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Breaks the Rules

- A Guide for e Rebel Writer -

b e r f f e o a c k e r e i r t

Published by Michael Wiese Productions 12400 Ventura Blvd. #1111 Studio City, CA 91604 (818) 379-8799, (818) 986-3408 (FAX) mw@mwp.com www.mwp.com

Cover design by Johnny Ink. www.johnnyink.com Interior layout by William Morosi Copyediting by Ross Plotkin Printed by McNaughton & Gunn

Manufactured in the United States of America Copyright 2018 by Pilar Alessandra All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

The author acknowledges the copyright owners of the motion pictures from which single frames have been used in this book for purposes of commentary, criticism, and scholarship under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Alessandra, Pilar, author. Title: The coffee break screenwriter breaks the rules : a guide for the rebel writer / By Pilar Alessandra. Other titles: Guide for the rebel writer Description: Studio City, CA : Michael Wiese Productions, [2018] Identifiers: LCCN 2017025958 | ISBN 9781615932825 Subjects: LCSH: Motion picture authorship. Classification: LCC PN1996 .A485 2018 | DDC 808.2/3--dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017025958

Printed on Recycled Stock

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

xi

HOW THIS BOOK WORKS

xiii

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � xv

CHAPTER 1:

WHERE DO THEY GET

Where do these rules come from and why are they there?

THIS

STUFF? � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � �1

CHAPTER 2:

VOICEOVER AND FLASHBACK AND WALL

BREAKING .

The Rule: Never use voiceover.

The Rule: Never use flashback.

The Rule: Breaking the fourth wall is a no-no.

Other rules discussed: Dream sequences and fantasy sequences.

OH

MY

� � �4

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CHAPTER 3:

LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD � � � � � � �14

The Rule: The main character must be likable.

The Rule: Your main character must have an arc.

The Rule: Characters need to verbally reveal their backstory.

The Rule: Character description must be physical.

Other rules discussed: Only one main character. Main character must save the day. Main character can’t die. Gay and transgender tropes.

CHAPTER 4:

SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, MEAN WHAT YOU SAY � � � 29

The Rule: Don’t write long dialogue scenes.

The Rule: Speaking directly is “on the nose.”

Other rules discussed: Subtitles and parenthesis.

CHAPTER 5:

FREEDOM FROM FORMAT � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � �41

The Rule: Scenes must begin with proper scene headers.

The Rule: Never add emotion to action description.

The Rule: Never describe what can’t be seen.

Other rules discussed: World-specific terminology. Naming characters. Camera direction. Script length.

CONTENTS

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CHAPTER 6:

NEWS FLASH: THERE IS NO STRUCTURE JAIL� � � � 56

The Rule: The story must be linear. The Rule: Act breaks and events must fall on certain pages.

Other rules discussed: Readers passing on scripts due to structural issues.

CHAPTER 7:

WHAT NOT TO WRITE

AND OTHER RULES

THAT DON’T HOLD UP � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 65

The Rule: Write what you know.

The Rule: You have to write in one form and one genre.

The Rule: Producers only want scripts with white, male, leading characters.

The Rule: Producers only want scripts with characters under the age of fifty.

Other rules discussed: The need to live in LA. Age of screenwriters. Period pieces. Writing sequels and trilogies. Scripts about politics and religion. What readers want.

CONCLUSION:

RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN � � � � � � � � � � � � � �

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Acknowledgments � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � �

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR� � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � �

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HOW THIS BOOK WORKS

The Coffee Break Screenwriter Breaks the Rules is broken down into seven chapters that take on the most common rules associated with script writing.

Chapter 1 covers why the rules exist at all� I mean, who came up with this stuff?

Chapter 2 covers storytelling devices like flashbacks and voiceovers.

Chapter 3 focuses on character including likeability issues and backstory.

Chapter 4 digs into dialogue issues such as lengthy dis- cussions and “on the nose” writing.

Chapter 5 focuses on format and the expression of emotion and visuals.

Chapter 6 dares to tackle structure and nonlinear writing.

Chapter 7 takes on the industry in regard to demograph- ics, gender, and producer expectations.

