Create Your Screenplay site
has been updated May 10, 2011
All About The Story -- An E-book by Barry Pearson
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 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.
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.
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.
study movies long enough, you'll see certain typical patterns
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Hero ? then
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
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
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
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
Two characters are prominently depicted on each poster.
this idea of the "second character" intrigued me, because I'd
been giving the second largest chunk of screen time to the Antagonist.
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:
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.
Gibson's a widowed, suicidal cop
with Glover, the conservative family man.
And...how 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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
come to the fourth principle — a key component of good story
making, which is dictated by the moviegoing audience:
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.
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.
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.
the case with such movies as Casablanca,
Report, 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.
satisfying ending for the audience.
Bonding Character :
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.
twist is that the Hero, John Book, adopts his Bonding Character's
pacifism in order to finally defeat the homicidal villain.
and on the run from his would-be killers, John Book takes refuge
in Rachel Lapp's Amish community.
attraction to each other is one of the most skillfully written,
and sensitively directed, romances in movies.
of this movie illustrates the effectiveness of using an extremely
unlikely pairing when creating your Hero/Bonding Character
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, 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.
have Villains. Some do not.
Or, I should
say, some movies don't use a Villain as a separate third character.
screenwriters have been writing at least two genres that combine
the persona of the Villain as part of the Bonding Character.
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.
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,
Net, starring Sandra Bullock, and Marathon
Man, with Dustin Hoffman.
you select your genre, it usually determines whether your Antagonist
is to be a separate third character or combined with the Bonding
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.
like people, have needs.
along the way, character types evolved that best satisfied
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.
of these types are self explanatory, and we'll come back to them
from time to time, so here they are:
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
The Wise Old Man or Woman is quite often one of the Hero's family
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.