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Chapter Six, It's All About The Story
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Chapter Six

Musing upon constellations 

If you have an affinity for the night sky, you've likely had the experience of struggling to make out the shape of a constellation you're looking for.

Oh, yeah, we can pick up the most familiar ones (The Big Dipper, Orion) quickly, but others yield their shapes only after some neck-cricking staring into the cosmos.

The fun of it, for many of us, is the satisfaction of seeing the pattern emerge from the millions of points of light up there.

It's an intriguing metaphor for story-making. In fact the two activities are connected.

They both reach back into the dim recesses of the history of the human race.
And most of the constellations have their own mythology, their own tales told by successive generations of skyward-looking humans.

Seeing the patterns

Think about building your story by "seeing" the emergence of the characters
in a pattern of their own, distinct from all the other patterns of human beings that exist. Unique, yet composed of types that are common to many other stories.

If you study movies long enough, you'll see certain typical patterns of characters
cropping up repeatedly.

As a storytelling form, the feature-length movie tends to be more structured than other forms. Specific patterns are followed more frequently than in other looser forms such as the novel, the short story, the biography, etc.

Movies as we know them have been in existence for less than a hundred years. In that time, though, they've evolved into a methodical storytelling form.

Several generations of professional screenwriters have come to learn what pleases and what displeases their audience, and they have come to structure their stories accordingly.

So the structured form of storytelling we see at the movies is the result of writers responding to the desires of the audience.

In a way, writing a movie is like writing a sonnet ? there exists an evolved convention within a writer is expected to work.

Of course the movie convention is much more complex and complicated than the simple Octet and Sextet of the sonnet with its abba-abba-etc. rhymes, but the relationship of the writer to the form has similarities, the most significant of which is that the form is both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing because the writer doesn't have to invent the wheel, and a curse because the creative process is never unfettered.

The good news is that, as in most other endeavors, knowledge and understanding is power.

In this chapter, I intend to impart what I know of the convention of the movie form in such a way that you will be able to use it to build a successful story from your screenplay ideas.

So let's do some stargazing into the galaxy of screenplay characters to find the patterns of the screenplay convention.

Not all Hollywood movies parade their constellation of characters as blatantly as American Graffiti did, but most advertising displays the two main characters, and sometimes a third character as well.



© Universal Pictures

One final comparison and I'll spare you any further extension of this metaphor.

Think of the Hero as the Pole Star ? He or she is the character around whom all the other characters revolve.

Bear in mind that, as I carry on this discussion about screenplay characters, I'm not prescribing a recipe. Rather I'm describing the nature of 90% of successful movies.

You're the writer. You can choose to work within the patterns I'm describing or not. But to make that choice intelligently, you need to know what the patterns are.

Trust me that the room for creativity and invention within the boundaries of the patterns is almost infinite, so set aside the fear that knowing and using the convention and its patterns will somehow stunt your creativity or board up your muse.


The Hero ? then what?

When you've decided on your Hero, where do you go next?

You have multiple options, but it might be useful to have some type of guide.

How many of you remember reading a story by Ray Bradbury named A Sound of Thunder?

It?s the classic sci-fi story about a time-traveler who visits a site in the ancient past, steps on a butterfly, and returns to find his own world utterly, irretrievably changed.

I can still remember the frisson that story gave me?the excitement of the idea that the fate of all things in the world rested somehow on the nature of their connection to each other.

Fast-forward a few years.

I?m now a working writer. But I?m struggling to create satisfactory connections between my Heroes and the other characters in my stories.

Why was I struggling? Because I was thinking about story and characters in a literary way, a "straight line" way?the way print goes across a page, one element after another. HERO? INCITING INCIDENT? GOAL? RISING ACTION? etc., etc.

Even worse, I just assumed that drama consisted mainly of "conflict" between two entities: Protagonist and Antagonist (Hero and Villain).

That?s okay for Literature and stage.

Not for movies.