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For every “rule” that’s covered, we discuss

1� WHY IT EXISTS 2� WHY YOU SHOULD BREAK IT 3� HOW TO BREAK IT 4� HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD 5� WHO BROKE IT BEST

You’ll also see True/False questions sprinkled throughout. As a screenwriting teacher and script coach who has read thousands of scripts from production companies, studios, and aspiring writers, it’s my belief that there are a handful of rules that actually work and some that are plain silly. And, watch out, as I may lay down a few rules of my own.

Of course, you can always try and break those as well. You’re the writer!

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK

This should be a book you can go to time and time again whenever you’re writing or rewriting a new screen- play, TV pilot, short film, or web series.

Read this book from beginning to end to get inspired to become the rebel writer that you secretly are

OR

Jump to a rule you want to know more about and learn why it’s there and how to break it creatively. Remain open. The “why it’s there” section might actually inspire you to apply the rule, rather than break it.

“There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.”

—Frank Capra

“There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” —Frank Capra

CHAPTER

CHAPTER 1 WHERE DO THEY GET THIS STUFF? WHERE DO THESE RULES COME FROM? Quick answer:

1

WHERE DO THEY GET THIS STUFF?

WHERE DO THESE RULES COME FROM?

Quick answer: Books, the internet, Aristotle, and you.

Yeah you. Sure there are screenwriters, executives, story analysts, and others who’ve written countless books and created courses that give lessons and offer graphs filled with story patterns and page demarcations. I wrote one too! But, it was you, the writer, who took all of this stuff as law.

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If writers (and production companies) just saw this for what it was all really meant to be, guidance, everyone wouldn’t be so stressed out.

RULES, GUIDANCE, WHATEVER. WHY ARE “THE RULES” THERE?

To remind you of the patterns and rhythms of suc - cessful screenplays.

To help you organize your thoughts and story.

To keep you from overwriting.

To stay within a form that translates to other areas of the industry.

To remind you of audience expectation.

You’ll find many rules have common sense or good writing technique at their core. You should always con- sider the rule and its intention before you purposely break it. There might actually be something in it that can help you.

SO, WHY BREAK THE RULES?

Because you’re always looking for that one thing that sets your script apart.

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Because writing to formula can kill a story.

Because you want to keep the reader (and audience) from getting too comfortable.

Because you secretly want to.

The safe writer is the unemployed writer. He or she keeps getting the comment, “Interesting, but not for us.” You want to turn this around to “Fascinating. We don’t have anything like it!”

SHOULD I BREAK ALL OF THE RULES?

No.

I mean, come on! Just because it appears to be a rule, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. Like changing up just one element in your script, breaking only one rule can change everything. Do this too much and you’ll have a story that’s muddy within a form that’s unrecognizable.

Rebel, but rebel gracefully.

CHAPTER

CHAPTER 2 VOICEOVER AND FLASHBACK AND WALL BREAKING Oh My Whenever I ask a screenwriter about

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Oh My

Whenever I ask a screenwriter about “rules,” the first things that come up are voiceover and flashback. Perhaps that’s because they’ve heard that they should never, ever use these devices, then watch puzzled as binge-worthy TV shows constantly employ flashback and every Oscar nominated movie begins with narration. I’m equally puzzled, so it’s time to talk it through.

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THE RULE:

NEVER USE VOICEOVER

WHY IT EXISTS

Film is a visual medium. (Show, don’t tell.)

Leaning on voiceover encourages the writer to be lazy with storytelling.

Voiceover has the potential to create a static shot. What’s going on while someone is narrating? Most of the time, not much.

WHY BREAK IT

Well-crafted voiceover can bring poetry into a scene.

Voiceover provides the opportunity to convey what the dialogue and scene direction cannot.

Voiceover can create an all-knowing or truth-telling “character” for the audience.

Voiceover can streamline an epic story by filling in the timeline.

HOW TO BREAK IT

Make sure your voiceover is balanced throughout the script. Layer it into the story and we’ll feel like it’s

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just another character talking to us. Or, bookend the script with it so that the script feels like a fable.

Make sure your voiceover is tonally consistent. By doing this, we’ll begin to understand that the voiceover is there as the punch line (Election), or the inner-thought (Mr. Robot), or the guide who moves us through time and place (The Shawshank Redemption).

Make sure your voiceover doesn’t switch tense. We need to know the person speaking to us is either talking in the moment or from a future looking back on past events.

Make sure your voiceover is bringing a new ele- ment or information into the scene. Is it bringing wisdom, humor, or information to the scene that we can’t get by just watching the story? Yes? Then break the rule!

