Genre: Thriller/Sci-fi
Premise: When her husband goes missing, a woman investigates the cult who may have taken him, only to find that they’re involved in something way beyond basic brainwashing.
About: He’s baaaaaaack. The man who’s written one of my top 5 favorite scripts (The Brigands of Rattleborge) and the film with the most harrowing death scene ever (Bone Tomahawk) comes at us again with one of his many sold spec scripts – They Repair Us! In fact, Zahler has spoken openly about the fact that he’s sold or optioned 21 different screenplays, and until Bone Tomahawk, none of them had been made. Now that Zahler has a produced credit under his belt (he also directed Tomahawk), I’m sure that will begin to change. I’m also hoping that the success of The Magnificent 7 will help get Rattleborge made.
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Details: 125 pages – undated


Emily Blunt for Gail!

Yesterday (my post went up late, so check it out if you missed it), I was complaining about the lack of originality I’ve seen in the screenwriting community lately. So when I was choosing a script to read for today, I knew there was one writer I could turn to who would guarantee a unique read.

S. Craig Zahler, baby.

You see, there’s one element that, when it comes to originality, transcends concept, and that’s voice. Someone with a unique voice can take even the most mundane topic – say, living in Suburbia – and because they see that world in such a unique way, write something that feels wholly original (American Beauty, by Alan Ball).

This is why “voice-y” writers have such an advantage in this business. With everybody writing the same damn shit over and over again, the writers who can stand out in any way have a huge advantage.

Now does that mean you should write like Zahler? 10-line paragraphs on the regular? A deep description of every room, every character? Taking “slow-build” to the next level? No. This is ZAHLER’S style. You need to find your own. Whether it be a relentless millennial pace like Max Landis. A weird comedic irreverent style like Brian Duffield. Or an “each-scene-is-a-mini-movie” approach like Quentin Tarantino. Find what works for you and embrace it.

Okay, now let’s check out some Repairing, shall we?

38 year-old Gail Linder, a violinist, has been struggling lately. Her husband, Emmet, has gone missing. While this has shattered Gail’s reality, it’s not completely unexpected. Gail and Emmet recently lost a child, and Emmet’s been unable to accept it.

The police have discovered that Emmet may have turned to a shadowy cult for solace. The problem is, they don’t know anything about the cult. So when Emmet finally reappears, bald and a borderline vegetable, Gail becomes determined to find out what happened to her husband. Maybe whoever did this to him can get him back to normal.

So Gail follows the few clues that she has, eventually tracking the cult’s supposed gatekeeper, Alain Bertrand. Unfortunately, when Gail follows Bertrand to a hotel, she gets too close. Bertrand is able to turn the tables on her, and the next thing Gail knows, she’s in a strange holding room all by herself.

Since this script works best if you don’t know what happens next, I suggest you download and read the script yourself. Moving forward, there will be spoilers. So anyway, Gail is told that this is a place where they “repair” people. If you’ve lost someone close to you, or you’re a pedophile, or a murderer, they have a machine that goes into your brain on a sub-atomic level and erases the place that’s hurting you.

In Gail’s case, if they’re going to allow her back into the world, they’re going to have to erase the part of her brain that despises their “cult.” Otherwise, she will expose them. To that end, Gail will need to go through the same procedure her husband went through. And my friends? That’s where things get really fucked up in They Repair Us.

I wanted originality in a screenplay. I got it in this final act. It’s weird, it’s fun, it’s polarizing. And it was a great reminder that there are still strong screenwriters taking chances out there.

Reading today’s script was a lesson in confidence. When a writer has confidence, everything about the read changes. What is “confidence” in writing? It’s a few things. But the main one is that the writer has a plan. He knows where he’s going.

I remember yesterday, when I read that script, that the writer seemed to be making stuff up as they went along. You could see them searching on the page. “Hmm, I wonder where this will take me.” Since you could tell that she didn’t know, you weren’t convinced she would take you to the right place.

With They Repair Us, I knew Zahler always had a plan. And his confidence resulted in my confidence in him. Even when the script was taking its time through that first half, I never doubted that Zahler was taking me to a good place.

