Navigating Plot and Character in a Screenplay – Part 2

By Brian Ackley · March 24, 2016

In the conclusion of this two-part feature, independent filmmaker Brian Ackley breaks down the experience of writing his latest feature, Alienated.

If the journey described in part one like a daunting one to take, then it’s confirmation that I’m exploring worthy terrain. You should know that I’m a fan of originality.  There’s plenty to be said of patterns and formulas, and make no mistake about it, I follow paths created by others; but there’s more to be said about…well, no, there’s just more to be said, and there are more ways to say it than those that have already been expressed. To follow only the paths that others have established will lead you only to the places you’ve been. Humanity has always reached for more: the Greeks looked to the gods for entertainment, Shakespeare humanized Roman villains; Spielberg convinced us that aliens could be kind.  If we look upon history, we find ample examples of mankind’s secret to evolutionary achievement: a will to discover.

So the instinct is within us all. Follow the given path until our curiosity redirects us. When I’m on this path I start to see familiarities. I started to see familiarities around this time with “Alienated.” The combination of my story, structure and characters was reminding me mostly of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Hurlyburly,” both dramatic relationship studies based on plays. My excitement heightened, further confirmation that I was on the “right” path.  

I watched these wonderful films again and drew inspiration from them. Neither of them are perfect films, nor do they say what I want to say in Alienated.  Well, the former assessment was more true than the latter because I may not have know at that time what I wanted to say. But by watching these films I was drawn to this kind of inner dialogue: What did I want to say? I looked at these films to see what I loved about them and what didn’t work about them. From this I determined with greater conviction what I wanted to accomplish with my writing.  Now I was ready to outline.

This is where the heavy work began. This is where I played Connect The Dots with those bullet points of interest. An outline for me is essentially a list of scenes with descriptions of the action that takes place.  For Alienated I modified my approach, sorting major beats into sequences more often than scenes, because I knew I wanted tension to build and revelations to unfold in real time over the course of extended interplay, much like the form and flow of a play.  This being a linear tale, I was careful to make sure each sequence connected with its predecessor and successor sequences. I moved from beginning to end, following one character’s choice to another’s reaction, and then that character’s choice to the other’s reaction, and so on, all in broad strokes. 

Logic is something I pay very close attention to.  Logic is the glue that keeps a story together; it is the caulking that seals every inch of framework and façade.  Without it, leaks can lead to unconvincing results. Leaks can weaken a structure and even break it down. Respecting logic may sound like an unnecessary rule for a writer, or a challenge worth cheating, but really it’s a way to root out amateurs. Everything in a screenplay must make sense within the parameters that are set up by the writer.  The rules of a new world must be established and followed by all who live in it; the behavior of characters should always remain consistent. 

Coincidences are cousins to poor logic. They can be red flags for covering up logistical errors, or they can be motivated by laziness and cause them.  In life, coincidences bring pause to our stream of conscious thought; even if briefly, we reflect on the idea that we just witnessed a coincidence.  The more odd the coincidence, the more we consider if there’s meaning behind it. In film, a viewer can be similarly spun into self-conscious thought by an occurrence that strangely happens out of nowhere.  Any time you distract your audience, even so briefly, you weaken your story.   A filmmaker can get clever by clouding the illogical content with emotion, or by speeding the pace, or some other manipulative trick. But common sense should dictate that a filmmaker should prevent these weaker spots in the first place.

As I moved through the stage of ironing out my story I stopped at every logical disconnect to ponder a more sensible direction; but I didn’t always replace the beat or plot point in question. Sometimes I backtracked and planted cues that would justify the illogic, thereby making it logical. I didn’t have many of these moments for this film. As long as I moved forward in a way truthful to the realities of our everyday world, I was mostly fine.  I wrote my characters as if I were acting their parts, so the process became more reactionary than anything else.  Except for the inciting event and the sci-fi conclusion, there wasn’t really anything that I had to invent.  I just had to follow the characters’ reactions. The characters moved the narrative along.

For these reasons, the writing itself was relatively free flowing. As I approached each sequence, I had all my major beats worked out, as well as how power would be exchanged between the two characters.  From there it was a simple matter of listening to what the characters had to say to each other. Occasionally I would have to remove or rework a beat that I had planned, and then see if adjustments were needed for everything that followed within that sequence. Even then, the characters told me where to go. 

Rewriting gets trickier.  It’s a whole other chapter. Give your best version to a group of family members or friends that are known to speak openly and honestly about your work, or find acquaintances or strangers who couldn’t care less about your ambitions but either read a lot of fiction or watch a lot of movies. Give them a deadline, and then wait. Don’t think about your script during this period; just take a break and relax.  This is your intermission.


Brian Ackley is the Head of Development at One Way or Another Productions. His second feature film ALIENATED won 13 film festival awards and was picked up for distribution by Gravitas Ventures for release in select theaters and VOD on March 31st.