CHARACTER --BUILDING BETWEEN THE
by JUDY KELLEM
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
So too in the subplot of Michael's romances, do we visually follow the change
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
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,
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
It makes all difference between what we readers read and what we remember.
Copyright Hollyscript.com, LLC 2005 All Rights Reserved.