WRITING: Characters and Little Moments

Introducing characters is hard to do really well, particularly in the pilot. A cornerstone of my belief in how to do it right is little moments.

Some writers struggle with the character vs. plot issue in pilots, demarcating some scenes as “character scenes” (the recovering-but-struggling alcoholic cop calls his ex-wife to apologise for passing out in her front yard the previous night) and others as “plot scenes” (the cops go to the crime scene and find out the victim was strangled). The truth is, good character introductions are often slipped inside of the latter, and the latter slipped inside the former. Every scene is both. A line, a subtle action, a visual can give us all of the information that two-page scene would have.

Instead of a whole scene, you can open the ‘crime scene’ scene with a couplet of dialogue:

OTHER COP: You’re ten minutes early and you smell like an outhouse. There a story here that I need to know?
AA COP: Woke up in Francine’s front yard. That’s all I remember.
OTHER COP: Francine?

AA Cop merely taps at his empty ring finger. Other Cop winces.

AA COP: Exactly. [to Medical Examiner] So, what’ve we got?

In a brief exchange, we’ve not only established the backstory-establishing event (AA Cop waking up in his exes’ back yard), we use that to introduce elements of the two leads’ relationship — they know each oither well enough to know when one is ‘off’, but not close enough to know personal details like AA Cop’s ex-wife’s name. It’s also less time spent on a guest character (AA Cop’s Ex) who isn’t needed if there’s not a solid subplot about her in the pilot. And it does all that without adding an extra scene to the proceedings.

Sometimes, just the couple of lines you spend introducing a character can tell us more than reams of dialogue. A lead who “withdraws slightly from the force of others’ voices” is very different to one who “is constantly surrounded by an emotional shield of ‘fuck you too‘”. A college-aged actor with an impeccably cleaned apartment speaks volumes in how it digresses from the stereotype.

Learn to use as few words as possible to say as much as you can, clearly and precisely, about your characters. This economy of words won’t just save you page count, but impress a reader more – and, more often than not, be a defining moment they remember more than the six pages we see them arguing with their ex-wife over custody arrangements.

Any great character introductions stick in your mind? How did they play with the above idea?

One response to “WRITING: Characters and Little Moments

  1. Pingback: WRITING: Characters and Little Moments | | The Writing WenchThe Writing Wench

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