Identify the Motivation of Every Character in a Scene

Here’s what too many novice screenwriters do wrong. They rite a scene filled with characters who have no purpose, goal, or direction in that particular scene. Instead, these characters exist long enough to say something, usually information the screenwriter thinks the audience needs to know, before disappearing out of sight until the next scene where they might be needed.

Before writing a scene, ask yourself what each character in that scene wants. Even if that character is a minor one such as a cab driver or a hotel clerk, that person has a goal of some kind.

A flat scene might have a character ask a hotel clerk a question, and the hotel clerk dumps information unnaturally just to provide the audience with background to the story such as:

HERO: I’d like to book a room for two nights please.

HOTEL CLERK: Would you prefer the non-smoking suite with the window overlooking the street where the Presidential parade will pass by tomorrow at noon?

Notice that in this simple example, the hotel clerk serves no purpose other than to dump information on the audience about the time and place of a Presidential parade.

Instead, give the hotel clerk a goal, even if it’s a relatively minor one. For example, suppose the hotel clerk is too friendly and as a result, pries into the hero’s financial accounts, phone number, email address, etc., which the hero might want to hide from the authorities. Now the hero has to book the room, hide his/her possibly incriminating information, and appear normal at the same time. That makes the scene far more interesting than a hotel clerk with no goal or motivation of his/her own.

Besides giving each characters a motivation and a goal they want to achieve, create as much conflict as possible between all the characters. Conflict creates interest because we want to see who wins and how they achieve their goal.

Study any scene from a great movie and you’ll likely be able to identify the motivation of each character. In an early scene in “Iron Man” where Tony Stark is being held captive by terrorists in a cave and forced to build them a weapon, every character has a clear goal that they strive to achieve at all times.

The hero (Tony Stark) needs to build an iron suit that will keep him alive and allow him to escape.

A fellow captive also wants to escape, but his motivation is to help Tony Stark build the iron suit because that’s his best option for escaping the terrorists as well.

The terrorists want to keep Tony Stark captive until he finishes building his weapon for them, but the race is on for Tony Stark to finish his iron suit before the terrorists realize what he’s doing and stop him from completing the iron suit that will allow him to escape.

Study your favorite movies and pick any scene at random. Then try to identify the motives of every character in that scene. Chances are good you’ll be able to do that easily. Now the next question is how easy can you do that with your own scenes in your screenplays?

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