Screenwriters: Are your characters showing us or telling us their stories?

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Last November, Tisha Robinson-Daly attended the Sundance Institute Philadelphia Screenwriters Intensive, supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and led by filmmaker Katherine Dieckmann. Below Tisha shares insights gleaned from exploring character behavior in her screenplay "HIGH."

It was a crisp morning in November. The trees had just begun to tease us with glimmers of their autumn coats. I arrived at the Kimmel Center of Performing Arts in Philadelphia and walked into the room in which we’d be spending our day. Shira Rockowitz, the senior manager of the Feature Film Program at Sundance Institute, smiled warmly and welcomed me in. In a flash, those pesky jitters, which had been running amok in my back pocket, jumped out and huffed away.

Step 1: Focus

We had a quick, but not hurried, breakfast. After the details of the day were mapped out, we walked to the other side of the room to get to work. Our seats were predetermined; we would not be wasting time, awkwardly trying to decide who sat where or who went first.

Our Creative Advisor, Katherine Dieckmann, explained that we would read each of the selected scenes as a group, have a brief discussion, and then she would assign each of us a task. She encouraged us to focus our attention on the characters we had created and how their behavior helps to tell their stories.

Katherine was lovely. Her no-nonsense focus demanded our attention and kept us grasping onto her every word. She's truthful and direct, but encouraging and gracious as well, which is a delicate balancing act. It was evident, from the start, that she was there to lead us down the road to character discovery.

Tisha Robinson-Daly attends the Knight Foundation Brunch at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. © 2018 Sundance Institute | Azikiwe Aboagye

Step 2: Show

I gave a brief pitch of my screenplay, HIGH, which centers around Butch Robins, a weary telecommunications tower climber.

In the chosen scene, Butch is sitting alone at a bar, when to his chagrin, two of his co-workers, Sadie and JT, come in and sit beside him. All Butch wants is to be left alone, and all Sadie wants is to gab. As soon as the scene was read, Katherine looked at me and asked, “Whose scene is this, Sadie’s or Butch’s?” After hearing my script read aloud, I wondered the same thing myself.

“Butch must show us, not tell us, how he feels,” Katherine said. She then instructed me to come up with ten different behaviors to insert into the scene.

Step 3: Misbehaving

We got through everyone’s screenplays before lunch and were each given a personalized writing assignment to give new perspective to our scenes. What struck me, was that all of our assignments were based on the lack of behavior we had in our scripts.

We knew our characters inside and out, but we failed to allow their behaviors to help tell their stories.

Step 4: Work

We each retreated to our desired nook and began to work. The room no longer buzzed from euphoric enthusiasm – it was practically silent.

When time was up, we gathered at the table, each of us a bit more confident in our scripts and in ourselves. You could hear it as we read our assignments out loud. You could see, in our behavior, how we were processing and making sense of it all.

Step 5: Transformation

Something happened that afternoon in that room. The simple act of exploring our characters’ behaviors – or lack thereof – transformed our scenes, propelled them forward, and gave them life they were lacking.

I walked into the Philadelphia Screenwriters Intensive not knowing what I would learn about myself and my screenplay. I walked out convinced that I have the tools inside of me to hone it with simple, concentrated actions.

Katherine took us back to the basics. We spent the day focusing on a very specific thing that made a huge difference to each of us. We didn’t waste time skimming broad and general topics, we fixated on one: the one we had missed.

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