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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Category: WRITING CHARACTERS (page 1 of 3)

Coming of Age in ‘Morris from America’ and ‘Little Men’: Creating Empathetic Protagonists for SCRIPT MAGAZINE


Coming of Age in ‘Morris from America’ and ‘Little Men’:
Creating Empathetic Protagonists

by Susan Kouguell

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Coming of Age in 'Morris from America' and 'Little Men': Creating Empathetic Protagonists by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Markees Christmas in ‘Morris from America’

It was serendipitous timing.  At a recent press screening I attended, two independent films, Morris from America followed by Little Men, played back-to-back.  Why was it serendipitous timing?  While these two poignant films are significantly different, they are both coming-of-age stories, centering on 13-year-old male teens thrown into a fish-out-of-water situation by their fathers.

The definition of the term fish-out-of-water is when a character must navigate and cope in a foreign setting, culture, situation, or occupation.  Here are some examples: A naïve protagonist must survive living in a new environment (Splash); a man disguises himself like a woman (Tootsie, Some Like it Hot); a child lives as an adult or vice versa (Big, Freaky Friday); a spoiled protagonist must survive in a disadvantaged setting or vice versa (Private Benjamin, Trading Places).

morris from america 2

Markees Christmas (L) Craig Robinson (R) in ‘Morris from America’

About Morris from America

Morris Gentry, a 13-year-old who has just relocated from the Bronx with his single father, Curtis to Heidelberg, Germany, fancies himself the next Notorious B.I.G.,—a budding hip-hop star in an EDM world.  To complicate matters further, Morris quickly falls hard for his cool, rebellious, 15-year-old classmate Katrin. Morris sets out against all odds to take the hip-hop world by storm and win the girl of his dreams.

Written and directed by Chad Hartigan (This is Martin Bonner), Morris from America won two prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and a Special Jury Award.

'Morris from America' and 'Little Men' are two poignant coming-of-age stories, centering on 13-year-old male teens thrown into a fish-out-of-water situation by their fathers. - Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Michael Barbieri (L) Theo Taplit (R) in ‘Little Men’

About Little Men

When 13-year-old Jake’s grandfather dies, his family moves from Manhattan back into his father’s old Brooklyn home. There, Jake befriends the charismatic Tony, whose single mother Leonor, a dressmaker from Chile, runs the shop downstairs. Soon, Jake’s parents Brian (a struggling actor) and Kathy (a psychotherapist) — ask Leonor to sign a new, steeper lease on her store. For Leonor, the proposed new rent is untenable, and a feud ignites between the adults. Meanwhile, the boys develop a kinship; Jake aspires to be an artist, while Tony wants to be an actor, and they have dreams of going to the same prestigious arts high school together. But they can’t avoid the problems of their parents and the adult conflict intrudes upon their friendship.

Directed by Ira Sachs (Love is Strange, Keep the Lights On, Forty Shades of Blue), screenplay by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharia.

Creating Empathy

Readers need to feel something for your characters. Whether it’s love, hate, disdain or pure delight, film industry folks expect to understand why your characters get along or don’t get along with their friends, family members, and others.

African American Morris Gentry (in Morris from America ) stands out in the German Caucasian youth center due to his skin color, and endures racial epitaphs, as teens sling stereotypical provocative words at him.  Though Morris is not yet fluent in the German language, the words are not lost on him.  For Little Men’s Jake, an aspiring artist, his move to Brooklyn and a new set of classmates who taunt him for not participating in their sports games (similar to Morris) makes the world of the new borough further isolating.

The two distinct settings of Brooklyn (Little Men) and Heidelberg, Germany (Morris from America) illustrate foreign and alienating worlds for protagonists Jake and Morris.  These two young teens must learn to navigate their respective new environments while overcoming personal familial obstacles.  Their respective journeys are successful because theirsituations are relatable; Jake and Morris are vulnerable, flawed, and believable.  They are empathetic.

