Character Building – The Tier Method

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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!


Coming to Grips With Rewriting

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For a while, I hated the thought of re-writing. Loathed it, in fact. At this point in time, my reference for re-writes came mainly from the studios bringing in new writers to eviscerate a decent script into a complete pile of shit. (“Nottingham” or “Green Lantern” anyone?)

I was young, I was stupid, I was uneducated.

I thought rewriting your own script meant a complete page-one rewrite where you change the names and genders of all your characters and reset your story in space. Or something. Like I said, I was stupid.

Some perspective is needed. When I first started writing, I thought I could write pretty well, and just needed to learn formatting. This was mainly assumed because of the scripts I was reading were all completed versions typed up nicely after the movies came out. These are a horrible example of scripts to read in one sense: these tend to have camera directions, scene numbers, and the writers may sometimes write extensive paragraphs of description.

On the flipside, these scripts can be a terrific resource when looking for how to write great character descriptions, taught action sequences, and a wide variety of descriptive verbs.

When I say I was uneducated, that is partially true. I had gone through David Trottier’s book for formatting. This became a large problem.

As I’ve stated before, when I discovered Scriptshadow, the doors to an education in Screenwriting were blown wide open. One of the earliest things I remember reading was to never, under any circumstance, have a description paragraph be longer than three lines. This was a game changer, and a bit of a wake up call.

In Trottier’s book, he said it was okay to have (If memory serves) no more than five lines of description. Then, in the next edition, he reduces that number to four lines. Thus, I began to really take issue with this so-called guru. He kept changing the rules every single edition. Add to that, his latest edition of the book still states that the dialogue blocks can be four inches wide.

In the first article I read of Carson’s, he discussed cheating the margins, and how bad it looks on the writer. Since then, I have only glanced at Trottier’s book a couple of times just to compare recent editions.

In the year I’ve frequented the site, I have read current articles as well as the first year’s worth of archives; this leads me to state the following: He is consistent as hell! There are few to no differences in what he has been saying. If he changes his mind, or shows how an exception to a previous theory can work.

And that’s a big deal to me. With Trottier, his message was “Do this this way, because that’s how it’s done!” and with Carson, his message is “Using this movie as an example, here’s an example of how you can make a straight-up exposition scene become way more interesting.” FYI, the example I just used was from his breakdown of “The Big Lebowski.”

Scriptshadow is all about constantly learning a craft and finding ways and examples of how to improve.

This is the type of education I will take over all others. The we’re-all-in-the-same-boat idea. We’re learning together. Nothing turns by brain off like the teacher who acts like a know-it-all with his paint-by-numbers lessons that say there is only one way of doing things.

With a year’s worth of education absorbed, I can look back on previous projects with a clear sense of what I did wrong.

A couple of Scriptshadow articles really made me take notice: 10 Ways I Know I’m Reading an Amateur Script and Thoughts from a Script Reader. Both of these mentioned a couple of issues readers had with a script I submitted, and I never really knew how to address them in the next pass.

The big thing was discussing the fact that there were too many characters, some of whom didn’t seen three-dimensional. That was something I never quite understood. The characters were so clear in my head, why weren’t they coming across as clear on the page?

First things first, I never wrote up biographies for my characters. It seemed like too much of a hassle, and all I wanted to do was get to the writing. What I soon learned was that by digging deep into each character’s past, you will be able to create a character with consistent actions from beginning to end. If a character’s actions are inconsistent, it just shows the reader that the story was made up on the fly, and no real effort seemed to be put in.

Here’s a bit of character perspective: A one-dimensional character is nothing more than a single character trait. You see these on bad TV dramas. The heroin addict who is only seen getting high and doing literally nothing else. (A bit part) A two-dimensional character is a person with a family, some friends, and a couple traits. Maybe they’re successful, maybe they’re funny. We may find out a little about them, but only a bit. (A guest star) A three-dimensional character is someone whose past has been fully explored, and their current traits, habits, and behaviors reflect that exploration. (A series regular)

While all three of these types of characters might (and almost certainly do) appear in an episode of “CSI,” which of the three are we most likely to respond to? The most fleshed out, of course. Save for Sara Sidle, I could imagine being friends with all of the main characters.

