Throw Yourself Off Balance: Tips from Joan Tewkesbury on Building Characters in Your Screenplay

Jasmine Rivera

The morning of the Sundance Institute Detroit Screenwriters Intensive, 13 writers, including myself, gathered at the University of Michigan’s Detroit outreach office.

We came with anticipation, nervousness, and curiosity as to how the day’s events would unfold. As we nervously nibbled at the breakfast buffet and shyly introduced ourselves over coffee the same thought undoubtedly ran through many of our minds: How did I get here?

I never imagined I would ever attend a Sundance workshop, much less one held in Detroit. Overworked and overwrought due to the post-production schedule of my latest project, as a filmmaker, I felt burnt out over the creative process, a fatigue borne of budget worries and too many hours in the editing bay.

The last feature I had written had been abandoned, left to sit in a file after frustrating multiple attempts to revise my way out of a writing rut that left me disheartened about my abilities. So it was with immense surprise that I learned that my script, submitted on a skeptical whim, had been accepted into the intensive.

As I listened to the other fellows describe their own projects, I was humbled by their dedication to their work. The variety of stories was an amazing collection of inspirations and viewpoints, gathered from a scattering of writers from all over the Detroit area.

I immediately saw the genius of the Sundance intensives, held in cities across the country in order to identify and nurture writers and filmmakers who create stories sprung from their unique experiences and the communities that shaped their lives. Each and every one of these scripts would make for powerful films that should be seen, heard, and celebrated.

Our leader for the day, writer/director Joan Tewkesbury, introduced herself and then proceeded with the workshop, where she led us on a series of writing exercises. Though mystified by the instruction to keep our laptops and scripts at home, we began by writing in our Sundance-issued notebooks a series of bullet-point lists that briefly detailed our characters’ biographies.

After that initial list, however, the workshop took an unexpected turn. Instead of more detailed work on our existing screenplays, Joan went on to require lists that pertained not to our characters, but to us personally. “This has nothing to do with your scripts,” she said emphatically. “It’s all about you.”

She fired the questions off: When were three times you were confident? What were three things you didn’t want to do? When were three occassions in which you felt you didn’t fit in?

Without time given to waste on pen chewing and mulling over, we began to scribble away, writing from our guts. The questions probed deeply into our own experiences and histories, and as we read our lists aloud to one another we revealed unexpected moments of poignancy in our own lives that had profound impacts on our own characters and outlooks. Without a laptop or a script to hide behind the emotional exposure to one another was, at first, very unnerving. But it was also invigorating.

Joan then had us choose one item from each list, and with those elements we strung together tiny prose stories for our characters that we had never before considered outside the boundaries of our screenplays. The effect was astounding, offering a way for us to observe our characters’ behaviors in situations rooted deeply in our own experiences. Suddenly the characters’ stories ceased to be an abstract concept, formless and vague, defined only by the films’ plots. They became a part of our very selves.

The radical departure from our scripts and the formation of our characters outside the lines we had already drawn other, at first was, like reading aloud our own experiences to each unnerving. But Joan’s exercises wrenched control from our hands and allowed our characters the freedom to breathe. “Throw yourself off balance,” said Joan. Only then can you move forward.

Below, see two rules I took away from the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Intensive.

1. F*** THE RULES.

As the afternoon progressed, our characters’ lives began to take shape in a way that I had never thought possible. The evolution of their humanity from flat caricatures to more fully realized persons had a profound impact on me as I thought about my film’s story, which I realized must flow not from the contrivance of plot, but organically through the desires, behavior, and hopes of the people who live it. The antagonist of my film evolved from the stereotypical villain into a relatably flawed human being, multi-layered and plausible, whose actions within the story began to suddenly make sense in light of deeper motivation. My protagonist became more than a quiet ingenue buffetted about by circumstance and plot—she became a living girl, full of desires and hopes with a cause to fight for. The change was remarkable.

Absolutely none of the conversation focused on three-act structure, page numbers, and proper screenwriting format. “F**ck the rules,” said Joan. She was one of those teachers with that rare gift of being able to cut through BS and provide blunt, yet nurturing feedback in a way that drew out her students and inspired them to take risks. Write authentically from who you are, not from what people think a story is supposed to be.


As the exhausting yet exhilarating afternoon of work came to an end, I found myself amazed by the experience. The stories we had created in mere minutes and read to one another were filled with sadness, joy, weariness, hate, anger and hope—spanning the full spectrum of the human experience. In just a few hours, new stories had been born and our artistic processes as writers had been profoundly changed for the better.

As we left the classroom, I carefully tucked away my little Sundance notebook, now filled with more inspiration and discovery than the multiple screenplay drafts on my computer I had so long avoided. Writing, I had learned, should be a freeing experience, not a burden to be tolerated within the confines of scene structure and proper formatting. One only had to trust in one’s own life and experiences as an inspirational foundation to build stories upon.

“Keep yourself interested,” Joan told us. If you cannot find yourself in a story that is not grounded in who you are and what interests you, you are creating nothing. By starting with ourselves, we became the core roots of our stories. Why tell this tale? What does it mean to you? Where did this come from? Who are you?

During the evening reception, I thought about how, like my previous drafts, the narrative of Detroit that was dismissively reduced by outsiders as the burnt-out remains of a bankrupt Motor City suffered from the same kind of shallow caricature derived merely by plot (its history) and not by the humanity of its characters.

There are many more writers here with stories to tell who can bring those characters to life. I look forward to seeing them celebrated.

Jasmine Rivera is a director, writer, producer, and actor from Detroit. She received her MFA in Film Directing from Columbia University and has directed numerous award-winning short films, including her latest, American Prophet, set in 1968 Detroit. With support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Jasmine Rivera attended Sundance Institute’s inaugural Screenwriters Intensive in Detroit with her project “Our Lady of Sorrows.”


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