And if there’s anything I’m taking away from this script, it’s that. If you’re a slow-burn type writer, like Zahler is, YOU MUST WRITE WITH CONFIDENCE. That’s the only way we’ll stick with you. If you’re a slow-burn writer and we suspect you don’t know where you’re going with your story? Forget about it. We’ll give up on you long before we get to the good stuff, assuming there is any good stuff.

They Repair Us is also the PERFECT EXAMPLE of the mid-point twist. Remember that a mid-point twist is something you add near the midpoint so that the second half of the script feels different from the first half. Otherwise, you have one entire script that feels exactly the same.

In They Repair Us, literally RIGHT AT THE MIDPOINT, Gail wakes up in the underground facility where the “repairing” takes place. This ensures that the second half (escape the facility) is different from the first half (find the cult). I thought that was really clever.

Another choice I liked about that second half was adding a fun character. Sometimes what happens when you’re writing a deep and dark screenplay is that every choice you make is also deep and dark. There’s no contrast. And when there’s no contrast, things become too predictable, too monotone. Zahler introduces a doctor, Doctor Howard, who’s fun and jokes around a lot, and who therefore added some much needed contrast to the situation, some levity. It broke up the monotony and kept things fresh.

The only thing I didn’t like about They Repair Us was some of the third act technobabble. In my experience, readers/audiences don’t like to know the micro-details of what’s happening. It’s similar to the blowback George Lucas got when he added midichlorians to the Star Wars lexicon. We don’t need to know exactly how this brain-scanning thing works on a micro-level. We’re always going to be more interested in the drama of the situation.

It’s nice to read some good thinking man’s sci-fi again. If Arrival does well, someone should come and give They Repair Us a shot. It doesn’t have quite the hook that Arrival does. But there’s a good story here, it wouldn’t be expensive to make, and there’s nothing else out there like it.

They Repair Us should be easy to find on the internet. Check it out if you have the time!

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If you don’t have a unique voice as a writer, you must work hard to create ORIGINAL CONCEPTS. Because if you write something that’s unoriginal AND you sound just like every other writer out there? Forget about it. Your scripts will never stand out.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: An astronaut in 1969 tries an experimental aircraft that accidentally sends him 50 years into the future.
About: This script finished with 10 votes on the 2014 Black List. The writer, Kimberly Barrante, graduated from the NYU Tisch School of Arts. According to an interview, this is the first script Barrante wrote, and one she started while at NYU.
Writer: Kimberly Barrante
Details: 111 pages

Screen Shot 2016-10-25 at 7.10.22 PM

One of the things I’ve been struggling a lot with lately is originality. I’m reading the same shit over and over again, from concepts to execution, and, in most cases, am so far ahead of the script, I might as well skip to the last five pages.

This led to me asking the question: How do you find originality in a world with 100 years of cinema history and 400 tv shows? Do you just give up? Accept there’s nothing new to say and copy your favorite writers?

Then last night I turned on Black Mirror, the unexpected British hit on Netflix, which spurned Netflix to produce another season, recruiting top level talent from the acting and directing worlds (Bryce Dallas Howard and Joe Wright take on the first episode of Season 3).

The show is about modern technology’s effect on society – and it was from this synopsis that I realized: BAM. That’s where you find originality, in the ways our world is changing, in the new developments, whether they be technological or sociological or psychological, stemming from the way our world evolves.

Of course, there’s a caveat to that. You are now competing in a brainspace occupied by a LOT more people. For example, if you wanted to write a movie about the effect of Instagram on the populace, you’d be competing with the 50 million people who use the app and 50 million others who have heard of it.

In that sense, it’s a double-edged sword. You’ve been given some originality real estate, yet everyone on the planet already owns a piece of it.

The connective tissue between this and Celeritas is that writer Kimberly Barrante has somehow managed to find originality in a world where it doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve never seen a story told quite like this. But as we’ve pointed out here before on Scriptshadow – coming up with something original is one thing. Making it good is another. Let’s see if Celeritas is good.

It’s 1969 and Paul Hawkins is an ace astronaut about to get the opportunity of a lifetime. He’s been chosen for a top secret project called “Janus,” which will put him in an experimental aircraft that will attempt to break the speed of light.

Meanwhile, in 2020, NASA has just recovered a ship called “Janus” that has landed in the ocean. This is, of course, the same ship, which would imply the project was a success. However, NASA seems confused by the arrival of Paul, believing that his ship had blown up during take-off back in 1969.

