The power of a visual over verbal character revelation

If you are going to write a script and stick to the so called ‘classic structure’ then your character will have an arc, they will change, they will have a revelation, and use this new found knowledge about themselves in Act 3.

John Truby takes an example from Mamet’s ‘The Verdict’ to illustrate the character revelation and how critical the placement of it is to your story.

Paul Newman is Frank Galvin, a washed up alcoholic lawyer, who has lowered himself to funeral chasing to make his living. He’s at the end of the line when a colleague offers him a case, a sure thing, all he has to do is complete the paperwork, then he can collect the pay check. Frank goes to the hospital to take pictures as evidence for the case, but when he stands in front of a young girl, turned into a vegetable from medical malpractice, he decides he can’t settle and must take it to court.

This scene is so powerful because it is all done with images, no dialogue, just the sound of the young girls ventilator breathing in the background. We know what is going through Frank’s mind when he looks from the Polaroid to the young girl in the bed, we don’t need to be told.

The scene also works at a deeper level as Frank is really seeing himself paralyzed in the bed. Frank has also had an injustice done to him, and just like the helpless girl, he was unable to fight the power of the church, legal or medical profession. Frank has had his life taken away from him and he is trapped in a coma of alcohol and misery. This is his chance to change things, win justice for the young girl, and in the process reclaim his life and dignity.

Truby correctly argues that this is the most powerful revelation in the script but it comes to early rendering each subsequent revelation inferior. You only have to watch the scene in the courtroom where Frank delivers another revelation through dialogue to know he’s right. It just doesn’t have the same impact.

So what’s the moral of the story here? Your character can’t have any kind of revelation early in your script through dialogue and especially not with images?

Well yes and no….

Micheal Clayton is summoned from his card game to a wealthy mansion to ‘fix’ a hit a run accident. The wealthy client thinks he is there to make it go away but Michael explains to him what his limitations are and who he really is.

This is a really well written scene. We have Michael Clayton’s character delivering exposition about himself through dialogue but it doesn’t feel ‘on the nose’. The main reason for this, besides the quality of the writing, is that it’s delivered through conflict. We retain the information given to us, but the fact that we are absorbed in the characters conflict, means we are not so conscious of it being fed to us.

It’s only when I watched the film again did this scene feel like Michael was having a revelation about himself. We get the feeling that Michael has acknowledged who he is for the first time.

So how does Gilroy give us this scene early in the film but still save the best for last?

He does the reverse of what Mamet did in the Verdict. He gives us the visually unforgettable scene with Michael in the meadow at the end of the 2nd Act. The images in this scene are so powerful and not a word of dialogue had been spoken. We know what Michael is feeling, he has been given a second chance to understand the beauty of life, and we are there with him.

There is always talk of rising conflict in script-writing and how it must build incrementally but this must also apply to your characters understanding of him/herself. a.k.a the character arc.

The power of a visual over verbal character revelation


When Gale Hawthorne in the Hunger Games said ‘What if they did? Just one year. What if everyone just stopped watching?’, ‘If no one watches, they won’t have a game. It’s as simple as that.’

Of course he’s talking about the Hunger Games but it’s the deep subtext that gives meaning and power to the words.

What he is really saying is ‘If you don’t watch this movie then they won’t make any sequels’. Very powerful stuff…

On a more serious note…

You are trying to squeeze as much as you can into every word, page, and image of your script. Subtext is so powerful because it’s not on the nose exposition, it can’t be, and it allows the audience to infer their own conclusion of what it means. This is a form of audience participation and will draw them into your story.

Billy Wilder says ‘Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever’.

One of my favourite examples of subtext is in Six Feet Under.The episode is called ‘In the Place of Anger’ and the scene is at 28:40.

Catherine Collins comes to the Fishers to bury her abusive husband who, drunk, has fallen over the side of a boat and has been badly mangled by the propeller. Nate Fischer, hiding a recent AVM diagnosis and the possibility of a brain haemorrhage at any moment, tries to console her.

