Character and structure (part 1)

Categories Featured, REPOST, Screenwriting Craft, The Process
character or structure

There seems to be a big divide in the screenwriting community between those who write from character and those who write from plot. Between big budget action-types, say, and little chamber piece artistes that revel in human nature. Between wham-bam thank-you-mam 3 act, hero journey kind of guys, and those who allow their characters to lead them wherever they wish to go. Of course – like all the great creative divides in history – the secret to a great end product lies in not slavishly parking yourself on any one side of the character and structure divide.

To negotiate a path through the middle, that is our task. And by negotiating that path, to avoid coming out with wishy-washy, middle of the road sort of stuff, but achieving a good old-fashioned German philosophy-style synthesis.

I am very much a structure type. I love plots. I love Christopher Nolan, I love the Usual Suspects, I love that lovely big twist on page 100 that manages to reconcile all the events that went before, but that takes the script in a completely different direction. I always used to start with the question “What happens?” not “Who does it happen to?”

But I’m also very aware that the thing that carries a screenplay is empathy. And that if your characters don’t stand up, if you can’t get hold of them and make them real, then it doesn’t matter how tight your structure is, it won’t matter how clever or intricate your plot is, because people just won’t care… So how do you create this neat synthesis?

The answer, I think, is to base character on structure… And, alternately then base the subsequent action on character… Pretty enigmatic, huh? How about I save my explanation until next week’s post?

(That’s right, dear reader, you’ve just experienced my first blog cliff-hanger).

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I'm James, a screenwriter working in the film and TV industry. To get in touch, see my e-mail contact page.

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