Four Tips to Create Empathetic Characters

  1. CONFLICT: Agreements and disagreements, discords and disharmony, must be conveyed in a way that readers gain an understanding of what’s causing the root of their issues.
  2. HUMANIZE YOUR CHARACTERS: Give them identifiable histories, vulnerabilities, and behaviors. Whether your characters misbehave or are always on good behavior, demonstrate their specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors.
  3. MOTIVATIONS: The reasons your characters take the actions they do to help or hinder each other, stem from inward and outward motivations. Characters must have clear and plausible motivations that give insight into who they are and the actions they take.
  4. ATTITUDE: Characters must have specific attitudes towards each other. Show how your characters view themselves, relate to others.

Regardless of your script’s genre, empathetic protagonists attempting to overcome obstacles is compelling; it raises the stakes in your characters’ journeys, and adds more layers of conflict to the plot.

Morris and Jake are empathetic protagonists with distinct attitudes, motivations, and behaviors.  Their respective family losses prompt their fathers to make decisions that affect the young teens’ lives, prompting the major conflict in the films. The ways in which the boys handle and mishandle the consequences of their fathers’ choices, create characters the audience is rooting for to succeed.

Morris from America premieres exclusively on DirecTV Cinema.


The World is Your Characters’ Stage (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Top Ten Tips on Creating a Character’s World 


Susan Kouguell

Susan Kouguell is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and chairperson of the screenplay and post-production consulting company Su-City Pictures East She is the author of The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself ). Follow Susan on Twitter: @SKouguell

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THE WORLD IS YOUR CHARACTERS’ STAGE: Top Ten Tips on Creating a Character's World by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #amwriting

Where are we?  Why are we here?  What does this place really look like?

These are just a few of the questions you don’t want film executives asking themselves about your script because they are confused rather than intrigued.  If these film industry folks are questioning these ‘where, why, and what‘ issues, then you are risking your script getting rejected.

This is a topic I also detail in my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! – which I have summarized in my top 10 points below.

Top Ten Tips

  1. Effectively establish your settings so the reader can step into the world you have created with a complete understanding of how it looks and feels.
  2. Be faithful and consistent to the world you have created and its rules.
  3. Research the various settings and time periods in your script for accuracy and plausibility. For example, if your script is set in medieval times, indicate if the setting is a realistic down-and-dirty, muddy, smelly village or a genteel mythic pristine village.
  4. Action paragraphs should briefly describe elements, such as the technology used, barren wastelands, flying horses, and so on.
  5. Always keep in mind that action paragraphs should be as an interesting to read as your dialogue. Readers must quickly get a visual picture of the world you have created.
  6. If your screenplay is set in the past, don’t forget to include the year that your story takes place, otherwise you will confuse the reader.
  7. If your screenplay is set in the present day but jumps forward or backwards in time, always include the year or a reference to that particular change.
  8. Keep in mind that setting your script in a major city or a small town should not be a random decision — each setting will further define what your story is about and how your characters will behave and feel in this specific environment.
  9. Interior settings are equally important as exterior settings. Inform your reader by offering some details, such as specific trinkets in a living room; this will help define your characters and story.
  10. Settings can be an integral part of the plot; they can be specifically named, such as the Atlantic City setting in Louis Malle’s film Atlantic City, where the characters are defined by and are metaphors of this setting, or they can be generic settings which are equally specific in how they are defined, as seen in American Beauty (directed by Sam Mendes) where the picture perfect American suburb informs the plot and is a metaphor for the American Dream.

    The more plausible and/or logical things are, the more real your world will be for the film executive to want to turn the page.  Take the time to set the stage in your screenplay and indicate how your characters relate to their various environments. Well-executed settings will not only add an extra layer of depth to your screenplay, it will make your script shine in the eyes of film industry folks.


Happy Holidays to Your Screenplay’s Characters (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Happy Holidays to Your Screenplay’s Characters

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Happy Holidays to Your Screenplay’s Characters by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat

With the holidays underway, families are gathering to share in good cheer.  Or at least that’s what many families in the movies are attempting to do.  Yes, that’s their ‘goal’ — but what actually ensues when the parties get underway, is often filled with hilarity or drama — and sometimes both.  A variety of films such as Home for the Holidays (directed by Jody Foster), Home Alone (directed by Chris Columbus), Love Actually (directed by Richard Curtis), and It’s a Wonderful Life (directed by Frank Capra) continue to be found on many ‘best of’ lists. While their genres might differ, they share something poignant in common; they’ve touched upon some universal and relatable family issues and relationships.