With this knowledge in mind, I recently came across Carson’s article on rewriting. This made a ton of sense. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. (This site tends to have a lot of those moments) Basically, you go through the draft in passes, with each new pass focusing on one character. That way, you make sure they have proper motivation, a clear voice, and they’re consistent throughout. And best of all, you’re reading a story from THEIR perspective. That way, hell, you can just look at their previously written actions and say, “There’s NO WAY Tony would ditch his girlfriend to hang out with Jimmy; he already told him he had dinner with her parents that night. This is a major plot-hole!” I’m exaggerating the situation, but you get the gist.

From now on, I see rewriting as each pass being another chance at making the original idea stronger, not rethinking the whole thing. Sure, some things may change, but who knows? It may be for the best.

Since reading the rewrite article, I’ve come up with a few ideas of my own for the types of passes that can be done to enhance the script. I won’t share them until I test them, and be sure that I’m on the right track.

This has been a terrific year of education that I couldn’t be more thankful to have gotten the chance to undertake. I look forward to continuing with this endeavor and seeing how much I’ve improved as a writer after I complete the next script.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

How and Why I Became a Scriptshadow Convert


The man, the myth, the legend.

Scriptshadow is, bar-none, one of the best sites on the craft of screenwriting I have ever seen. Period. I know in damn near every entry I mention something Carson said over there, and I would imagine that to some, it sounds like a whole lot of ass-kissing. And you’d be right. However, as I’ve stated previously, it’s not something I do blindly.

I reserve the act of admiration and ass-kissery for those who deserve it. I believe in praising the people who not only display good work, but who can also show their work. My criteria is simple: the work in question must be of some interest to me, they can state their issues that plague that work, but must also show or suggest ways to counteract those issues, and most importantly, any time they can show their work by providing one or more examples of their solutions being put to use in various situations that can be easily found and scrutinized.

These are people who prove themselves knowledgeable of a craft and can teach you something about it whilst at the same time, be able to come up with new ideas stemming from open dialogues and discussions. Besides a multitude of film directors are people such as my friend Brett who knows more than I ever will about all things audio-related, Marketing guru Martin Atkins and Carson Reeves of Scriptshadow. Every time I listen to what they have to say or they answer a question I may have, it’s like a classroom that I actually enjoy being in. I learn so much in so little time, it’s insane. Side note — many times I’ll come away thinking, “HOW could I not think of that before? It’s so obvious?!” What these people offer is a fresh and experienced pair of eyes that should never be taken for granted.

I came across Scriptshadow not long after completing the first draft of “While This Offer Lasts” when I was looking for some websites that offered script reading services. This was one such site and the Amateur Offerings looked quite interesting, so I sent an email with the requested information. The notice said to do it a couple times in order to get a better chance, so that’s what I did. I resubmitted a few times. Only by doing a site search did I find out that it actually HAD been one of the featured candidates. (He picks the five best loglines from a few thousand each week, uploads those, then his readers download them and vote for which one was the best, which he will then review publicly.) I felt a little bad for bombarding him after the fact, so if you read this, sorry, Carson. 🙂

The reception it got was less than what I was hoping for (what writer doesn’t expect people to fawn over their work?) but it was nice to get some form of actual feedback. A bit was quite helpful, (namely axing the first two pages, which was for the most part an infomercial) and one person was curious as to whether or not I had experience in the law. (I don’t) I wish I had known how to sign up for the comments service so I could respond to them, but alas. It didn’t get the majority vote, but if I had to guess the tally, I would guess I came in second. Or maybe that’s just pride talking.

Months later I went to re-read the questions for how to improve the script, and it was then that I started to explore the site. I found some solid articles and they gave me some ideas for how to improve. I would check back periodically, as I would devote most of my time to working on a couple scripts, and the quality of the knowledge gained was consistent.