Speaking of 1969, we repeatedly jump back to it where an entirely different story plays out. Paul has a twin brother, Norman, and both are in love with the same girl, Maggie. While Paul was always considered the Golden Child, Norman was more the workhorse of the family, the guy who gets all the shit done that nobody wants to do.

We keep cutting back and forth between the past and the future, eventually meeting Old Norman and Old Maggie, who are now married, as they attempt to break Paul out of NASA. Will NASA take Paul out? Or will this rag-tag group somehow escape? And if they do, how does Paul live in this new unfamiliar world?

Celeritas feels to me like a concept in search of a story. We have this pilot who jumps forward in time (the concept), yet the story doesn’t want to focus on that. It would rather focus on 1969 and the more mundane story of this twins love triangle.

It’d be like if you wrote Jurassic Park, but instead of focusing on a group of people getting stuck in a park with killer dinosaurs trying to chase them, we instead focused on a young man who was trying to be the first in his family to graduate college.

We have fucking dinosaurs man! But instead we’ve got our eyes on a Diplomasaurus.

Celeritas is also lacking major GSU. Now I’m aware I have a bias towards GSU. And I recognize it’s not the only way to tell a story. But when a script seems to openly avoid using any story-enhancer, I get frustrated.

Because without a goal, what are we looking forward to here? What’s the end game? What are these people trying to do? Even when they break Paul out of NASA, which is around page 75, there isn’t a plan to it. It’s kind of like, “Okay, let’s just go somewhere where NASA isn’t.”

The great thing about a goal is it gives your story purpose. The reader understands what needs to happen for the characters to complete the journey. And the added benefit with a goal is that you can now add STAKES, you can now add URGENCY, two things that turbo-ize a story.

Take the upcoming alien arrival flick, Arrival. That script could’ve been very similar to this one. Aliens are coming. But instead of focusing on them, you focus more on the psychological effects of people in a post-aliens world. There’s no point. It’s more of a character exploration.

But instead, Arrival gives us a clear goal – figure out the alien language so we can communicate with them. They then add stakes. Other countries are also talking to the aliens. Whoever breaks the language barrier first will receive alien tech that could alter the balance of the world. That naturally lends itself to urgency. It’s imperative that they beat out these other nations.

A lot of newbie writers make this mistake. They attempt to write character-driven fare, but do so at such an expense to story, that there’s no meat to the script. Sure, we’re kind of interested in how Paul lost Maggie to Norman back in 1969. But since the cool conceptual stuff is so passively developed, it’s hard to care that much.

There’s a brief moment in Celeritas where the honchos at NASA imply that Paul may be connected to the Soviets somehow. That there’s more going on here than meets the eye. I was like FINALLY! We’re exploring this cool concept! But that thread is dropped as soon as it’s raised, and we’re stuck again with more hang-dog looks between Paul and Norman as they reconcile Maggie choosing between them.

I give Barrante major props for trying something different here. And as I mentioned before, this script reads unlike other scripts out there. But creating something different is just the beginning. You need to embed a compelling story along with it, preferably one with those storytelling tenets (GSU) that can take an average tale and turn it into a kick-ass one.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Be careful about running away from your idea. If you have a cool idea, it probably shouldn’t be the B-story. Doing so will definitely make your script more original. But unless you create a hell of an A-story, you’re going to have the reader wondering why you aren’t focusing on the coolest part of your premise.

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A CIA drone coordinator battles his sanity while trying to figure out if his wife has been replaced by someone else.
About: Canadian Christopher MacBride broke onto the scene with his film, The Conspiracy, about a documentary crew who stumbles upon a secret society. Since then, he’s been pitching projects all over Hollywood. In addition to this one, he’s got a project called Amnesia, which asks, “What if the human race was rebooted because the entire planet was struck with collective amnesia?” Gotta give it to MacBride. He steers clear of low-concepts! Echo made the top half of the 2014 Black List.
Writer: Christopher MacBride
Details: 119 pages – 2nd draft


McAvoy for Bob??

