Tag Archives: Paul Newman


This past week I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role. As I wrote here, he has retired from acting. Seeing the movie now, after months of getting used to the idea that it will be his last, left me sad but also energized and amazed by his work, as well as the other actors and the movie itself. Seeing artists like these at work inspires me. And Day-Lewis is a special inspiration — the way he approaches character and character development — for my writing and being a writer.

I find often that when I’m stuck with my writing, watching a good movie with good actors can rattle my imagination’s doors and windows. What is it that the actors do to establish the character?  And how do they sustain the character? What actors do is what writers do in creating and developing characters.  Paying attention to actors when they’re acting can be very helpful to fiction writers.


There are two areas of a character’s physical existence that both actors and writers pay attention to. The first is physical appearance. What does the character look like?  What is his hair color and style? Height? Weight? What kinds of clothes does the character wear? Does this change over the course of the story? I remember at one point when working on a draft of Perceval’s Secret, I decided to let Evan Quinn “go to seed,” i.e. he stops shaving, stops going to a barber, stops paying attention to his grooming to reflect his extreme focus on his work. But then he becomes interested in disguise and how it can help him lead a normal life — another aspect of physical appearance. Clothing can reveal character with respect to its style.  Someone (like Evan Quinn) who prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers is not the same as someone who wears chinos, an Oxford shirt, and loafers. When we walk down a street, we notice what other people are wearing and make conclusions about them based on their fashion choices. So readers will notice when a writer makes note of a character’s clothing. Also, is the character comfortable without clothing? Does he have scars, tattoos, birthmarks?

Paul Newman

The second physical aspect is movement, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, how a character stands (ramrod straight or slouched?), how a character walks. The actor Paul Newman had a distinctive walk that he used at times for a character he was playing, and sometimes not. Does the character walk fast, slow, with long strides or short? Do the toes point out? Maybe the character limps. Or maybe the character has a facial tic or a distinctive gesture. Some characters talk with their hands, as people do in real life, and others do not. Gesture can be a very subtle thing, but if it’s consistent, it can also reveal character.


What does the character’s voice sound like? Does she lisp or stutter? Perhaps she speaks with a foreign accent? Perhaps she’s a real chatterbox compared with someone more laconic. How a character speaks in any given situation reveals the characters emotions as well as thoughts. A writer puts the words in a character’s mouth, or ideally, the character simply speaks as the writer listens and records. An actor will have what’s in the script (which may or may not be written in stone — in theater it tends to be, but not so much for movies), and there’ll be a collaboration between actor and director on how those lines will be spoken. I remember seeing an interview with Anthony Hopkins talking about how he created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. He commented that the key for him into the character was Lecter’s voice and manner of speaking. Once he heard that in his mind and could do it, he had Lecter. How a character speaks should not be underestimated as a key character trait. How a character uses language reveals intelligence level and emotion.

Anthony Hopkins


What a character does for a living can be a method of self expression and another path to reveal the character. In this interview in W, Daniel Day-Lewis talks about the preparations he made, the research he did, to play Reynolds Woodcock, the couture fashion designer in Phantom Thread. Writers will (and should) do similar research into the occupations of their characters in order to insure their characters behave in a plausible way for the occupations. So, with Evan Quinn, an orchestra conductor, I researched orchestra conductors — how they live, work, travel, and see their work. An orchestra conductor will have a different life compared with a plumber or businessman, or a fashion designer. Knowing how a character acts while working adds authenticity to the character in the viewer’s or reader’s eyes.


So, when I need some inspiration for character creation and development, I turn to fine actors who have helped me in the past, such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Who do you turn to?

Narrative Structure

Yesterday afternoon, while riding a city bus home, I started thinking about narrative structure.   I couldn’t remember ever studying it in school.  For all the fiction I read in junior high and high school, as well as plays, I cannot remember the teachers ever discussing overall narrative structure.  It wasn’t until I took a screenwriting class almost 14 years ago that I learned about 3 Act Dramatic Structure, the most common narrative structure.  The teacher also talked about sequenced structure and non-linear structure, both not that common.  I had a terrible time actually applying 3 Act Dramatic Structure to the screenplay I was writing.  It took about a month for me to truly understand the protagonist’s decision moment that drives him and the rest of the story.  I felt that I should already know this stuff and my mind resisted learning it.  Eventually, with the teacher’s help, I got it.  And I’ve not forgotten it.

The 3 acts are: exposition, conflict/obstacle, and climax/resolution.  It is the structure humans have used for hundreds of years, and we continue to use it whether we’re writing a novel or telling a friend what happened at the mall over the weekend.  I’ve used it for each Perceval novel (at least the first 3, and I expect to use it for the last 2), as well as for the overall structure of the Perceval pentad.

The expostion act, also known as the set-up: introduction of setting, characters, situation, all through action rather than expository writing.  In a novel, it’s also possible to use internal monologues as well.  At the end of this act, the main character faces a situation in which he must act or make a decision which clarifies or defines what he wants.  Some writers call this moment establishing the character’s goal or desire.  The character needs to want something which provides the motivation for his actions.  I often ask myself at this point: what will he do to get what he wants?

The conflict/obstacle act: the longest part of the story (and where it’s easiest to get bogged down), the protagonist acts to get what he wants and deals with any obstacles or conflicts that arise to thwart him.  The best obstacles are people, of course, especially someone working against the protagonist to fulfill his or her own agenda.  The protagonist can also be his or her own obstacle.  But each conflict or obstacle needs to be harder to overcome than the previous one.  This leads to a scene when all looks lost, the protagonist will fail.  But then he gains an insight, discovers something, or another character has something that will help him get what he wants, and this leads immediately into —

The climax/resolution act: this act can be a page long or 10 pages, whatever is needed for the big ending when the protagonist gets what he wants or doesn’t.  Sometimes there’ll be a few pages of resolution to tie up loose ends or set up a continuation.  The climax, however, is directly related to that decision moment at the end of Act 1.  If it’s not, something’s wrong and the whole structure needs to be re-examined for that story.

I enjoy watching movies or reading books and making a note when the decision moment comes.  One of my favorite examples is the movie The Verdict starring Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer who’s hired for a medical malpractice case involving a young woman on a ventilator in the hospital.  The decision moment in this movie is a silent one, punctuated by the sound of Newman’s Polaroid camera and the ventilator as he takes photos of the young woman.  His face changes, his movements slow down, and suddenly it becomes evident what Newman’s lawyer wants.  Rarely does a character say “I want….” at this decision moment, but it will still be clear.

As an interesting challenge, the screenwriting teacher asked us to outline the structure of the movie Slaughterhouse Five.  The story jumps around in time from present to past to future while the setting changes accordingly for Billy Pilgrim.  It’s interesting that while Billy is the protagonist, he is not the character on which the structure is based, but the object of the character’s goal.  So, 3 Act Dramatic Structure can be used for the structure in a non-linear story as easily as in a straightforward, traditional story.