My Process (2 of 3) Characters & Outline

Can I start writing the script yet? Oh, heavens… No.

In part one of this little story of my method I mentioned that my notes would start to form the story in broad strokes. The next step for me is then to beef things up into an outline while refining the details.

At this point there’s really no creative writing going on, per se. This was a big mental hurtle for me to overcome. When I used to write long or short form fiction I just kind of dove in. I guess I even did so in early screenwriting for my animated shorts. It was a little counter intuitive for me to treat a story as clinically as I do now. It’s truly the opposite of spontaneity and for a while it felt to me as the anathema to poetry. But I think that was really just me being lazy. Not seeing that there’s enormous creativity to be had in properly structuring things from the outset. It’s the creative process slowed down.

So the outline: A new text doc on the computer and it’s broken down into short paragraphs. Each paragraph starts with a location slug (INT./EXT. etc) and a short summary of each scene. This is no different than the old school cue card method or the new school old school cue card feature you’ll find in Final Draft. I like the simple text doc method because it’s easy on the forests and I can expand upon the paragraphs/scenes indefinitely.

But wait! There’s something slowing me down. The loose story is there but it’s hard to figure out how all the parts fit together; how to flesh out the details. Why? Because I don’t know who I’m writing about yet.

Who are my characters? For me the outlining process overlaps with my process for creating the characters.

This is where some psychology 101 classes can be really helpful. In the opinion of this humble writerly type guy, writing is all about psychology. Be it tapping into the psychology of the reader (or viewer) or the psychology of one character towards another. We’re really only concerned with the latter at this point:

For this reason, I write a detailed background for each principal character. A biography. I start with childhood and work my way right up to the point where my story begins. I include essential elements that would have impacted this character’s personality: Family life, social circle, upbringing, interests, etc. I usually include some anecdotes too. Experiences that this character has lived through that may mirror some of the experiences they will face in the actual story. The details of these biographies will never make it into the script. They are purely a way for me to design the character. They are a reference guide for later. They help me figure out what motivates the character and can even help me figure out details about their speech patterns when it comes time to write dialogue.

When I was getting set to shoot Refrain I actually found another use for these character profiles. I shared them with the actors. I wanted to give them background on their characters to help them find the motivation behind what was in the script.

So! With my character profiles written I can now plug away further on the outline. These two elements usually give and take from each other. Sometimes the outline may call for a character to an action to move the plot forward but maybe I haven’t crafted the motivation for that action into that character’s psyche profile - no problem, I can just modify that profile to make it fit. The important thing for me is to have a sound psychology for each character and a sound storyline.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of books on storytelling. Character arcs, plot points, the hero’s journey, all that stuff. My point here isn’t to go over all of that - it’s simply to describe my process of writing a screenplay. The glib version of everything you’re going to find in those books is this: You’ve got a character, she’s doing her thing, living her life, when something happens. It’s a conflict with her enjoyable day to day life. She is faced with handling this something. It looks like she may be able to cope when things suddenly get worse. Holy shit, she’s in trouble now and things just keep going downhill… Oh no, how is she ever going to get out of this situation? But then, she digs deep, finds something inside her that she didn’t know she had and triumphs. She is changed forever. Screen black.

You can also learn this secret to storytelling by watching any movie that makes it to cinemas.

I’ve got my outline (or treatment, at this point, depending on who you’re talking to and how you’ve formatted it) as well as my (secret) character profiles. I’ve added a skeleton to my story’s heart and circulatory system. Next up: Putting meat on the bones and a let’s not forget the packaging.

4 Responses to “My Process (2 of 3) Characters & Outline”

  1. straydogstrut Says:

    While i’ve never written as profusely as yourself, i’ve been taught to approach my writing in a similar way. I’m right now finishing off my degree in Computer Games Design: Story Development. The story development side of the degree involved all the traditional Hero’s journey arcs that you’ve condensed into one paragraph above. We were also encouraged to flesh out the world of the story before diving straight into writing.