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

When writers write too much of it! A little goes a long way with voiceover. When we don’t see the words actually come out of a character’s mouth, we hear only what we need to, then tune out as we search for the visual story.

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When clumps of voiceover compete with clumps of scene direction. Instead layer the voiceover and action. Tell us something, then show us something. Lather, rinse, repeat.

When you’re telling us what we’re clearly seeing anyway. No matter how clever the voiceover is, if you’re doing this, the audience will get impatient.

When you’re narrating a story like it’s an epic novel. If you think you can stuff two stories into one by adding voiceover, think again. Your voiceover really should contribute — not give us pages and pages of exposition or backstory.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

The Shawshank Redemption, Raising Arizona, Election, Jane the Virgin

THE RULE:

NEVER USE FLASHBACK

WHY IT EXISTS

Because writers often neglect their central stories in favor of dwelling on the past.

Because flashbacks can become a crutch to reveal a secret or answer a question when that answer should be earned.

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Because it can stop the action as a character takes time to reflect on a past event.

WHY BREAK IT

A through-line of well-crafted flashbacks can create intriguing subplots.

Flashbacks can build out a mystery.

Flashbacks can reveal an amusing or shocking truth behind a present-day lie.

Flashbacks can replace needless exposition.

HOW TO BREAK IT

Figure out what story you want to tell with a flash- back and break it into pieces. Keeping the story linear, add those pieces prior to key plot points to move the contemporary story forward.

Take your current flashbacks and edit them to be short and punchy. “Flash” an image or “flash” a spoken line. Don’t linger.

Use your flashback to illustrate a truth. If someone lies in the contemporary story, quickly flash to reveal an image that shows the truth.

If you start with a shocking teaser, flash pieces of the teaser throughout the story for genre effect, but

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also to eventually show us what we didn’t see in that teaser. Perhaps a later flashback reveals who the killer actually was or which character was witnessing the action. Or, perhaps this revealing part of the event will come from another character’s point of view.

A flashback of a new point of view or context can help a main character resolve his or her problem. Looking back through another lens helps us under- stand the final reveal in movies like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club.

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

Flash back constantly and you’ll lose ground on your more important, contemporary story.

Flash to moments for shock value alone and the reader will feel emotionally manipulated.

Fail to indicate that we’re in a flashback by leaving that information out of the scene header and you’ll lose the reader entirely. It’s ok to write:

FLASHBACK: INT. DINING HALL — NIGHT

or

INT. DINING HALL — NIGHT — 1961

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WHO BROKE IT BEST

Manchester by the Sea, Bloodline (season 1), The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Lost, Citizen Kane, Black-ish, Orange Is the New Black

THE RULE:

BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL IS A NO-NO

WHY IT EXISTS

It’s an intrusive device that demands the audience pay attention and become involved.

It can overshadow the movie or TV show, constantly pulling the reader or audience out of the action.

WHY YOU SHOULD BREAK IT

Because it’s such an intrusive device it feels rebel- lious. That’s why super rebels like Deadpool, Frank Underwood from House of Cards, and the lead character from Fleabag stop what they’re doing to talk right to us. That’s why mischievous Jim from The Office gives us a private raise of an eyebrow. These characters don’t care about the rules and, by breaking the fourth wall, you indicate that you clearly don’t either.

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HOW TO BREAK IT

Let us in on the thought behind a key choice as the character pushes toward a new sequence or act.

FRANCIS She’s wary. I can see it in her eyes.

(and now to the camera) Walker’s political capital rises or falls with the success of this bill. And I need to be at the center of it.

From House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

Again, devices such as this are great for revealing truth. If other characters are trying to get away with a lie, your character can look right at the camera and tell the truth.

FLEABAG (to camera) She’s uptight and beautiful and probably anorexic, but clothes look awesome on her.

From Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

You can also throw the audience off base for a moment; making us feel like a voyeur as a character scolds us for continuing to hang around or teases us with the reminder that we haven’t been forgotten.

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You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. Go.

From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by John Hughes

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

The fact is that breaking the fourth wall dares to involve the audience so, if you use it carelessly, it will make that same audience feel put off. For that reason, have your character address the audience only when it serves story, character, or genre.

When this device is used along with other devices such as voiceover and flashback, the script feels over- loaded and gimmicky. Choose one or the other.

