and flies away.”

The implication was that most people will picture a wooden bat, then see it sprout wings in a confusing, absurd way, and then realize that it’s an animal bat and see that image instead. I didn’t. I was thinking about the word. “Oh yeah, they sound a like. I see what you did there.” I was getting a similar experience from language, but not the one the author expected me to have.

So I did more research and found that while most people experience language in an entirely visual way, some do not. There exist a rare subset of people who can’t form mental pictures at all. I’m not quite that bad, but I’d rate my ability to form mental pictures as lower than the average bear. Subpar. Learning how my essential truth was different than the general audiences helped me tailor my language in a way that communicated more effectively.

It may be that you can’t form visual images. Neat. You compensate for this by being better at abstract thought and narrative logic. It may be that you have perfect visual recall. Neat. Most people don’t. Understanding and having a good estimate as to what the average audience member needs to envision will help you clean up your scene description and to focus on the details that are interesting and essential. essential details.

Understanding where you fall on the spectrum helps you understand yourself, the audience, writing, communication and everything.

How to Write a one liner (or God’s Approval Hits Record Low )

If you ever listen to Simpsons DVD commentaries, you’ll hear the recurring complaint that one liners, sign gags, and the like take the longest to write, even with a full team of really funny comedy writers. I agree with this. Most comedy is character based, characters are set up with traits, and we see them behave in scenes where they fulfill or subvert that pattern. Homer does Homer stuff, Frasier does Frasier stuff, Peter Griffin does Peter Griffin stuff, etc.

One liners are a different breed, they’re lines that have to be funny on their own. It’s relatively easy to write jokes to to a character premise. It’s easier to write a funny tweet to a novelty account like “Shit a medieval knight says” than it is to write a legitimately funny tweet absent of a character.

Here’s a situation that came up on my last Screenwriting Live Stream (www.twitch.tv/storycoaching).

THE SCRIPT: A supernatural action/comedy.

STORY RECAP:

  1. Open on Arc City, where a douchey businessman is killed by a supernatural serial killer/angry ghost.
  2. Meanwhile, in heaven, God reads a newspaper as one of his staff tells him that hell is overfilling.

Leaving aside the daunting world building elements (fictional city, high concept monster, fictional heaven that may or may not conform to what we commonly expect from heaven), the story’s problems begin with two headlines on the newspaper that God reads.

1) Ryan Gosling kidnapped by a Jinn 2) Exclusive interview with Angel turned atheist.

It’s awesome that the script in question attempted one liners. The problem is these aren’t particularly good.

PROBLEMS WITH THE FIRST ONE:

  • Esoteric language. You and I may know that a Jinn is an alternate term for genie, but most people do not.
  • Raises more questions than it answers. Wait, we had a fictional city, a ghost, God, and now there are genies? This world seems like a hole without a bottom, what’s next? Multi-dimensional techno-badgers?
  • Random: You could fill in any creature and any celeb and the joke still works as well as it does now, which isn’t very well at all. It doesn’t trade on the expected traits of either.

PROBLEMS WITH THE SECOND ONE:

  • Ungrounded. An angel not believing in god would be like a worker not believing in his boss. Even if that were to happen, it wouldn’t be front page news, not even on a slow news day.
  • Too clever by a half. Rather than use any of the mythos established by the first two scenes, this introduces a completely tangential comic premise, “wouldn’t it be funny if…”

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN PUNCHING THIS UP:

  1. Comic premise of heaven: once this is setup, one liners like this become easier to write, justify. ex. “All the newspapers in heaven are written by madmen with literary degrees.”
  2. Establishing world building. I have no ordinary world. It’s not like this is playing in the world of the mundane, or even an established genre milieu like “generic fantasy kingdom.” For this to work, the world needs to be contextualized for the audience rather than introduce more fantasy bullshit to a world that’s unclear, the paper should tell us something about the world that’s already been established.

MORE INFO FROM THE WRITER:

When pressed for details, we learned that the major problem is that hell is like a mine but it’s run dry. That’s good to know, it sets up the whys and wherefores of the story, and also hints at why we saw the supernatural weird thing in the first scene (economic trouble in hell? Let’s migrate to earth!). We also learn that god is an impotent figure head.

That would be good to know up front, and even if we don’t, the headlines ought to hint at that.

As I said up above, one liners are a bitch to write, and they’re even harder when they have to carry world building. These are the best the room could come up with.

  • God’s Approval Numbers Hit Record Low – The best I can do give the restrictions. The idea of God being polled like a politician is inherently funny, and becomes even moreso if you know a bit about the universe. And if you don’t, it immediately frames God’s situation in a memorable way.
  • Economic trouble in Hell – have we reached peak damnation? Peak oil is a thing in the real world, peak damnation suggests that hell is like a mine. This is probably too esoteric to be funny.
  • Ryan Gosling kidnapped by infertile Goose – Another esoteric one – it relies on someone knowing that a gosling is a baby goose. A line like “infertile” to implies that the poor goose is baby crazy, not just lonely. I’m not sure if that makes this better.
  • Ailing God’s Surgeon’s Desperate plea: Believe harder, he’s dying! Another way of implying an impotent deity, grounded in the hyperbolic tone of a real-world tabloid newspaper.

