Expert screenwriting tips by working screenwriters
When you introduce a key character for the first time, it's important to give your reader a line or two description regarding them. Also on first introduction ensure that their name is in UPPERCASE. This is screenwriting 101 and is sadly ignored by some novice writers.
Many novice screenwriters struggle with character descriptions. That's because many don't spend enough time thinking about their characters - their backgrounds, desires, fears, vices, weaknesses etc. You should.
Characters are the driving force of your screenplay. If you don't understand them in-depth then how can they speak with their own unique voice, or explore their character arc. Each character should react in their own distinct way to a given situation - not simply how you, the writer, would react.
A minority of professional screenwriters don't describe their characters, they just name them - they allow them to speak through their screenplay, for us to understand them through the story. This is not the norm followed by the majority of pro-screenwriters though.
Some screenwriters only say a few descriptive words about their key characters - that can be okay but do make sure you fully understand them none-the-less.
To give you an idea of how crucial understanding their characters is to professional screenwriters, have a read of the description used by Michael Mann in Heat for Robert De Niro's character:
NEIL McCAULEY and a nurse get off. Neil carries a paper bag and wears white pants like a hospital attendant. Neil is an ice-cold professional: very big, very tough. At 42 his short black hair is graying. He spent eight years in McNeil and three in San Quentin. He got out and hit the street in 1987. Four of the McNeil years were spent in the hole. Neil's voice is street, but his language is precise like an engineer's. He's very careful and very good. Neil runs a professional crew that pulls down high line, high number scores and does it anyway the score has to be taken down: if on the prowl (a burglary), that's fine; if they have to go in strong (armed), that's fine too. And if you get in their way, that's got to be your problem. His lifestyle is obsessively functional. There's no steady woman or any encumbrance. Neil McCauley keeps it so there's nothing he couldn't walk from in 30 seconds flat.
Be warned: Michael Mann has a verbose style (Heat's 157 pages) - you want to write a lot tighter (aim for your screenplay being in the 95 to 110 page range).
If you love being verbose, save it till you're established with a lot of sales behind you. Screenwriting is not novel writing.
Dan Fogelman in Crazy, Stupid, Love uses brief descriptions. He describes the two leads with:
CAL WEAVER (42) sits by his wife, TRACY (41). A handsome couple. He'd be JFK to her Jackie O... if he gave a shit. Unfortunately, he doesn't (i.e.: white sneakers in fancy French restaurant).
In Gladiator, David Franzoni and John Logan also favor brevity:
The commanding General of the Felix Regiment, MAXIMUS, walks between two of the catapults. He is a striking and intense man in his 30's. Like all the soldiers who surround him, he is caked with mud and exhausted.
Nick Schenk in Gran Torino goes into considerable more detail with his lead:
WALT KOWALSKI stands towards the front of the church. He speaks to an older MAN in a bulky, out-of-date suit. Walt Kowalski looks young for his age. He has slate blue eyes, physically fit and has had the same buzz cut hairstyle since getting out of the military in 1953. Walt is also a perfectionist. Nothing escapes his hawklike eyes, eyes that pierce and judge.
Ditto Michael Arndt in Little Miss Sunshine:
RICHARD (45) stands at the front of a generic community college classroom -- cinderblock walls, industrial carpeting. He wears pleated khaki shorts, a golf shirt, sneakers. He moves with the stocky, stiff-legged gait of a former athlete. His peppy, upbeat demeanor just barely masks a seething sense of insecurity and frustration.
Frank Darabont in Shawshank Redemption used:
ANDY DUFRESNE, mid-20's, wire rim glasses, three-piece suit. Under normal circumstances a respectable, solid citizen; hardly dangerous, perhaps even meek.
WARDEN SAMUEL NORTON strolls forth, a colorless man in a gray suit and a church pin in his lapel. He looks like he could piss ice water. He appraises the newcomers with flinty eyes.
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