By Art Holcomb.
They’re what the audience remembers about a great movie. They’re what actors (and script readers) look for in a good script. Moments can be more important than structure; when strung like pearls on a necklace, it is the moments of a film that link writer-to-actor-to-director-to-viewer.
They are what turn film into cinema.
As screenwriters, we spend countless hours crafting our lead characters into living, breathing examples of human desire, strength, and frailty to create these moments. And often, we use the secondary characters to throw light upon these leads through conflict and tension in order to elucidate theme.
When done well, these secondary players raise the screenplay above the mundane. Done poorly, these characters are just tools and functions of the plot.
However, great screenwriters use every character to their best effect. They see to it that each one has their own arc and a focal role to play. These moments add depth and texture, further humanizing the story and promoting that all-important protagonist-audience connection.
Simply put, if a character is worth including in the screenplay, then each is worthy of their own moment in the sun.
Screenplay moments can be effectively created when a character is made more interesting by either going deeper than expected into the archetype or persona or by playing against type.
Typically, your best opportunities to make these characters shine lie in:
- The Establishing/Introductory Moment for a character,
- An Out-of-Plot Moment early in the story or
- A Mirror Moment that reveals some truth about the Protagonist.
The Establishing/Introductory Moment
Each character has one and it is often the single greatest opportunity the writer has to make the greatest impact. The more power, presence and mystery that can be crafted here, the better, such as in the iconic scene below:
In Star Wars: A New hope (1977), we see Darth Vader for the first time as he enters and emotionlessly steps over his dead troops only to strangle a Rebel Officer when he finds his excuses inadequate.
We had expected the villain of this movie to be over-the-top evil, but we’re startled by the immediacy and severity of his actions, creating the following iconic moment:
INT. REBEL BLOCKADE RUNNER – CORRIDOR
The evil Darth Vader stands amid the broken and twisted
bodies of his foes. He grabs a wounded Rebel Officer by
the neck as an Imperial Officer rushes up to the Dark Lord.
The Death Star plans are not in the
Vader squeezes the neck of the Rebel Officer, who struggles
Where are those transmissions you
Vader lifts the Rebel off his feet by his throat.
What have you done with those plans?
We intercepted no transmissions.
Aaah… This is a consular ship.
We’re on a diplomatic mission.
If this is a consular ship… were
is the Ambassador?
The Rebel refuses to speak but eventually cries out as the
Dark Lord begins to squeeze the officer’s throat, creating a
gruesome snapping and choking, until the soldier goes limp.
Vader tosses the dead soldier against the wall and turns to
The Out-of-Plot Moment
While the establishing moment can powerfully introduce a character, moments where s/he steps out of plot and acts in a way counter to what we believe is their role humanizes the character, and deepening both our understanding and emotional link.
- In American Gangster (2007), Frank Lucas is a merciless African American crime lord, who has no problem setting people on fire, murdering someone in broad daylight in front of witnesses or drowning neighborhoods with cheap heroin – only to then hand out turkeys to poor families in Harlem for Thanksgiving.
- In Casino (1995), Nicky Santoro is a fierce and ruthless mobster with a hair trigger temper, but always comes home every morning to cook breakfast for his son.
- And in the Star Trek television series, the logical and emotionless Spock has several moments over the course of the series that ”humanize” the alien character, such was when he moved to mate in the episode “Amok Time” or when, in another episode – through an inadvertent drug experience – he is flooded with human-like emotions for the first time.
A great example of combining the first two types of moments is found in Seven Samurai (1954).
The character Heihachi reveals all you need to know about him when he is found cutting wood in order to get make ends meet. The film’s title and setting leads the viewer to anticipate one aspect of the character of the samurai but screenwriters Kurosawa, Motoki and Oguni toy with us by presenting against type in Heihachi’s introduction:
Medium shot of a huge pile of logs. Every now and again there
is a shout and the noise of an axe on wood. GOROBEI’s head
appears over the pile of logs and camera tracks back as he
walks round and over the heap, and stands looking down. Track
continues to include a samurai chopping wood. At every
downward stroke he gives bloodcurdling yell. His sword lies
on the grass beside him. Hold on medium shot of him with
GOROBEI in the background. The samurai, HEIHACHI,
looks back to where GOROBEI is standing watching him,
and then continues. Grinning, GOROBEI sits on the logs to watch.