If you asked me what is the ideal genre for the screenplay format, I wouldn’t hesitate. Thriller a hundred times over. A Thriller rarely requires a ton of description, so the prose stays lean. Screenplays like stories that move quickly, and Thrillers move faster than anything else. And for whatever reason, Thrillers fit inside the 110 page package better than other genres. Comedy works well, too. But Thriller has it beat because the genre is so damn movie-friendly.

Then what’s the least ideal genre for the format? I’d say period pieces. More specifically, anything that moves us through multiple passages of time. Screenplays are at their best when we’re moving in one continuous timeline, and when that timeline is urgent. Period pieces are more about taking your time. Many work hard to build up momentum, only to break it with a 5-10 year time-jump forward, forcing us to build up momentum all over again.

Does that mean you should only write Thrillers and never Period Pieces? Of course not. But it’s important to know the odds before you get started. That way you can make an informed decision. You may believe that your 80 year exploration of the North Pacific logging industry is so fucking good that it’s worth the issues you’ll encounter when writing a Period Piece.

The one major drawback to Thrillers, however, is their tendency to be one-dimensional. Call it the “Taken Syndrome.” Does Echo fall victim to this weakness? Or does it discover a way to excel within the template?

Bob Neven doesn’t know how it happened. But the woman he sleeps next to every night, his wife, Anna, isn’t the same woman he met. And no, he doesn’t mean she’s changed over the course of their relationship. Bob believes that Anna is physically not his wife. Someone, or something, has replaced her.

If that’s true and “Fake Anna” exists, she chose the wrong man to try and fake out. You see, Bob works for the CIA. His specific skill-set involves deciphering details and mannerisms of human beings to determine if they’re dangerous.

So Bob will watch hundreds of hours of drone footage of potential terrorists to determine if the U.S. should blow them to smithereens with one of them fancy drones we like to strike ISIS with.

This talent is how Bob’s so certain his wife isn’t really his wife. All her mannerisms have changed. She acts suspicious whenever they’re together. Even her eyes seem to have been replaced by empty voids.

But as our story unfolds, we learn that Bob was in a major car crash a couple of years ago, and this happens to coincide with when he became convinced Anna wasn’t Anna. Could it be that Bob suffered a debilitating brain injury and THAT’S the reason he thinks Anna isn’t herself?

When Bob discovers a boatload of evidence that that’s the case, he walks back his theory. For the first time in a couple of years, Anna starts acting like Anna again, and Bob is ready to admit he fucked up. But there’s always something in the back of Bob’s mind telling him that it doesn’t add up. That if he can just catch Anna at the right moment, he’ll prove what he’s known all along. That she’s an imposter.

One of the easiest ways to find a good movie concept is to genre-switch an idea. So take an idea that worked in one genre and switch it over to another. Cast Away – a drama about a man who’s stranded on an island alone – becomes The Martian – a sci-fi flick about a man who’s stranded on a planet alone. Three Days of the Condor, a conspiracy thriller, becomes Captain America 2 – a superhero film.

Where you’re going to find the most bang for your buck in genre-switching, though, is with comedy – either going into or coming out of it. So in the case of Echo, our writer basically took the premise of True Lies – a comedy about a CIA agent who used his unique skills to track his wife, and asked, “What if we made a thriller out of the same concept?” What if a CIA agent’s wife really was dangerous, and he was forced to use his unique skills to figure out her end game?

Sounds like a cool idea to me!

And right from the get-go, things looked good. As you know, one of the critical things every screenplay must do is pull the reader in immediately. Now I’m of the belief that if you have to choose between an action scene or a mystery scene to achieve this, you go with mystery.

For example, if you open your script in the middle of a car chase, yeah, I’m going to pay attention for at least a few more pages. But if you jack into my brain with a cool mystery, you’ve got me for at least the first act. And here we’re presented with a pretty sizzling question. After establishing this married couple, we see the husband go to a shack in his back yard, where he’s got a full-blown multiple-monitor surveillance project built around watching his wife.

Uh, yeah, I’m sticking around to see what comes next.

But now Echo enters into the Mystery Thriller trouble zone. Does it merely ask questions, refusing to reward its reader for all his hard work? Or does it answer those question then introduce new more complex questions that surprise us and keep us curious? You want to do the latter. And while Echo gives us some of that, it doesn’t give us enough.

