Screenwriting Instructors Pilar Alessandra and Carole Kirschner on Breaking into the Writer’s Room

By Steffanie Moyers On The Page is a weekly podcast hosted by Pilar Alessandra, a writing teacher and former story…

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Source: Script Lab

By | 2017-08-12T01:48:59+00:00 August 11th, 2017|Categories: main, Screenwriting 101|Tags: |

Screenwriting 101: How to Create Likeable Unlikeable Characters

It’s a note I’ve received many times, “this character is unlikeable. How are we supposed to follow an entire TV Series/Feature for him/her and root for them?” And as far as I’m aware it’s a common note I’ve seen given to many other writers. The truth is we love to write unlikeable characters and that makes complete sense. As writers, we are drawn to characters whose minds delve into the darkest regions of our psyche. Let’s face it, no one’s all that curious about what goes on in the mind of a happy-go-lucky soccer Mom. Not that there’s nothing interesting there, but it is in the unlikeable that we see part of ourselves we either may not have the courage to access or wouldn’t want to. Characters who delve into our darkest fantasies or curiosities as Carl Jung may describe it their shadow has become a prominent part of their primary personality.

The tricky part is making these characters likable. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to pull out a little Blake Snyder for you right now. To create an unlikeable character you essentially have to “save the cat.” I’m not a big fan of this phrase. I mean, come on, can we imagine Cersei or Joffrey Lannister from Game of Thrones saving a helpless cat just to make us warm up to them? I can’t. At least not without some suspicion as to what other more gruesome fate would await that poor feline. “Save the cat,” feels like an all too wholesome deed for a predominantly unlikeable character. So here’s the question. Why are we so enthralled by characters like Cersei Lannister, Walter White, Don Draper, Travis Bickel (Taxi), Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network) and Henry Hill (Goodfellas). We love these characters, but why? And to skip over another cat analogy, we love these characters because they have flaws and wounds that are relatable. We see ourselves in their vulnerability, and yes, at times revel in their retribution, or hell, even admire some of their characteristics.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we? Now, a fair warning, there are plenty of spoilers ahead so I’ll try to break the characters down in a way where you can skip over anything that you don’t want to be ruined.

Game of Thrones has been one of my great TV obsessions, as I’m sure it’s been for many of you. I’ve had some friends comment that they dislike the show for its lack of “likable” characters and that they just can’t get into how terrible they are to one another, but this is the reason I love it. Cersei is by far one of my favorites. Yes, the Lannisters do unspeakable things to people, but between herself and her brother Tyrian, these two characters have managed to outlast so many of their family members. The moment I grew to love Cersei was during her second season monologue, during the battle of Blackwater in which she was forced to sit idly by, trapped with the other “lesser women” while the men went out to fight. Here, while explaining to Sansa Stark what will happen when the keep is taken, she reveals her first real sign of fear and vulnerability. This is particularly notable for a character who, on all other occasions, stands head-to-head with any male adversary that comes her way. Now she has been whittled down to her gender, forced to hide in fear while the men did the work. Another great example is more recently in seasons 5 and 6, after having been humiliated by the High Sparrow and his lot, forced to walk naked through the streets while being taunted and abused in every manner of fashion. Here we may have reveled in her comeuppance, but I know for myself as the scene drove on I pitied her, and when she got her revenge at the end of the following season by (SPOILER ALERT) blowing up the temple with all her enemies gathered within, I couldn’t help but revel in her victory as I know many of my friends who watch the show had.

Let’s take a look at another favorite, Walter White. Why has Walter White captivated such audiences in Breaking Bad? Why do we root for him as he is ruthlessly kills and destroys any rival that may threaten his empire? Simple, he comes from humble beginnings. Think of it for a minute. Why did Walter White suddenly decide to cook meth to begin with? It was a means to an end. An incredibly intelligent man, somehow forced into a mediocre life, now diagnosed with cancer is trying his best to see that his wife and disabled son are well supported when he passes on. The only problem is, that doesn’t happen, and yet, by the time he’s crossed the point of no return we are already invested in this loveable character who has unfortunately become corrupted by his own devices.