Overall though, I don’t think this is the place for a one liner, unless you happen to have one in your pocket that’s really, really good. Otherwise you’re buying yourself hours of work that you don’t really have to do, I’d much rather understand the universe first, so I can then enjoy jokes that stem from it, not get hit with a slew of jokes that make it hard for me to orient myself in the world.

The main value of structure is that it allows writers to see how incidents radically change their story depending on where they are placed.

Three act structure. Just by using that term, I have guaranteed that a sizable percentage of the people who read this will have stopped listening. Those people are busy composing angry replies about how stupid and/or malevolent I am. I look forward to reading those.

I get that people hate three act structure, but the concept I’m talking about is hard to illustrate without at least temporarily deciding to use those terms. I shall try to illustrate what I’m talking about, and maybe someone will find that useful.

Three act structure is like Christianity in that it’s got many different interpretations. Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses all identify as Christian, but they’re really talk about different things. Many people think of three act structure as a rigid orthodoxy, that says that the dark night of the soul must go on page 90 or else the script is bad. I’m sure there even hacks out there who believe shit like this. That is not what I’m talking about.

Essentially, three act structure is a tautology. Stories have a beginning middle and end, screenplays are stories, therefore screenplays have a beginning middle and an end. “Act one” is just a fancier way of saying beginning, and so on. To which the skeptics out there might be saying, whoop de doo. How does that help anyone?

Let’s take a script like Identity Thief. It’s a very successful comedy, and I have it on good authority that the author, /u/clmazin, does not subscribe to the three act structure and did not use it to write the material. Acts schmacts. Acts are dogma. Page numbers are dogma.

That said, Identity Thief is a comedy that centers on the unlikely relationship between average guy Sandy, and Diana, the titular identity thief who steals his identity. As this is the money part of the story, the thing which generates the fun, it makes sense to spend the bulk of the middle section of the script on exploring that, and resolving it in the end section. Acts two and three, if you like.

And that’s just what the script does, after establishing Diana and Sandy for a bit, their paths cross on page 18, in what a hack might call an “inciting incident.” And then we’re off to the races and we get to watch Sandy and Diana have their great adventure. Assuming the story actually wants to focus on that relationship, that’s about the right time. Having the meat on page 55 would be too late.

To which the author might reply, “It would be too late for the story Iwanted to tell. I could easily tell a story where they met on page 55, though. Easily.” He might even go on to say, “[This is] The problem with “coaches.” You watch a movie and think “it could only be thus.”

Of course, I don’t actually think a movie could only be thus, largely because I’m not a complete moron. Also because I’m obsessed with time travel, alternate histories, and the idea of a parallel universe where the scripts I sold got made and launched a stellar career and other people’s didn’t.

For the extant version of Identity Thief, I think that the meeting on page 18 was the right call for the story the author wanted to tell. But if the author wanted to tell a different story, of course that could work to. But even though Sandy and Diana could meet on any page, the placement of that meeting radically changes the story.

  • If they meet around page 12 (inciting incident) then that lends itself to an odd-couple buddy movie, which is what the actual draft is.
  • They could meet somewhere near the end (the third act). Then it’s probably a story about seeking someone, a la The Third Man.
  • They could know each other from the get-go (the ordinary world, in hack-speak). This could position them as partners in crime, or it could be a farce where one doesn’t know the other’s secret life. Or anything else.
  • They could even meet around page 55 (midpoint), which to me seems like the hardest one to write, because of the challenge of keeping the 50% of the script where they meet as engaging and fun as the 50% afterwards. It’s difficult, but certainly doable.

This probably seems obvious , but a lot of coaching is breaking down the seemingly obvious into digestible, logical consistent steps. Some people legitimately might not realize that a story could take any direction, not just the one that was chosen. Speaking from experience, some people legitimately don’t see that changing the placement of an event in a narrative can radically change that story. The terminology helps illustrate the how and the why of it.

That’s why I like breaking stories down to this structure. It roughly applies to most narratives, and it’s helpful to break a story down into quarters and see what changes if the villain is introduced on page 12 or on page 55, assuming a 110 page script. If the hero meets the love interest in the beginning, the middle, or the end.

And, as a necessary disclaimer: Not that 110 has anything to do with an orthodoxy. A feature could be 5 pages or 440. I’m told a great script can be written in crayon and it’ll still get made.

There are some writers out there who obsess over page counts and obligatory plot milestones to the point where the structure chokes the life out of the material. Don’t be that writer. There are some writers who instinctively just get it, and don’t need hacky terms to get a sense of material. And then there are many, many people who are naturally good at some parts of writing, but not others, and stuff like this helps them. And that’s why I write articles like this.