What Do Your Secondary Characters Do — Off Screen?

In his play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” Tom Stoppard took two minor characters from “Hamlet” and used their every exit from that play as an entrance into their own play. When asked, after the premiere, what his play was about, he said, “It’s about to make me rich.” I’ve always liked that story.

I am currently working with a client on his story outline. He has several minor characters who play a crucial part in the overall plot. It occurred to me that they weren’t quite tracking correctly. That why they were doing what they were doing wasn’t clear. Or wholly logical.

I suggested he write a one-line outline of what they are doing when they are off screen… i.e., not in his his movie. This turned out to be a fantastic idea, so good that I wanted to share it.

He wrote down what they did during the life we did not see and in doing so, discovered motivations and actions that really affected what they did in the scenes we did see. What they wanted became much more clear. Why they were doing ________ to the Hero became much more clear, once he figured out what their day was like when we weren’t watching.

If you’ve ever done this, or something like it, please let me know!



Filed under character, Screenwriting

5 responses to “What Do Your Secondary Characters Do — Off Screen?

  1. Cool and interesting. I have not tried this but I usually do something similar to this with respect to the prime characters, when I have to write a ambiguous or a indefenate ending to a screenplay. I write what happens to the characters after the film is over, like I try projecting their life for next ten years after the movie is over. That helps me to write the ending better. But thanks for sharing, that was real cool.

  2. Kim

    For a screenplay that was first intended to be written with someone else, I wrote a few lines on all the secondary characters, just so we where on the same page with each one. For me is was a great relief to know who all these people where, but for my partner it was to much…but the again talking about subtext was to much for him. He quit after a week, I kept on writing. I still write some lines on all the secondary characters it helps me come up with different responses and ads some flavour while writing.

  3. Method Actors are required to this for every character they will become for obvious reasons. One of the first things we do is `Swim as far away from they play as possible`to find the life beyond whats shown in the frame of the picture. The frame can be the page, a canvas, the screen, the stage, etc.
    An amazing example of what can result from this type of exploration is the PUSHER trilogy. Part 2 & 3 are the organic offspring of part 1 in a way that only this process can bring about.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      VERY COOL. I love the idea of swimming away and looking at it from a distance… Can you tell me more about PUSHER? Don’t know what it is. And how did 2 & 3 come from 1? Thank you!

      • `Swimming far away`Thats a quote from Lee Strasberg. He was part of The Group Theater along with Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, Harold Clurman. They were heavily into Stanislavsky who was forced to develop new ways ( Methods ) for dealing with the new works of Anton Chekhov. Chekhov`s work was complex in a new way because it used subtext and In-Direct Action as a means of expression. Actors and Directors had trouble grasping it. So Stanislavsky set out to create a modern system to deal with the challenges of Realism.

        This system relies very much on improvisation in rehearsals. These rehearsals however are tools for exploration into the lives of the characters. All the characters. Because where they are coming from, what propels them into the scenes that we see ( The tip of the Iceberg through The fourth wall ) is what motivates things. Without that connection its difficult to work beyond the superficiality of surfaces.

        So in rehearsal instead of working with Hamlet in the castle you might say what if he needed milk for his coffee and was forced to go and milk a cow himself to get it. Just in that little off the cuff subconscious suggestion is embedded the DNA one of the themes of the play, the matter of `Taking things into your own hands`- And what do we discover when we take a trip behind the curtains of what we are served? What if you or I were hungry and had to go and slaughter a lamb for food, how would that effect us?

        We want & need to live our lives sheltered from truth. Thats what keeps the construction from crumbling in on us. Thats what the Hero needs to confront in order to conquer the seemingly insermountable circumstances they are faced with. He/She needs to access what is buried beneath the construction of identity to activate the latent powers within. Of course when that happens we have a crisis. Who are we now? Who are you after having to kill your own food? The blood on our hands we avoid is just like invisible ink, its there but we choose not to see it. We can`t handle the truth. We choose to become comfortably numb. The hero however cannot afford this if He/She is to survive.

        PUSHER is a film by the Danish Writer/Director Nicolas Winding Refn. Its a case study in what can happen using these types of processes. It is my conclusion. Watch them and see for yourself. But the character studies are really of the highest rank. The Danes have one of the best film schools in the world. The focus is on writing. Everything else stems from that. For the Directors and for the Actors. One needs to understand the big picture to understand ones own role in proportion to the whole. They are very well versed in Shakspeare and Checkov but then take it to the next level simply using the Archetypes as models to create modern classics.

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