When there’s only one random aside — rather than carefully placing these moments throughout a script — you take us out of the reality of the story and run the risk of never bringing us back in.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

House of Cards, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fleabag, Annie Hall, Deadpool

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MAKING MY OWN RULE:

LOSE THE DREAM SEQUENCES

Dream sequences. I hate them. They add needless filler to a script, are completely unreliable for informa- tion, and don’t move story. There, I said it. Now, feel free to break it and show me that I’m wrong.

TRUE OR FALSE? I hate dream sequences but I don’t mind fantasy sequences.

ANSWER: TRUE!

Both devices give a sense of subconscious desire, but dream sequences are unreliable and too open to analysis. A fantasy sequence shows desire in a dra- matic or funny way in the actual moment the story is taking place. We understand its role in the story and can easily determine — by snapping back to reality — what’s real and what isn’t.

If you do use fantasy sequences as a device, follow the guidelines of voiceover and flashback, making sure to be consistent and using it to help tell story.

CHAPTER

CHAPTER 3 LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD As a writer, you don’t like restraints on your

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LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD

As a writer, you don’t like restraints on your creativity. So why restrain your characters by assuming they need to act a certain way in a certain situation? This chapter lets your characters run free and find out who they really are.

We start right off the bat with the idea of “likability,” a rule that, when dutifully followed, can cause a good script to completely lose its spark. We then explore the need for character arc, shake our heads at indulgent, verbal backstory, and remind ourselves that beauty in characters is only skin-deep.

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THE RULE:

THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST BE LIKABLE

WHY IT EXISTS

To make the audience root for the character and / or get behind the character’s eyes.

To make us feel there’s a possibility for redemption.

WHY BREAK IT

We secretly admire characters who take risks and do shocking things. Case in point: Walter White, Tony Soprano, Nurse Jackie, and the entire cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

A super-flawed character deserves the second act or season trouble he or she might get into. Think about

a movie like Groundhog Day. Main character Phil is

a crabby weatherman who needs to learn a lesson

about appreciating the people and things around him. For that reason he’s forced to experience the same day over and over again until he gets it right.

A defined character is stronger than one who lives in the grey areas. In TV shows like Girls and Silicon Valley, the ensemble is often narcissistic and self- ish. But, those qualities also guarantee conflict as we follow a variety of bad choices down the rabbit hole of the seasons.

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Imposing a “nice” moment on a character can feel inauthentic and take the reader or audience out of the moment. An audience knows when it’s being played. A phony moment in a script will push the reader away. An “unlikable” but interesting moment will make the reader dig in to see where this is all going.

HOW TO BREAK IT

Create a bigger jerk: Make someone in your script more unlikable than your main character. (Pushy boss, selfish girlfriend, womanizing friend.)

Show the context: The audience is privy to the big picture. Show us the context of his or her bad mood and we’ll be on the character’s side.

Balance flaw with skill: Show something the main character does well. Often that flaw is a result of the pressure of that skill. Sometimes that skill can’t be present without giving into the flaw.

Show the consequences. We’ll empathize with the characters if they’re suffering for their sins. Plus, the message of the piece comes through without lecture. Here’s what will happen to us, we learn, if we choose to follow our baser instincts.

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HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

In a feature film if something doesn’t happen once act two begins that at least challenges the main char- acter to be better, you’re in danger of flaw overkill.

In a pilot, if we don’t get a sense that there will be

weekly tests for the character, we’ll feel that it’s just a celebration of his awfulness. That might make the

show unlikeable

not just the main character.

Breaking it will definitely break bad if you are unaware that your character is flawed. If you think his selfishness, cruelty, racism or misogyny is cool, then you’re in danger of being unlikable.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

Empire, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Game of Thrones, Shameless, Pulp Fiction, Nurse Jackie, Groundhog Day, Girls, Silicon Valley, Veep, Silver Linings Playbook

THE RULE:

YOUR MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE AN ARC

WHY IT EXISTS

To keep characters from feeling one-dimensional.

To bring depth to a story, allowing us in on emotional journey rather than just a physical one.

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WHY BREAK IT

Certain genres such as action movies and broad com- edies better maintain their edge and humor when the main character remains the same from start to finish.

Franchise potential emerges with a character who is as brave or crazy at the end as he or she is at the beginning of the movie. Think about James Bond or Ace Ventura.

