“What’s in a name?”
Romeo & Juliet/Shakespeare
“Life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue…”
A Boy Named Sue/Written by Shel Silverstein & make popular by Johnny Cash
To paraphrase the Clint Eastwood character Dirty Harry, “A screenwriter’s gotta know his limitations.”
And one of those limitations is how many characters you can really follow in a screenplay. We’ve all read screenplays where you have to flip back and forth in the script trying to keep track of characters. One antagonist and one protagonist is pretty easy for anyone to follow. Add two or three sub characters and you’ve got a full house.
I’m not talking about people in your story, just the ones you’ve focused on. The ones you’ve circled saying, “pay attention to these people.” Juno—watch her. And it’s hard not to—not just because it’s Ellen Page in the movie version, but because in the script (as well as the movie) Juno is in EVERY SINGLE SCENE. If Juno didn’t have a name that would be odd. But how does a character earn a name in your script? Because by naming a character you are saying, “This person is important in this story.”
I know there is one screenwriting book that says it’s insensitive to call a character “Cop #1″ or “Skinny Teacher,” but you’re not writing a politically correct handbook—you’re writing a screenplay. Be insensitive, be rootless—be like Dirty Harry—and kill off names that are just cluttering the minds of readers.
And just how many is too many names to have in a screenplay? That’s tip #59.
“A reader can absorb about eight names. After that, they’re drowning.”
William M. Akers
Your screenplay Sucks!
And if you want to see how this plays out in real life, here’s the following Twitter exchange that Scott Myers posted a couple of weeks ago between Hollywood script readers:
@amandapendo [Amanda Pendolino]: romcoms are a treat.. it’s easier to remember a 2-person story
@BittrScrptReadr [The Bitter Script Reader]: yeah, faced w/a rom-com or a sci-fi epic, I go rom-com every time
@nate_winslow [Nate Winslow]: Contained thrillers, also a breeze in that regard. One location to remember.
@GoIntoTheStory [Scott Myers]: See, right there is what I’m talking about. Prefer rom-coms bec it’s a 2-person story. Easier.
Check out the whole exchange at GITS:The Twitter Conversations—Script Readers (Part 1) & (Part 2)
And speaking of Clint Eastwood, one of the great scenes around a character’s name is in High Plaines Drifter (written by Ernest Tidyman) when he’s asked, “Say, what did you say your name was again?” Eastwood just squints in the way that only Eastwood can (at least that’s how I remember it) and says, “I didn’t.”
P.S. And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t have much of a theory for naming characters until last year when Adam Levenberg read a script of mine and called me out for given a name to a very minor character (who was only in one scene) and then not giving a name to another character who needed one. To read more about what Levenberg found wrong with my script read the post Script Consultant Adam Levenberg.
Related Post: Meet Your First Audience (Tip# 36) —Post on Hollywood script readers.