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Character introductions like in the "Serenity" Movie

Monday 15 January 2007, by Webmaster

When commenting on Danny’s post about keeping the script lean and fast, I realised that I’ve changed the way I introduce characters in scripts. I used to do lots of descriptive stuff, but now I just keep it simple - name, rough age, gender, and *maybe* an identifying characteristic. Usually just name and age (the gender is usually obvious from the name, at least, I try to keep it that way so the reader doesn’t get mixed up). The way the character talks and behaves will give me all the description I need. The original draft (Jan 2004) of Severance that sold was much, much wordier and talkier than later drafts - nothing wrong with that, it just didn’t need as much detail. It also had big, descriptive introductions for everyone. Gordon, for example:

— - GORDON is in his late thirties, and insanely cheerful. He wears a bright yellow and black striped rugby shirt, tucked into his jeans, which are pulled up way, way too high.

He’s the sort of man who would wear an "amusing" comedy tie to the office party.

He sits as close to the front as he can get, straining at the leash and bouncing with excitement, genuinely looking thrilled to be there.
— -

Fair enough - it’s all stuff that can be implied, but a bit too much. I had similar introductions for each character. And because they all appeared at the same time, it was a whole page of description. No action, no dialogue, nothing happening. Now, in the finished film, a combination of redrafting and editing shortens his intro:- after Richard asks if anyone cares about the marketing strategy, we cut to Gordon:

— - Gordon, wearing an inflatable neck pillow and a compass, smiles and puts his hand up.

GORDON I care.
— -

Job done. You see what he looks like, he says two words, and you get an idea of who he is. He cares about the marketing strategy, genuinely cares, but probably would have said it anyway to suck up. And he has a special neck pillow, which means he’s probably got loads of special travel gear, like international plug adapters, travel Scrabble, matches, needle and thread, and so on. And a compass, which isn’t much help on a coach, when going to a lodge, but there it is, around his neck for some reason.

When I said I’d learned a lot from seeing Severance acted, shot, and edited, this is probably the best example. Now I just briefly introduce them, and try and get across a rough idea of who they are from their first line(s) of dialogue, whether it’s a line by itself, or, as in the above case, a reaction to someone else. The whole coach intro shows who everyone is - they’re supposed to be watching the marketing video, but Steve’s on the net surfing for escorts, Maggie’s working, Harris is making fun of it, Jill is appalled by the crass message, Richard is working out how to suck up to the boss, and Billy is patiently writing down his suggestions without laughing in his face. It’s shorthand, to get things up and running, but the idea is to then fill in more detail as the script progresses. And hopefully surprise people when they find out the truth behind the public exterior.

The best recent example I’ve seen is Serenity. How to quickly get across all these characters to people who’ve never seen the TV show before? Their relationships, attitudes, histories? In a beautiful sweep around the ship, we follow Mal, the cocky, charming rogue, as the ship rattles to pieces, seeing the confident, sarcastic pilot, the tough guy who wants to bring grenades, the cool, calm ("We crashing again?") fighter, the feisty engineer who keeps the ship together, the protective, principled doctor, the strange, psychic young girl. In their exchanges, we learn all the above characteristics, plus the fact that they regularly commit crimes to earn a crust, said crimes often go awry thanks to Mal’s slightly ropey plans, there have been many injuries, the ship is falling apart, River is traumatized, can see the future, and the Alliance desperately want to find her. All in a couple of minutes of fast moving banter and action. Doesn’t feel like exposition at all, but it packs a load in, seemingly effortlessly. We get a handle on them, then later things get complicated and messy, and they all reveal hidden depths, strengths and flaws. Master Whedon, again we salute you.

If you can get across a rough idea of who the person is with their first line of dialogue, or the first thing they’re doing - preferably both - then everything else they say and do just builds on that, and fleshes them out. Works for me, anyway, and saves valuable page space. If it’s not possible, then don’t waste time on long, boring descriptions - what they say and do over the course of the script will show who they are. Again, this is all stuff that works for me, it’s not a rule, just trying to shed some light on my working process. Now get off my blog and write something, you heathens.