A television character keeps audiences tuning in each week by not changing, or changing as little as possible. The hook of Seinfeld, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Curb Your Enthusiasm is that we’re treated to characters who learn as little as possible. And when there is a character arc in a dramatic TV series, it’s a slow burn. We’d stop watching Don Draper, Walter White, and Nurse Jackie act out if their character arc led them to fully change by the end of a season. In one season on Nurse Jackie, for exam- ple, we follow her journey to sobriety, only to watch her pop a pill in the last episode. This regression allows us to start all over again with her super-flawed character in the next season.

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HOW TO BREAK IT

Your character may not change, but the world and people around him or her should. To keep your story feeling like a story, make sure that your main charac- ter motivates, encourages, or directly creates change in the people he or she comes into contact with. That way there’s an arc in the actual story line — even if it’s not the main character’s personal arc.

Heighten your character’s activity. We often watch film or TV to see how characters deal with events. In this case your main character is the event. He or she is the tornado that whips up the town. Prove that your character is so special, heroic, strange, fun, or magical, that he or she deserves to be the same person going out as coming in.

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

Just because a character doesn’t have a full or rec- ognizable arc, doesn’t mean that they’re not human. So beware of making your character cartoonish in a way that doesn’t feel relatable. (Mind you, I didn’t say “likable.”) The main character can’t inspire change in others if he or she isn’t making a real emotional connection.

Eventually, even James Bond was given a full arc. In 2006, we see Daniel Craig’s Bond begin the movie as

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an agent who kills for his job, but end the movie bent on avenging the woman he loves. This all proves that people really can change even though sometimes it takes forty-four years of movies to get them there.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

James Bond, Ace Ventura, Austin Powers, Larry David, Larry Sanders, Selina Meyer, Ferris Bueller, The Dude

THE RULE:

CHARACTERS NEED TO VERBALLY REVEAL THEIR BACKSTORY

WHY IT EXISTS

To help us understand and identify with the character.

To create a life-context when he or she does some - thing wrong.

WHY BREAK IT

Action and choice within the story help us get to know a character. If you rely on verbally delivered backstory to do that, you’re cheating us of some key character development.

Because you’re giving your protagonist a crutch to explain away his or her flaw and you’re giving your antagonist an excuse for being horrible.

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The pace of a script can get bogged down when the writer stops to rehash the past. Correction: It will get bogged down!

Verbal devices that relay backstory such as mono- logue or storytelling can feel old-fashioned and contrived. You’ll keep audiences on the edge of their seats if you keep them guessing rather than leading them by the nose.

HOW TO BREAK IT

If characters were influenced by specific eras during which they grew up, give them behaviors and props reflective of those time periods. Everything gives away a person’s history; the expressions they use, the songs they hum, the clothes they wear.

Make sure your characters react to the characters and world around them. We get to know characters through their emotional responses.

Familiarity or awkwardness between characters will convey a relationship history. No need to talk about it when two people are showing it.

Show the character’s stage of life with windows into how they live, where and how they work, who they’re friends with, etc. Audiences are smart. They’ll fill in the blanks on their own.

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HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

If writers dangle a backstory mystery, but never reveal the truth, the story will be unsatisfying and feel unfin- ished. Sometimes after working hard to get there, a character just has to say the secret out loud.

If there’s the suggestion of conflict in a relationship that’s never satisfactorily revealed, we leave the script with unanswered questions.

If the ending hinges on a backstory secret and you haven’t alluded to it in any way prior to the third act, we’ll leave the script feeling puzzled.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

The Road, The Walking Dead.

DISCLAIMER: Backstory in these examples may indeed be verbally discussed. But when it’s finally delivered, it’s earned.

THE RULE:

CHARACTER DESCRIPTION MUST BE PHYSICAL

WHY IT EXISTS

To create a specificity that helps us “see” the character.

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To help casting directors bring the correct physical type into their casting calls.

WHY BREAK IT

Physical specificity actually rules out creative and diverse casting. Will the casting be open to a black or Latina actress if she’s described as “a tall blonde?”

Female characters are constantly described in terms of their beauty or body type which is sexist and, frankly, uninteresting.

Here are some examples curated by Ross Putman and posted on his Twitter site @femscriptintros:

JANE, 33, stunning with (former) cover girl looks.