Making the Most of Capturing the Holiday Family Dynamics in Your Screenplay

The ways in which characters relate to each other and the types of relationships they have, add the necessary layers of depth and conflict in a screenplay. Characters’ specific needs and goals can motivate them to seek help from one character for advice and assistance, or slyly befriend another character to achieve a goal. Relationships can be judgmental or nonjudgmental, one character can hold the other accountable for his or her actions, or assist the other through a challenging time. One character may have a hidden agenda and take advantage of another character, who is led to believe that he or she is being helped to achieve a goal, or characters can form an alliance to achieve a specific goal.

Getting to Know Your Characters Under Pressure


Love Actually

Understanding and conveying what makes your characters act and behave the way they do is imperative in a successful screenplay.

I follow my own advice that I offer my consulting clients and students, which is to write character biographies in your character’s voices (in the first person.)  Make it a fun exercise for yourself — once it becomes a chore, you’ll lose interest and it won’t truly help you bring the best out of your characters.

Choose whatever setting you feel will tap into the truths and minds of your characters.  Put your characters on a therapist’s couch, on a tense television talk show set, or even trapped in an in-law’s attic — the sky’s (the locations) the limit.

Here are some interview questions excerpted from my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! Your characters can answer some or all of the suggested questions below and/or you can invent some of your own.

Interviewer’s Questions

  • How do you feel being interviewed?
  • What are your hopes and dreams?
  • Describe the home where you grew up.
  • If you could be anywhere in the world right now where would it be?
  • What are your secrets?
  • Why are you keeping those secrets?
  • Describe your adversary, and explain how this person became your adversary.
  • Who makes you angry?
  • Who makes you happy?
  • Describe your family members.
  • Are you close to your family?
  • Is there one member of your family with whom you are particularly close?
  • Why do you feel close to this family member?
  • Is there one family member you despise and if so, why do you despise him or her?
  • Who are the most important people in your life, and why are they important to you?
When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally

Let’s close out 2015 with some holiday cheer from Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally. Here, Harry and Sally finally reunite at a New Year’s Eve party, and Harry proclaims:

“And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve.  I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

Happy Holidays!


HBO’s “Getting On” Will Scheffer talks collaboration, adaptation, the characters’ evolution & more (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Susan Kouguell Interviews HBO'S 'GETTING ON' Creator, Executive Producer and Writer Will Scheffer by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine

Mark V. Olsen (L) Will Scheffer (R) (Photo credit: Lacey Terrell / HBO)

I spoke with series creator, executive producer and writer Will Scheffer about the third and final season of his Emmy-nominated HBO series GETTING ON.  We talked about his collaboration with his husband Mark V. Olson on this series, adaptation, the characters’ evolution, and more.

Based on the BBC series of the same name, GETTING ON is created for American television by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer (co-creators of the acclaimed HBO series Big Love), the show follows the daily lives of overworked nurses and doctors as they struggle with the darkly comic realities of tending compassionately to their aging charges in a rundown, red-tape-filled hospital extended-care wing, blending outrageous humor with unexpected moments of tenderness.
Susan Kouguell Interviews HBO'S 'GETTING ON' Creator, Executive Producer and Writer Will Scheffer by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine

KOUGUELL: What did you learn as a writer and producer during these three seasons?

SCHEFFER: I think I always learn the same thing: “It’s about the people, stupid.” I learn it different ways, dealing with different problems and crisis and joys — but it’s about the people you collaborate with in all aspects of the production and also the people you’re doing it for. I also learned you can shoot a TV show in three days and it can still be excellent if you’re working with the right people.

KOUGUELL: Do you feel that your writing and/or collaboration with Mark has changed since Big Love and if so, how has it evolved?

