We write in order to be read. We compose our thoughts, create our scenarios, spin our tales to reach and touch our audience and to be understood. And when we do, we hope our writing has what Hollywood calls “legs.” Something that endures over time, that will keep on going, keep on running. In order for writing to last it needs content that reaches into timelessness, out of the confines of its temporal context.
Where is the fine line lie between ordinary and great? How can you elevate your material to reach for something greater than good? How can your work transcend the topical to achieve a universal quality? How can you write characters and situations that not only entertain a contemporary audience, but endure through time?
22. The Character Declaration
Strong characters are key to the success of any narrative, as the reader identifies with their plight, their desires, their joys, hopes, and suffering. The more developed, complex, and deep a character is, the more the reader becomes invested in that character’s life and the outcome of the story. As writers we are the pusher man for the reader, we control supply and demand. We get the reader hooked, and once hooked we tease with a controlled giving and taking, dealing in identification and fantasy, creating want and tension, and doling out relief and reward.
One of the ways to invite the reader into the character’s mind and experience quickly is what I call the “character declaration.” I make sure that my characters frequently take the time to express who they are, what they want, why what they want is important to them, and what terrible things might happen if they don’t get it. The needs and wants and stakes of a character are the hooks that pull the reader on the character’s journey. We see examples in various modes of writing.
In the television series House of Cards, Francis Underwood lays out the foundation of his character and the entire television series through his character declaration in the opening scene, as he appeals directly to the viewer:
“As for me—I’m the House Majority Whip. In other words—I get things done. When it comes to legislation I make the magic happen. I transform the impossible into the probable. But it’s time to move up a rung. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve backed the right man. And now that he’s won I’ll get my just reward. Give and take, give and take, and so the world spins.”
When he is snubbed for his rightful place in his rise up the ladder, we already know what it means to him and understand how a quest for revenge is now set into motion—a quest that will span the entire series.
In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Mrs. Bennett declares her own desires and sets up the drive and purpose of the entire book.
“If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield,” said Mrs. Bennet to her husband, “and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for.”
Mrs. Bennett declares her entire life would be complete, with nothing left for her to wish for, if her daughters are settled and married off. The story that follows revolves around all of the characters’ quests for matrimony.
The “All I ever wanted…” speech is another form of this kind of direct characterization. In screenplays there’s often at least one of these speeches. Even in real life we find this kind of character declaration that gives meaning to the totality of the character speaking.
Edward Hopper said, “Maybe I am slightly inhuman … All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.”
My own writing often requires direct characterization, since screenplays are driven by dialogue. I make sure my characters declare themselves often to elicit empathy in the reader, and to service themes and storylines.
23. The Philosophical Statement
When characters step outside the servicing of plot and take a moment to reflect on life in general and the character’s life specifically, I call it making the “philosophical statement.” Philosophical statements by your characters elevate the material from a pragmatic and dramatic narrative to something that holds greater value and endures through time. While it also serves as characterization, it satisfies the reader with recognition of self in the greater context of what it means to be human. When I write screenplays, I make sure to weave in a philosophical statement in nearly every scene, where it is appropriate, and it is almost always appropriate.
In the first season of the series True Detective, Rustin Cohle is being questioned about his potentially corrupt handling of a criminal case. In his interview he takes frequent moments to reflect on life and himself, and make “philosophical statements.” In one of the more often quoted lines from the series, Rust says, “The hubris it must take to yank a soul out of non existence, into this, meat. And to force a life into this, thresher. Yeah, so my daughter, she uh, she spared me the sin of being a father.”
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry’s constant philosophical statements not only reflect on life, but also serve the plot as his relentless influence speeds the inevitable corruption of Dorian Gray.
When characterized by Basil as having a bad influence on everyone, Dorian asks, “Have you really a very bad influence, Lord Henry? As bad as Basil says?”
Lord Henry replies, “There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.”
He goes on to reflect, “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self. Of course, they are charitable. They feed the hungry and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion—these are the two things that govern us. And yet—I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream—I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal—to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be.”
This speech by Lord Henry is, of course, the basis of Dorian’s slow unwinding. Lord Henry argues for a life without morality, a life that serves the self, which is the foundation of Dorian Gray’s undoing and the tragic consequences that ensue.
- The Snag
I’ve seen it hundreds of times when writing and editing myself. There will be a word in dialogue, in description, which I “snag” on when I read back over what I’ve written, like catching a nail’s edge on a piece of fabric. I snag, but then move on. Sometimes I stop a moment and ask myself, “Should I take out this word?” But the snag feels so harmless, that I end up leaving it. I’ll snag again, but leave it. Maybe even a third time. But I’ll figure, “Let me get some feedback. If no one has a problem with this word, then it must be fine.” Yes, it’s the lazy way. And I’ve seen it so often, that very word will be found and snagged on by a fellow reader, and I will finally take the word out, slapping myself for having not trusted my gut instinct in the first place.
If you find yourself wondering, “should I take this out or not,” I believe the answer is always yes. If you’re asking yourself, there’s usually a good reason.
All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois
Bettina Gilois is a Los Angeles based writer whose screen credits include the Bruckheimer film “Glory Road,” for which she was nominated for the Humanitas Prize, as well as “McFarland, USA” starring Kevin Costner, and the HBO movie “Bessie” starring Queen Latifah for which she received an Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Writing. Her book, “Billion Dollar Painter” for Weinstein Books, came out in 2014. She is a special contributor for the Huffington Post in Arts and Culture, and has been a professor of screenwriting at Chapman University, St. John’s College Film Institute in Santa Fe, and now Hofstra University’s Herbert Lawrence School of Communications in NY.