Friday, August 5, 2011

The 12

Stoneking's adaptation for screenwriters
of Michael Shurtleff's "12 Guideposts"

Not dissimilar to the actor's quest to "build a character" is the screenwriter's quest to inhabit, and be inhabited by, those characters whose story is slowly coming to life in the evolving screenplay.

Fundamental to this task is the writer's willingness to surrender all claims to preeminence over the action as well as the power to manipulate the characters as he/she sees fit solely in service of the writer's particular needs including the "needs" of the plot as the writer alone understands them. The chauvinism perpetrated by insecurities that preclude a living relationship with the characters, and the writer's refusal to be open to the characters and entering into an authentic engagement with them, is the most common vice of the complacent, mediocre screenwriter. The avoidance of such emotional honesty (or emotional intelligence) is almost always characterised by writing that is actionless, stale, and predictable.

Part of the job of every dramatic screenwriter is to re-write him/herself as ruthlessly as he/she re-writes the characters in the script, which means transcending his/her own prejudices, assumptions and expectations - maladies that mask or dissipate the emotional energy implicit in the characters' problems, goals and actions.

In cultivating ever more intimate relationships with one's characters, one can usefully apply some guideposts. Here are 12 formulated by casting director, writer and teacher, Michael Shurtleff, and adapted so that they might better serve the needs of writers and dramatic filmmakers.

1. Relationship - based on NOW.

a. What is the character's relationship with the other characters?
b. What is the character's emotional attitude toward each of the other characters?
  • Does the character love him/her?
  • Does the character hate him/her?
  • Does the character resent him/her? How much?
  • Does the character want to help him/her?
  • Does the character want to get in his/her way?
  • What does the character want from him/her?
  • What does the character want him/her to him or her?

2. Conflict: what is the character fighting for? Same as "beats" or motivation.

a. What is the positive the character is seeking?
b. What is the character DOING to get it? Find as many ways as possible.
c. What actions might the character perform in order to get what he/she wants?


3. The Moment Before: each scene is the "emotional middle" of something.

a. What was the character just doing - BEFORE - that provoked or stimulated the action that is NOW occurring?
b. What does the character do that shows he/she is committed to his/her objective?

4. Humor/Hope: what is it that keeps teh character from giving in to despair?

a. What gets the character through the day?
b. What does the character find absurd about the other character or the situation?
c. Is there a moment where the character attempts to lighten the burden for him/herself or the other character?

5. Opposites: is the other end of the spectrum present?

a. Where are both the love and the hate?
b. What extremes does the character feel about the other character?

6. Discoveries: things that happen for the first time. Surprise

a. Avoid the routine, the humdrum. What makes this moment different?
b. What does a character learn about him/herself in the scene?
c. What does the character learn about the other character/s?
d. What did the character learn about the situation, both now and before?

7. Communication and Competition: communication is a circle.

a. Is the character sending out and getting back feelings?
b. Is the character "just talking at"?
c. Is the character open to hearing the other character/s?
d. What does the character DO to show he/she disagrees with the other character/s?
e. Where/when does the character show "I am right and you are wrong"?
f. How does the character say you should change from what you are to what I want you to be?


8. Importance: the truth is not enough if it is neither dramatic, nor interesting, nor unique.

a. What is important to the character right at this moment?
b. Is that the same or different as a moment ago?
c. Is the character making the trivial important?
d. Is the character making the important trivial?

9. Find the Events: what happens in the Screenplay?

a. Is this a change?
b. Is this a confrontation?
c. Is this a turning point?
d. Could the character win or lose something right here and now?

10. Place: where is the character and what does he/she feel about it?

a. Can he/she see it?
b. Can he/she feel it?
c. Can he/she smell it?
d. Is he/she comfortable with it?
e. Why is he/she here/there?

11. Game Playing and Role Playing: the "me" I am now.

a. What role is the character playing?
b. What is the game the character is playing?
c. Who does the character need to be to win the game?
d. How far will thge character go to win?

12. Mystery and Secret: what we don’t know.

a. What can’t be explained?
b. What would the character never tell another?
c. To what lengths would the character go to keep it a secret?
d. Why might it hurt me - the character - if they found out?