I liked, for example, the introduction of Bob’s brain injury, and how that led to Bob realizing he was wrong. His sickness had concocted a false reality. This happened near the midpoint of the script and it’s a direction I didn’t expect MacBride to take. But then, Bob starts discovering hidden cameras in his house that he knows he didn’t install. And so we’re back on again. Now we have proof that something nefarious is going on. However, we still don’t know what that is. So the mystery is alive and well.

Overall, though, the ratio of questions to answers was too lopsided, and that’s when the script started to lose its magic. For example, there’s this whole mystery back at CIA headquarters about this magical place in a desert they’ve been surveying where cars just disappear. It was kind of cool. But because it wasn’t made clear what the stakes were with these disappearing cars, the mystery felt empty, the kind of crutch plotline a writer introduces when they know their script isn’t delivering the goods. Hey, I’m not mad at ya. We’ve all done it!

With that said, I loved MacBride’s commitment to the concept. And the final act does get pretty damn trippy. There’s enough here to keep the average reader entertained, and that’s enough to recommend the script.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I loved how MacBride used Bob’s therapist to guide the exposition needed to explain our complicated setup. I’ve seen this used before and it’s quite effective. If you have a hero with an issue (in this case, a conspiracy theory) and need to convey that issue to the audience, you can do it with voice over, which always feels forced, you can do with a friend he confides in, which feels like an exposition dump, or you can layer in therapy sessions where a therapist organically asks our hero to explain his theory. “Why do you think your wife isn’t real?” Your hero gets to expose his thoughts in a manner that seems entirely natural. And when done well, it operates invisibly.



The Scriptshadow Tournament pits 40 amateur screenplays against each other that you, the readers of the site, will vote on. Ultimately YOU will decide the winner. Today we have the seventh group of entries. You can see who won Week One here, who won Week Two here, who won Week Three here, who won Week Four here, who won Week Five. And finally, who came out on top last week.

Read as much as you can from each of the entries and vote for the week’s winner in the comments section. Although it’s not required, your vote will carry more weight if you explain why you chose the script (doesn’t have to be elaborate, just has to be convincing). I say “carry more weight” because a vote for a script without any explanation from an unknown voter may be seen as fake and not count towards the tally. I will announce the winner of this week here, in this post, on Sunday, 10pm Pacific time. That script will then go into the quarterfinals. Good luck.

Title: Thrills, Kills and Scotch
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Dark Comedy
Logline: When a figure from his past is hired at his prestige magazine, a creative director reignites a destructive rivalry that threatens both their sanities.
Writer: Mayhem Jones

Title: Seeing Red
Genre: Drama/Action
Logline: A group of docile 1950’s housewives are forced to fight for survival when the men in their town start inexplicably turning into monsters.
Writer: Joseph Scalise

Title: Odysseus and His Boy
Genre: Period
Logline: With only one night to act, two rival soldiers must sneak behind enemy lines to complete a last-ditch suicide mission that will finally put an end to a decade-long conflict.
Writer: Steffan DelPiano

Title: The Fuck-Ups
Genre: Action/Buddy Comedy
Logline: An irascible, homeless vet reluctantly teams up with a young, gung-ho soldier to recover a closely guarded secret in the modern day jungles of Vietnam.
Writers: Wally White & Marc McTizic

Title: The Boom Town Beast
Genre: Gothic Horror/Thriller
Logline: On the eve of World War I, a misanthropic drifter must catch a bloodthirsty beast to save an industrial town and its people. But when a shocking truth emerges, it threatens to unleash the beast in everyone.
Writers: Patrick Buckley & Joseph Ackroyd

WINNER OF WEEK 7: “Thrills, Kills, and Scotch” by Mayhem Jones. Tremendous job, Mayhem. I haven’t read the script but the one thing I know about Mayhem is that she’s got voice to spare. When the competition is even, otherwise, an original voice will help elevate you above the pack. Something to keep in mind for all aspiring screenwriters. Thanks again to Scott for his tireless work on the voting. Reading through the mini-quotes is quickly becoming one of my favorite parts of this process. Next week is the last week of the first round (then we get Wild Card Week). Seeya then!


