Saturday, March 3, 2012

Exploiting The Unlikely Character

How important is it to have your writing be fresh and surprising for a contest, agent or producer?
Very important.
It immediately identifies you as a writer with TALENT. It sets you apart from all the stale scripts that came in this week and means you are "someone to watch" at minimum.
In this article, we're going to work with one way to give your story, characters, action, and dialogue a unique spin. It came from the Fresh & Edgy Screenwriting Class and is one of seven FRESH Formats.


We expect one character to say the standard line or take the standard action, but it comes from a character we'd never expect. So it is more interesting, even surprising. And the aftermath adds a new dimension to that character.

There are two simple ways to do this:
1. You have a line or action that you absolutely need, but it feels tired and cliche.
So try it with different characters saying the line or taking the action and select one that surprises us, but still fits the extreme of that character.
2. You have a character saying a cliche line and you don't really need the exact line. So brainstorm the unlikely lines for that character to say or actions for them to take.
Using either method will accomplish the same result. You'll have an unlikely character saying or doing something that will be surprising for the audience.

I'm not saying that you should take your characters out of the realm of who they are. Many times, you'll start with a line that another character should say, but with some tweaking, it will become a line that fits the "unlikely character."
Now that we've discussed the steps for this format, let me ask a quick question:
If someone is being tortured and another person doing the torturing, which would you expect to be whining?
To answer that question, let's look at the opening scene from SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.

Page 1...

OVER THIS the screams of a man under torture. The screams are coming from the curtained stage.
You Mongrel! Why do you howl when it is
I who am bitten?

NOTE: There it is! One man is being tortured, but the voice wants to know why he is howling. The voice complains about his own personal pain -- being bitten.

The theatre owner, PHILLIP HENSLOWE, is the man screaming. HENSLOWE'S boots are on fire.
He is pinioned in a chair, with his feet stuck out over the hot coals of a fire burning in a brazier.
He is being held in that position by LAMBERT, who is a thug employed by FENNYMAN, who is the
owner of the VOICE. The fourth man, FREES, is FENNYMAN'S bookkeeper.
What am I, Mr. Lambert?
Bitten, Mr. Fennyman.

NOTE: Now, we see that it is Henslowe that is being tortured, but Fennyman continues to whine about being bitten. He even enlists the assistance of his men to complain for him.
It makes for fun dialogue and an ironic scene.

How badly bitten, Mr. Frees?
Twelve pounds, one shilling and four pence,
Mr. Fennyman, including interest.
Aaagh! I can pay you!
Two weeks, three at the most, Aaaagh! For
pity's sake.

As the scene continues, there's a negotiation. Henslowe has a play...from Shakespeare...and offers a partnership. They haggle in what resembles a movie business negotiation. The writers, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard made some brilliant decisions as they wrote this opening, one of them being the selection of an unlikely character to whine.
If you are thinking this is a small thing, look again. Having the unlikely character take an important action can create a major twist or even introduce a main character in a fresh way.

Consider these movies and you'll see the value of this simple technique.
SABRINA -- The chauffeur's daughter has spent her life feeling like she was less than the wealthy people he served. After a series of failed relationships with the sons, she decides to go back to Paris. As she is packing, the chauffeur tells her how he listened to his boss make stock deals...and invested each time. "He bought, I bought. He sold, I sold."
She says "What are you telling me? That you have a million dollars." He responds "No. Four million." It is a touching moment because it changes the image of the father and the status of the daughter.

TERMINATOR -- An incompetent waitress is hunted down by two killers from the future. In the midst of the chase, it is revealed that she, a ditz who can't get a date, is the #1 target of the Terminators because of her unborn child who will lead the rebellion.

SIXTH SENSE -- Bruce Willis has one client -- A young boy who sees dead people and must come to terms with it. But Bruce has a series of problems of his own. In the end, it turns out that the most unlikely character (the boy) solves Bruce's problems by helping him recognize that he is actually dead.

USUAL SUSPECTS -- The whole movie, we've been listening to Verbal Kint beg, bargain, whine, and relate the story of the most terrifying man on Earth -- Keyser Soze. Verbal is being held in the police station and just wants to negotiate a deal. He doesn't want to go to jail and he doesn't want to face the wrath of Keyser Soze.
Who is the most unlikely character to be Keyser Soze? If you don't know the answer, I won't spoil it.


I could go on and on about times this technique has been used to create fresh writing. It happens in movies like The Godfather, Mission Impossible, Schindler's List, Casablanca, and at least 100 more. Sometimes it is used in a small way, sometimes, it is the most important twist in the movie.

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