SCHEFFER: It has. A lot. I used to be the first draft guy (and I still am on some or our projects) and then we’d trade drafts from there — but Mark really ran with the drafts of GETTING ON. And I felt more like I was connected to him at the hip, channeling. We talk a lot more now — before and during the drafting and we solve problems together like in a “dialogue” and then he’ll execute that in the writing.

GETTING ON developed in a special way because of time factors and other things, but I did less actual typing and more talking and feeding answers to Mark’s questions. It really felt like a good process for this show. We’ve already written three other “shows” where I did the first draft and Mark is the closer. And then I’ll get it back for some light polish. But GETTING ON was the show where I think I’d say we became a real writing team. With Mark I/we become better. We trust each other. I’ve had almost the same amount of time as a solo act and a duo 15 years and 10 years, respectively — and I know I’d have a body of work and a career without Mark, but I doubt very much I’d have this career. I’m grateful he finally pushed me into collaborating because he made me a better writer and thinker and luckily it’s made our marriage richer, too. We still write some things solo and we help each other on those. I’m a producer on some scripts of Mark’s that I never could have written and I’m just as proud of those as of our work together.

KOUGUELL: How much input, if any, do the actors have on the scripts?

SCHEFFER: I’d say they contribute. They make it better. But we hold the keys to that particular kingdom.

KOUGUELL: On the show’s trailer you mentioned that you are “digging deeper into the characters this season by introducing their family members.”

SCHEFFER: I think the whole season is about allowing the characters to become the patients, in a way. Their stories are what we’d usually call “the patient” stories.” Sure, we have a few great “guest patient” turns — but the show really comes together this year. It takes off like a plane.

KOUGUELL: How have the characters evolved from the first to your final season?

SCHEFFER: Well, like all good TV characters they haven’t evolved too much. I’d say they’ve become more themselves, if anything. Have they grown and learned why they were so f***ed up? No. But maybe they’ve admitted they were a little screwy to begin with. And they all so surprise us this year in ways you’ll have to watch to see. They’ve become more sure of who they are. They have to me, never been more of a joy to behold.


In a January 2014 article for this publication, I spoke with Will Scheffer about Season 1of this series in which he also offered insightful tips on pitching projects.

Learn more about GETTING ON:


Top Five Tips on Writing About Family Relationships (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Top Five Tips on Writing About Family Relationships

by Susan Kouguell

When one thinks about the word “family” many reactions quickly come to mind. There is the genuine, heartfelt response: “I have the best family ever” – to — “Oy vey. Don’t ask.” Every family has a story to tell. And every family relationship differs.

This is all true in real life, and it’s true in the world you are creating in your screenplay. Regardless of the genre you’re writing in, familial relationships should be conveyed with poignancy and depth.

In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I discuss family relationships. Here’s an excerpt:

Relationships between parents and children, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandparents, and so on, are wrought with misunderstandings, jealousy, poor communication, disappointments, as well as love, joy, and pride.

Top Five Tips on Writing About Family Relationships by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine

Complex mother/daughter relationships are depicted in such films as Terms of Endearment (written and directed by James L. Brooks), as seen in the stubborn and independence-seeking Emma and her possessive widowed mother Aurora, and in Mildred Pierce, (directed by Michael Curtiz, screenplay by Ranald MacDougall) in which Mildred, an overly devoted and hardworking mother, sacrifices everything for Veda, her spoiled, ungrateful, and insufferable daughter.

Equally complex father/son relationships are seen in Big Fish, (directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by John August) and Catch Me If You Can, (directed by Stephen Spielberg, screenplay by Jeff Nathanson). In Big Fish, traveling salesman Edward Bloom’s fabled tales about his fantastical life captivate everyone but his journalist son, Will, from whom he becomes estranged. When Will returns home to reconcile with his dying father, Edward does not understand how his stories have truly affected his son and Will struggles to accept his father for who he truly is. In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Jr., learns the art of deception from his father whom he tries to impress and financially supports. Although Frank Sr. senses that his son is a fraud, he does not confront him or tell him to stop his cons. As the plot unfolds, the father/son relationship shifts to Frank Jr. and FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who always tells Frank the truth, and repeatedly tells him to stop his cons.

