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SimplyScripts Screenwriting Discussion Board    Screenwriting Discussion    Screenwriting Class  ›  Not-quite-tertiary characters Moderators: George Willson
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FrankM
Posted: February 19th, 2018, 10:42am Report to Moderator
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Is there any accepted way to signal to a reader the relative importance of a character to your story?

As far as I know, there are basically three levels:

Main characters who have five-line introductions or other obvious hallmarks of being indispensable to the story like being in the title. The reader knows these need to be remembered.

Secondary characters with maybe a line or two of introduction. The reader should try to keep these straight because they'll be mentioned again, but not lose sleep over having to look one up.

Throwaway characters (e.g., BANK TELLER) who only appear once or twice, and may or may not have any dialogue. Generally referred to by position/trait rather than name. The reader knows not to spend a lot of time remembering these,

My question is whether there is a way to signal to the reader something I'd informally call a tertiary character? Someone who has a name and a bit of personality and shows up a few times, but may be one of a couple dozen such characters that I don't expect the reader to keep in their head.

To make this concrete, the story involves the protagonist and antagonist entering a contest alongside hundreds of others. Only three other contestants are really consequential, but another twenty have names and lines. I don't want to make it obvious ahead of time precisely which contestants are consequential, but also don't want the reader taking notes to keep track of everyone.

Am I just overthinking this? Or is it something that would make a reader reject a script?


Family feature: Who Wants to Be a Princess?
Sci-Fi short trilogy: Timmy
Horror anthology/feature: Glass House

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FrankM  -  August 6th, 2018, 8:33pm
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Patrick
Posted: February 19th, 2018, 11:09am Report to Moderator
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Some characters enter a script for a specific purpose, once they have served that purpose, I like to get rid of them. Never to be seen again. Interesting part is how do you do that? After all you can only kill off a charater so many times. I like to be inventive on how I get rid of them.


Patrick J Gillespie
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Steven
Posted: February 20th, 2018, 11:20am Report to Moderator
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Typically, the main character's intro has more detail than just some random person. So, if you devote time to give a detailed introduction, that SHOULD signal the reader enough to realize "maybe this dude is important."
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colkurtz8
Posted: February 20th, 2018, 12:32pm Report to Moderator
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You could include what are called "asides" or "unfilmmables" in the character introductions which is extraneous information that can't be conveyed on screen but tells the reader about the character. Such as their backstory, likes, dislikes or, in this case, their importance to the story.

Alternatively, you could just allow the reader as they go along to naturally surmise what characters are more important than others based on screen time, dialogue and influence on the story. Like what you do if you're watching a film you know nothing about without any recognizable stars.

I would suggest going with the latter approach. Have faith in your own writing to get this across organically and in the reader's ability to tell the difference (sounding like the Serenity Prayer here)


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FrankM
Posted: February 20th, 2018, 1:57pm Report to Moderator
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I think that's the direction I'm heading, though on closer inspection there are a few characters that can be "demoted" without losing any story. It'll still be a lot, but at least it will be no more than necessary.

Which basically amounts to a slight apology to anyone looking at the first draft


Family feature: Who Wants to Be a Princess?
Sci-Fi short trilogy: Timmy
Horror anthology/feature: Glass House
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eldave1
Posted: February 20th, 2018, 9:07pm Report to Moderator
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The challenge it the remembering. Can't tell you how many scripts I read and I get to page 60 and someone does something or have a line of dialogue and I don't recall them ever being in the script in the first place.

I think things you can do in this regard:

- Include, where possible, other identifiers. e.g., Joe Thomas is someone's Uncle and is going to appear a few time. I would be attempted to label him as UNCLE JOE.

- Or, give them a memorable name. e.g., if a minor character has the name Astoria - I'm going to remember that.

- Or, as someone else said - a little more when they're intro'd - e,g, JOE THOMAS (45) the quintessential drunk uncle.  


My Scripts can all be seen here:

http://dlambertson.wix.com/scripts
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FrankM
Posted: February 20th, 2018, 11:54pm Report to Moderator
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Quoted from eldave1
The challenge it the remembering. Can't tell you how many scripts I read and I get to page 60 and someone does something or have a line of dialogue and I don't recall them ever being in the script in the first place.

I think things you can do in this regard:

- Include, where possible, other identifiers. e.g., Joe Thomas is someone's Uncle and is going to appear a few time. I would be attempted to label him as UNCLE JOE.

- Or, give them a memorable name. e.g., if a minor character has the name Astoria - I'm going to remember that.

- Or, as someone else said - a little more when they're intro'd - e,g, JOE THOMAS (45) the quintessential drunk uncle.  


Well, for this specific family script I have a gimmick where each country has a trademark color, so almost every character has at least a little description mentioning their clothes (and the samples that follow tend to be green). This is the same setting discussed in the Fictional Ethnic Groups thread.