Sometimes my scripts seemed to have rich characters, compelling themes, and surprising plot twists, but they didn?t always work, and so I struggled.

One day, after enough years of this writer?s angst, and after studying enough movies, the light dawned.

I discovered that the essential appeal of the screen story, unlike many literary forms, was not to be found in the conflict the villain created.


Of course the villain is important, but in my analysis of movies, I learned that the villain often got less screen time than another secondary character who had a lot of scenes with the Hero.

Look at these movie posters.

Two characters are prominently depicted on each poster.

Neither character is the Villain.

What does that tell you?

© MCA .. ..... ©Warner...............©Buena..............©Columbia Pictures
Universal .. . Brothers. .. .. .. .... Vista Pictures.


Certainly, this idea of the "second character" intrigued me, because I'd been giving the second largest chunk of screen time to the Antagonist.

Then I ratio..nalized that, well, this other secondary character existed because the Hero had a romantic interest, or else a Buddy.

But that didn't prove out either, because I found many movies where the character who got second most screen time was neither a lover or a buddy.

When I was preparing to lead seminars on screenplay writing, I did a deeper analysis of the character layout of successful movies.

I started by studying the role of Heroes and Antagonists in hundreds of movies, and even though I was reluctant to accept the fact at first, I discovered that the typical movie story is dominated by a personal relationship between two other characters?the Hero and what I called at the time the "second most important character."

That?s all. Just those two characters. When I first explored this principle, there wasn?t any information about screenplay writing that dealt satisfactorily with this "second most important character."

I named this character the BONDING CHARACTER. And then by studying movies further, I deduced four things about the audience?s response to the Bonding Character that truly surprised me:

Defining the Bonding Character

1. The more unlike the Hero and Bonding Character are, the better the audience likes them and gets involved in their relationship.

These examples show two popular unlike pairings:


Studio Stills



Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in Universal Pictures Erin Brockovich.

Roberts plays a young single mom struggling to make ends meet.

Her Bonding Character is Albert Finney, a modestly successful lawyer winding down his career. Not like each other at all.


Mel Gibson and
Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.

© 1998 - Warner Brothers


Gibson's a widowed, suicidal cop paired
with Glover, the conservative family man
. many lines do I have?

The second principle that emerged for me was one that stemmed from my stop-watch studies of which characters had how much screen time. This is what I concluded:

2. The audience expects the Bonding Character to have at least as much, if not more, screen time than the Villain.

This idea isn't a tablet toted down from the mountain, but if you give the Villain too much screen time, the audience could feel cheated because the Hero/Bonding Character relationship will necessarily be weakened. But amount of screen time is partly a technical issue, and easy to solve if it gets out of balance. The third principle I learned, however, is right at the core of what makes a successful screenplay:

3. The audience invests its positive emotion in the relationship between the Bonding Character and the Hero.

Quite often this relationship grows throughout the movie to become a romantic involvement, but if you study the function of Bonding Characters in many different movies, you discover that the Hero/Bonding Character relationship has a number of consistent qualities, which do not necessitate that the relationship be romantic.

In a later chapter I'll go into detail about these qualities. The important thing to understand is that an audience follows a screen story not just with eyes and ears, but with emotions.

Using the emotional attachment of the audience

The consequence of this audience interaction with that central relationship is the following fact:

To write a successful screenplay story, you need to exploit the fact that the dominant emotional attachment of an audience is to the Hero/Bonding Character Relationship.

What is the best way to do that?

You make the relationship the instrument to defeat the Villain.

In the typical movie, the Hero and the Bonding Character are forced into contact with each other. This event usually occurs somewhere during the first thirty pages.

In Ghost, for example, the Hero, Sam Wheat is murdered in the early part of the movie, and as a ghost, desperately seeks a means to contact his girlfriend, Molly.





