SPECS & THE CITY: Character Introductions and ‘Silence of the Lambs’

Brad Johnson is a screenwriter promoting the mantra “Read scripts, watch movies, and write pages.” Brad also works as a script consultant for writers of all levels to develop and grow their screenwriting toolbox. Follow Brad on Twitter @RWWFilm.

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Screenwriters have it beat into them early by all of the gurus out there to never write anything that can’t be shown on the screen. This is good advice overall but, as with everything else, the real key is getting to the point in your craft where you know when (and how) to ignore it. Your character introductions are one of those places. They’re the one of the few places in a script where the screenwriter is really allowed to show some flair and bend the normal guidelines; but with character introductions you can showcase your voice, shine a spotlight on your love of language, and really put the unique stamp that is your voice on a script.

It’s also happens to be one of the first things that a reader will look at to help them determine if your script is worth reading. If you can’t sell them on your characters, then what chance does the rest of the script have? I’ve heard of readers tossing a script because they weren’t impressed enough by the initial description for the Protagonist. Don’t let this be you.

Instead, let’s take a quick look at…

Character Introductions and ‘Silence of the Lambs’

SPECS & THE CITY: Character Introductions and 'Silence of the Lambs' by Brad Johnson | Script Magazine #scriptchat

As one of the most iconic characters in modern film history, it’s no wonder that the introduction of Hannibal Lecter is a powerful moment. But how is the moment captured on the page? How did screenwriter Ted Tally describe that first meeting between Lecter and Clarice Starling? To fully appreciate the power of that moment, you have to go back a bit earlier in the screenplay when Clarice is first given the task of going to interview Lecter with the hope that he might be able to assist in their hunt for Buffalo Bill. Clarice’s boss tell her to “be very careful with Hannibal Lecter…believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.”

With that line of dialogue, we know that Clarice will be heading into a confrontation that will be a test of her resolve and capabilities; a psychological fight with a true heavyweight. It’s setting up a very specific tone for that encounter, and the scene itself follows through on that promise.

LECTER’S CELL

is coming slowly INTO VIEW… Behind its barred front wall is a second barrier of stout nylon net… Sparse, bolted-down furniture, many soft cover books and papers. On the walls, extraordinarily detailed, skillful drawings, mostly European cityscapes, in charcoal or crayon.

HANNIBAL LECTER is lounging on his bunk, in white pajamas, reading an Italian Vogue. He turns, considers her… A face so long out of the sun, it seems almost leached – except for the glittering eyes, and the wet red mouth. He rises smoothly, crossing to stand before her; the gracious host. His voice is cultured, soft.

Lecter doesn’t even say a word, but the way he is described – and the way he moves within this moment –  reinforces everything the audience has already been told about the madman. Lecter is a man of outer sophistication masking an inner beast  within that is always searching for a weakness to exploit so he can strike. And that’s the lesson to take away. A character’s introduction, when done effectively, should reveal, not just their physical appearance (though that can be important as well), but should also illuminate their defining characteristic.

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