Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tips For Tuesday - Me So Pretty

I want to talk to you today about how to write description for the characters in your screenplay.

A lot has been written about this topic, and a lot has changed regarding it over the years.  If you go back even twenty years, you’ll see description in general that looks different than what’s favored by writers today.  The same holds true with respect to character description.

My advice on this is really just an extension of my overall view with respect to modern screenwriting, which is that economy is the key.  By “economy” I mean saying the most in the fewest words.

When it comes to describing a character the first time they appear in the story, you have to think strategically.  You want to paint a picture of that character.  At the same time, you don’t want to slow the story down with multiple lines of description.  For that reason, I suggest the following approach: the more important the character, the more description you should offer.

Before I go into how you might accomplish that, let me take a moment to explain the reason for character description in the first place.  As always, you must remember that you’re writing a motion picture.  The key word there, at least for this discussion, is “picture”.  By describing your character, you're helping to create an image in the mind of the reader.  Failing to do so, is a lost opportunity.  That reader will feel like they are in the hands of a skilled writer if they’re given something to help them “see” the character.

That said, there are things you don’t want to do when offering that information.  For instance, height, weight, hair color, eye color, the size of their facial features and other specifics are the purview of the novelist.  Unless they have a specific purpose in the story, they are best not described.  One of the reasons for this is casting.  You don’t want to needlessly limit your casting choices, should be so lucky as to sell your script and have it made.

I often advise writers that character description is best when it is a combination of what the character might look like and what an actor can “play”.  As you are no doubt aware, you can’t put history or back story in description.  It can’t be seen.  However, you can accomplish the same purpose with something like “he looks like he might have dated the head cheerleader”.  That’s a combination of looks and a personality type, the latter of which an actor can “play”.

I previously advised against specifics with respect to looks.  But that doesn’t also mean that you should use generic or general terms when describing your character.  I wish I had a dollar for every script I read where the lead male character was described as “handsome” or the lead female character was called “pretty” or “beautiful”.  That’s boring.  This is where you can show your writing chops.  Find a way to make the point that the character is attractive without using the most common adjectives to do so.  For example: "she looks like the girl next door - assuming you live in a neighborhood full of supermodels".

The same goes for personality.  Rather than tell us a character is vain, you might say something like “he’s never met a reflective surface he didn’t love”.

Going back to economy, I think no more than two lines to describe your main character is the maximum. If it takes more than that, you’re over-writing and slowing down the read. As the importance of the character to the story decreases, so too should the description. A character appearing once for a specific purpose might only merit a few words. And a generic character such as a COP or WAITER requires no description at all.

Finally, don’t bother describing clothing unless it’s important to the story or the character’s personality. Leave that to wardrobe. You simply want to fix an image in the mind of your reader and at the same time show them that you are a talented writer. Making the read enjoyable for them is half the battle to getting noticed.

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