Posted by: steveonfilm | March 15, 2009

Testing The Waters

I’ve often found that there is only so much prep work I can do prior to writing before I get burned out by the prep work in and of itself. You know what I’m saying? There is only so much writing before the writing a person can do before they get sick of it.

I’ve never been good at developing a character on a piece of paper. I can’t just sit down and come up with a back story for them. I LOATHE trying to figure out what they’d done with themselves for the first 15, 20, 30, 40 years of their life. It’s like, I know who the character is, I did create them after all. So I never saw the point, regardless of what Syd Field says, of creating these huge and detailed character histories.

For example, say you’ve got a character who is an antisocial teenage girl. She was sexually abused by her step father off and on for about ten years. She’s slept with ten guys in her high school, several of them without protection. She doesn’t drink but smokes a lot of pot. And yet she manages to keep pretty much an A average.

That’s a lot of stuff to work with for a character. Those key details can pretty much be reflected on to determine how that character would react in basically any situation. Do you really need to know what they did in third grade? Who they sat behind in Geography class? What they did to celebrate their 5th birthday?

In my opinion you don’t. You know who the character is because A, you created them, and B, you decided on a few key elements of who they are. It’s those key elements that define who the characters are. You use those key elements to determine how a character will act. Those elements determine their world view, personality, and life.

When I’ve got the core of my characters down I like to role play a little bit. I take some scenes, or major beats, that the characters take part in, and just game them out on paper. I’m not worried about rules, flow, punctuation, and screenplay formatting, I just write some scenes just to write them. I role play the characters. Get a feel for how they act, talk, react. I take what I’ve set up as their key elements and explore them through scenes.

This is something I’ve only recently started doing in the last two years, and for me it’s been a big success. Sometimes I just role play out a story one of the characters is telling the other one. Sometimes I role play out how the characters would react riding a bus.

A lot of writers will tell you that your characters don’t really start talking to you until you’re about half way through the script. This is exactly the kind of thing I want to learn how to avoid. I need them to talk to me from page one. Role playing things out prior to writing the script helps me accomplish that.

Some of the scenes will end up making it into the final draft, such as a major plot point I role play out. Others will never see the light of day outside the role play or test scene sheet. But all of them help get my characters to talk to me before I start writing.

I’ve decided to share a few scenes of something I’m working on right now. This is some of my role playing. You’ll see some characters pop up more than once. This stuff is rough, as it should be. I’m trying things out, learning dynamics, character traits, experimenting. These scenes don’t even necessarily represent stuff that’s related to the actual script. This is like what artists do with their sketchpads.

So take a gander and don’t be afraid to try it out yourself. These are NOT posted in the order I wrote them.

——————TEST SCENE 1——————–

EXT. RUN DOWN TOWNHOME – NIGHT
The paint on the front porch wore off long ago. A crack in one of the bay windows. The place has seen better days.

Ryan walks up to the front door, unlocks, and enters.

INT. RUN DOWN TOWNHOME – CONTINUOUS
A blue hue from the family room suggest someone watching TV. Ryan rounds the corner to find Cindy asleep.

He goes to turn off the TV but stops. It’s a family video. A birthday party. People. Balloons. A YOUNG RYAN sits at the head of the table. A space for a cake in front of him.

As everyone begins to sing happy birthday, the camera zooms back revealing Cindy holding an INFANT SHAWN in her arms.

A MAN rounds the corner holding a birthday cake filled with candles. A big grin on his face. Young Ryan’s face lights up.

Ryan turns the TV and VCR off.

He covers Cindy with a blanket. She rolls over.

CINDY
(mumbling)
Happy birthday Ryan.

HALLWAY
Ryan notices a light from under a door. He cracks it open and discovers Shawn, bald, pale, in bed reading a comic book by flashlight.

RYAN
You know, that’s not good for your eyes.

SHAWN’S ROOM

Shawn perks up.

SHAWN
Ryan!

Ryan sits down on the bed and turns on the lamp.

SHAWN (CONT’D)
The lamp’s too bright. Gives me a headache if I turn it on.

RYAN
Darkness it is.

Ryan reaches over and turns the lamp off.