A long-time Scriptshadow reader e-mailed me yesterday with this question: “Carson, something I’ve been thinking about but want your insight. What do you think is the skill in the screenwriting profession in which demand is higher than supply? I know in general that it’s a buyers market but there have to be certain skills that provide the most value to a producer, studio, actor etc. Just want to know what you think that is.”

I wrote my reply within five seconds of reading the question. This is what I said: “Character! Character character character. Creating characters that audiences care about, that move audiences, that feel like real people. It’s the one area that only a few screenwriters truly know how to do. Master character and Hollywood will throw millions at you.”

The truth is, Hollywood thinks they’ve got the concept thing nailed down. Every executive in every office in ever major studio believes they have a dozen kick-ass movie ideas. These executives also each know a dozen screenwriters who can adapt their idea into a structurally solid screenplay.

But you want to know what they can’t do? What they don’t have a recipe for? CHARACTER. They’ve seen it time and time again. They come up with a concept. They get a writer to write a fully-functional perfectly-structured screenplay. And yet when they send it to their bosses and their peers, the reaction is, “Ehhh.” Or “It was all right I guess.” Or “Not bad.”

What happened? Why the apathy?

The apathy is because there was nobody in the story who made you care. Made you care about them, made you care about what they were doing. The characters were empty vessels – plot pieces constructed to move the story forward and nothing else.

The reason you can do so many things right and still come up with a lame screenplay is because you haven’t constructed characters THAT MAKE US FUCKING FEEL ANYTHING! If we’re not FEELING SOME KIND OF EMOTION while your characters move through the story, you don’t have a script.

Let’s make that clear. If you’re not eliciting emotion through your characters, nobody will care about your script. This is the million dollar secret sauce that will make you a professional screenwriter.

Make us fall in love with and care about your characters like real people and I PROMISE YOU you will be living in the Hollywood Hills. Because VERY FEW SCREENWRITERS can achieve this. In fact, I’d say there are maybe 20 in all of Hollywood who can build characters and make you care about those characters on a consistent basis.

So how do you achieve this? It’s not easy. Part of creating great characters is this innate ability to turn thin air into a living breathing individual – to create someone with depth and specificity who’s original and compelling. And some writers are better at that than others. But there are some things everybody can do to tip the character-creation scales in their favor. Let’s take a look at them.

Authenticity – This is the #1 thing you have to get right. If we don’t believe the character really exists, then none of the other things I list below will matter. So how do you create an authentic character? Simple. With every action they perform, with every line of dialogue they say, ask, “Is this what they would do in real life?” The classic example of this is when a street thug puts a gun to your hero’s head and your hero says, “Do it. Pull the trigger.” BULL-FUCKING-SHIT. Nobody does that in real life. In real life, when someone puts a gun to your head, you cower like a little girl. The further away your character’s reactions are from reality, and the more instances where they do unrealistic things, the less we believe in them. If you want to see a movie where the characters act as authentic as I’ve ever seen, watch Room.

Specificity and Originality – 99% of writers offer up general characters who we’ve seen before. If they’re writing a Western, the main character is a mysterious man who comes into town with an axe to grind. If they’re writing a buddy-cop movie, one character is a loose cannon who says what’s on his mind while the other is a conservative who always gets the job done. It’s not that you can’t make these characters compelling. But when you give us something that we’ve seen so many times before, we become blind to the character. They can be wonderful but all we see is the 30 other characters they was based on. You have to give us characters who don’t feel like people we’ve seen before. Yesterday, we had a 13 year old female serial killer. I haven’t seen that before. — On top of that, you need to build specificity into your characters. If a character doesn’t have anything uniquely him, how is he going to stand out? Do me a favor. Think about the strangest person you know. Right now. Write down the five strangest things about them. Now let me ask you, have you ever incorporated anything like these traits into any of your characters? I’m guessing no. Yet it’s specific things like this that make your characters feel different. And characters who feel different? FEEL LIKE REAL PEOPLE.