Without a word, HEIHACHI picks up his sword and moves it away
to his other side, a safe distance from GOROBEI. Music in.
HEIHACHI is about to split another log when he turns away to
Haven’t you ever seen anyone cut
You seem to enjoy it.
That’s just the way I am. Yah!
He chops another log.
High-angle medium shot of HEIHACHI, with GOROBEI’s head and
shoulders in back view in the foreground.
Not really. It’s a lot harder than
killing enemies. Yah!
He splits another log.
Low-angle medium close-up of GOROBEI leaning forward and
Have you killed many?
High-angle medium shot of HEIHACHI in back view, preparing to
chop another log, with GOROBEI, back to camera, in the
foreground. HEIHACHI turns towards him slightly.
Since it’s impossible to kill them
all – yah!
He splits another log and then turns back to GOROBEI again.
– I usually run away.
Low-angle medium close-up of GOROBEI.
A splendid principle.
High-angle medium shot of them both.
Thank you. Yah!
He chops a log and sets up the next, raising his axe and
preparing to strike.
Incidentally – are you interested
in killing twenty or thirty
The Mirror Moment
This effect is usually reserved for a Reflection character, but can be used by any character in a film who present in contrast to the Protagonist. Their actions, background and origin stories demand comparison and can illustrate the “road not travelled” for the lead character. Understanding the effect of the choices each has made in contrast to one another draws us further into the story:
In The Dark Knight (2008), Harvey Dent is seen flipping a coin, insulting a crime boss and knocking out a would-be murderer, foreshadowing his raise into the character Two-Face:
LAUGHS from the gallery. Dent turns to the JUDGE
Permission to treat the witness as hostile
Hostile? I’ll show you hostile!
Rossi JUMPS UP, points a GUN at Dent’s face. SCREAMS from the gallery. Rossi PULLS THE TRIGGER – the gun MISFIRES with a POP. Dent steps forward, grabs the GUN – DECKS Rossi with a RIGHT
CROSS – unloads the GUN and sets it down in front of Maroni.
Ceramic 28 caliber. Made in China. If
you want to kill a public servant, Mr.
Maroni, I recommend you buy American
Such moments make these characters more relatable and natural, bonding us to them as we consider: If they are in fact more like us, can it be true that we are actually more like them as well?
So, how can you make these moments work for you?
Understand the back story of each of your character
The more you know about the characters in your story, the better you will see hidden opportunities to give them their own moments. Even taking the time to write a quick paragraph about every character can offer insights (and story possibilities) that you never considered.
Complicate your characters
Every character you create is like an iceberg. The quirks and motivations that are hidden below support everything the audience will eventually see in them. Don’t be afraid to make even the most minor character as real and individual as possible.
Each character (and person) has their own rule book
The people who know you best can usually predict how you will act a-in any given situation. The same is true for your characters. By knowing how each will react when frightened / excited / aroused / disappointed, you can portray them much more realistically.
Understand character relationships
Take a moment to understand the dynamics of every possible two character relationship in your story. Stand each character against every other and consider what their relationship might be. I’ve found a wealth of story possibilities through this exercise alone.
Keep the mystery alive in these moments
It is the questions that the audience will have about your characters that keep them engaged. The villain who stops to pet the cat or the Hero who lies for no reason other than embarrassment- each contributes to the wonder on these moments. The most powerful and relatable characters are always the ones that keep us guessing, and who take us out of our expectations. They work best when they share attributes that are, at the same time, beyond our experiences while still being deeply steeped in our everyday understanding of the nature of ourselves.