JANE, 30s, pretty enough, is standing at the table.

JANE, with lengthy blonde hair, enters.

The woman with strawberry blonde hair. Her eyes are chocolate brown. Her ruby red lips break into a grin. This is JANE

(23).

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HOW TO BREAK IT

Describe personality and skills. In The Coffee Break Screenwriter I also spoke about just getting a sense of a character’s “essence.”

DOROTHY VAUGHAN (40s) slides out from under the car. No-nonsense, brilliant, tough, mechanically gifted.

From Hidden Figures; screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

Inside the car is ERIC WRIGHT, 21, but you know him as—

SUPERIMPOSE: ERIC WRIGHT AKA EAZY-E

A man who is completely in his element — comfortable and poised, ready for anything.

From Straight Outta Compton by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff

Paramount President BARNEY BALABAN, 70s, ferocious, righteous, sits behind his impressive desk

From Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (aka Hitchcock) by John J. McLaughlin

CLAIRE, Late 30s, uptight suburban mom, tries to make every day special for her kids, needs control.

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PHIL, Late 30s, real estate agent, upbeat, goofy, thinks he’s cooler than he is.

From My American Family (aka Modern Family) by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd

When you add an action to a great character description, it imprints the character even more:

DETECTIVE ROSARIO ORTIZ, 45, aggressive, gallows humor, and her partner DETECTIVE DAN WILLIAMS, 40, quietly intense, watch the girl behind one-way glass.

From Damages by Todd A. Kessler & Glenn Kessler & Daniel Zelman

A cavernous space. Sound-proofed walls. And in the center, a DRUM SET. Seated at it, in a sweat-marked white T, eyes zeroed on his single-stroke roll, is ANDREW NEIMAN.

From Whiplash by Damien Chazelle

ALICE WARD, a salty New England broad, 50s, with a cigar in her mouth, pulls a casserole out of the oven.

GEORGIE CLEMENTS. 20s, a meatball, leans out his window, GUNS his engine to get Dickie’s attention.

From The Fighter by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson

“A meatball.” I love that.

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HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

Writing essence plus action is such a fun way to describe characters that it’s tempting to go over the top. If your descriptions get too colorful or metaphori- cal, pull back a bit. You might think you’re being cute by describing a playful character as “a monkey in a man suit” — but this is film and TV where anything can happen. Misread a description like that and a producer might end up buying the script because he thinks it’s actually about a man possessed by a monkey.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

Hidden Figures, Whiplash, The Fighter, Up in the Air

TRUE OR FALSE? THERE MUST ONLY BE ONE MAIN CHARACTER IN A MOVIE.

ANSWER: FALSE!

The proof can be found in the large number of buddy movies, two-protagonist romantic comedies, ensemble movies, and TV shows that feature large, equally weighted casts.

TIP: If you are writing an ensemble movie or TV show, make sure their individual storylines have a beginning, middle, and end. Even three scenes (one per act) can do it.

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TRUE OR FALSE? The main character always has to save the day.

ANSWER: TRUE AND FALSE!

The true part: A main character should be involved in the solution to his or her story. If he or she sud- denly steps to the side, why were we following that character this whole time?

The false part: The main character may still be involved if someone he or she has taught, mentored, or influenced uses a skill learned from the main character to ultimately save the day.

And that leads to the next question

TRUE OR FALSE? The main character can’t die at the end of the movie or TV series.

ANSWER: FALSE!

Who doesn’t love a grand moment of physical sacri- fice? But when a character does die, it’s most often for a greater good. He or she leaves the world and the other characters in it changed in some way. We need to believe that the character had to die to solve the problem.

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TRUE OR FALSE? It’s annoying when the happy ending of a script involves the main character selling a script.

ANSWER: TRUE!

Super annoying. Add to the annoying list: when char- acters win the lottery, marry rich, or come into an inheritance. Money (and script sales) don’t buy you love, nor the respect of audiences who want to see their heroes earn their happy endings.

TRUE OR FALSE? Killing a gay or transgender character is a tired trope.

ANSWER: TRUE!

Film and TV scripts are more actively integrating gay and transgender characters. But the rate at which they then kill them off for dramatic reasons is alarming. If you’ve been smart enough to include a character that brings diversity of experience to your cast, keep them alive for goodness sake. You’ll enrich the script and avoid cliché.