Anatomy of a Scene: How to Introduce Ensemble Characters in Dramas
Guest blogger Ashley Scott Meyers previously wrote the excellent piece Anatomy of a Scene: How to Introduce Multiple Characters Quickly. The example given in that post — the opening of 1987's Predator — was primarily focused on the action genre, and it works very well in that context.
However, readers have asked if this could possibly be applied effectively to ensemble drama casts as well.
Dramas are unique because they require full focus on story and characters for the opening pages, as opposed to genres like action, thriller, comedy, science fiction, and horror, which can utilize action, thrills, laughs, tech, and scares to get the story and characters moving forward in those opening moments. Dramas don't have that buffer.
So how can screenwriters that are writing character-driven dramas introduce their characters in an engaging manner for the reader without spending too many pages explaining the backstory — especially in an ensemble drama with a cast of multiple characters?
We'll be using the Oscar-nominated ensemble drama The Big Chill (1983) as a perfect example of how to do just that.
What's the setup? A group of former college friends react to the news of the death of one of their friends and prepare to attend his funeral.
How many characters are in this opening sequence? Eight. Sarah and Harold Cooper (Glen Close and Kevin Kline), Karen Bowens (JoBeth Williams), Michael Gold (Jeff Goldblum), Meg Jones (Mary Kay Place), Sam Weber (Tom Berenger), Chloe (Meg Tilly), and Nick Carlton (William Hurt).
How does the opening sequence start? The film begins with a cute moment between Harold Cooper and his son. As Harold gives his son a bath while they sing some classic rock from the Sixties, the phone rings. His wife Sarah answers it off screen. Harold suddenly looks up to see Sarah standing at the bathroom doorway crying. The next shot we see is a body being prepared for a funeral.
How is each character introduced? Each of them is introduced in a moment of clear reflection and reaction to the intercut visuals of a body being prepared for a funeral.
What do we learn about these characters during these brief moments? We learn just enough of each of them to set up the events to come without having to go into major backstories, scenes, and dialogue. Only Harold is offered any dialogue to work from in his introduction. Everything else is void of any dialogue and strictly driven by visuals.
What’s his moment of characterization? He's giving his toddler son a bath.
What does this tell us about the character? The interaction between Harold and his son showcases that he's a family man, funny, and charming.
How is this used for drama later? He's later shown as the natural leader of the group of college friends. The qualities of being a family man are those that most of the rest of the group clearly admire and because he's funny, charming, and overall charismatic, that natural leadership plays throughout the whole film. Beyond that, his display of being an excellent father plays into the story line of Meg wanting to find the right man to father her children, mixed in with the fact that Harold's wife Sarah had cheated on him years before with the very friend that has just died.
What’s her moment of characterization? She answers a phone call in the background as her husband Harold is giving their son a bath and then appears at the doorway with tears in her eyes.
What does this tell us about the character? Compared to the other eight characters introduced, Sarah showcases the most emotional reaction with tears and a truly sorrow-filled face.
How is this used for drama later? Throughout the film, Sarah continues to have the most emotional moments and responses in regards to their friend's death. We later learn in subtle fashion that Sarah had an affair with their now deceased friend years earlier. Harold and Sarah have moved on past that and are clearly now happily married, but Sarah is still struggling the most with their friend's death, which means there are still feelings.
What’s her moment of characterization? She sits in a kitchen sipping coffee with a sad gaze.
What does this tell us about the character? The visuals in this scene tell us that she's a well "put together" suburban housewife. The nice clothes and the top-of-the-line kitchen show us that she's upper class as well.
How is this used for drama later? When we see her at the funeral, one of the other characters — Sam — waves to her with a smile that has a hint of flirtation to it. They have a past. She reluctantly smiles back as she sits back in the pew revealing her equally well "put together" husband. We soon learn that she's the true suburban wife and mother with a successful husband, but she's bored with that life and later rebels with a one night stand with her former flame Sam.
What’s his moment of characterization? He's in his study frustratingly searching for something as his wife (or girlfriend) comes in to console him.
What does this tell us about the character? We see that he's clearly an educated man with the many, many books and papers found around him in his study. He's wearing glasses and we see a typewriter, giving him an extra sense of intelligence and sophistication.
How is this used for drama later? We learn that he's a writer for People Magazine, but has always wanted to tackle his own novel as well. Throughout the film he over-analyzes everything and everyone. We also learn something despicable about him because at first we see him with this clearly lovely, caring, and consoling wife (or girlfriend), only to watch as he tries his best to get laid while he and his friends spend the weekend together.
What’s her moment of characterization? She packs her business briefcase, smokes a cigarette, and gazes out of her high-rise office window.
What does this tell us about the character? First and foremost, she's a feisty one as most business women of that era in the 80s needed to be. She's professional, successful, tough, yet there's a longing about her which is physically evident as she stares out her window while smoking.