SHAWN
Does mom know you’re–

RYAN
She’s asleep. I just stopped by to check on something.

SHAWN
She was watching movies again.

RYAN
I know. You, mister, should be sleeping too, instead of following the greater adventures of Superman.

SHAWN
I know. I know.

Ryan gets up and Shawn snuggles into bed.

RYAN
Don’t tell mom I was here, okay?

SHAWN
Why?

RYAN
Just don’t, ‘kay?

Shawn nods.

KITCHEN
Dishes, clean and dirty, liter the counter. Ryan washes what’s in the sink.

He spots some mail near the phone. He turns off the sink, dries his hands, and takes a look.
Past due notices. Collection letters. He stops at a foreclosure notice. It’s signed “Sincerely Leonard Hooper.”

He folds it and puts it in his pocket.

——————TEST SCENE 2——————–

INT. BARE BONES APARTMENT – DAY
DETECTIVE MIKE KOTERIC and TWO OTHER COPS watch a small monitor. Old coffee cups and fast food wrappers litter the table. They’ve been watching this monitor for a while.

On the monitor TWO MEN look over some papers. One of the men we know as the SLICK LOOKING GUY.

Koteric’s phone rings.

KOTERIC
Yeah … Be there in twenty.

Koteric grabs his coat.

KOTERIC (CONT’D)
These guy so much as fart and I want to know about it.

INT. UPPER VALLEY CREDIT UNION – DAY
A patrolman interviews Burt off in the corner. Koteric looks around, taking in some of the work the CSI is doing.

He’s greeted by DETECTIVE JEFF LIM.

KOTERIC
Same guys who hit Clemmons Federal?

LIM
It’s their MO. Small branch. Light security. Hit about an hour after a cash drop.

The duo make their way to the Back Room.

BACK ROOM
The rooms still’s a mess. Metal. Soot. Safe door laying on the floor.

Lim kneels down next to the safe and points with his pen.

LIM (CONT’D)
Brute force entry on the safe. Charges here, here, and here. They snapped the hinges and lock, and the door came right off. Whole job took all of three minutes.

Koteric lights a cigarette.

KOTERIC
Anything on the cameras?

LIM
Nope. Power was cut prior to entry.

KOTERIC
They run a–

LIM
Repeater on the call box? Not this time. Silent alarm wasn’t triggered until after they were gone.

Koteric takes a long drag, then peers around the scene again.

KOTERIC
What’s a bunch of major leaguers dicking around in the minors for?

——————TEST SCENE 3——————–

EXT. VALLEY CREDIT UNION – DAY
A small, free standing building. Single window drive through. Aging ATM near the front door.
A few parked cars populate the limited spaces available.

INT. VALLEY CREDIT UNION – CONTINUOUS
The bank lobby is empty, save for a single PATRON at the teller line.

A FEMALE TELLER, name tag says CATHY, smiles as she hands some cash over to the patron.

The patron quickly counts it, then stuffs it into his wallet and exits the otherwise empty lobby.

A water cooler in the corner burps some air bubbles.

Cathy scans the empty lobby and sighs.

CATHY
Burt, I’m going on break. Come cover the teller line.

BURT (O.S.)
One sec.

Cathy leaves the teller line and straightens up some bank pamphlets on a nearby table.

THREE FIGURES enter. All dressed the same. Navy blue jumpsuit. Black balaclava. Black tactical sunglasses. Thick military style canvas bag.

The point man is RYAN (20s), lean, medium build. He grabs Cathy by the arm.

RYAN
On the ground!

Cathy is startled and lets out a scream.

RYAN (CONT’D)
Down! Now!

Cathy does as she’s told.

BIG JOHN (30s), heavy but nimble, locks the double doors with some chains. No one is getting in.

DREW hustles to the teller line as BURT, balding and sporting a pot belly, comes out from the back.

BURT
Cathy, did the power just go–

Drew points a 9mm handgun at Burt.

DREW
Shut your mouth fatty and get down on the ground!

Burt immediately drops to the ground.

Ryan and Drew zip tie Cathy and Burt’s hands behind their backs.

Big John starts taking money from the teller drawers. He’s careful to leave the die packs of twenty dollar bills alone.

