questionmarkIf the first time a character appears in a screenplay, it is in a scene in which he does nothing — he is just a peripheral presence — should he be introduced at that point?

The specific scene I’m writing is a funeral. There are four characters in that scene that we haven’t met yet. In that scene they don’t really do or say anything notable; they are peripheral mourners. They will all become significant characters later on in the screenplay. Does convention dictate that I introduce them to the reader at that point? (When we meet them later on, we’re supposed to recognize them as having been present at the funeral.)

— Ed
New York City

Yes. If a character needs to be in a scene, you need to put him there. If you don’t, there’s every possibility he’ll get dropped out of the schedule when it comes time to shoot that scene. Screenplays are literary works, but they’re also instructions. Recipes of a sort. While it might be tempting to leave something out — “Of course they’ll remember that Balthazar is at the funeral!” — assumptions like this invite mistakes.

Ideally, the very first time we meet a character, his introduction should be meaningful, giving us some reason to remember who he is and keep us curious what he’ll do. But there are valid reasons why this might not happen, and crowded moments like funerals and weddings are one example.

So if you need to include a character in this way, remember that you’ll need to make your proper introduction later. For example, in the funeral scene, you might simply write…

  • Among the mourners are JOHN BALTHAZAR (50) and his wispy daughter FIONA (21), who hover near the edge of the crowd. Closer to the action are two imposing men in sunglasses — ELAN and MAX, both 25. We’ll meet them all later, but for now, they’re merely paying their respects.

Later in the script, when we really need to meet one of them, we can do the proper setup…

  • Glenn sits across the table from John Balthazar, who we saw briefly at the funeral. With broad shoulders and a piercing gaze, he has the look of a Viking forced to wear to a suit. He keeps his knife and fork clutched like weapons throughout the meal.

You don’t capitalize his name in this second introduction. Since it will be the first time he’s spoken, the dialogue should be enough to help the reader notice that someone new has joined the story.