Here’s one that takes a different path, Don Draper of Mad Men. I dare say it, but it’s hard to find a loveable or redemptive quality about this man. So why do we admire him so? Granted a large part has to do with many of the characters with more admirable qualities, like Peggy, that surround him, but ultimately we seem to love Don Draper. He represents that greatest of American qualities — he pulled up his bootstraps and by any means necessary made it to the top. We admire his success, it’s the life some part of us wishes we could have. Of course, not all of us want to be womanizers or neglect our family, but to watch him in the room at work, we all aspire to be the Don Draper of our respective craft –ruthless, intelligent, with a dash of class and wealth.

Now, many of these characters reside in the realm of TV, so for one more example, yes one more, just “drink your juice, Shelby.” Let us look into Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Travis Bickel. A man seemingly on the edge. We can’t take our eyes away as he spirals down the rabbit hole of repressed rage and desire. Yet why do we follow this man? He’s clearly a loner and a psychopath. But perhaps that’s why we love him. Bickel represents are darkest repressed feelings. The anger at the unfairness of life we’ve all felt. The hurt and sexual desire we’ve felt for a person yet find our feelings unreciprocated. His angst is our familiarity. The only difference is he’s willing to go down the path to explore those emotions while we stay safely at home, cringing at his actions. Until he finds hope in Iris, Jodi Foster’s character, a chance to save someone from the darkness that rage within him, and he steer the course to redemption.

So why choose an unlikeable character? In some regards, they are difficult to write, but at their core, the conflict both within and around them makes them ripe for storytelling. The tricky thing here is to set your character along his or her dark path without making a story that makes your audience turn away in disgust. These characters all have a humanity about them. They are ruthless, but we understand and feel empathy for their flaws, their fears, and their pain. They all have some form of an admirable trait and a goal the audience can relate to. Whether it’s taking care of one’s family through any means necessary, wanting to exact revenge, rising to the top of our career, or simply fulfilling our deepest and most carnal desires, we write them to explore the unexplored part of ourselves.

With such characters, it is important to be self-aware with your work. A script with a theme of “people are terrible and should all be destroyed,” would be a much less compelling or attractive story than a story that can justify an unlikeable character’s actions through a theme such as “crime doesn’t pay.” The character must learn his lesson through his bad behavior and in your writing you must make the audience aware that you are aware that your character’s behavior is repellent; however, in your character’s mind, their ends justify their means.  And if you’re going to redeem them by the end of your story, you better put them through hell and make them suffer for the damage they have caused just like Travis Bickel.

The easiest example I can describe as a path to redemption is the “Kingslayer” Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones. A once proud and skilled warrior who felt near invincible in his position is literally cut down by his captors when they slice off his right hand. Now Jamie must not only relearn the skills that came to him easily when he had the use of his sword hand, but is now humbled by the realization that if he is going to make it out alive he will have to rely on the help of others, many of whom are ones who he once viewed as his lesser.

Likable characters are all well and good, but at the end of the day who doesn’t love a bad boy…or girl for that matter. 

Source: Script Lab

By | 2017-04-17T15:25:22+00:00 April 12th, 2017|Categories: main|Tags: |

First Ten Pages: The Sound of Music (1965)

Screenplay by: Ernest Lehman

Julie Andrews and Christopher Lee star in this classic musical about a nun named Maria who is sent to care for the Von Trapp children in Salzburg, Austria. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman seamlessly weaves the 5 major rules for a screenplay into the first 10 pages. Let’s break them down. 

CHARACTER INTRODUCTION

A good screenplay will introduce the main character with flair, which helps to augment the importance that character holds over supporting ones in the reader’s mind. It gives us a reference point, a human context to discern the world the screenplay describes. Consider Lehman’s style as he introduces us to a girl named Maria.
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PAGE 1 

FADE IN

EXT. THE AUSTRIAN ALPS – DAY – HELICOPTER SHOTS

The screen glows an eerie blue, then fills with swirling white mists. We fly through the misty cloud and emerge over a craggy, snow-draped mountain range.

