Character Building – The Tier Method

Greetings, Movie Buffs!

So one thing has finally happened for me: A few months back, I sent out a small mass email to a few contacts to get feedback on a project I’m working on. I’m talking about “Soldiers of Fortune” here. I had sent out the logline at the time with a couple questions about how intriguing it was, and how interested they’d be as John/Joan Q. Moviegoer to see it. And the response was underwhelming to say the least.

I really didn’t know what to do. I had spent weeks, even months toiling away at it, trying to make it sound the best it could.. What wound up happening was that I was too close to it. I knew the story, and I kept wanting to insert all the really cool elements from it and put them into the logline to hopefully gain attention. Unfortunately, they raised more questions that were hard as hell to explain.

So then the task at hand became to write a logline that concisely summed up the plot, while trying not to make it sound too generic. I tried. I really did. And I failed. Several times. It was a disaster.

Then, one day, as luck would have it, I stumbled across an old document on the subject of loglines; hopeful for any help, I opened it. It turned out to have been some copied content from the Write 2 Reel forums. This from the always on-point Lobo Tommy, who shared this observation about loglines:

This is the collected wisdom I’ve gathered on loglines:

With the caveat that formulaic is usually bad, the most elegant formula for creating a great logline that I’ve seen is:


Insert your script’s particulars with “extreme brevity” at the brackets.”

After re-reading this, I realized that I was out of options, so I decided to try out that formula. And by gum, it worked! Well, sort of. See, it helped put the story in a much clearer light. Once completed, I sent it to a most generous contact who’d been putting up with my persistent self for longer than most would, and I thank him for his patience every time. He liked it, except for the stakes. The stakes were not big enough.

Slightly dejected, I spent the next couple days figuring out how to heighten the stakes. And in not a whole lot of time, I figured out how to do it. I sent my contact the new logline, and I received his best response about it. I had a solid logline.

Now, it’s time to rewrite the damn thing! I know the story pretty well, considering it’s been over a year and a half since writing the first draft. There will be some slight shifts in the plot, characters, and events, but the story will be fairly close to the original one. It’ll just be told 1000x better. A ton of the knowledge of how to accomplish this comes from the Scriptshadow site. Again, if you’ve never checked it out, do so immediately.

Anyway, one of the things that was really hammered home to me on the site was that I should Know My Fucking Characters. Inside and out. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard that I should write up biographies for my characters. There was a whole section of it in Syd Fields’ “Screenplay.” I’d always thought that I knew my characters well enough, that it was unnecessary. But awhile back, I’d decided to actually put screenwriting teachers’ advice to the test.

I like the idea of actually delving into their complete history to see what all helped form them into the people they are at the start of the script. So the question I asked myself was “How much do I write? Several pages for ALL my characters? There are at least a dozen speaking parts. I work really long hours, I don’t have time for all that; I want to write my damn screenplay.

So tonight, I decided I’d force myself to think up a solution. And I think I’ve come up with one. I’m calling it the Tier Method.

In the current incarnation of the Tier Method, there are three tiers: Tier 1 is the lead characters. The ones that appear the most in your script. They’ll be the ones doing the most in your story. They’ll also have the most lines. Because these are your main characters, I would think anywhere from a 1-5 page write-up would do the job. This is a great article on building characters. It also contains a link to a fantastic character questionnaire. I’ve come up with a few of my own questions about the characters that, for me, really help get a glimpse of a character’s past.

Tier 2 is comprised of supporting characters. People that are present for a great many scenes. A couple of them might even have significance on the plot. You might consider thinking up a bit more for these characters than usual, as they are the ones that typically appear in sequels. For these people, I would say around ½ to a full page is sufficient enough for each of them.

Tier 3 is comprised of additional characters. People that show up for a scene or three. These may most likely be prime for cameos if your film gets made. For these types of characters, you may not necessarily need to figure out what state they were born in. It can be just a description of what they were doing directly before the events of your story. Side Note: These characters can easily get lost in the mix. To help them stand out, it helps if each of these characters are working towards something in their own right. By that I mean, what are they trying to achieve in their lives which are coinciding with this particular story? Generally for these characters, a couple sentences to a couple paragraphs are sufficient.

Another note: When I say write-up, I don’t mean just quickly jotting down the first five things you decide about them and call it done. Really use the aforementioned resources to get to know your characters. Get a history together for them, then decide which points are the most important ones that you’ll be showing (not telling) in your story.

For instance, if an additional character was bitten by a dog when he was a child, it wouldn’t make sense for him to just blurt it out when he’s driving down the road with some other characters. If he raises a gun at a barking dog of a friend, and the friend goes mental on him (as he should), that’s when it would be a relevant place in your story to reveal that bit of background information.

I hope this information has been helpful. As always, until next time, Movie Buffs!

Updated Logline: “Soldiers of Fortune”

As I said before, all of my notes on my various projects were in storage for the move. I just so happened to start this blog during this move. One of the first things I put on here were loglines for my projects, all annotated that they were subject to change. (Read: write them from memory and replace them with the real versions once I got them unpacked.)

New Logline:

The government’s go-to bounty hunter has just three days to retrieve the Senator who’s been taken captive by treasure hunters.

Old Logline:

The State of the Union Address is in three days and that’s all the time a bounty hunter has to retrieve a missing Senator, who has been taken captive by treasure hunters.

So how exactly is this new logline better than the old one? For starters, the use of State of the Union Address isn’t necessary because we still have the same time limit (three days). We also are being more specific about the main character: not just a bounty hunter, but the government’s go-to bounty hunter. Why would the government go to this guy? What makes him so special? Questions like that are what helps a script sell… sort of. Lastly, notice that just by tweaking a couple phrases, the new logline is a bit leaner than the old one. Leaner = always better.

Here are a couple older loglines I came up with, descending from most recent:

  • The government’s go to bounty hunter gets roped into a treasure hunt while trying to bring home a kidnapped senator.
  • After a ship falls from the sky, a Senator goes missing while investigating it; giving a government-utilized bounty hunter three days to retrieve him before the State of the Union Address.
  • A bounty hunter has three days to retrieve a missing Senator, who was taken captive by treasure hunters.
  • The State of the Union Address is in three days, and that’s all the time a bounty hunter has to retrieve a missing Senator, who has been taken captive by treasure hunters.

Can you spot what might’ve caused me to change it from a previous version?

There are three components to a good logline: 1) Main character, 2) the goal, 3) the central source of conflict. You can read more about how to craft loglines in the links below. So are all three points shown in my latest logline? Let’s take a look.

1)Main character? Yep, the government’s go-to bounty hunter. 2) The goal? Yep, three days to retrieve the missing Senator. 3) The main source of conflict? Sure thing! The Senator’s been taken captive by treasure hunters AND there are only THREE DAYS to find him. (Double Whammy there)

It may not scream “BUY THIS NOW!!” yet, but that’s the point of this blog: to show improvement in a craft where there is always something new to learn.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

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