Sam Wheat
(Patrick Swayze

Bonding Character :

Oda-Mae Brown

(Whoopi Goldberg)


He visits a medium named Oda-Mae Brown, and even though she thinks she's faking being a medium, she discovers that she can hear Sam when he speaks to her. The subsequent scene is a welcome piece of comic relief after the intense drama of the beginning.

Now we come to the fourth principle — a key component of good story making, which is dictated by the moviegoing audience:

4. As part of their involvement in the central character relationship, the audience expects the Hero to use the Bonding Character's qualities to help defeat the villain.

In the case of Ghost, the Villain is a co-worker of Sam's named Carl Bruner, and Sam determines that, by using Oda-Mae to carry out his plans, he will be able to expose Carl as the thief and murderer he is.

During a movie, the audience "tracks" the progress of the Hero/Bonding Character relationship and yearns for the Hero to "get together" with the Bonding Character in some way.

When you are writing your screenplay, you need to satisfy this audience desire. Sometimes the only way to do that is to have the Hero and Bonding character part at the end.

This is the case with such movies as Casablanca, Ghost, Witness, Minority
and many others.In Minority Report, Tom Cruise hooks up with Agatha, the precog, in order to defeat the villain, and in so doing, they rescue each other, and go on to reclaim the lives they had almost lost.

An immensely satisfying ending for the audience.





Bonding Character

(Samantha Morton)



Photo: David James





John Anderton
(Tom Cruise)

The film that I use extensively in my seminars is Witness, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis.

This movie contains one of the most unusual unlike character pairings: A hard-bitten, inner city cop bonds with an Amish widow to bring a rogue police officer to justice.

The interesting twist is that the Hero, John Book, adopts his Bonding Character's pacifism in order to finally defeat the homicidal villain.



© Paramount Pictures Corp.

Wounded, and on the run from his would-be killers, John Book takes refuge in Rachel Lapp's Amish community.

Their growing attraction to each other is one of the most skillfully written, and sensitively directed, romances in movies.

The success of this movie illustrates the effectiveness of using an extremely unlikely pairing when creating your Hero/Bonding Character relationship.

When you understand the working dynamic of the Hero/Bonding Character relationship and apply it to crafting your story, you'll be preparing a solid foundation for the creation of the other characters in your story, particularly the Opposing/Attacking Force (Villain).

The antagonist

Paradoxically, the Antagonist, or the Villain, as he or she is popularly called, seems to be a more well-understood character type than the Hero or the Bonding Character. Even so, I'll be dealing with this character later in a chapter on its own.

Most movies have Villains. Some do not.

Or, I should say, some movies don't use a Villain as a separate third character.

For years, screenwriters have been writing at least two genres that combine the persona of the Villain as part of the Bonding Character.

These two genres are:

  1. The Romantic Comedy, in which the struggle is between the Hero and the Bonding Character solely. A popular example is When Harry Met Sally, but there are numerous others, since the genre is extremely popular.

  2. The Person-in-Peril, in which the Hero's Bonding Character is a person whose purpose becomes to destroy the Hero.

    Nevertheless, the audience, while fearing that the Bonding Character/Nemesis will destroy the hero, at the same time secretly desires that the Hero will "get together" with this Bonding Character in order to destroy him or her. Three of the best examples of this genre are Sleeping With The Enemy, a taut thriller starring Julia Roberts, The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, and Marathon Man, with Dustin Hoffman.

So, when you select your genre, it usually determines whether your Antagonist is to be a separate third character or combined with the Bonding Character.

Supporting cast

You might bridle at the next notion I'm about to present, simply because on the face of it, it seems as if it will lead to formula writing and will handcuff your creativity.

Movie stories, like people, have needs.

Somewhere along the way, character types evolved that best satisfied those needs.

Within the "types" is wide scope for creating individuality and uniqueness. The concept of creating a new type can be an attractive idea for a writer. You need to know what types are available, so that the unique characters you try to create can be placed properly in relationship to the Hero, the Bonding Character, and the Antagonist.

