November 9, 2014 at 3:50PM


Screenwriting technique - character reveal

At a certain point in my script a character is revealed - his reveal shines light on past situations.

In order for the character to not jump out of the blue, he pops up in certain scenes throughout the story. However, he is never in the spotlight and and in fact, I don't want him to be noticed - he should just "show-up" as a returning background extra, if you will. On screen, you would be able to see him lurking in the background from time to time.

My question is, how do I write about the existence of this character throughout the script, without revealing that he is significant at all, yet letting you know that he's there? Thus keeping the surprise and mystery for the reader of the script.

Is there a method to do this? Perhaps there is script that I can read which tackles the same situation? (I thought of Synecdoche New York, if anyone can point me to that script).



As you mentioned, you can't have an extra suddenly becoming a major character. Since the character needs to be on screen for those previous scenes, you need to give him a name - introduce him earlier- and provide him with some action so it seems natural to be there.
Some examples: If he is a crew member in a spaceship, or an air traffic controller he would be working in front of computer screens in the background. If he is the police photographer, he will be around the crime scenes of your story, taking photos. Etc.

November 10, 2014 at 7:19AM

Stel Kouk

I imagined that would be that proper way to introduce any character. However, this will take away from the mystery and surprise when the character is revealed to have significance in the story. I wonder if there is a better way to approach this, or that what you're saying is just the right way and the surprise is left for the filming stage alone.

Thanks Stel Kouk

Daniel Falcon

November 10, 2014 at 11:35AM, Edited November 10, 11:35AM

What you're describing (as I understand it) is done particularly well in the first Saw film (in a very skilful and particularly unusual manner) which in case you haven't' seen it I won't spoil by describing it.

Might be worth watching it to see how they did it.

November 10, 2014 at 1:09PM

Studio LAX

I have seen Saw. I'll check out the screenplay, thanks. I wonder if at the moment of revelation, the script somehow refers back to it being him, or it's something the reader has to figure out for himself.

Daniel Falcon

November 11, 2014 at 7:56AM

I've not the read the script for Saw and it's been a few years since I saw the film, but don't they use a couple of quick flash backs during the reveal to 'sell' it, not sure if that's in the script or an editing decision.

If you're actually planning to make the film as well it's worth bearing in mind how you're going to shoot things and also edit it. What you've written will evolve (or possibly fall apart) at every stage of production.

Studio LAX

November 12, 2014 at 6:30PM

This was done on a smaller scale in 'Se7en', too, when John Doe takes a photo of Mills at the crime scene. He and Somerset write him off as paparazzi.

I think the trick here is misdirection…making this character seem less important than they really are. Otherwise, you've got a cheap deus-ex-machina-it-was-this-guy-the-whole-time character reveal on your hands…with an audience that's like, "Man, that's lame…also, who's that guy anyway?"

Keep this in mind: three seems to be the golden number for forming patterns in narratives, which, of course, adds importance to certain characters, locations, and motifs. If you just want this character to be "a part of the furniture" in the background, have him do something slightly noticeable three different times in the script (speaking, interacting with title characters, etc). The third appearance will alert to your audience that it's a pattern, but hopefully that realization comes only slightly before the big reveal.

November 10, 2014 at 5:25PM

V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor

I'll read through the script. I'm mostly interested to see how a screenplay deals with that particular moment. Does it "tell" the reader that it was the Paparazzi from some pages back? Or is this something the reader can figure out for himself? Or maybe it was added only by the director?

As for the "rule of threes", that's good to know. My character doesn't really have a big reveal, he's another small piece that chokes the protagonist into an impossible situation - his checkmate.


Daniel Falcon

November 11, 2014 at 8:07AM

This was the example that came to mind for me, too.

From the script - first mention:
"Mills goes down the stairs, grabs the reporter, a balding, almost silly looking man with thick glasses and wrinkled clothing"

Then later:
"One photo, close shot, shows Mills and Somerset on the stairwell of the building where Victor's body was found. It is the picture taken by the balding, almost silly looking reporter."

Note that although the reveal is disguised - he's not introduced in caps, doesn't have a name - the writer echoes the same phrase to remind the reader that they've seen him before and make it clear that this is the same guy.

I think with this kind of thing the main priority is clarity - don't be afraid of calling out the fact that yes, this is THAT guy you've seen skulking in the background all this time.

Jon Mills

November 11, 2014 at 11:04AM

One good take on this is of course also The Usual Suspects, it's not exactly as you describe it but maybe you could find some hint if you search out the script.

Which is also my tip to you, try finding similar movies scripts.

I don't know how you would write such a revelation moment, but my suggestion would be to write it kind of as a flashback where you re-trace the steps of the scenes for the protagonist as he remembers "seeing" the background-persona.

November 11, 2014 at 4:33AM

Viktor Ragnemar

I'm avoiding flashbacks, as it isn't an important reveal and out of context to my script. It's not a "It was him all along" moment. It's a small moment suggesting things have been happening even before the protagonist set on his "journey".

I think The Usual Suspects is very different. As, without spoiling anything, it's a character in the film which is later revealed to have a different identity and the clues of that are spread throughout the story. In my situation, this character shouldn't have any weight at first and slowly become suspicious until his reveal. It's not a surprise moment, but more of a "There's more going on in the shadows" moment.


Daniel Falcon

November 11, 2014 at 8:12AM, Edited November 11, 8:12AM

Of course The Usual Suspect is different but I thought maybe there was something in the script to learn from that reveal.

I think the above example is quite good: "One photo, close shot, shows Mills and Somerset on the stairwell of the building where Victor's body was found. It is the picture taken by the balding, almost silly looking reporter."

November 12, 2014 at 6:12AM

Viktor Ragnemar

For the technical aspect, cf. also page 18-19 in the script of Polanski's Chinatown.

A character named "Young woman" is discontinued and replaced by "Evelyn", after introducing herself.

November 24, 2014 at 8:25AM

Philipp Keller

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