As Catherine reflects on a wasted marriage, life and time, Nate utters words of consolation, but they seem hollow and lack conviction. We know that he is barely holding it together and we can see it in his face.

Catherine says ‘I just want somebody to help me understand?’ and delivered through subtext, this is what Nate wants too.

Nate quotes C.S. Lewis to her to help her understand the pain and grieving process. Again the subtext here is really Nate trying to console himself and find a way to face his own fear of dying.

The dialogue is for Catherine and the subtext of the dialogue is for Nate. This gives a seemingly normal scene more depth and opens up the inner emotion of Nate’s character to us.

Nate then says ‘It’s going to be okay’.

He says this with more confidence, he believes these words, and his facial expression has changed to hope.

We cut to Catherine whose face is like stone and she says ‘No it’s not’.

These words pierce us as they are said with such conviction we can’t doubt them.

We cut to Nate, his hope is gone, and he is destroyed.

A straightforward conversation with Catherine has revealed everything Nate feels about his potentially terminal brain tumour.

Nothing was ever directly spoken about it. It was all delivered through subtext.


Karen Crowder

If you read script-writing books about creating the opponent then you have more than likely come across terms like ‘Unity of Opposites’, ‘The Antagonist completing the Protagonist’ etc..

While these definitions are extremely important they can sometimes be hard to grasp without applying them to a concrete example.

Karen Crowder’s character is very interesting from a screenwriting point of view.

She is clearly the protagonist and it’s her desire to close the U-North deal that drives the story. If the dramatic question posed is ‘Will Karen Crowder succeed is closing the U-North deal’ then by the end of Act 2 this is answered. From her standpoint the main opposition to the deal being successful, Michael and Arthur, are now dead and she can move to close it.

For half of the script Michael and Karen share the same goal to contain the Antagonist, Arthur Eden.

This leads to an interesting question about creating your opponent character. Instead of creating two different characters whose actions serve your plot, and then spend your time trying to find a common ground between them, would it not be better to make them the same at the beginning?

Karen and Michael are both in the legal profession, both lawyers, and trying to fix the same problem. I use the word ‘fix’ here because it’s quite relevant, as Karen is trying to fix a problem using the methods Michael uses on daily basis. In another story you could see Michael and Karen working together at some capacity. Michael would not even question Karen’s methods only for the fact that she has taken ‘fixing’ to the next level, by killing Arthur, giving Michael the moral jolt that he needed.

So the main difference between them both is the question of morals when fixing a problem. How far is too far? This moral difference is gives the protagonist and antagonist characters depth and is directly linked to Michael’s character arc. If all Karen and Michael fought about was the success of the U-North deal, and Michael didn’t change, then the story would feel hollow and unsatisfying to an audience.

This script is so beautifully orchestrated. Michael, suspicious that the U-North deal is going ahead when Arthur has died, moves into the Antagonist role. Michael can now find out who murdered Arthur and expose them. This would be a perfectly acceptable ending where Karen goes to prison, the U-North deal is eventually closed, and Michael goes back to his job as a legal janitor. But Gilroy has set the stakes up all the way, the failing merger, the 80k loan from Marty, the NDA, so Michael has to sacrifice everything to change and make the morally correct choice.

Possible Premise: How far will an immoral man have to be pushed, before he will make the right moral choice, no matter what the cost?

Karen Crowder

Michael Clayton – Start with something small….

I watched the Tony Gilroy lecture on the BAFTA site recently.

If you haven’t seen it already, then I would recommend you watch it. The only fault I can find with it is that it’s too short.

Tony – ‘We need anything, we need a spark, we need some place to start, and for me – for us, me will be us now – we need something really small. Small is good, small is really, really good for me. Something small and very, very specific. The big ideas don’t work. It’s death if you say ‘I want to do a movie about class warfare’ or ‘I want to do a movie about corporate malfeasance or I want to do a movie about paradise… You’ll just drown.’

The process of taking a small idea and developing it into something bigger is something that has always fascinated me.