Most of these types are self explanatory, and we'll come back to them from time to time, so here they are:

The Confidant(e) or Buddy. Often, you need to create this character just so that your Hero, Bonding Character, or Villain will have someone to talk to. This character can be of almost any personality stripe, as long as he or she is willing to listen to and "advise" the dominant character.

The Romantic Interest. Usually a stronger element in stories where there is no possibility that the Hero and Bonding Character could develop a romantic interest in each other. A good example of this principle occurs in Minority Report, in which John Anderton is obsessed with reuniting with his estranged wife (the Romantic Interest).

The writers used needed the Romantic Interest, otherwise, the audience would be yearning to see Anderton develop a closer relationship with the precog, which would have thrown the story askew.

But even if your Hero is going to end up marrying the Bonding Character in the end, the story complexity might benefit from some romantic competition (see the next category).

The Rival. Usually this character competes with the Hero or the Bonding Character for the attentions of the loved one. Sometimes the Rival competes with the Hero for a prize of some sort.

The False Friend, or Treacherous Ally. A fascinating character type. Here you build an opportunity to "create with mendacity" because this character is always hiding something. In addition you create an automatic surprise, and emotional heat when the character is unmasked. Charlotte Rampling is the False Friend in the Paul Newman picture The Verdict.

The Minion. A term generally applied to those who are allied with, or who work for, the Villain. A story sometimes needs several of these, so that the forces arrayed against the hero are formidable. In the case of Working Girl, the Melanie Griffith picture, Sigourney Weaver was enough of a nemesis all on her own, but in a picture like The Godfather, minions abound.

The Clown. This is the role that often gets played by a stand-up comic. It can be a cameo role, a meld with the Buddy role, or a featured bit that's just good entertainment by itself, but which is nevertheless woven into the plot.

The Mentor. Oftentimes your story requires that your Hero learn a skill that will help defeat the Villain, or gain the love of a desired person, so you need a mentor.

The Mento type figures big in Star Wars, and many other movies. A good example is the role of the hotel manager, played by Hector Elizondo in Pretty Woman. The Mentor can be a pivotal character in his or her effect upon the other characters. Look, for example, at the before and after of Vivian (Julia Roberts) after some couturier assistance from her Mentor.

Studio Stills Buena Vista Pictures

The Loyal Retainer. This type might also be a Confidant, but often is employed by the Hero, and acts as a contrast to the Hero to impress upon the audience the stature and heroic qualities of the hero.

The Wise Old Man or Woman. A good example of this type is of course, Yoda. But also the Oracle in The Matrix.

The purpose of this character is to give the Hero a character to seek wisdom from. Then the audience will see the subsequent actions of the Hero in the light of whether or not he has embraced this wisdom.

This character also is used as a mechanism by which suspense is generated, and believability is sustained, so the audience won't say, "How could (the Hero) possibly have known how to (do x,y,z.)"

The Wise Old Man or Woman is quite often one of the Hero's family members.

Points to remember

Think of the Hero as the Pole Star — He or she is the character around whom all the other characters revolve.

The more unlike the Hero and Bonding Character are, the better the audience likes them and gets involved in their relationship. The audience invests its positive emotion in the relationship between the Bonding Character and the Hero.

To write a successful screenplay story, you need to exploit the fact that the dominant emotional attachment of an audience is to the Hero/Bonding Character Relationship.

As part of their involvement in the central character relationship, the audience expects the Hero to use the Bonding Character's qualities to help defeat the villain.

There are two genres that combine the persona of the Villain as part of the Bonding Character: The Romantic Comedy, and The Person-In-Peril.

The genre you choose usually determines whether your Antagonist is to be a separate third character or combined with the Bonding Character.

Major character types available to choose from for supporting characters are:The Confidant or Buddy, The Romantic Interest, The Rival, The False Friend or Treacherous Ally, The Minion, The Clown, The Mentor, The Loyal Retainer, The Wise Old Man or Woman.

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