Complicated sibling relationships are portrayed in such films as The Skeleton Twins (directed by Craig Johnson, screenplay by Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson), East of Eden (directed by Elia Kazan, screenplay by Paul Osborn), in which rival brothers, Cal—the unappreciated, insecure loner—and his twin, the dutiful and favored son, Aron—compete for their devoutly religious and self-righteous father’s love. In Sweetie (written and directed by Jane Campion) the emotionally unstable, self-centered, overtly sexual, and manipulative Dawn (known as Sweetie) brings chaos and hurt to the lives of her parents and her sister, Kay—who, wrought with her own set of emotional issues, despises Sweetie for creating unrelenting trouble for their dysfunctional family yet is the only one, who attempts to save her life at the end.

Unstable family relationships are portrayed in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and in writer/director Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages. The Squid and the Whale examines the Berkman family’s transition and redefinition when parents Bernard and Joan decide to divorce. Teenage sons, Walt and Frank, prematurely come of age, struggling with their conflicted and confused emotions, as they must cope with the repercussions of their estranged parents’ respective actions. In The Savages, Wendy, an aspiring Manhattan playwright, and her brother, John, a theater professor in Buffalo, New York, are forced to come to terms with their respective troubled lives and romantic relationships, when they must take care of their unsympathetic father, who is suffering from dementia.

Top Five Tips

  1. EMPATHY: Characters’ relationships with family members must be empathetic. Readers need to feel something for your characters’ relationships whether it’s love or hate; they need to understand their dynamics, as to why they get along or don’t get along.
  2. CONFLICT: Regardless of the genre you are writing in, agreements and disagreements, discords and disharmony, must be conveyed in a way that readers gain an understanding of what’s causing the root of their issues.
  3. MAKE THEM HUMAN: Even if your characters are nonhuman (such as the father/son relationship in Finding Nemo) – humanize your characters by giving them identifiable histories, vulnerabilities, and behaviors. Whether your characters misbehave or are always on good behavior, demonstrate their specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors.
  4. MOTIVATIONS: The reasons your characters take the actions they do to help or hinder each other in families, stem from inward and outward motivations. Characters must have clear and plausible motivations that give insight into who they are and the actions they take.
  5. ATTITUDE: Characters must have specific attitudes towards each other. Show how your characters view themselves, relate to others or don’t fit in with their family members.

In real life and in the movies, and in comedies and dramas, successfully drawn family relationships can offer insight, truths, nods of understanding, if not a few chuckles along the way.



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character biographies 2

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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Top Ten Tips for Writing Memorable Minor Characters (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

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Top Ten Tips for Writing Memorable Minor Characters

by Susan Kouguell

Film industry folks are always looking for compelling and  attention-grabbing protagonists and antagonists in a well-crafted screenplay. That, fellow screenwriters, is not really ground-breaking news, but there is a consistent grievance that echoes the halls of studios and production companies throughout the land. Actually, it’s a consistent complaint. It’s all about those ignored minor characters also known as supporting characters.
The complaints go something like this: “These characters are dull, interchangeable, one-dimensional, predictable, stereotypical…”
What happens next? The screenplay is rejected. The writer is not considered for writing assignments. It’s a sad day in screenplay land.
Supporting characters can and should be memorable. For example: In All About Eve, (written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) minor character Birdie Coonan helps to propel the narrative forward by expressing her doubts about antagonist Eve Harrington’s intentions to protagonist Margo Channing. Birdie Coonan is memorable because she is also distinct; she’s direct and doesn’t mince words.
In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I analyze Betty, a memorable minor character and her arc in Five Easy Pieces directed by Bob Rafelson, screenplay by Adrien Joyce.
In this film, protagonist Bobby Dupea abandoned his promising career as a concert pianist and now works as an oil rigger in the California oil fields. After hearing from his sister that his father is dying, Bobby returns to his wealthy, cultured family’s Washington home where he attempts to reconcile with his father, falls for his brother’s sophisticated wife, and later abandons his brash but well-meaning live-in girlfriend, Rayette.
Betty, a minor character, who appears in only three scenes, advances the narrative by providing subtle insights about Bobby. (This is also an example of the rule of threes. This rule can be applied to a specific action that occurs at three different times during the film or to a character, who appears three times in the film. In the rule of threes, the third time the action or dialogue is seen or heard again, there is a variation from the first two times.)

