SCRIPT ANGEL: Creating a Story For Your Character

Hayley McKenzie is a Script Editor and founder of Script Angel, helping screenwriters elevate their craft and advance their screenwriting career. Follow her on Twitter @scriptangel1.

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Story is something that happens to someone. Even if the someone isn’t human (a toy, a lamp, a fish) we imbue it with human qualities. Whether it’s news stories or fictional ones, we are moved by bad things happening when they are personalised, when they are happening to individual people.

People fascinate me. Human behaviour – the things we do and why – is endlessly interesting, so characters and their motivations are always the starting point for me. You might, like me, start with a fantastically flawed character whose experiences, attitude and way of looking at and dealing with the world interests you. But for a story to have any power we need to give that character challenges. We need a plot that puts your character through the ringer.

whats_your_storyHow do you craft a story that will create maximum drama and conflict for your character? Of course some plot ideas will come from moments and scenarios that you’ve already observed or thought of and jotted down. See if any of these will work for this character. Take a story idea for a walk and see where it leads you. It might not in the end be the right thing for this piece but that journey and exploration of the idea might lead you to discover other scenarios that are the perfect fit.

Look around you. Scour newspaper and magazine articles for bad stuff happening to people. If you’re writing a Drama piece about a failing marriage, look at the lives of those around you and at ‘human interest stories’ in magazines. If you’re painting on a bigger canvas, look at stories making the news outside of your area/country. Stuff that’s happening in another bit of the world could happen in the world your story inhabits.

Eavesdrop in public places. People love to share their stories of the terrible things that have befallen them or their family or friends. Use what you see and hear and read to inspire stories that try to make sense of the bad things that happen.

Another way of generating plot ideas is to look inside the character. If you know your character well you’ll know how their current normal sits them in their comfort zone and allows them to ignore (rather than confront) their shortcomings. We all do it – we all try to carve out a life for ourselves that plays to our strengths rather than one which continuously forces us to confront our weaknesses. Even people who create an adventurous life for themselves are still living in their comfort zone – it’s just that their comfort zone is one that involves spontaneity, travel and new experiences.

You’ll know your character’s flaws and weaknesses. So what is their worst nightmare? Remember that what is a joy for one person is someone else’s worst nightmare. An extrovert will love a lively party while an introvert would rather have a quiet chat with one person in the kitchen. Dig deep into their flaws and the things that you know they will find challenging, then construct scenarios that force them out of their comfort zone. What if a guy with a fear of sharks was forced to battle a shark?

Most strong protagonists are, at least in part, the architects of their own trouble. Their stories are a mixture of external obstacles (a burning building) and internal obstacles (a fear of taking risks). A good protagonist isn’t perfect and will make bad decisions, usually motivated by fear. Fear of fire, giving a speech, being alone, heights, water, death of a child, letting go, having no plan, facing own mortality, trusting your instincts, trusting someone else, the macabre, banality, conformity, spontaneity.

So what are your characters’ fears and what might that make them do in order to avoid confronting them? What lengths will they go to, what will they cling onto, in order to avoid changing?

Most good stories are created by using all of these sources of material and ideas. As well as, of course, that stuff that pops into your head just as you’re falling asleep! Be sure to brainstorm lots of plot ideas so that you move past the obvious ones onto the more interesting ideas that are buried that little bit deeper. Now you’ve got lots of story ideas it’s time to start picking and choosing the very best of them and arranging them to create rising tension through your script.

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