Script Coverage Chronicles – February 2020: Relationships In Feature Film Screenplays

Today I’d like to talk about relationships. 

Not real life ones.  You’re on your own with those.

I’m talking about relationships between the characters in your screenplay.

Here are 5 tips for improving them:

(1) Use Differing Points of View

This is an efficient way to establish a watchable dynamic between two characters.  Give them opposing opinions on an issue. 

A classic example is Luke, Han Solo and the Force.  Luke believes in the Force.  Han Solo thinks it’s a myth.  Simple, engaging character opposition.

Ideally, these opposing points of view should influence the characters’ specific actions, putting the two characters in conflict.  In Star Wars, differing points of view lead Han Solo to abandon Luke for a while, but of course he comes around.

(2) Start Them Apart

Whenever it makes sense, start your characters off in a state of conflict.  You want somewhere to go with an on-screen relationship, and for most genres it’s ultimately going to have to go in a positive direction.  So give those relationships lots of room to grow by starting them off as rocky as possible. 

I’m not saying every relationship has to begin with a brawl.  Maybe one character doesn’t trust the other and reveals that in subtle ways.  Maybe one character underestimates another’s skills.  Maybe one character is secretly envious of the other.  All of these dynamics have the potential to provide conflict and interest in a film.

(3) Use “False Alarm” Conflict

If it doesn’t make sense to portray genuine conflict in a particular relationship, then you may want to work in a brief moment of “false alarm” conflict.  False alarm conflict is when there’s no real conflict at all, but for a moment the audience is led to believe there is.

For example, I read a script that spent some time with a happy couple.  This particular story didn’t call for any conflict between these two characters.  The writing was strong, but the scenes with these two characters still lacked energy.  One solution was to rewrite this relationship entirely, but there were strong reasons not to do that.  A more viable solution was to create some false alarm conflict by having the woman tell her guy she was really angry with him and wanted to break up, but then reveal she was just messing with him.  For a few moments, even a relationship devoid of any real conflict got the benefit of having some.

(4) Create “Emotional Action”

The best filmic relationships involve a lot of change.  They progress.  They develop. They move.  In fact, this emotional action, the action of characters moving closer together or further apart, may be the most important “action” in a script.  

That’s why the basic relationship arc works so well.  It goes like this:  The characters start off opposed/apart in some way.  Gradually (as shown in several specific moments in the script) they begin to grow toward each other.  In a time of crisis, they pull apart.  At or right before a key climactic moment, they come back together.

It doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t always be – exactly like this of course, but there should always be something like this, some trajectory of change for at least one of the relationships in a movie – and ideally more than one.

So when you’re writing a scene, try asking yourself:  Are any two characters growing closer or further apart in this segment, and if not, should they?

(5) Take It Slow

Change takes time – especially change in human relationships.  For that reason, you don’t want to rush your characters either in or out of those relationships.  It’s important to show gradual change, whether it’s gradually increasing intimacy or gradually deteriorating respect.  In the same way that character arcs work best when they progress over time in noticeable increments, relationship arcs almost always work best when you take it slow.