Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994, 1997, 1998, Dorian Scott Cole
"Now why did he do that?" That was my most often uttered question as my children grew up. When I asked them why they did something, they had no idea. It's kind of like the characters in some scripts. It's as if some people are guided by some mysterious force, like the wind. When the wind changes directions, so do they, but no one can see the wind, so no one knows why.
Those stimulus/response folks in the Behaviorist branch of psychology prefer to treat the brain as a black box. They don't get excited about all the motivations swimming around inside the brain; they are more interested in what kind of response comes from various stimuli. For example, bad behavior can be modified by negative reinforcement, and it isn't especially important what fearful image the pain conjures up in the brain: a malevolent father, a menacing dog, sheer blinding pain, or the sky falling in. In contrast, the psychoanalytic approach might dissect the menacing dog image to deduce that the person's behavior resulted from fear of dogs. Somewhere between the unfathomable black box and dissecting the mind is what the writer has to reveal.
Action that is contradictory has to be explained. Few viewers have blind faith that characters do strange things for rational reasons. If Billy sees mean dogs guarding the fudge factory, but the following day to get the fudge he leaps the fence into the midst of the dogs, we're going to think there is a kink in Billy's brain. In the writer's mind there might have been a good reason for it, but to us, Billy is an idiot. Billy's action will make more sense if his friend told him that the guard dogs are trained not to bite.
More often than not, it isn't absurd actions which don't get explained, it is a character decision that never becomes known to the audience. To illustrate, take a sequence in which Tim is afraid to approach Elizabeth for a date. After missing two opportunities, he finally connects on the third. Why? What finally clicked in that black box? If the explanation is missing, the audience is robbed of the experience and the sequence is robbed of power. Did Tim have a talk with Elizabeth's friend? Another guy? What did they say? That he's an attractive guy? That courage is the measure of a man, and he is wimping out? This is the part that is more important than Tim getting the date. Getting the date relieves the tension, it is anticlimactic. Building to this point and seeing what influences Tim's decision is the important part.
Characters sometimes do things that are confusing. To wit, on his quest to gain courage, Tim begins taking a course in pottery. Or Marge, while searching for meaning in her life, slaps a street vendor for asking her for a date. Or Sherry, while trying to help her Uncle recover from a debilitating illness, cuts off her beautiful long hair. None of these actions connect with their storylines. When the character does them, the audience is confused. Actions like these have nothing to do with the storyline, and don't move the story forward.
1) Watch for actions that might seem absurd to the viewer because the reason for doing the action is obscure or not evident.
2) Make certain the character has motivation for his action which is important to the story. If the character is doing a little dance just to fill up time, the padding should be removed from the story.
Also See: "Credibility"