And Out of Character Comes the Ten Elements of Screenwriting

There’s a big difference between character and characterization. Characterization is all the work we do trying to figure out who our characters are. Usually this consists of filling out profiles about personality, mannerisms, private thoughts, etc. Character, however, is created through action–what he or she does and says. Think about it, one of our characters might describe himself as having a good sense of humor; however, we see him getting defensive when his friend makes an innocent joke about his choice of clothes that day. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about creating complex characters–we all have contradictions in our personality–but we better make sure there’s a reason why at this particular moment he chooses to get upset at the comment. We also better make sure we see examples of his normal sense of humor.

Sometimes the best way to get to know our characters is not by creating tons of lists about physical and personality traits but by putting them into situations and see how they act. For instance, you might want to ask open-ended questions, such as if your character was in a house fire and could only rescue one member of her family, whom would she save and why? Or if your character was hurrying to the hospital to see his best friend before surgery and he witnesses a stranger attempting suicide, does he stop to help the stranger? Why or why not?

Once you start to get an idea of who your characters really are and how they respond to certain situations, you can begin to use this knowledge to plot out your story. Wait–I thought we were working on character this week, not plot? Well, we are, but everything that happens in your story, essentially happens because of your characters. This is where the Ten Elements of Screenwriting come in.

1. Back Story–this is everything that happens to your character before the story begins. Basically, this is how your character has evolved into the person he or she is today. Usually, there is some meaningful event or events that shape your character’s life and personality. Sometimes the antagonist may have even played a part in your protagonist’s past. Whatever your character’s back story is it gives us insight into her motives, actions, and responses in the present story.

2. Internal Need–your character needs to acquire a personal attribute to be truly happy with themselves and their life. They might not know what it is on a conscious level, but you should. Think about things involving the self-image like courage, compassion, forgiveness, self-reliance, ability to love. Often the Internal Need is related to or is responsible for their biggest character flaw. You would not say your character needs $1 million dollars to be truly be happy, but she could very well need the sense of security that money represents to her. This may in fact be the reason why she is also misrepresented as being greedy. There will always be something in your character’s back story to support this flaw.

3. Inciting Incident–Remember the house fire I mentioned earlier? This could very well be an inciting incident. As is anything that presents the protagonist with a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome, or a choice to make. It upsets the balance and the status quo of the character’s life, and it begins the action of the story. Inciting incidents come in three types: ACTION–a swimmer is killed by a shark (Jaws), A PIECE OF INFORMATION–the Nazis are about to discover the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark), or even by another character called a CATALYST–Ilsa asks Rick for Letters of Transit to enable her husband’s escape from the Nazis (Casablanca).

4. External Goal–Ah, this is what your protagonist thinks will make her happy–$1 million perhaps? It’s also an action or an object that the main character thinks will solve the problem presented by the Inciting Incident. It could be something like finding that special love, rescuing someone from danger, saving the world from zombies, Nazis, or aliens. It could even be something like finding the Fountain of Youth or the Meaning of Life. Whatever it is, it requires three things to function: STAKES–if the goal isn’t met, something great will be lost (the fate of the world anybody?), OPPOSITION–there has to be someone else intent on making sure the main character doesn’t achieve it, and DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY–the goal must be sufficiently difficult to achieve so that the protagonist changes while trying to reach it.

5. Preparation–now that your protagonist has decided to go after something, he has to devise a plan or strategy on how to do it. He has to gather resources, equipment, and allies. If your main character is the Karate Kid, you would probably have to enlist the help of someone who can train him in martial arts. He’d also have to develop strength and skill not just in body but in mind as well. How he goes about this is the preparation you must come up with as the screenwriter. But you can’t make it too easy for him either. You have to create obstacles or barriers that block your character’s journey, thus allowing him to change and grow as a person. And the stronger he gets, the greater your obstacles have to become. Make your protagonist work for it!

6. Opposition–this is another fancy word for any outside force trying to prevent the main character from reaching his goal. We most often see the opposition being represented by another character called an antagonist, but this isn’t always the case. It could be a vast ocean, a force of nature, or an element of weather. If your opposition is another character, he or she needs to either have the same goal as the protagonist or one that is mutually exclusive. He or she must also have unlimited resources and be more powerful than the main character. Sorry, but even with all the preparation and strategy, the protagonist must fail.

7. Self-Revelation–this is what happens when the main character has essentially failed at all attempts of achieving her internal goal. She runs out of resources and allies, and she becomes conscious of her Internal Need. This is best represented by action rather than dialogue. No one wants to hear a character say, “I finally learned that what I really need is a sense of security, not a million dollars.” How do you know when your main character has reached self-revelation? When she tries one more time to solve the problem or overcome the challenge even in the face of failure and death. Two hours ago, she never would have done that. She would have continued to live unenlightened and remain in the status quo. (Does this sound like your life?) Think of Self-Revelation as coming in two parts: DARK MOMENT–this is the point of failure, and NEW STIMULUS–your character gets up and tries again.

8. Obsession–you may have heard this being referred to as the second plot point. Basically, your protagonist makes that crucial decision to try one last time. He focuses even more intently on the goal despite the stakes being at an all-time high. What does this say about his character? It should say something pretty special because there is nothing left to lose and yet, still, he continues. This is quite honestly the most important thing you can show about your main character. And again, it is shown through an action. It could be something as small as lifting his bloodied head off the ground or as big as getting down on one knee before an ex-lover to ask forgiveness one last time, but it shouldn’t be him saying, “I will live to fight another day.”

9. Battle–Well, what story would be complete without the ultimate showdown between good and evil, protagonist and antagonist? This time there is no compromise; it is a fight to the death, literally and figuratively. This is what the audience has invested all their emotions in, and they want to be satisfied. They want the main character to win, but even if he doesn’t, he has to achieve his Internal Need. He has to grow and change and know he has.

10. Resolution–you showed what your main character was like before she committed to solving some huge problem, before she realized what it is she truly needed to be happy, now you get to show us how she’s changed because she has it. Remember, your protagonist will never be the same person she was at the beginning of the story.

So there you have it. All the ten elements of screenwriting are intrinsically linked to character not characterization.

Exercise for the week: Fill in the details of each of the ten elements as it pertains to the “character” of your protagonist. Although you may not know what each and every obstacle will be, you should have some idea how your main character will respond to them. Try to make sure there is a pretty sizable difference between who your protagonist is at the beginning of the story and who she is at the end.

Bonus exercise: Your new protagonist encounters the old protagonist. How does he or she respond to his or her way of life, insecurities, thought-process, etc.


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