My old production company boss used to call useless screenplay characters, garden gnomes. Screenplay lawn furniture. The barnacle that prevented screenwriters from writing a movie that literally MOVED!
Characters who would just float in a scene. Characters who would sit there, taking up space and oxygen on the page.
Sitting. Observing. Doing nothing at all.
And while Joss Whedon may be able to pull off a situation like that — The Avengers has a lot of scenes where characters just sit there talking — most of us need a little more screenwriting sleight-of-hand when writing a script to pull it off.
So, here are 3 tips on how to make sure your screenplay is garden gnome-free….and your scenes are full of engaging and interesting characters. (Even if they aren’t talking.)
Writing a Movie With Characters That Move Tip No.1: Go From Wide to Tight to Wide Aagain
No matter how many characters you have in a scene, you will generally want to focus your scene on one specific relationship.
And whether your scene is at a baseball game or tatoo convention you can easily show the reader/viewer where the focus should be starting the scene in a wide shot…
EXT. YANKEE STADIUM – DAY.
The House That Ruth Built. Upper Deck. Where the corporate sponsors don’t make it.
…and then gradually let the description get tighter. (And then provide a natural close up.)
JIMMY and TOMMY, friends for as long as anybody on 53rd Street can remember, argue over the last packet of mustard.
…and then after they have their big fight, or whatever, you can PULL BACK for another wide shot to include other characters.
Jimmy hits Tommy. Tommy kicks Jimmy. The entire Section 32 roars in approval. Except for a MAN IN A SUIT, who carefully scribbles into a small, leather notebook.
Writing a Movie With Characters That Move Tip #2: Let Your Supporting Characters Fight Over the Main Action of a Scene
As I said, most of your scenes will be about one character having an objective and then crashing into another character or opponent who thwarts that objective.
Well, one easy way is to have the supporting characters is to a) take sides and b) creat their own mini-version of the main conflict of a scene.
Ensemble comedies do this really well. Check out films like “Meet the Parents” or “Father of the Bride” or anything by Judd Apatow.
And you will see a main conflict going on between two characters.
but then the supporting characters seem to either be commenting about the main character’s argument…or having their own weird, twisted argument. (Judd Apatow does this marvelously. Usually with all those slacker friends who permeate his work.)
Don’t forget though…the supporting characters should comment and riff and reflect the emotional intensity of the main conflict. (The stakes should NOT be more important.)
Writing a Movie With Characters That Move Tip #3: Map Out Your Scenes With Action Figures
Okay, so you may not have a ton of action figures lying around. (Like I do.)
But the next time you’re at some discount retairler, pick up a couple of off-brand figures and add them to your screenwriting arsenal.
Because one of the best ways to “map out” those big, family scenes where people are sitting around and not much is going on physically…is to line up some action figures and just see what the scene looks like.
Watch a film like “12 Angry Men” to see this done brilliantly. This entire film is shot in ONE ROOM. But notice how the characters keep moving. They go to the window. THey walk up to the clock on the wall.
They stand up. They sit down. They pace.
Because movement connotes action. It connotes emotion.
And without action or emotion, all we’ve got are a couple of garden gnomes clogging our screenplays.