Gilroy says that he starts with a scene and then builds a world around it. In the BAFTA lecture, he shows the scene where Michael is called to fix a hit and run car accident for a wealthy client. This is an excellent example of how to deliver exposition through conflict and dialogue. It tells us so much about the Michael Clayton character, what he does, what he thinks and where he is at that point in his life.

I wanted to figure out how to get to this point, so I took one step back before the development/writing of this scene and started with…

Something small: A man working in a New York legal firm.

I know what you are thinking –  ‘I can feel my ass getting sore already.’

The original quote is ‘I can feel my butt getting’ sore already’ from Barton Fink.

With no context and no conflict to define him why do we care?

We don’t and we won’t until we put this man in a pressure situation which shows his character and moral values. We need to put our man in a situation, he’s a lawyer,  so let’s give him a case to work on. While it’s tempting to give him a real estate closing in Queens, this is a movie, after all, so he is working a million dollar high profile Manhattan-based case.

So this adds context and stakes to the story but where’s the conflict?

Our man, let’s call him Arthur (Michael Clayton is not the antagonist or protagonist of this story), is working the high-profile case representing a large corporation involved in illegal activities. Arthur decides that he can’t be a part of criminal activity anymore and must expose it.

And now we have some conflict.

At this point, you could ask yourself about the point of view of this story. Is this going to be a personal story about Arthur? A story about legal process? The victims? Or something else? Will it be resolved in court or through scandal?

The right answer to this question is: don’t worry about it for the moment and explore the story in all directions.

But what is really at stake here? Money? Fees? a legal firm’s reputation?

If this (money, fees, reputation) is all the legal firm and the overpaid lawyers are going to lose then is the audience really going to care?

No, why should they? We need to get to know the victims of the evil corporation and how their lives have been impacted. These victims are the everyday working man and his family, which the audience can now relate to as this could also happen to them. This also defines the level of evil the large corporation is operating at as we have a tangible result of their wrongdoing to work with.

But this solves one problem and creates another. To define the victims, we need to give them screen time. (Erin Brockovich is a case in point). But this has to be handled carefully; otherwise, it will splinter the main story-line, which is a story of redemption for a legal fixer and not about the victims. In this particular case, we experience the victims suffering through Arthur and how he reacts to it.

This is not Arthur’s first morally questionable case, so why now?

So Arthur has been doing this for years and the pharmaceutical company, let’s call them U-North, have killed the parents of a young country family. And the daughter is also sick from chemical poisoning.

Arthur’s relationship with his daughter has broken down, and she doesn’t talk to him anymore. We want to know why characters do things and the reasons for it. When we understand their motivation, we understand them at a deeper level.

We start to piece together the motivations behind Arthur’s character and why he is doing things. But even better we can now empathize with him on a new level which makes the impact of his murder more intensified.

Gilroy has given Arthur a psychiatric condition and taken him off his medication. This works well for many reasons. He can rant these long monologues like a crazy man and take his clothes off in meetings providing drama and entertainment. But more importantly, it casts doubt and suspicion over his behavior. This is crucial as withholding information from the audience will increase the power of your story, and they don’t need to know everything.

We could use this as this basis for Arthur’s motivation to derail the U-North case and stop there, but Gilroy ties the young girl and Arthur’s daughter together. This makes it very personal for us, and we can empathize now again with Arthur at a deeper level. We have to remember that Arthur technically is not a very likable person. He has acted immorally, just like Michael Clayton, but the audience still needs to connect with him.

David Mamet uses the same technique in the Untouchables. You think it’s a coincidence that a young girl is murdered in the bar bombing and Elliot Ness has a newborn child? Caring for a child is a basic human emotion granted to every parent, and we experience this through Ness and subsequently relate to him at a deeper level.

Gilroy then ups the stakes one more step by connecting the U-North case to the future of the legal firm.

It’s really about making your script tight.

So where does that leave us?

We now have an inciting incident: Arthur reacting to U-North killing people takes his clothes off in a deposition meeting.

Michael Clayton – Start with something small….