Monday, March 21, 2011

Reader question - Keeping characters straight

Francy wrote in a while back with this question:

I have a mostly technical screenwriting question that I've been pondering for a while. Hopefully you can help.

I've had non-writer friends read my scripts for feedback and, from time to time, I'll get feedback like: "I was confused by all the characters".

Now, I don't think my script has any more characters than similar scripts in the genre, so I believe that the issue lies either in the way I'm introducing and describing the characters, the fact that I'm getting my feedback from folks who've never scripts, or a mixture of both.

My specific question is: Is it beneficial or detrimental to offer "reminders" throughout the first act or so, to help the reader along. For example, after we've already met Jennifer's boyfriend Steve once, I would do this to the next scene in which he appears:
"Steve gets out of bed." would turn into:
"Steve, Jennifer's boyfriend, gets out of bed."
This way, the reader says, "Right, Steve is Jennifer's boyfriend ... Got it," and keeps reading.

Is there a more professionally-expected way of accomplishing the same thing?

Any advice beyond the scope of my specific question as to how to make sure readers are able to keep the characters straight would be greatly appreciated!

Short answer - it always helps. I saw two such reminders in this vein last week in pro scripts. There's nothing wrong with it, particular if there's been a long gap in appearances.

The key word there is "reminders," though. You don't want the scene description telling us something that the on-screen scene won't, as you can't have the reader end up with information that the viewer won't have. Now, in the case of your example, if Steve's first scene has him getting out of Jennifer's bed, it's a good bet he's her boyfriend, so it's fair to say that in the description. That also would work if we were introduced to Steve earlier in the film as Jennifer's boyfriend, and when he makes his reappearance some time later, you want to make sure we remember who this guy is.

However, if this is Steve's first appearance, and if Jennifer isn't in the bed with him, then that's a little bit of a cheat.

Other tricks: make sure your characters have memorable introductions that helps sum up who they are. If your characters enter the script blandly, they might not register on your readers' radars until they suddenly become active in the story. I see this from time-to-time in slush pile scripts. Writers who have been working a while are generally better at giving their major characters a first scene that let's us know "This guy is important. This other guy probably won't be."

Another trick is to avoid similar names, and be wary of bland names. Never have two characters whose names start with the same letter, especially in an ensemble. There's also a chance that the problem could be that you have too many characters who sound alike or perform similar story functions. See if you can distinguish their dialogue from each other.

I'm guessing you won't find one smoking gun here but rather a series of little problems that all add up to the confusion.


  1. The first draft of my first screenplay, I had one character named Mark, the other Mary. When I went back to read it, I ended up confusing MYSELF!

  2. I definitely pull the "Blah Blah, our pal from the kitchen in the cold open" card on occasion.

    Great advice on having characters make memorable first impressions!