HowTo: Pick the Right Screenplay – Part 2

The Right Screenplay has only two characters

Only two (2) Characters!? What the hell does that mean?  ScreenPens, are you crazy? OK maybe I took some creative license with the subheading but it’s essentially correct. While we’ve all seen films that have “A cast of thousands”  like SPARTACUS, INDEPENDENCE DAY and 10,000 BC, the fact of the matter is any great film is about just two characters.

Here’s why…


When sifting through the hundreds or maybe thousands of scripts you’ll have at your disposal to make, you must choose the one that can be translated and produced into the clearest and most impactful story. This issue is particularly critical to the Indie Filmmaker.

Although wide-ranging, global tent pole films may have a host of characters, all of these roles need to be acting in service of the two main characters; The Protagonist and the Antagonist. While this may seem obvious, something you have heard a thousand times in film school, the fact of the matter is, most scripts are written way too complicated.

In my time script-doctoring, reading and providing notes on hundreds of screenplays, I find the most common mistake is that there are just too many characters. Feature films, because of their natural restrictions (average of 80-120 minutes) mean the filmmaker simply does not have the time and the attention span of the audience to go into complicated multi plot arcs.

Film is a different medium from other forms of expression. Novels, Comic Books, Episodic TV or series have unlimited time and space to roll out multiple characters and storylines. In film we do not have that luxury. While the film can be complex (meaning it presents multiple perspectives of the main characters ie 3 dimensional) it should never be complicated (two or more competing storylines). The audience has come to the theater, paid their hard-earned bucks, to see a simple story – told well. 

Whether the story is STAR WARS or MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, the focus of all great film scripts is, when you boil it down, about two characters in conflict. Every other character is present only to serve their mutual storyline. All other characters if they be people, natural phenomena or locations, act as either “enemies” or “allies” to the principal conflict. (and YES, natural phenomena, like the tornado in TWISTER and “space” in APOLLO 13,  and the “fire” in BACKDRAFT are best thought of as living, breathing characters in your film – more about this later).

Amateur (and many highly paid “professional) writers  often start with a brilliant idea, then immediately begin writing the script. They imagine that they can just sit down at the keyboard and begin hacking away as the story flows out of their minds and onto the blank page. But human beings don’t think in an orderly and straight forward manner.  Past, present, future all come into our consciousness of their own accord. Characters enter our minds (and scripts) as we walk down the street, sometimes never to be seen again. In short we all think non-linearly.

While this is great for day-to-day interactions, it is total death in a film script. Even the great films like PULP FICTION and MEMENTO, that are often cited as being “Non Linear” story lines, are in fact very linear in that, if they were shot and edited in ANY OTHER WAY, the end result would be a very different story on-screen.  In PULP FICTION we have several individual stories (each with its own protagonist), that are tied together building against a common antagonist (that being “fate”). In MEMEMTO we have a single story about one man’s battle with a powerfully disabling mental state. In each case, the story is simple.

 Back in the day, when film was young, we many times have a “hero”  (protagonist) who was thwarted by a “villain”  (antagonist) in a simple state of conflict. The Hero wanted to attain some goal (money, a mate, balance, revenge etc.) and the The villain existed solely to muck things up. Today storylines and audiences have become more sophisticated. The  best Hero/Villain conflicts are more realistic and that makes them more satisfying for everyone.  We have a Hero (protagonist) in conflict with a Villain (antagonist) over the SAME goal. They differ, however,  in the MANNER in which they pursue that goal.

While the Hero pursues the goal in the “right” way. The villain pursues the same goal, in the “wrong” or anti-social way. Two characters, in conflict for the SAME goal, each pursuing an opposing method of success. This creates a story where the Hero isn’t always “the good guy” and the villain isn’t always “the bad guy”. This makes for interesting COMPLEX characters (which we crave) in conflict within a simple, uncomplicated story.

Review the scripts your are considering to make. The acid test is the LOGLINE which lays out, in 30 words or less, the SIMPLE STORY.  The formula is a) Who is the Protagonist? b)  Who (or what) is the Antagonist? c) What are they in conflict over? and d) What is at stake? 

If the logline you’re presented with (or the one you derive yourself) can not be boiled down to this simple form, then chances are you either have a poorly written script or one that may be better suited to some other form of expression.  Find another script, or rewrite the script to fit the clear logline.  And remember the best scripts are about  only two complex characters in a simple story.

Next Up; Part 3) Loglines, High Concepts, Themes and Premise – What the hell’s the difference and why are they all vital to the right screenplay?


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