Monday Motivation: Introduce your characters with flair – and a trumpet solo
Films have a great deal to teach those of us who write for the page. Of course, the lessons of the screen have been slowly absorbed, by a process of osmosis, by all writers for well over a hundred years already. We’ve learned a great deal about scenes, and dialogue, and characterization.
We’ve learned how to condense tedious stretches of time. We’ve learned how to “cut to the chase” – be more economical with our reader’s attention, allowing character and conflict to drive the drama.
The more I’ve dwelt on the techniques of screenwriting – and the movies that have evolved from them – the more I’ve learned about techniques that are really useful to writers.
Take a subject that formed the meat of a recent workshop we ran: the entrance of a character into the narrative.
Now, you can of course introduce a character sneakily, by the back door, so to speak. Or you can choose to give him a grand entrance. Or you can mislead the audience as to his nature – give him dialogue, for instance, that belies the stereotype.
Nobody does grand entrances better than Quentin Tarantino. We’ve been analyzing his iconic masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, looking specifically at the ways in which he introduces, individually, his veritable army of characters.
From Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, the two seedy liquor-store hold-up artists with whom the movie begins, to Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, the two enforcers working for Marcellus Wallace, to Winston “The Wolf” Wolf, the clean-up specialist, to Mia Wallace, to Butch Coolidge, the aging boxer – every one of them is given a grand entrance.
Take Mia Wallace, played by Uma Thurman. She is the criminal boss’s beautiful wife, reckless, amoral, fun-loving, cocaine-snorting. She’s on screen for just a few minutes of the 2 hours and 58 minutes of the movie – and yet Tarrentino frames her entrance in the most elaborate and fastidious fashion.
Let me take you through the scenes.
Vincent has been sent by Marcellus to keep his wife company. He arrives at their up-market Hollywood home flying high on heroin. A note at the door invites him in. He enters. Mia is upstairs putting on her makeup. Over the intercom, we see direct him to have a drink. He pours himself a scotch while she snorts a line or two of coke. Then she descends to meet him.
During all this time, though, Tarrentino primes and piques our curiosity by showing us only the most peripheral details of Mia: a back shot of her sitting at her dressing table; her lips as she speaks into the intercom mic; her hand as it cuts the lines of coke; her feet, as she saunters across the living room and says: “Let’s go.”
And only in the next scene, when she’s in the 1974 Chevy on their way to dinner, do we see her face for the first time.
It’s a delicious example of visual restraint.
When you’re planning the scenes in which you’re going to introduce your major characters, give the setting, the occasion, the props and even their clothes and make-up the attention they deserve.
You want your readers to remember your characters, right?
So give them an entrance, toot your rhetorical trumpets, roll your snare drum – and knock your readers out.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: What did lockdown teach us about creativity?‘