    In my first year I wrote a short story about a policewoman who gets possessed by a demon (yeah(!)). I spent a great deal of time just researching the police force (clothing, hierarchies, locations etc) before writing my outline and fleshing out my characters. For the characters, especially the main character, like you I wrote her backstory: her turbulent upbringing, her love life, her career-driven attitude. It was terribly cliché I have to admit, and it wasn’t used in my story directly, but I found that just knowing these things about my character made it easier to know how she would react when it came to writing the events of the story, and also suggested situations to me that would best bring out those elements of her character that I wanted to explore.

    I hadn’t heard of the cue card approach, although I am familiar with Final Draft, having used it in my screenwriting class, so maybe i’ve used it and didn’t realise. For the short story I used a program called Scrivener on the Mac. The good thing about it was that it allowed me to write a little synopsis for each document i’d written and then I could see them all on a virtual corkboard and drag them around, seeing how they fit together.

    My story was nowhere near as complex as your screenwriting projects, but a lot of what you’ve written is good advice for any writing discipline. We did a broad swathe of styles - from poetry to fiction to screenplays - and good research and planning is always helpful.

    Another wonderful article Tyler, i’ve been following these with interest and forwarding them to my partner who is pursuing writing as a career. Myself, I really enjoy writing, but i’m a bit lost in the woods right now with regards to what I want to do career-wise. Looking forward to part three.

    Oh and you’ll be pleased to know my copy of Refrain finally arrived. My partner and I really enjoyed it. Expect a review from me soon=)

  2. Tyler Says:

    Straydog,

    Glad you enjoyed Refrain!

    You made a good point about not only creating background for characters but also for “the world” in which the story takes place. In a “real world” drama such as Refrain, these notes were already incorporated into the character profiles but in a fantasy world such a background “bible” would be very handy. When I was working on Minushi my bible was my sketchbook and all of that background went into production design (http://ow.ly/1MBWb). Currently I have another sci-fi type of project in the works where such a background will be a vital reference.

    Thanks for bringing that up.

    T

  3. straydogstrut Says:

    You’re very welcome! I enjoyed the video you linked to: one of my favourite parts after Minushi itself was all the development extras you included on the dvd=)

    You make a really good point when you say that production design shouldn’t overtake the story. My recent reading of Donald Norman’s ‘Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) every day things’ (2004) also raises this issue. He paraphrases Jon Boorstin’s writings in ‘The Hollywood Eye: What Makes Movies Work’ (1990) at one point, discussing how the voyeuristic level (what Norman calls the reflective level) can make or break our experience of a movie.

    At the voyeuristic level, we are always observing and interpreting what we see before us, seeking explanations and delighting in “seeing the new and the wonderful.” While the voyeur is picky - “Where are they?” “How did they get there?” - it can be placated by clever storytelling and create a moving experience for the viewer. An example I read somewhere was if you see a couple chatting in a restaurant and then a bomb goes off under their table, that’s shocking. But more emotional impact would result if you saw them chatting and saw the bomb before it went off, with everyone around oblivious, that would create more tension. It’s the apprehension you feel when you know more than the character and, when it’s something bad, you almost don’t want to watch it. There were a few moments in Refrain where I found myself shouting at the t.v. in an attempt to prevent what was coming. (Or at least what I thought was coming: you did a great job of surprising me).

    Done right, this can emotionally engage the viewer, but, just as you said in your video diary, if production design takes over, the viewer will consciously notice it and be snapped out of the story. Norman cites The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) directed by the Coen brothers as an example where the cinematographer fell in love with the use of black and white images, with the result that you notice them while watching the film and are pulled out of the ‘flow’ state. I haven’t seen it myself, but his description marries well with what you covered in your video.

    I think you got the balance right in Refrain. I won’t say too much as I still want to write that review (a favourable one, promise!), but I picked up on lots of little details in the film and really enjoyed it because of that, but not to the extent that I was pulled out of the story.

    Great! I love anything sci-fi so I look forward to your next project. It seems you do an incredible amount of work, you know, I hope you find time to relax.

    Cheers,

    Daniel

  4. Tyler Says:

    Daniel,

    Not sure if the “next project” will actually be the sci-fi one that I mentioned. I’ve got a few pots on the stove but we’ll see!

    T