How To Make Your Characters Pop Without Using Words

Now that you have an outline and you're ready to start writing your brilliant screenplay, how do you make it more interesting? The best way to hook a reader (and a producer) is to concentrate on telling the story visually.

One of the first things anybody will tell you about good screenwriting is the old maxim, "Show don't tell."

This is especially vital in screenwriting, because without a narrator on the page, you can't get any insight into the inner workings of the character's minds. An audience doesn't really experience the characters' point of view in the same way that you would in a printed work of fiction.

Some of the techniques are the same. You want to fully develop your characters — think about what they do for a living, how they talk, what they wear, where they grew up, or where they live now.

But in a screenplay, the question you have to ask after you answer those questions is simple: and how do you show all that without coming out and saying it? You could have a character say, "So, how's the whole 'flying spaceships on cargo runs' going?" But why would you do that when you could actually show your character in action?

Wall-E recently proved the power of (nearly) silent storytelling. This is a film that gave you stacks of information, made you care completely about characters, and pushed the story forward, all without long bits of dialogue. Let's look at a few examples from an undated draft:

"A SMALL SERVICE ROBOT diligently cubing trash.
Rusted, ancient.
Cute.
Every inch of him engineered for trash compacting.
Mini-shovel hands collect junk.
Scoop it into his open chassis.
His front plate closes slowly, compressing waste.
A faded label on his corroded chest plate:
"Waste Allocation Loader – Earth Class" (WALLY)"

Notice that while it might seem like we're spending a lot of time just describing the robot, he's actually performing an action that lends itself to that description. We know his industrial design because we talk about what he was designed to do as he does it. We know his function because he's performing it, and we start to know the world around him because he's moving around in it. They could have just said, "There's a trash compactor robot" but then, who would care?

But more than that, a moment later we get more character development, where instead of just telling us that Wall-E isn't just a mindless drone of a robot, we see what sets him apart:

"Wally attaches a lunch cooler to his back.
Whistles for his pet COCKROACH.
The insect hops on his shoulder.
They motor down from the top of a GIANT TRASH TOWER."

How To Make Your Characters Pop Without Using Words

In the next scenes, his personality comes out with his collection of strange Earth memorabilia and his Betamax tape of Hello Dolly. It's a brilliant little moment where we learn everything we need to know about Wall-E simply by discovering his home. But even in the screenplay, we're not just being told what his home looks like, we're seeing it as he goes through it himself. Even at this moment of discovery, there's still action moving the story forward.

For the most part, what you should be striving for is only putting things down on the page that can be represented in a picture. You don't want to say that your character is frustrated. Give them an action that reflects their inner thoughts. Have them kick a pile of spare parts, or sweep everything off their desk. Actors appreciate this, and it helps them deliver better performances. It helps them understand who the characters are, so that they can better portray them.

It also makes the audience care. A person can say anything they like, but it's what they do that matters. What they do is also what is the most interesting visually, and if something isn't interesting to watch, then why are you making it a movie?

The way we practice this in film school is by writing our scripts as silent films. Take away your dialogue entirely, and see if you are still conveying the story you set out to tell. Do we still know who the characters are?

You don't want to spend twenty pages describing anything in a screenplay, you don't really have that luxury because screenplays are very short. But you want to learn to hit the high points, think about the things that really matter.