Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Month: July 2015


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10 Tips for Successful Character Biographies

by Susan Kouguell

Who are these people? What do they want? What do they need?

Why do they exist in this story? Why should I care? What time’s lunch?

These are just some of the questions film executives are pondering as they read your script. The latter question – about lunch – is equally important. Why? Because if they’re thinking about something other than your script then it’s time to think more about your characters.

Readers demand a strong understanding of who your characters are. They want your characters to ring true. They want to know why your characters are taking the actions they do in your screenplay. They want to find that winning script. But if you don’t fully develop your characters you increase your chances exponentially of having your script rejected.

Successful characters are multi-dimensional with distinctive physical attributes, emotional traits, appearances, personalities, intelligence, vulnerabilities, emotions, attitudes, idiosyncrasies, and hopes and dreams. Writing successful characters also means digging deep into their past and present.

There are several ways in which to delve into characters, such as writing character biographies in the first person – your character’s voice. (I offer various templates and examples in my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays!). Use whichever exercise works best for you and your writing style. Whether you’re writing your first draft or nearing your final polish, continue to dig deep into your characters’ minds and souls.

For me, I find that taking the time to write character bios at each major draft of my screenplay, strengthens both my characters and my plot. I always advise my students and Su-City clients to write character bios — and while they try to hide their rolling eyes or deep sighs (I know what they’re thinking…I just want to write my screenplay) — I have to say, once they write the bios there’s always that big AHA moment, and they agree that it was worth it. Their characters are stronger. They’ve gained more insights into their plots. And the result? A better screenplay.

10 Tips for Your Character Biographies

These tips can be used for each of your main characters and for your significant minor characters:

  1. Empathy: What elements make my characters likeable and unlikable?
  2. Character Arcs: How do my characters evolve in the beginning, middle, and end of the script, as they attempt to achieve their goals? What do my characters learn about themselves and others, and what do my characters gain or lose, as the plot unfolds?
  3. Goals: What are my characters’ main goals, and hopes and dreams, and why are these important to my characters? How do my characters plan to achieve these goals?
  4. Obstacles: What are my characters’ roadblocks, problems, and hurdles that they must overcome to achieve their goals?
  5. Multi-dimensional: What are my characters specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors, idiosyncrasies and traits? How do my characters see themselves and how do they relate to others?
  6. Motivations: What are the underlying reasons that motivate my characters to make critical and specific decisions?
  7. Flaws: What are my characters’ shortcomings and weaknesses?
  8. Vulnerabilities: What are my characters’ Achilles’ heel?
  9. Attitude: How do my characters really feel about themselves and others?
  10. Characters’ pasts influence their present: What are the events in my characters’ pasts, such as schooling, home life, employment, and/or trauma that have significantly molded them to be the person they are today?

Now, imagine yourself seated with a film executive across a table at a fine restaurant. You are both discussing what to order for lunch. And what are you thinking? The executive loves my script and is paying for this expensive meal. I can order anything I want!

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Writing the Music Documentary (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Tips for Writing the Music Documentary Film

by Susan Kouguell

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In this past year, three very different documentaries, portraying a musical artist have been released: What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck directed by Brett Morgen, and A Poem is a Naked Person directed by Les Blank.

These three musical artists, Nina Simone, Kurt Cobain, and Leon Russell are as diverse as are the ways in which these directors conveyed their respective subjects. While some very broad comparisons can be made in some choices made (for example the use of archival footage in Garbus and Morgen’s films, and the use of concert footage in all three films), the more specific comparisons can be found in the fact that each director has a unique vision and voice.

music documentary
In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I write:

Documentaries can be written, using the traditional 3-act structure or in a nontraditional narrative format. The use of stock film footage, “talking heads” (interviewees’ faces discussing the subject matter), voice-over narration, animation, photographs, live action, and so on, are some examples of the tools used to convey the narrative.

Rather than cover every biographical detail of their subjects’ lives, Garbus, Morgen and Blank, allow their subjects to tell their own story through their own words and music, in conventional and nonconventional ways. In Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, original animation was produced and incorporated into the film, to illustrate important moments in Cobain’s life, using Cobain’s artwork, photography, journals and family photographs as inspiration.

Garbus allows the late Nina Simone to convey her story, in part, through concert footage shot during the course of her career. These moments show Simone speaking and playing to the audience, revealing both her personal fragility and phenomenal talent as a musician.

The late director Les Blank employs a nontraditional narrative cinema vérité approach of his subject Leon Russell, during a time (the 1970s), and place (rural Oklahoma juxtaposed with a state-of-the-art music studio). Rather than revealing Russell’s biographical background, the film offers glimpses of Russell’s concerts, rehearsals, friends, and neighbors in an abstract collage.


