Nice to Meet You

What is the purpose in a film of two characters meeting one another and introducing themselves?

For one thing, it allows the audience to know the characters’ names. Also, some small bits of character information are often relayed in an introduction. But that’s all exposition. And poorly handled exposition is boring. It’s a big sign that tells the audience “We couldn’t find a clever, dramatic way to convey this information to you. So sorry.”

First meetings are a whole series of complex social calculations. Think about the inherent tensions, even the smallest of tensions, that exist in that interaction. What do you think about? Are you intimidated by this new person? Trying to intimidate them? Do you find them attractive, or wonder if they find you attractive?

Think about history. What do each of the characters meeting each other know about the other? Are they hiding anything from one another? Is there something that they think they’ve hidden from the other person that isn’t a secret?

And remember, this is a first meeting. It’s rare for people to hit it off from the moment they’re introduced. It takes conversation. A little sizing up of one another. It’s much more likely that there will be some first impression about one of the characters that rubs the other the wrong way.

Alright, so you’ve thought about these things, and you still need to have these two characters meet for the story to work. How can you make it dynamic? Here are a few ideas to jump start you:

1. The Connector: Do they need to introduce themselves? Is there a third party that might be introducing them (aka, a smaller character that can take Exposition Duty so that the principal characters can stay focused on their deeper goals and motivations)? Also, think about how a Connector character can name both of these characters and bring them together without directly introducing one to the other.

2. Avoid the handshake: Unless you have a piece of business to make it unique in some way, watching two people meet and shake hands is the cliché to avoid. Any two characters can say hi and shake hands. Think about what specific actions your character would take in this situation. Maybe it would be shaking hands, but how they do it is what matters.

3. This is a conversation, not a CV: Which of the following sounds more natural?

“I’m Mark Smithson.”

“Of course I know who you are. In 1999, you were behind the merger that combined three smaller telecoms into the goliath ConnecTech that stood up to the FCC’s investigation and attempt to re-divide the business through antitrust proceedings.”


“I’m Mark Smithson.”

“So you are. Still on the FCC’s shit list?”

We don’t get as much information from the second one, but in this situation we also learn something about the character speaking. Not only do we know that the person they’ve met is a powerful individual who has personally drawn the wrath of a government regulatory board, but now we know from the flippant tone of the questioner that they may share a certain disdain for the FCC. The other information? That can be filled in as needed, because…

4. Give us enough, but no more: Play around with how much information about each of these characters that we really need at this moment, and what can be held on to for later. If something isn’t going to be necessary for the next few scenes, use that time to deliver it. Overloading an introduction with character information will draw attention to the awkwardness of the meeting.

Inside Baseball

Any time you have jargon or character motivations that can only be understood with an existing thorough knowledge of the world of the story, that’s Inside Baseball.

This isn’t to say that you don’t want to place your story in a specific world, or that you should shy away from telling stories that take place outside of the normal experience of the majority of people. It’s a question of balance.

There are ways to ease an audience into a specific world. Consider the Audience Surrogate. Ever notice how many TV pilots involve a New Person being introduced into an existing world, and how people need to explain things to this New Person?

It’s because we, the audience, need this information. If we’re going to follow anything that’s happening, we’re helped by having somebody inside the story that needs to find out the same information we do.

This doesn’t mean that a Surrogate should be on the receiving end of pages of expository dialogue. The difficult task is finding clever and sneaky ways to hide information for the audience inside the action of the story, like sticking a disgusting chewable pill in a spoonful of peanut butter.

The larger point, though, is never take for granted that your audience will have the same level of understanding of a specific world that you do. In fact, you should know more about it than they do. But, as you tell your story, you need to remember to let the audience in on the workings of this world. Be it a mythic kingdom or the trading floor of the stock market, the audience needs to be able to follow the rules if they’re going to have any hope of paying attention to the specific story you’re trying to tell.

GTD & Screenwriting: Next Actions

Go pick up a copy of Getting Things Done. This isn’t a suggestion. It’s a requirement.

Your characters, especially your protagonist, should have something that they want. Unless you want to have a great degree of difficulty figuring out how to fill up screenplay pages, you should use that goal as a guide to figure out the active steps they take to attempt to achieve it.

This is where GTD comes in. To greatly oversimplify the system, you first determine a general picture of what a successful life looks like. You then determine what concrete things you would need to achieve to make this general idea your reality. These are your projects; your goals. With each project comes a series of smaller tasks you must accomplish in order to complete it. GTD helps to order these tasks so you can easily determine which one is the next action you should take.

Apply this process to your characters. GTD can become a character-based form of outlining, where you dig into their desires and look for potential scenes that best show their pursuit of these desires. Is there an action that they need to take that might be particularly difficult? Is there something essential to their being able to continue that they need to accomplish first?

A GTD outline for your character can also become a checklist to follow along with as you revise your script. As you read through, mark off the tasks that your character is accomplishing. See what’s been missed. See what else they might need to do.

Your character doesn’t necessarily need to have access to this list, but you should. In helping to determine potential actions and pitfalls for your characters, knowing the best path for them to take will help you create interesting detours. It will help you keep track of things your character may have forgotten about, things they don’t want to have to do (but must), or new problems that they need to tackle along the way.

And there’s nothing that says you can’t use the system for yourself while you’re at it.

Protagonists Should Make Mistakes

For our purposes, a mistake should be taken to mean any action or decision that leads to further negative consequences for the character. Even something that could be seen as an objectively good action (ex: A child feeds a hungry, stray dog) can have additional consequences (The dog follows the child home, and her/his parents do not want a dog in the house.)

Mistakes deepen our understanding of a character. An individual’s choices are informed by their backstory, their priorities, their temperament, and so on. What is important to your character? What blind spots does your character have? When faced with a difficult decision, what’s the mental flow chart they go through to make the call, and how does this differ from the “ideal” path to a solution? When they misstep, what does it show us about their inner workings?

Mistakes create room for further conflict. The only time that a character should be able to potentially come up with the perfect solution to their problems should be close to the end of a story. If they solve everything before then, there’s nowhere else for the story to go. An imperfect/mistaken solution creates the potential for additional conflict/problems/story.

None of this is to say that a writer should force a character to make mistakes. That way leads to the scenario where characters behave like idiots for the convenience of the writer and the plot.

“Write What You Know.”

This is a phrase that gets used frequently when working with beginning writers. It’s important to have your writing come from something that resonates strongly with you. If there isn’t something about what you’re writing that you care deeply about, it will be difficult to put in the time and effort to make it the best it can be.

This is also a phrase that gets misinterpreted by beginning writers. Writing what you know doesn’t mean that you should translate events you have experienced directly to the page and call it a day.

What you know, in this context, is much more vast than most people are willing to give themselves credit for.

You know what has happened to other people, both those you know in real life, and those you know anecdotally. You have emotional knowledge of the way situations have felt, and this can be extrapolated to fit other narratives. Most importantly, you have the ability to learn and expand your knowledge.

Maybe the phrase itself is insufficient to explain its aim. Here’s another attempt:

When writing, start with what you know.