'Five Easy Pieces'


Betty’s First Scene: The Set Up
Betty and her friend, Twinky, meet and flirt with Bobby in the bowling alley where they are playing in an adjacent lane. During Betty and Bobby’s dialogue exchange, Betty reveals that she has taken on a new identity separate from her childhood when she tells him that her real name is Shirley but she is called Betty: (Like Bobby, she has taken on a new identity separate from her childhood.) Although Bobby’s girlfriend, Rayette, is waiting for him outside in their car, Bobby flirts back. Betty’s new identity is a significant clue to Bobby’s character; he is portrayed as a working-class guy, but in fact, his family is wealthy, and was a concert pianist.

Betty’s Second Scene: The Build
Singing and partying with another couple, Betty, bouncing on Bobby’s lap, recounts a childhood incident with her mother, which also foreshadows Bobby’s estranged and complicated relationship with his father. 

Betty’s Third Scene: The Resolution
Betty and Bobby have no dialogue while they have sex. Bobby is seen being unfaithful to Rayette, which shows rather than tells the audience about his character. It also sets up Bobby’s infidelity when he later returns to his family’s home and has an affair with his brother’s wife while Rayette is waiting for him in the motel.

Top Ten Memorable Minor Character Tips

  1. Use minor characters to propel your plot forward.
  2. Minor characters can act as a sounding board, a mirror to the protagonist’s soul, and/or knowingly or unknowingly assist your protagonist in achieving his or her goal.
  3. Minor characters can help advance the protagonist’s storyline forward, reveal information, and/or give additional insight about major characters, including back-story, which will help you to avoid writing exposition.
  4. Use minor characters to assist in creating or reinforcing the mood and tone of your script, and to give color to the world you have created.
  5. Utilize minor characters to further reveal the atmosphere and era of your setting.
  6. Minor characters can bring a different perspective to your story.
  7. Minor characters can prevent your protagonist from running away from a problem or encourage your protagonist not to run away.
  8. Take advantage of your minor characters by having them provide insight into your main characters’ storylines.
  9. Minor characters’ behaviors, attitudes and idiosyncrasies, will help to set the tone of a scene.
  10. Each minor character in your screenplay must serve a purpose, otherwise cut them.

Take the time to develop your minor characters as you do your major characters. Don’t give film industry executives more to complain about!



Top Ten Tips for Creating Winning Characters (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Top Ten Tips for Creating Winning Characters

Here is an excerpt from my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays!:


Story generates plot; it informs what the narrative is about. The plot informs how the story unfolds. And it is your riveting characters who must inform and drive your plot forward.


Who will live? Who will die? How will they survive?

Who will win? Who will lose? How will they win? How will they lose?

Who will succeed? Who will fail? How will they succeed? How will they fail?

Who will find love? How will they find love?

These aforementioned generic movie taglines, emphasize the significant word “who”— your characters.

To create a believable and compelling plot, your characters must be fleshed out and their distinct characterizations (motivations, behavior, attitudes, and so on), must be gripping and plausible in order to drive the plot forward. When you try to get characters to do what the plot determines, then your characters’ actions, behaviors, and motivations will not be realistic, and they will read as false and contrived.

'Forrest Gump'

Top Ten Tips for Creating Characters

1. EMPATHY: Film industry folks demand characters with whom they can empathize. If they don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about your script and in turn, you have increased your chances of screenplay rejection.

2. GOALS: Convey what your characters’ want and how far they will go to achieve their goals.

3. CONFLICT: Regardless of the genre you are working in and whether your characters are having an inner discord or disputes with others, their conflicts must make sense and must be interesting, in order to raise the stakes in your plot.

4. REASON TO EXIST: Each character must serve a purpose in your script and advance the narrative in some way otherwise you must say “good-bye” and cut this character.

5. UNIQUE: Characters must be unique with distinctive and/or surprising personalities. If they are interchangeable with other characters, then it’s time to rewrite your script.

