Script Coverage Chronicles – August 2019: Fixing A Common Screenwriting Mistake: Non-Credible Actions

There are certain sentences you don’t want to hear in connection with your screenplay. 

One of them is: “He wouldn’t do that.”  

He wouldn’t respond to a killer that calmly. She wouldn’t head to all the way to Ohio just to follow a lead.  He, she, they – wouldn’t do that.

Credibility is crucial in screenwriting.  Actions need to be convincingly motivated and believable.  

This is particularly important in the more dramatic genres, but it comes into play, to a degree, in every script.

So how do you make sure the actions of your characters feel fully motivated and credible? 

Here are three tips:

One – Stop Thinking In The Third Person

Screenwriters are told they absolutely have to write in the third person (she does this, he says this).  Years ago, on one of my first assignments for a producer, I thought, “why not change the game?”  So I wrote in the first person (my name is this, I do this).  The producer literally refused to read the draft until I switched it all to the third person.  So yeah, it’s a pretty strict rule.  

But here’s the thing:  

While you have to write in the third person, you actually need to think in the first person (I do this, I say this).  That’s because you need to go into your characters’ heads and ask what would “I” do if I were this person.  

If you think like that, your characters will make more realistic choices.  You’ll find there aren’t all that many options for how each particular character would respond to a certain situation, because people – especially people we know – are pretty predictable.  And that brings me to the second tip:

Two – Be Predictable

But aren’t screenplays supposed to be full of surprises?  

Surprises are great, but audiences also love when they feel they know how a scene is going to play out before it happens – because they know the characters.  

Odd couples work really well in this regard:  One cop is by the book and one is off the hinges. When breaking the rules could help with a case, we already know how these two are going to react.

Give your characters clear and unmistakable traits and then put them in situations that push directly on those traits.  Then when those characters take action, nobody will say, “They wouldn’t do that.”

Three – Remember That Most People Are Lazy And Scared

Very few of us will take on more work or more danger than is absolutely necessary.  

Even brave and hard working individuals tend to act “conservatively”.  I don’t mean that in a political sense.  What I mean is:  Realistic characters will almost always choose to do the easiest and safest thing that will accomplish their goals.  

Even Iron Man doesn’t want to take on a suicide mission unless he absolutely has to.  

The bottom line is:  If your characters are going to do some crazy-ass shit, make sure your plot gives them no choice.