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Letters to the Editor

Character Descriptions


Should I describe each character when introducing him or her in a screenplay? I’m not sure if character descriptions should be included on a separate page along with the screenplay.

—Marietta Kosovsky
    New York

Glenn Bossik, Editor-in-Chief:
It’s always best to describe a character when introducing him. Stick to physical characteristics and mannerisms that can be visually observed in everyday life. Only novels describe a character’s thoughts. The screenplay is a visual medium. However, when planning a script, it’s absolutely essential to write character biographies. Describe the social and professional life of each major character. Start with your protagonist. List his relationships and how they shaped his personality. Who were his parents? Were they white collar workers or blue collar workers? How did they raise the protagonist? Were they affectionate, strict, or indifferent? Answering such questions helps you understand your protagonist and plot out the actions he’ll take in your script.

Period Films


I want to write a screenplay based on a little-known historical figure from the sixteenth century. I know of a few biographies and novels written about this figure, but I haven't read them for fear that they will sway my view or the way I present the facts. So far, I have only researched dates, marriages, and timelines. I'm not clear on the copyright laws for this kind of situation. Can the author of an historical biography claim copyright infringement in regard to a person or event that is described in a screenplay?

—E. Standish

Glenn Bossik, Editor-in-Chief:
When information about important historical events is cited in many history books by different authors, the information is considered common knowledge and can be used without fear of copyright infringement. For instance, the date when Pearl Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941, can be freely used in a screenplay. Only when information is unique to a single author would you be required to secure a written agreement from the author. Alan Rosenthal’s book, Writing Docudrama, is perhaps the best guide to acquiring the rights to a book. Docudramas are films that dramatize real-life events. One such film that’s worth studying is Oliver Stone’s JFK. Read the screenplay. Then read the nonfiction books that served as source material for the script. These books include On The Trail of The Assassins and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy.

Using Letters in a Screenplay


I’m writing a screenplay, and I want one of my characters to read a letter aloud. How would I format the letter? Should I write it as dialogue or show the letter that’s being read?

—Sara Allen

Glenn Bossik, Editor-in-Chief:
The clearest and most dramatic way to depict a letter in a screenplay is to show a character reading the letter and to use dialogue. For example, the screenplay for The Shawshank Redemption reveals the contents of a letter in the following way:

Andy takes the envelope, pulls out a letter, reads:

                        “Dear Mr. Dufresne. In response to
                        your repeated inquiries, the State
                        Senate has allocated the enclosed
                        funds for your library project…”

As you can see, the character’s dialogue is enclosed in quotes to show that he’s using someone else’s words. We also see him reading. If a character were to read a letter to himself, a voice over could be used. So, there’s more than one way to depict a letter onscreen.

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