After the completion of my second big script (the re-write for “While This Offer Lasts,” written in eight days, btw), I found myself back on the site, submitting the previously completed first draft of “Soldiers of Fortune.” I started scanning some articles, and one of which contained the first “Aha” moment. It was this article in which Carson was discussing how some amateur writers will cheat the page count by using a tighter leading (space between horizontal lines) and thusly make the read feel way longer.

At this point in time, I was writing scripts in the free word processor Open Office using a template of my own creation based off of measurements gotten from various books and websites. I had a trial version of Final Draft and so I copied, pasted and corrected the text from the Open Office version into Final Draft to check for myself, and sure enough, the length was off. It was consistent with Final Draft’s tightest leading (60 lines per page). I re-formatted to the Carson-recommended Regular setting, leaving the previously 113 pages at a now staggering 133 pages. Spec scripts are at most 120 pages, so yikes.

All of the plotting notes I’d used were now useless. (Syd Fields‘ Inciting Incident on page 10 was now shifted to like page 12, etc.) With this new information, all was no longer right with the world. Plots would have to be remapped and stories re-thought. It was a nightmare. Then, I started checking out OTHER articles, so I wouldn’t have to re-think everything after completing the latest draft. This was REALLY when my world started to crumble…

I started checking out his Ten Tips From… series of articles, where he will show you ten screenwriting tips you can learn from dozens of movies. This was when I really took notice of how much I truly didn’t know about screenwriting. (Like how brilliant the use of the bowling alley was in “The Big Lebowski”) The big one for me was the tip about Mini Sluglines in his article on “GoodFellas.” This was something my dad had brought up when reading the “Soldiers of Fortune” script; the Scene Headings really confused him. He wasn’t sure if the action was jumping around, or it was all taking place in the same area. This tip was the biggest factor in my trafficking of this site.

I instantly sent Carson an email telling him to take “Soldiers” OUT of the running for Amateur Offerings, since I knew I could improve it. Then, I started to dig deeper into the site’s resources. There is so much information there if you know how to look. What’s especially great is that when he reviews scripts, there’s still an example in the review or a tip at the end that will be of some use to you. Like there was one article where he reviewed “Fahrenheit 541” by Frank Darabont, and he mentions how Frank used the sounds a machine made to be more descriptive while using less space on the page. That kind of information is invaluable, and I love this site for it.

I had even started going through the site archives to make sure I knew ALL the tips I could to improve my writing. I went through every article of 2009. Needless to say, my Firefox bookmarks were stacking up. I then went through all those bookmarked articles and copied all the tips I dubbed useful into a document. Unfortunately, not long after was when my main hard drive started dying. A lot of really useful scripts, bookmarks and documents are temporarily lost. I won’t attempt a transfer, since I don’t have a large enough drive to transfer all the data to. (Purposely unemployed to delve deeper into the craft of screenwriting) So, now I have to go back and re-read them. And that’s okay, because I get to re-experience all those articles. I’m stoked!

In the past, I’ve recommended Carson’s book. I still tell anyone with any interest in screenwriting to buy it. If they’re skeptical, I point them to the site. Anything that will help out a screenwriter to improve themselves. The best part is, the site is unlike most books that say, “Do this, or else…” With the site, it’s all “Try doing it this way for this reason. And look, it worked here and here’s why.”

When I talked about people being able to site their sources for their information, this was what I was talking about. The people that are able to do this are far more likely to be taken seriously as experts of their craft.

It’s now impossible for another tips to slide by me, since I’ve now subscribed to the site and I now receive an email to the latest article. This may sound like overkill, but when a site has proven time and time again to be such a valuable resource, believe me, you don’t want to be left out.

Also, thanks to Carson’s tips from various movies, I’m now seeing them in a totally different light. Hell, it’s thanks to him I’m able to see the tips in the movies I watch, allowing me to, in turn, share them with you guys. This site is literally the class that keeps on teaching.

So thanks, Carson, for all your hard work and dedication to the craft. I learn something useful each and every time I visit. Keep it up!

Until next time, Movie Buffs!