INT. VALLEY CREDIT UNION – BACK ROOM – CONTINUOUS
Office desk and chair. A small beige safe sits on the ground against the back wall.

Ryan and Drew enter.

RYAN
Pop it.

Drew grabs some plastic explosive from his bag, and places it on the safe’s combination dial.
He sets the timer for ten seconds.

Ryan and Drew take cover.

DREW
Fire in the hole!

BAM!

The explosive blows the door to the safe wide open. Drew and Ryan quickly empty it’s contents into their bags.

BANK LOBBY
Ryan and Drew enter, bags full. Big John is crouched next Burt an Cathy, eyes locked on the front door.

Ryan pats him on the back.

RYAN
All clear.

Ryan and Drew head for the back door.

BIG JOHN
Stay on the ground! Don’t look up! Don’t move! Don’t even think!

Big John gets up and follows Ryan and Drew.

Ryan kicks the door open.

A BLACK GETAWAY VAN is waiting, rear doors already open. Ryan, Big John, and Drew hop in and shut the door.

INT. GETAWAY VAN – CONTINUOUS
The driver, KEVAN (30s), sporting the same garb as the others, has his attention focused on the police scanner.

Ryan moves up into the front seat, removing his balaclava.

RYAN
Anything?

KEVAN
Clear so far.

RYAN
Let’s roll.

Kevan puts the van into gear.

INT. VALLEY CREDIT UNION – CONTINUOUS
Burt looks over at Cathy. She’s crying.

BURT
You okay?

Cathy nods, the tears causing her mascara to run.

He rolls over to his back and looks out the back door as the van drives off.

He manages to get to his feet and goes to the teller line and presses the silent alarm.

INT. GETAWAY VAN – CONTINUOUS
Everyone inside the van is taking off their jumpsuits and the balaclavas covering their face, Kevan included.

POLICE SCANNER
All units, we have a silent alarm trigger at Upper Valley Credit Union.

Drew moves up to the front of the cab and listens in.

DREW
I told that fat bastard to stay on the ground.

Ryan doesn’t look pleased.

RYAN
You were supposed to tie them up.

DREW
I did!

RYAN
Not just their hands dipshit. Tie them to a desk or something. How many time have we done this now, come on.

POLICE SCANNER
Any available units in the vicinity please respond. Phone contact with bank underway.

RYAN
Get this thing moving Kevan, we’ve got to clean it up pronto.

INT. VALLEY CREDIT UNION
Burt is has the speakerphone on at one of the teller stations. A few patrons look in from outside the front door.

BURT
Three of them. They drove off in a black work van. Blew the safe right open.

INT. GETAWAY VAN – CONTINUOUS
Kevan drives behind a strip mall and pulls up behind a four door Honda Civic.

POLICE SCANNER
All units be on the look out for a three males wanted in connection to the robbery at Valley Credit Union, traveling in a black work van.

KEVAN
Not anymore we ain’t.

Everyone exits the van.

EXT. GETAWAY VAN – CONTINUOUS
Drew stuffs a jumpsuit into his duffel bag and then tosses it into a nearby dumpster.

The rest of the crew peel off a black vinyl wrap on the van, revealing white paint underneath.

Kevan puts a large oval magnet with the logo “Mort’s Repair Services” on each side.

Ryan tosses the vinyl into the dumpster. He and Big John get into the Civic with one of the remaining duffle bags. They drive off.

That’s it. You can see where I play with things. Sometimes I’ve overly vague, other times overly detailed. But these are the kinds of scenes I’ll write to understand my characters. Figure out what I like and don’t like about them. I can already tell you that when Ryan says, “Get this thing moving Kevan, we’ve got to clean it up pronto.” that it doesn’t fit his character. It strikes me as odd. He wouldn’t use the word pronto. But that’s something I didn’t figure out until later, as I explored his character and got to know him.

Some of this stuff may or may not make it into the actual script. I’m still working on outlining the story past the paradigm. But hopefully by the time i start writing, I’ll have a clear grasp of all of my characters.

Until then…

Enjoy.
-Steve

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Responses

  1. I’m a bit behind, but I’m catching up. Promise. I’ll be here soon…


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