The massive, forbidding peaks stretch to the horizon, then disappear behind more dense mist. The white fog gives way to silky sheets of snow covering a mountainside.We fly over a sheer rock face. Hundreds of feet below a river runs through a grassy valley like a glistening white ribbon. The snow-covered Alps give way to gently rolling hills and lush forests. Birds whistle. We fly out from behind a hillside and over a broad lake, glittering in the brightening sunshine. MUSIC sneaks in. 

We fly over a clear glassy lake that mirrors a huge mountain beside it and the blue sky above. Then over a magnificent green valley nestled among the hills. In the valley below, the roofs of a small town lie clustered together around a church and its steeple. Now, we glide over elegant, lakeside castles and mansions with acres of emerald green farmland. 

We fly toward a sunny alpine meadow where a young woman with short blonde hair strolls through the grass, swinging her arms in a carefree stride. She wears black shoes and stockings and a gray smocked apron over a black dress. 

Her name is Maria. As we close in on her rapidly, she spreads her arms and twirls in a joyful spin. 

MARIA
The hills are alive with the sound of music. With songs they have sung for a thousand years. The hills fill my heart with the sound of music. My heart wants to sing every song it hears. My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds that rise from the lake to the trees. My heart wants to sigh like a chime that flies from a church on a breeze. She runs to a brook and skips stones in it.

___________________________________________________________ 

This is a tracking shot on steroids. We start in the clouds, immersed in “swirling white mists”, a sign that this will be a whimsical, light, and airy film. Since the mountains play a pivotal role in the conclusion of the film (on the last page of the screenplay, the Von Trapp family escapes through the mountains to elude capture from the Nazis), Lehman describes them to us on the first page as we swoop down on the central character.

Her name is Maria and the first words out of her mouth are words of song. She is blissfully happy and free as a bird. As she stretches her arms and fills the air with her music, we understand this is a woman who is independent and carefree. In the pages that follow this wonderful opening, we discover she is a nun, something that completely contradicts our first impression.

Contrast in film is critical. It helps sharpen a reader’s interest and accentuate a character’s disposition. A woman like Maria wouldn’t necessarily thrive in a convent, an observation that hasn’t escaped the watchful eyes of Maria’s fellow nuns. Consider the following exchange the Reverend Mother Abbess has with Sisters Berthe, Bernice, Sophia, Catherine and Margaretta on page 3.

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PAGE 3

SISTER BERNICE
Reverend Mother?

MOTHER ABBESS
Sister Bernice? 

SISTER BERNICE
I simply cannot find her. 

MOTHER ABBESS
Maria? 

SISTER BERNICE
She’s missing from the Abbey again. 

SISTER BERTHE
Perhaps we should have put a cowbell around her neck.

SISTER MARGARETTA
Have you tried the barn? You know how much she adores the animals. 

SISTER BERNICE
I have looked everywhere, in all of the usual places. 

MOTHER ABBESS
Sister Bernice, considering that it’s Maria, I suggest you look in someplace unusual.

Sister Bernice nods and walks away. The three nuns cross the courtyard.

SISTER BERTHE
Well, Reverend Mother, I hope this new infraction ends whatever doubts you may still have about Maria’s future here. 

MOTHER ABBESS
I always try to keep faith in my doubts, Sister Berthe. 

SISTER MARGARETTA
After all, the wool of a black sheep is just as warm.

SISTER BERTHE
We are not talking about sheep, black or white, Sister Margaretta. Of all the candidates for the novitiate I would say that Maria is the least likely–

MOTHER ABBESS
(chides them)
Children, children.

Mother Abbess sees several nuns gathered, staring at them, puzzled.

MOTHER ABBESS
(to the other nuns)
… er, we were speculating about the qualifications of some of our postulants. The Mistress of Novices and the Mistress of Postulants were trying to help me by expressing opposite points of view. Tell me, Sister Catherine, what do you think of … Maria?

SISTER CATHERINE
She’s a wonderful girl … some of the time. 

MOTHER ABBESS
Sister Agatha? 

SISTER AGATHA
It’s very easy to like Maria … except when it’s, uh, difficult. 