How is this used for drama later? We learn that she's longing to have a child and doesn't care who the father is. Sure, she's a successful lawyer, but there's something missing. She looks at her friend Sarah and sees the excellent mother that she'd like to be.
What’s his moment of characterization? He's sitting in first class drinking and reflecting as a stewardess (as they were called back in the 80s) begins to speak with him and then shows Sam a copy of a magazine that he is on the cover of. He then asks for another drink.
What does this tell us about the character? Despite the fact that he's clearly a successful actor and celebrity, Sam displays reluctance and is almost embarrassed by the magazine cover. Even when the stewardess is clearly talking his ear off, starstruck, he gazes up at her not with arrogance, but utter disdain.
How is this used for drama later? We learn that Sam is embarrassed by his celebrity status when his friends rush into a room to watch the show that he stars in. When he's asked to perform a stunt that is a staple of the show and his television character, he fails miserably. We then learn that he doesn't feel that anyone is genuine to him anymore — until the fateful weekend when he's reunited with his best friends from college.
What’s her moment of characterization? She stares into nothing as she slowly and almost seductively stretches in a revealing outfit.
What does this tell us about the character? First off, she's much younger looking than the rest, so we know that she's likely not a direct member of the group. Her gaze denotes sadness and her stretching and physical stature showcases utter sex appeal. While this may at first seem superficial as far as showcasing her character, these elements play a large part into the eventual story.
How is this used for drama later? Chloe becomes the focus of desire for two of the other characters — Michael and Nick. But the desires between the two are entirely different. Michael is almost obsessed with her sexuality while Nick is drawn to her innocence and her admiration as she sees a lot of her deceased boyfriend — the friend that has died — in Nick.
What’s his moment of characterization? We only catch a glimpse of his face, however his actions speak louder than anything as we follow his hand taking out a collection of pills and pours them onto the passenger seat of his Porsche. His hand chooses some pills and tosses them into his mouth as he suddenly speeds off.
What does this tell us about the character? He's a drug user that is clearly one that lives on the edge, but he has a coolness about him as well with his shades, Porsche, and fast lifestyle.
How is this used for drama later? Nick escapes life through his drug use and is slowly going down the same path that their late friend did.
The visuals presented in this opening give us a taste into each of the character's lives. We don't need a three page scene introduction for each of them, which in this case would amount to a whopping 24 pages of character introduction. Instead, only a quarter to half a page is needed to introduce an ensemble of characters within a purely drama driven story.
And then, to top it off, we are introduced with a hook in the final moments of this visual introduction sequence.
What’s his moment of characterization? The character introduction is interspersed with what at first we believe is a man getting dressed. With each visual, we learn that this is clearly a body being prepared for a funeral.
What does this tell us about the character? The last shot shocks us as we see that the person being prepared for a funeral died from suicide. The tragedy of death is multiplied by the way in which the death occurred. We know that this character — whose face is never seen — was struggling with something in his life.
How is this used for drama later? With the friends that are mourning him gathering together for a funeral, followed by a weekend stay in a house together, we learn much more about this character and how he affected the lives of the others. Each of the friends struggle with questions of why he killed himself and why he didn't ask any of them for help.
Trivia Note: Alex was "played" by a young Kevin Costner. During pre-production, he was brought into the house with the rest of the cast for a period of time until shooting began. His body is the one being dressed for the funeral.
Here is the opening character introduction sequence:
Later in the film, after the funeral, when each of the characters are unpacking their luggage and getting settled into the house for the weekend, another visual montage is played that adds to each of these opening introductions, solidifying the character elements introduced in the opening moments of the film.
We'll share another drama that utilized a very similar opening introduction sequence for an ensemble drama cast.
While we won't go into detail with these examples, watch the opening sequence of the now classic drama Little Miss Sunshine and keep an eye out for what we learn about these character types in such a small amount of time.
And finally, we go to Paul Thomas Anderson for our final example — found within the opening moments of Magnolia (after the initial opening prologue).
Dramas can be tricky when it comes to breaking through the Hollywood walls amidst high concept action flicks, thrillers, horror movies, hilarious comedies, and science fiction tales. Yet there are clearly ways to engage the reader and offer a sense of excellent pacing and intrigue.
With The Big Chill, we're introduced to this wide variety of character types, intercut with the preparation of a body that they are all clearly mourning. The draw of this story are the questions that are brought up in this opening sequence. How do all of these people know each other? How do they know the person who died? Why did their friend commit suicide? These questions and more are answered with a sense of drama and realistic comedy.
Screenwriters that are writing dramas or dramedies need to remember that in order to capture the attention of readers and keep them engaged in the story, they often have to employ similar tricks of the trade used in other genres. Introducing characters quickly and then revealing more of them as the story goes on is the secret to a successful dramatic story. Avoid the trap of lengthy character background scenes and introductions and you'll have a well-paced opening that readers can enjoy.