When Characters Think


We all know the fundamentals of what makes a film work. Acting, cinematography, sound, music, production design, sfx, and the director, who’s vision everyone is working to achieve. The director’s vision comes from the script, which is why, as all filmmakers know, if you don’t have a good script, you don’t have anything.

My guess is most people know the fundamental elements of a good script. #1 – it isn’t boring. #2 – it has interesting and compelling characters. #3 – it has an unpredictable yet believable plot. #4 – it is set in an interesting, visually stimulating world. There are many more, and of course they are all easier said than done, but the at least we are aware of their importance, and we are aware when we see them executed well in a finished film.

This post is not about those elements. Those are the big issues, but since I’m eighty pages into a one hundred page screenplay, those issues are solved (hopefully in a satisfactory manner). Instead, this post will be about some of the nuts and bolts of writing, the little things that most movie-goers aren’t aware of, the things that, when done well, separate great screenwriting from merely good screenwriting.

And here we are, finally arriving at the title of this post: when characters think.

The interesting thing about screenplays, compared to say, books, is that in film, characters do not think. Actually, that’s not true, of course they think. They may even think about things, but they do not think about specific things. Films just don’t work that way.

To illustrate, imagine George Clooney, sitting on a bench, thinking about the pet dog he had when he was a boy. Okay, now film it. What does the camera capture: George Clooney, sitting on a park bench. It’ll probably even capture him thinking, since George Clooney is a good actor. But it is impossible for the camera to capture what he is thinking about. He could be thinking about his dog, taxes, the Mets game, Einstein’s theory of relativity, who knows? He’s just thinking.

And so, characters in films do not think about things. In a book, the author can just write their thoughts, but films are made with cameras and cameras cannot record thoughts.

So what do we do? What if it’s really important to know that George Clooney is thinking about his old dog? Well, this is where screenwriting comes in.

The easiest way to solve this problem is with dialog; George Clooney could say “gee, I sure miss my old dog right now.” Problem solved. Clunky, boring, unnatural, but you’d be surprised how many times this shows up in even the biggest, best films.

You can also solve this with voiceover, in which an omnipresent narrator states that “George Clooney sits on the bench, remembering his four legged friend of old.” Scenes like this are why voiceover is often considered cheating in the screenwriting world (although when done effectively, it is an excellent device).

You can use a flashback, go back to when Geroge was a boy, see him playing with his dog. This works, but can only be used sparingly, too many flashbacks will exhaust and confuse the audience, not too mention they’ll start seeing through the technique. Additionally, flashbacks only work when the thought of a concrete event, you can’t flash back to an abstract idea the character may be thinking about.

There is another way to communicate thoughts in film, a way that is very strong, very powerful, and not surprisingly, the most difficult to execute: turn the thought into action. This action reveals the thoughts of the character without having to directly say it. In our George Clooney example, instead of vocalizing his thoughts about his old dog, imagine him watching a boy playing with his dog. We see his emotions (as he exercises his acting chops), see the boy and his dog, and we tie the two together. Maybe George will even get off the bench, should his emotions be too strong to just sit there. Lots of action going on now, all related to that dog!

Of course, this method of filmmaking requires a couple things. One, it requires George’s relationship with his dog to already be established (ie more writing). Two, it requires good acting (you have George, might as well get your money’s worth). And, most dangerously, it requires an audience smart enough to put two and two together. Sometimes the audience can’t do it, but it isn’t their fault if the filmmaking is too abstract. It is bad filmmaking and is common in amateur films. Sometimes filmmakers don’t trust the audience to get it on their own, so they resort to clunky dialog/voiceover/etc. When the audience gets it without these measures, but the filmmakers resort to them anyway, it is bad filmmaking. This second dynamic is common in Hollywood film, which Hollywood does it because it’s “better safe than sorry”. It drives me crazy.

Here are some real examples from a couple excellent films. When people raved about the filmmaking in these films, these were some of the things they were raving about:

THE GODFATHER, considered one of the greatest films ever made. After Michael Corleone and Enzo the Baker thwart a potential hit outside Vito’s hospital, they light a cigarette. Enzo, scared out of his mind, shakes so much that he cannot hold the lighter steady enough to light his cigarette. Michael takes the lighter and, calm and steady, lights Enzo’s cigarette for him. Michael then takes a moment to stare at the lighter in his hand. This look, and its contrast with Enzo’s shaking, shows Michael’s realization that he is cut out for this line of work, that he is a war veteran and can take this tension without having his nerves go.

REQIUEM FOR A DREAM, in my opinion one of the best film of the 2000s. When Harry visits his mother and they chat over coffee, at one point, as his mother is talking to her dead husband, Harry breaks eye contact, slowly looks to a random spot on the other side of the room. As he does so, the camera swivels with him, crossing the 180 degree line. Both Harry and the camera hold there as Harry realizes that something isn’t right: his mom is on drugs.

That’s all for now; this post is getting long enough! I hope you enjoyed this little screenwriting lesson, I’ll give some more another time. I’m trying to work some of these emotions turned actions into my screenplay, but when it isn’t as simple as sitting on a bench thinking about a dog, it sure is difficult to do!


About Gabriel Bruskoff
I make movies! See gabrielbruskoff.com for more information.

One Response to When Characters Think

  1. Pingback: Welcome, welcome (and a status update) « OLDBOY PRODUCTIONS

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