  1. Immerse yourself in the music. Research the artist and his or her music in order to gain a complete understanding of your topic.
  2. Keep an open mind to what you might discover as you research and shoot. Some filmmakers begin with one narrative idea for their film, but find that along the way that idea changes, as more material is unearthed either through archival finds or interviews.
  3. As you develop your ideas and your interview questions for your subjects, determine what your significant message is, who the main ‘characters’ are and how they will bring light to your topic.
  4. Listen carefully to your interviewees, they might reveal new information and offer unexpected and exciting insights about your subject matter.
  5. Watch documentaries that share your sensibility to give you inspiration.

What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus is currently playing in theaters and on NetflixKurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is in limited release in theaters, as well as A Poem is a Naked Person.



Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Tips on Adaptation and Divisive Voice-over Devices (THE SCRIPT LAB)

Tips on Adaptation and Divisive

Voice-over Devices

 by Susan Kouguell



Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens with protagonist Greg’s line:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Greg Gaines is an awkward high school senior whose mother forces him to spend time with Rachel — his classmate with whom he hasn’t spoken to since kindergarten– who was just diagnosed with cancer.

The beginning of Greg and Rachel’s friendship finds Greg standing at the foot of the stairs in Rachel’s house, and Rachel at the top of the stairs.

RACHEL: Look, I don’t want you hanging out with me. I don’t need your stupid pity. It’s fine. You can just go.

GREG: No, no, hey. You got it all wrong. I’m not here ’cause I pity you. I’m actually here just ’cause my mom is making me.

RACHEL: That’s actually worse.

GREG: Yeah, I know.

RACHEL: Look, it’s OK. Honestly, I’m fine. Just go.

GREG: OK. Rachel, just listen to me for a second. My mom is going to turn my life into a living hell if I don’t hang out with you. OK, I can’t overstate how annoying she’s being about this. She’s basically like the Lebron James of nagging. Lebron James plays basketball.

RACHEL: I know who Lebron James is.


Greg tries to blend in as anonymously as possible, avoiding deeper relationships as a survival strategy for navigating the social minefield that is teenage life.  He describes his constant companion Earl, with whom he makes short film parodies of classic movies, such as Sockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Butt, as more of a “co-worker” than a childhood best friend.

This coming-of-age film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, screenplay by Jesse Andrews was adapted by the book of the same title written by Andrew.

Adapting for the Screen

The book Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is just over 300 pages – the film just under two hours.  There are many challenges adapting novels to the screen, including what should stay and what should go.  Generally, one script page equals one minute of screen time, which means that you must focus on the basic plot points of the material, thus often resulting in cutting subplots and characters in order to keep the script less than 120 pages.


When writing a screenplay, you don’t have the luxury to get inside your characters’ minds with pages and pages of internal thoughts as you do when writing a novel.  Characters’ motivations, agendas, goals, and so on, must be conveyed in dialogue and through visually storytelling.  Always remember the screenwriting adage: Show Don’t Tell.


The film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl contains many storytelling devices, that for many film executives, are BIG RED FLAGS. These devices include voice-overs, flashbacks, superimposed titles, such as “Day 7 of Doomed Friendship” and Claymation sequences often featuring a moose.  For many Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s filmgoers and critics, these devices only enhance the film but for some they deter from it.  Let’s look at some of these devices and how they can and should work, and if they’re working (or not) in your screenplay.

In the following excerpts from my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I talk about devices found in screenplays:  

Many aspiring screenwriters share something in common with their screenplay characters—they have bad habits or rely on things that highlight their insecurities.  The word “vice” is defined as a bad habit; and many screenwriters’ bad habits—more specifically—their writing weaknesses and insecurities, are underscored when they overuse or mistakenly use screenplay devices.  So, when developing your characters, do not rely on vices to convey essential information, or misuse or overuse them.


Use voice-overs only to provide information and insight about the story and/or character(s) that you absolutely cannot express in dialogue or in action. Do not convey the same information in voice-over that will soon be revealed in dialogue, visuals, or action. If you choose to use the voice-over device, know that story analysts and film executives will regard this as a red flag—a lazy device—and they will examine each word.

In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Greg is a self-conscious and unreliable narrator.  He’s self-effacing and uses irony to his full advantage.  Here he talks about his relationship with Rachel.


So if this was a touching, romantic story, suddenly our eyes would meet and suddenly we would be making out with the fire of a thousand suns. But this isn’t a touching romantic story.

Translating internal thoughts of a character without overusing voiceovers and other devices can be challenging. One way to see if you are overusing voiceovers is to remove the voiceovers from your script (temporarily) and place them on a separate page and in the order they appear in your script. By reading them on their own it is easier to see what must stay and what must go, and if you’re repeating information that is already stated in dialogue, or is too long, and not advancing the narrative.

The opening of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens continues:

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

At the end of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl  Greg concludes a montage with:


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was life.


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