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It Builds Character Part I: How to write a character-driven plot

December 8, 2021
4 min read time

James Bond. Sarah Connor. Luke Skywalker. These are all prime examples of characters that work well within the realm of very high-concept storytelling. You not only know these characters by name, but you know their propensities, flaws and core wounds.

It’s true that balancing conceptual stories with deeply complex characters is a challenge. Below are some tips for how to achieve that balance between character-driven stories and visually enticing high-concept plots.

Let your characters have a say

Characters are reflections (or allusions) to real people. They are flawed, marred with internal turmoil, and are deeply wounded—just like us. Before you sit down to write out the beats of your next genre screenplay, consider this: Your character has a literal voice. Write a monologue asking the character a simple question, “What would you do if you were put in this situation?” Allow the character to speak and then write out the beats of your story. 

If the beats align with the character’s voice, you’re on the right track. If the beats don’t align, you might have one of two problems. The first is that you may not know your character well enough to understand their answer. Every writer needs to spend time with their character in order to synthesize who they are with how they function in your story. Sit down with your character and draw out a profile, ask them a series of questions, or let them speak on any topic. You might be surprised to hear what they have to say.

The second potential problem may be that you’re focusing too much on what happens in your story and not on who your character is that allows or disallows things to happen. If this is the case, consider writing two versions of your story in long synopsis form. The first version focuses on the plot: the things that happen, the causality of events, the beats, and turning points. The second version focuses on character: the people in your story’s reactions or actions to things that happen, their commitment or lack thereof to the turn of events, their transformation, how their flaws affect their actions, and what their core wounds drive them to do. Reconcile the two synopses and you’ll come to have a character-balanced story.

Punctuate your story with deep character moments

Plot-driven action films like James Bond move at a quip’s pace. There’s no time to meditate on life’s doldrums when you’re in the world of Bond. However, remember the shower scene between Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale? The filmmaking team chose a mere moment to show how sensitive, balanced and caring Bond could be. His attachment to Vesper was cemented in this scene and it carried through throughout the franchise, culminating in No Time to Die.

Taking advantage of moments like these can truly help readers and viewers hook onto characters and get a great read on them. You don’t have to spend upwards of half a movie to show character. It can be as simple as going through your beats and asking, “What is my character trying to show at this moment?” Think of it from their perspective and what they’re trying to do. Ask them outright, “What are you trying to tell me in this scene?” 

Below are some additional questions you can ask them as you examine each beat:

  • What are you internally going through in this scene?
  • What are your deepest fears about this moment?
  • What are the hardest truths to accept at this moment?
  • What can make this worse?
  • How is your flaw participating at this moment?
  • Where is your core wound at this moment?

Believe it or not, action lines are your friend when you’re writing a character-led, plot-heavy script. This is because they give you the opportunity to describe a character’s semi-internal state. Recall that you (probably) shouldn’t spend too much time divulging character thoughts in a script. But you can show what characters are struggling with beat-by-beat.

Consider the following action line in Mark Lafferty’s pilot script for The Right Stuff:

INT. SHOWER ROOM - NIGHT

ON GLENN as he shaves a patch near his Adam’s apple. Wipes his face with a towel. Looks in the mirror. Seems lost. A searching gaze: What is this…? What have I become…?

Who am I?  

Shepard SLAPS his shaven cheeks with aftershave and we’re…

The script is the perfect balance of character and high concept plot moments (after all, it’s the story of the first Americans in space). Lafferty accomplishes this by fluidly going from hard action (Glenn and Shepard shaving) to the ethereal (Glenn’s thoughts as he shaves) to hard action again (Shepard slapping his cheeks, seemingly breaking Glenn’s trance). Just those few lines give us an amazing window into Glenn, foreshadow what’s to come, and cement the underlying animosity between the two pilots. It’s a prime example of economic storytelling that is character-led. Although sandwiched within hard action, it’s character-led because this moment is primarily about the two characters. 

Give your scenes a dual purpose  

Every scene is about one thing, right? Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean it only has one purpose. Actually, famed plot whisperer James Scott Bell argues that every scene should serve multiple purposes: To reveal character, move the story forward, and raise the stakes. 

Not every single beat will adhere to this suggestion, of course. However, I’d highly recommend that if you aim to write a character-balanced story of the high concept type, you’d at the very least move the story forward and reveal character with each scene. This gives each scene a dual purpose. 

How do you accomplish this?

Consider the scene in Whiplash where Andrew gets hit by a car. Andrew’s take immediately moves the story forward and reveals his character. This is because this beat is intrinsically tied to who he is, his motivation, and what’s at stake. Even though it’s technically a plot point (“Andrew gets hit by a car”), it serves a dual purpose.

Finally... 

Balancing plot-heavy stories with character nuance doesn’t have to be as challenging as it seems. With the right tools and a focus on synthesizing both elements of your story, you can absolutely write a screenplay that is both super intuitive and hyper conceptual. Rely on your powerful sense of plot and then switch to lead with your intuition and you’ll be well on your way.

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