Example of How To Introduce Your Protagonist (Hurt Locker)

Let’s look at another great example of how to open a script – both in terms of character and also in terms of location, setting the world. I loved the opening of this script and actually loved the film as well because it paints an immediate, thrilling, chilling, palpable world for us.

In this script, by page 3, we know exactly where we are, what the world is like, and exactly who these guys are. You feel like you could just reach out and touch them. And we like them.

“The Hurt Locker” By Mark Boal; Story by Mark Boal & Kathryn Bigelow

NOTE: This excerpt is intended for educational purposes only.

SEVERAL U.S. INFANTRY SOLDIERS are moving PEDESTRIANS away
from the bag. Another group of SOLDIERS is clearing out all
the shops: bakery, sandwich shop, and a butcher shop.

Next to a parked Humvee, THREE EOD (Explosive Ordinance
Disposal, aka Bomb Squad) SOLDIERS are crouched over a laptop
computer, looking at the screen and the same image of the
metal artillery shell inside the fluttering plastic.

SERGEANT MATT THOMPSON wipes at the sweat on his forehead.
This is summer in the desert and the median temperature on
this bright clear morning is 110 degrees.

THOMPSON
It’s to the left.

Thompson tears open a mushy Snicker’s. He is fleshy around
the arms and middle, but there’s real muscle underneath the
flab and truth be told, after so many years in EOD, he’s lost
the need to have a show-off build.

SANBORN
Going left.

SERGEANT J. T. SANBORN works the joystick on the laptop. He
is a strapping Iowa farm boy, with a thick back from bailing
hay. In contrast to his bulky frame, his face is soft, open,
kind. He has a relaxed demeanor. Which might lead you to
think nothing ever bothers Sanborn. But if you thought that,
you’d be mistaken. Before joining EOD, Sanborn was in
Military Intelligence. He quit. Military Intel was too easy.

THOMPSON
Up a little.

LAPTOP SCREEN
Rusty artillery shell now almost full frame.

SANBORN
There?

THOMPSON
Closer. I want to see the ojive.

Zoom on the nose cone of the shell.
The third soldier leans in for a better look.

SPECIALIST OWEN ELDRIDGE is a tall, lanky young man, the
youngest of the group. He’s a fighter like the others but
also a reader, and something of a thinker. Eldridge crouches
behind the other two soldiers, sipping a bottle of water,
eyes never leaving the screen.

THOMPSON
Push it in.

SANBORN
I can’t get it inside.

THOMPSON
Pretend it’s your dick.

SANBORN
(smiles)
I’m pretending it’s your dick.

Eldridge laughs. He clearly likes the two men he’s with.

To download The Hurt Locker script pdf and other Academy Award nominated screenplays, click here.

For more on Character, read Introduce Your Character to the Reader

3 Responses to Example of How To Introduce Your Protagonist (Hurt Locker)

  1. Guy Warren August 7, 2010 at 12:30 am #

    Hi- I always thought the action scenes had to describe only what the camera can see or the actor can do? For example in the Hurt Locker script describing Thompson “Before joining EOD, Sanborn was in
    Military Intelligence. He quit. Military Intel was too easy.” and Eldridge ” He’s a fighter like the others but
    also a reader, and something of a thinker” Exactly how does the camera see these descriptions or the actor act these things? I understand one of the storywriters was married to a famous director/producer. Does this make it right? If you are specifically using this script as an example of what is right, then can the average nobody get away with this novelist writing?

  2. Monica August 11, 2010 at 2:38 am #

    Guy, you’re right in that the basic rule is that good screenwriting communicates what we would see on screen. To this end, it’s not the job of the writer to direct the camera or be the set designer. While it’s important to master the basics, I find that many people get quite literal about the interpretation of the rules. In particular, people want to argue about character introductions and how they’re not necessary.

    In fact, recently I was told by a friend that he took one seminar in which they were instructed to NOT introduce their characters (i.e., to use only name and age). I was astounded and thought that was really bad advice.

    There is a reason every new screenwriter learns this rule: because we all overwrite. Screenwriting isn’t novel writing, because we’re telling the same content of story but with a fraction of the words on the page. It’s a skill to be honed.

    However, good writing is good storytelling. