Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Character Introductions: Part 2

Think there’s nothing to introducing characters in a script? Think again!

Over the next few weeks, I’m doing a deep dive into the subject of character introductions. Why the hell would I do that? Read Part 1 for background.

Part 2: Editorializing and Narrative Voice (Continued)

In perhaps 90% of screenplay description, our job is to convey a lean, tight, but evocative sense of scene, character and action. Unlike a novel or short story, a screenwriter doesn’t have time to mess around, we get down to business with each scene and proceed through them in an expeditious manner.

However when we introduce a character, we are cut some slack. Indeed introductions are one of the rare times in a screenplay where we can write scene description in something akin to a novelistic approach. That is, we step back from the moment and comment on the character. In other words, editorialize.

We have to be discreet and judicious on this front — after all, a screenplay is not a novel. But the fact is we have this option, indeed, this right. Why? Precisely because of the need to fix the character firmly in the mind of the reader.

Consider the description of Billy Beane and his surroundings [see Part 1], how the screenwriters editorialize about his character in this introduction:

· “a dank desolate purgatory”

· “the intensity of a soul expiating sins”

· “has suspended his workout — or penance”

· “like he’s trying to sweat out impurities of deed or thought”

This isn’t so much scene description as soul description, opening up a window directly into the core of Billy Beane’s character. We can deduce from it that Beane has some troubling experiences from his past which loom like a dark shadow over him. That combined with his peculiar actions — Why does he keep shutting off the radio? Why isn’t he watching such a pivotal game in person? — leads us to believe right off the bat that Beane is a deeply conflicted individual. The screenwriters’ editorializing puts an almost theological spin on his introduction to suggest regret, even shame over whatever mysterious aspect from his past haunts him.

That is the power of editorializing: It allows us to create a specific sense, tone and feel for a character when we introduce them, and as such helps to define them in a reader’s mind.

Narrative Voice

When we editorialize, we ought not come at it from some generic perspective, but rather one tied directly to the genre of the story. This leads us into what I call Narrative Voice.

I wrote an article for Screentalk magazine: “Narrative Voice: Your Invisible Character.” Here is an excerpt:

Narrative Voice is the storytelling sensibility you bring to your screenplay through your writing style. Think of Narrative Voice as a character. Although ‘silent,’ it is present in every scene, every line, every word you write. As you develop and sharpen each ‘visible’ character in your screenplay (Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster), you also need to figure out who your Narrative Voice is, what your Narrative Voice sounds like, and how your Narrative Voice will play an active role in the telling of your story.

A nifty formula to help grasp this concept:

Narrative Voice = Genre + Style

In other words, the sensibility we bring to the writing as reflected in a script’s style must match up to the genre of the story. Moneyball is an edgy drama. That is reflected in the language the writers use in scene description. If you consult the Screentalk article, you will see my comparison of Narrative Voice in The Matrix, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Chinatown, each a different style matched up to their respective genres.

Therefore whenever we editorialize about a character — and in particular when we introduce them — it is important to be mindful of our Narrative Voice, bringing that storytelling sensibility to what we say about a character and even how we say it.

A further comparison: Contrast the style and tone of how Billy Beane is introduced in Moneyball to the way in which Butch Cassidy is brought into the story in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [written by William Goldman]:

Both movies are dramas, both movies have healthy doses of humor, but there is a difference: With Butch Cassidy, the style is more folksy and friendly, the tone lighter and funnier. That is the script’s Narrative Voice at work and it is reflected in how Goldman introduces one of the story’s Protagonists.


The typical screenplay will have multiple characters. This is a challenge for a reader who has to differentiate and assimilate the entire set of the story’s players. It is critical for a writer to use character introductions to facilitate that process by making a strong first impression. One key tool we have at our disposal is the ability to editorialize about our characters, but when we do that, we must write from the specific perspective of our story’s Narrative Voice.

Tomorrow in Part 3, we explore another key aspect to which we must pay attention when crafting introductions: Each character’s core essence.

CAVEAT: We have to remember that the world of a screenplay is primarily an externalized reality, so when we do comment in scene description on a character or moment, we ought to be judicious in doing so.


Character Introductions: Part 2 was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Character Introductions: Part 2

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