Sympathetic or Fascinating – Your character has to be one of these two. If they’re not, we won’t care where they go, who they talk to, or if they get the god damned Golden Chalice or not. Sympathetic meaning we feel for their situation. Whether they’ve been taken advantage of, beaten down by life, or just have to deal with a dickwad boss every day, sympathy is one of the easiest ways to get us to care about a character. “Fascinating” refers more to villains and anti-heroes (but can refer to the occasional traditional hero as well). These are people who don’t get our sympathy vote, but who are so interesting, we want to watch them regardless. Figuring out how to make a character “interesting” is a bit like trying to catch a chicken, but one of the classic ways is to have the character battling two-extremes inside of themselves. Darth Vader, Michael Corleone, even Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Note how all of them are fighting themselves on some level. That’s interesting, isn’t it? On the contrary, when you just try to make your anti-hero or villain “cool,” that’s when we don’t give a shit (see the weird ninja villain in Elysium for reference).

Action and Choice – Compelling characters don’t go around saying, “I love you more than the wind and the moon” to their son. They rush to the son’s aid when the son is in trouble. Compelling characters don’t philosophize on what they would do if their wife was held hostage. We see their wife held hostage and watch what they choose to do. Action and choice are the best ways to tell us about your character. Both have their roots in the “SHOW” half of “show don’t tell.” In every scene you write, before you try to convey who your character is through a line of dialogue, first ask if there’s a way to convey the same thing through an ACTION or a CHOICE.

An unresolved inner struggle – Good characters are battling something inside of themselves. This battle can be broken down into four options. Option 1 is the past. Something has happened in the past that they haven’t resolved. They haven’t let go of a family member’s death, for example. Option 2 is a vice/addiction. Alcohol, drugs, sex. As long as you treat this with TRUTH (see above) and not simplistic casualism, this can work well. That’s because so many damn people can relate. Option 3 is a flaw that the character is aware of. A character who knows that people step on him and he doesn’t do anything about it, for example. And Option 4 is a flaw that the character isn’t aware of. This may entail a character who’s selfish. But it’s really up to you. Heck, you could make the Option 3 character the Option 4 character, and have no idea that he lets people walk all over him. — The idea with the unresolved inner struggle is that we’ll want to see if they can overcome the struggle. And, again, if it’s dealt with in a realistic way, and not a Screenwriting 101 way, this is the component in your screenplay that’s most likely to make your audience feel something. So it’s really important.

Unresolved Relationships – The more relationships in your hero’s story that are unresolved, the better the chance you have of delivering an emotionally compelling story to your audience. Fucked up Father-Son relationships are great for this. Fucked up Father-Daughter relationships as well. But it could be any relationship. It could be between two best friends who, after 30 years, don’t talk to each other anymore. As long as you do a good job setting up the situation, we’ll want to see if these two can find common ground again. This, along with overcoming one’s flaw or vice, is up there as one of the top ways to emotionally affect the audience. I read an amateur screenplay last year that was about this daughter whose father was a massive drug addict. And she kept trying to love him and trying to love him, but every time, he’d let her down. He’d choose the drugs over her. It was heartbreaking but also EXACTLY what you’re trying to achieve as a screenwriter. Create that unresolved AUTHENTIC relationship, draw it out over 2 hours, and we will be staring at our laptops with tears in our eyes when the script is over.

Now that you have a baseline to work with, you’re probably asking, where does everybody go wrong? Most screenwriters on scripts 1-5 believe that on the nose melodramatic scenes are the way to create great characters. For example, place a son and his father in a room and write a scene like this: “I loved you so much. But you never tried hard enough.” “Maybe if you would’ve encouraged me more.” “That’s what your mother was for.” “Until you left her.” Beat. “I still love you, dad.” “I love you, too.” Like, go fucking kill me and feed my dead body to the pigeons outside of the abandoned brad-making factories.

Characters talking deeply or talking about their feelings or saying what’s on their mind – These scenes create THE OPPOSITE of emotion in an audience. Since nobody talks like this is in real life, it’s the equivalent of announcing, “THIS IS A MOVIE!” which means the spell is broken and the audience no longer believes what they’re looking at. Creating realistic characters we’re emotionally rooting for is a lot more complex. Even more complex than what I’ve outlined here today. But at least now you have a starting point. Feel free to offer your own tips for creating realistic emotionally-affecting characters in the comments section.

Because, again, if you can master this one area, you will be in high freaking demand. Nobody knows how to do this shit right. I even see professionals screwing it up on a weekly basis (see all the over-cooked on-the-nose scenes in Batman vs. Superman for reference).