MOTHER ABBESS
And you, Sister Sophia? 

SISTER SOPHIA
Oh, I love her very dearly. But she always seems to be in trouble, doesn’t she?

SISTER BERTHE
Exactly what I say! She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee. Her dress has got a tear. 

SISTER SOPHIA (sings)
She waltzes on her way to Mass. And whistles on the stair. 

SISTER BERTHE (sings)
And underneath her wimple. She has curlers in her hair.

___________________________________________________________

Lehman masterfully accomplishes two things in this scene. By contrasting Maria’s joyful singing on the hills with a serious discussion by Maria’s superiors about her absence, Lehman helps us to understand the dramatic situation that will soon follow. Sister Bernice’s line, “She’s missing from the Abbey again”, clearly informs us that this has happened before. Maria is a caged bird. Something must give.

Secondly, as the nuns express their frustration with Maria by singing, Lehman reinforces that we are reading a musical. Maria will not be the only one in this screenplay who will sing. Music will be the language all characters in this screenplay will share. 

TONE/GENRE

From the very first word spoken, rather sung, we know this is a musical. It will be a film where the characters will express their feelings, their problems, their thoughts in songs. This is a screenplay dripping with nostalgia as it fondly describes the golden age of the thirties in a light, airy style. 

WORLD OF THE STORY

After the first page describes the majestic green valleys of the Alps in breezy fashion, the second page clarifies the world we have descended upon. ___________________________________________________________

 PAGE 2

MAIN TITLE SEQUENCE – VIEWS OF SALZBURG, AUSTRIA

A title reads: “Salzburg, Austria in the last Golden Days of the Thirties”

INT. THE ABBEY – DAY

Nuns in black habits and novices wearing smocked gray aprons walk calmly across a cobblestone courtyard. Carrying Bibles, they file into a chapel decorated with richly colored stained glass windows and stone sculptures. The women chant in Latin: “Dixit dominus” — followed by a “Morning Hymn” and “Alleluia.”

___________________________________________________________ 

This will be a period piece in a world defined by authority and strictness. This is a world that has imprisoned our heroine. The story will be about her escape from this world. Music will be her saving grace. 

DRAMATIC SITUATION 

On page 9 and 10, we see Mother Abbess and Maria talk about her “problem”. The simmering discussion comes to a boil…

___________________________________________________________ 

PAGE 10

MOTHER ABBESS
Maria … when you saw us over the Abbey wall and longed to be one of us, that didn’t necessarily mean that you were prepared for the way we live here, did it? 

MARIA
No, Mother, but I, I pray and I try. And I am learning. I really am.

MOTHER ABBESS
And what is the most important lesson you have learned here, my child?

MARIA
To find out what is the will of God and … to do it wholeheartedly.

The Reverend Mother stands up decisively.

MOTHER ABBESS
Maria, it seems to be the will of God that you leave us.

MARIA
Leave?! 

___________________________________________________________ 

Here we see Maria’s call to adventure, given to her by none other than her superior, Mother Abbess. In the pages that follow, we learn that Maria is tasked with the job of governess to the Von Trapp children, who are trapped in a prison of their own. They are a perfect challenge for Maria, and she uses her musical talents to first survive, and later thrive, in her new home.

THEME 

The theme of this screenplay is music and the roles it plays as it spins an unconventional tale about a girl named Maria. We learn that music serves several functions in this story. In the first Act, music will liberate, first Maria from the convent and later, the Von Trapp children from their domineering father. 

In the second Act, music will bond, first, Captain Von Trapp with his children, and then, the Captain with Maria. Finally, in the third Act, music will save the Von Trapp family as they win top honors at the Salzburg Festival, buying them enough time to slip away and avoid capture.

In conclusion, the screenplay for The Sound of Music expertly delivers the 5 major rules for a screenplay into the first 10 pages. The character introduction of Maria is one of the best in Hollywood history.

Written by Anthony Faust

Source: Script Lab

By | 2017-04-17T15:25:22+00:00 April 11th, 2017|Categories: main|Tags: |