Hello everyone, and thanks for stopping by the QCS blog! This is going to be the first in a weekly, ongoing series about how to write a marketable screenplay. Does reading this guarantee that you're going to sell your screenplay? No, of course not - anyone who says that they can guarantee that outcome is a flat out liar, and don't be afraid to call them out as such. That being said, here are some things to think about as you begin your screenwriting journey.
Chapter 1: Character as a Cornerstone
When I was in film school, I had a feature screenplay writing professor (who was also the only faculty member in the program who’d had a professionally produced credit, at the time, and was easily the best professor there) who always used to get on us about the importance of character and how, in fact, it was the most important thing for a screenwriter to get a grasp of. He’d always say “If your characters are good enough, you’ll follow them through anything,” and although I’ve long since graduated from the program, those words always stick with me when I’m working on a script – character above all else, even, and including, the plot.
If you want proof of this, take a look at some of the biggest comedies of the last few years – 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad – these are not byzantine, Agatha Christie esque labyrinths of plot. What they do have in their favor, however, is characters that are highly likeable and relatable. As a result, a funny thing happens to us as we watch these movies – we begin to actually start giving a damn about what happens to them. If you can make an audience care about what happens to the people you’ve put on the page, you’ve already won way more than half the battle at that point in time.
“But what if I’m not good at writing likeable people?” you might find yourself saying right now – don’t worry, as you happen to be in luck. You see, we’re now, probably more than ever, in fact, living in the age of the antihero. Remember, one of the biggest television heroes of the last television decade – you might have heard of him – was a dying chemistry teacher who became the biggest meth kingpin in New Mexico’s history.
Hint 1: What Does Your Character Give a Damn About?
Like I just got through saying, your character does not necessarily have to be likeable to have a commercially viable screenplay, but he does have to be relatable (beginning writers get these things confused often – one means that you’d actually want to spend time with a character, the other simply means that you can understand their motivations.) And how do we go about making a character relatable? It’s incredibly simple – we make him (or her) want something, and want it badly, to the point that they would go through heaven and hell to achieve this goal. By doing this, we’re better able to put ourselves in this person’s shoes – everyone wants something at every stage in their lives. When you’re an infant, you want your parents to care for you and feed you, and when you’re an adult, well, you want a good job, a nice home, and so on and so forth. Wanting things is part of the human experience, and it’s where great characters begin.
We’ll go back to Breaking Bad as an example – Walter wants to leave his family some money when he dies so that they won’t be destitute, but he is currently working two jobs and is barely getting by, not to mention that he has a daughter on the way. The man doesn’t just stumble into selling meth – he does so because he has a goal he wants to obtain, and nothing, not even the law, is going to stop him from doing so.
If you’re having trouble with this part, make a list of a handful of personal goals that you would like to accomplish, and then think about how you would go about accomplishing them if you didn’t have anything (and I mean anything) standing in your way of doing so. You might be surprised at what you find about screenwriting – and yourself – in the process.
Come back next Friday to read the next installment in the series!