Biggest characters other than protagonist/villain:
PRINCE ROLAND CELADON (25) stands behind {protagonist's little brother} but playfully motions {protagonist} to remain still. He is fit, tanned to a perfect shade of ruggedly handsome, and instantly recognizable anywhere in Glenwood. The prince has a bear slung over his horse, wears expensive-but-dented armor, and holds a badly bent shield.

DORINDA (21), a confident young woman of slender build who spent her entire childhood on a stage. She is an olive-skinned Aurentian by blood but wears the green of someone born in Glenwood. Her dress is rough-cloth like {protagonist's}, but dyed fully green and accented with sequins.

(The protagonist and villain are each introduced piecemeal over the course of a couple pages)

Secondary:
EDITH (18) raises her bespectacled face from deep within a book. This Glennish teen is no peasant: her long green dress with matching earrings and satchel betray an urban lifestyle.

GWYNETH (22), a self-centered woman in a green courtesan dress who imagines that everyone is interested in everything she says

Tertiary:
CYBIL (22) has a calming effect wherever she goes. KAITLIN (20) is perpetually tense and seems to have a rule of etiquette ready for any situation. Each wears a very well-maintained green-trimmed peasant dress.

Throwaway:
Three SAFIRI GUARDS sit around a campfire outside the fort, using a large bush as shelter from the wind.

(Not mentioned in that line, but by that point in the story it's established that everything Safir tends to be blue. The guards then have lines as THIN SAFIRI GUARD, CHUBBY SAFIRI GUARD and TALL SAFIRI GUARD but never appear again.)

Keeping throwaway characters obvious is easy; what I'm hoping to do is differentiate between secondary and "tertiary" characters.


Family feature: Who Wants to Be a Princess?
Sci-Fi short trilogy: Timmy
Horror anthology/feature: Glass House

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FrankM  -  March 3rd, 2018, 10:33pm
Fixed formatting, some words were invisible.
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ReaperCreeper
Posted: March 2nd, 2018, 5:52pm Report to Moderator
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I think you're overthinking it a little too much. I've read screenplays that have long intros for characters and screenplays that literally do nothing but tell you their name and age. Both methods have been used to great or terrible effect, depending on the writer. There is NO wrong or right way to do it, nor is there even a concrete division between primary, secondary, and tertiary characters (moguls and writers of How To books swear by some variation of that structure or another whilst almost never agreeing with each other, but those writers are mostly concerned with making money and their opinions, in the end, are just that).

Personally, 5 lines of description for a character seems like overkill, regardless of their role in the story. Generally, paragraphs shouldn't exceed 4 lines in scripts, or you would mess up the 1 page=1 minute ratio, which is a pretty good marker to determine the length of a script compared to the finished film (a weighty script that's 10-15 pages longer than it should be due to dense prose WILL get rejected; the first thing they do is feel the weight of it in their hands). That said, I've seen lengthier character intros done in professional screenplays as well, often by longtime pros.

I would not recommend relying on asides or unfilmables if they are superfluous or otherwise unable to be communicated by simply looking at said character or by revealing them gradually throughout the story. It's just too easy to fall into that trap. I only use unfilmables when they're obvious, and even then I can count the times I've knowingly used them on one hand.

Of course, this whole post is only my opinion and by no means the end all be all of anything, but there are my two cents. Bottom line: do what's best for YOUR script and the way YOU feel is the clearest/most readable.
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FrankM
Posted: March 3rd, 2018, 10:37pm Report to Moderator
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Thanks RC! I was exaggerating a bit with five lines of intro, but I was seriously worried if a relatively large number of non-throwaway characters would by itself cause a reader to pass on the script. That's good advice on unfilmables, for now I tend to keep them if I think they help the actor "get" the character.

I also just noticed that the formatting in the previous post was broken. It should be readable now.


Family feature: Who Wants to Be a Princess?
Sci-Fi short trilogy: Timmy
Horror anthology/feature: Glass House
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Dustin
Posted: March 4th, 2018, 4:03am Report to Moderator
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Quoted from FrankM
Thanks RC! I was exaggerating a bit with five lines of intro, but I was seriously worried if a relatively large number of non-throwaway characters would by itself cause a reader to pass on the script.


No, it may make a screenplay writer pass on your script, citing confusion... but a producer or paid reader shouldn't pass so long as the story is good.

What you don't really want though are lots of throwaway characters that have lines. That's expensive and does bother producers. If lines have to be spoken, try to figure out a way for it to be one of the main characters that say them.
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Dustin
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Quoted from ReaperCreeper

Personally, 5 lines of description for a character seems like overkill, regardless of their role in the story.


Why?



Quoted Text
Generally, paragraphs shouldn't exceed 4 lines in scripts, or you would mess up the 1 page=1 minute ratio...


