“Jerry Maguire”, “The Sixth Sense”, “Pleasantville” and many other well-written, successful screenplays share an important technique. This technique not only helps the reader and, eventually, the audience to engage in the story from the first few pages, but it helps you as a writer to write the story. It forces you to focus your story from the very beginning, something that is key to a successful spec script.
What is this magic technique? Proper character introductions.
A proper character introduction does all of the following: (1) introduces the character in crisis; (2) reveals the character’s internal conflict; (3) provides a basis for relating to or empathizing with the character – even the antagonist; and (4) demonstrates the character’s unique personality.
Character introductions are one of the few places in a screenplay where you can be very, very overt. You still need to “show, not tell”, but you can hit the points incredibly directly.
The best way to understand this is by example, so here they are:
“Jerry Maguire” (written by Cameron Crowe) – Jerry is introduced in crisis, narrating directly to us his strange dream, discussing what is wrong with his life and how he believes it can be saved. You cannot get more direct than that. After these pages, you understand his character, you know his internal conflict, what drives, and to what he aspires.
“The Sixth Sense” (written by M. Night Shayamalan) – In Malcolm’s opening scene, he expresses his worst fear, that he is really a fraud and a failure as a child psychologist, and his desire – not to be a fraud. We also hear Anna’s internal conflict, that she is second to Malcolm’s work. I prefer to introduce one character at a time, but even with these two characters introduced simultaneously, the introductions are effective. We also see both of them in crisis: an old patient has come back to kill Malcolm. We see Malcolm’s genuine desire to help.
“Pleasantville” (written by Gary Ross) – David is introduced listening to his mother argue with her boyfriend as he is engrossed in the perfect world of the T.V. show “Pleasantville”. The contrast between the real world and the TV world, and David’s reaction, reveals what David wants and what he has. His internal conflict and his desire are revealed without David even saying a word. We already know him and what he wants.
Once these clear, focused introductions are made, the writer has a compass for the balance of the story. Every scene will explore these character conflicts and, eventually, the story will resolve the character’s desire. This type of character introduction also builds immediate audience/reader engagement. From the beginning, the audience/reader wants to see these issues explored and resolved.
Not all screenplays are built this way. However, using strong, clear, overt character introductions is a strong technique with benefits throughout the writing process and one you should consider.
Enough. Now go write….