6. MAKE THEM HUMAN: Unless your characters are nonhuman of course – humanize your characters by giving them identifiable appearances and idiosyncrasies.

7. MOTIVATIONS: Characters must have clear and plausible motivations that give insight into who they are and the actions they take.

8. BEHAVIOR: Whether your characters misbehave or are always on good behavior, your need to convey their specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors and traits.

9. ATTITUDE: Characters must have specific attitudes towards each other. Show how your characters view themselves, relate to others or don’t fit in.

10. FLAWS: Characters’ flaws, such as insecurities, make them more identifiable and interesting.


The Satisfying Scene


The Satisfying Scene

Scenes must have a reason to exist in your screenplay. Each scene must advance the plot forward through dialogue and/or visual storytelling.  Characters’ journeys drive the script’s narrative, and each scene must steer their journey forward.  Although some scenes might not even contain any characters, these scenes must still provide information about your plot, as well as your characters’ lives and actions. There is no set rule as to how many lines, paragraphs, or pages constitute a scene.

In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I analyze Sleepless in Seattle (directed by Nora Ephron, screenplay by Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch).  Here’s an excerpt:

In the romantic comedy, reporter Annie Reed crosses the country to meet a man she has never met after hearing his young son on a call-in radio show, seeking help to find a new wife for his widowed father.

In this scene example we find Annie and Barbara, having a warm mother/daughter talk in the attic.

The Scene Objective:

Annie starts reexamining her feelings about Walter.

Scene Summary:

While trying on her grandmother’s wedding dress, the newly engaged Annie tells her mother, Barbara, about how she and her fiancé, Walter, met. Mother and daughter differ when it comes to believing in destiny, signs, and magic in a relationship—Barbara is a believer while Annie is a pragmatist. The scene concludes as Annie, wearing her grandmother’s wedding dress, hugs her mother and the dress rips. Annie now believes in signs.

The Scene Arc:

In the beginning of the scene, Annie doesn’t believe in destiny and expresses her certainty about her upcoming marriage to Walter. By the end of the scene, Annie is having some subtle doubts when she realizes that she doesn’t have the same type of magic with Walter that her mother felt for her father when they met, and Annie is beginning to believe in destiny.


About the Author

Susan Kouguell, award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, is the author of THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises (available at $1.00 with DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD: ).   Susan is a regular contributor to Indiewire/SydneysBuzz, Script Magazine and The Script Lab.

Kouguell teaches screenwriting at Purchase College, SUNY and presents international seminars. As chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990, Kouguell works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, executives and studios worldwide.  Recipient of many grants and fellowships, including the MacDowell Colony, Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Edward Albee Foundation, Kouguell’s short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial.  Kouguell worked with director Louis Malle on his film And the Pursuit of Happiness, was a story analyst and story editor for many studios, (Paramount, Viacom, Dustin Hoffman’s Punch Productions), wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies. Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell on Twitter, and read more articles on her blog:



Writer/Director Noah Baumbach Discusses

While We’re Young

by Susan Kouguell

Displaying NOAH1.JPG Photo Credit: Tatiana Kouguell-Hoell

In writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest film While We’re Young, a middle-aged couple’s marriage and career are turned upside down when a disarming twenty-something couple enters their lives. Thematically, the film centers on age – growing up and growing older in one’s relationship and career, as well as taking ownership of one’s life.

I asked Noah Baumbach about his writing process on While We’re Young and how strictly he stuck to the script as the director.

Baumbach smiles and states: “My writing process is not going on the Internet.” More serious now, he continues: “I have to spend a lot of time on the script – for me, and for the actors. I stick close to the script when shooting. Scripts are a blueprint of a film. Actors bring their own interpretations. Going on set with actors on location you discover even more about the characters. Knowing that you are going to discover something else about the characters on location is something I have to acknowledge. I think about how it is going to be when they are in a certain location, how they are going to react. As the director, you’re guiding and controlling what you can.”

When asked about Jamie’s character (played by Adam Driver) Baumbach responds to the line in the film about Jamie: “He’s not evil. He’s just young.” Baumbach states: “I think that’s true. He is who he is.”



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