I wrote a 17-page script recently. The eventual film was 50 minutes. The better we become the more we can fit on the page. The more we fit on the page, the longer that page takes to film.


Quoted Text

...a weighty script that's 10-15 pages longer than it should be due to dense prose WILL get rejected; the first thing they do is feel the weight of it in their hands...


This is the 21st Century, even publishers expect electronic manuscripts these days. How do they feel the weight? It won't get rejected so long as the story is good and it's something they're interested in making.

When giving advice it's better to do so from a position of experience and not regurgitate what we've read on the web.
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FrankM
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Quoted from Dustin

What you don't really want though are lots of throwaway characters that have lines. That's expensive and does bother producers. If lines have to be spoken, try to figure out a way for it to be one of the main characters that say them.


This particular story is best suited for animation, which lends itself to having two or three people take on multiple minor roles. Or has the Actor's Guild somehow managed to put an end to that practice?


Family feature: Who Wants to Be a Princess?
Sci-Fi short trilogy: Timmy
Horror anthology/feature: Glass House
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Dustin
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Quoted from FrankM


This particular story is best suited for animation, which lends itself to having two or three people take on multiple minor roles. Or has the Actor's Guild somehow managed to put an end to that practice?


No idea, to be honest. I have a few animation projects in the works but no real experience to speak from. I know this to be true only in film. Perhaps Hollywood budgets are better, but even then, it isn't wise to give too many lines to inexperienced actors, just because they'll likely eff them up.
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ReaperCreeper
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Quoted from Dustin


Why?


Because I would much rather use a page to write a real scene for the film's eventual audience instead of driving unfilmable exposition into the skulls of readers, unless of course said character description extends to demeanor and physical traits only.

This isn't to say that a writer can't or shouldn't go beyond that (I've seen it done, and done well), just that it's not how I or many others do it.


Quoted from Dustin

I wrote a 17-page script recently. The eventual film was 50 minutes.


And I rest my case. You're talking about turning a short screenplay into something with an hour-long run-time due to inadequate writing. In a larger production (particularly one where your involvement only extends to being the writer, as opposed to also producer/director/whatever) that'd be disastrous.

A production company once turned a 12-page script of mine into an 18-minute film. It was an issue for them, albeit not a huge one. But I, personally, thought that even those 6 minutes of extra content was too much, as the short was disqualified from several contests because of it.


Quoted Text
The better we become the more we can fit on the page. The more we fit on the page, the longer that page takes to film.


Not to the point of  turning a 17-page script into a 50-minute film. In most cases, that's not in any way a good thing and I find your advice to be grossly incorrect.


Quoted Text
When giving advice it's better to do so from a position of experience and not regurgitate what we've read on the web.


Sure, except... I do have experience. Perhaps not as much as yourself (haven't looked you up yet) but I do have experience. Thanks for the assumption, though.


Quoted Text
This is the 21st Century, even publishers expect electronic manuscripts these days. How do they feel the weight? It won't get rejected so long as the story is good and it's something they're interested in making.


The publishing industry is not the film-making industry.

Yes, some indie filmmakers keep the script on their phones and tablets while they shoot. That's by no means the industry standard, even if we don't get too hung up on what the "standard" is. The weight issue is entirely peripheral to the points I raised concerning length. Point is, 1 page=1 minute is still the preconceived notion for length. You can argue about how unfair that is, and how not every producer follows that, and how a bunch of avant-garde indie shorts spit in the face of it, but it's better to try and follow that guideline than not if you're serious about shopping your work around, would you not agree? Is it a kiss of death? No, not necessarily, but it's better to consider that.

And yes, in theory, a script won't be rejected if the story's good and they're interested in it. In practice, they'll see an overwritten, underwritten, or poorly-written script and bail on it more often than not.

Yes, it's true that there's no hard-and-fast rule, but the industry's brutal enough as it is. If there's a general "guideline" you can follow without stifling your creative process, it's probably better to just do it.  

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Dustin
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The 50-minute film was actually cut down to 15. My point on that was that a page per minute is complete bullshit. All films are edited to suit. If the script was filmed as is they generally run way longer. I've never had something filmed that ended up shorter or even on the nose... have you? If you think about it, they are always edited down. Your 12-page script that ended up an 18-minute film, why didn't they edit it down to get in the festivals?

It's always a good thing to have more than you need. Always. I've worked with one producer that was concerned about page count and they were a first timer that had read the importance of page count on the web. They also felt they knew what made for a better story... the script never made it out of dev.


Quoted Text
In practice, they'll see an overwritten, underwritten, or poorly-written script and bail on it more often than not.


This doesn't have anything to do with what I said. Bad writing is bad writing no matter how many lines there are. 5 lines of great writing trumps 2 lines of shit every time.
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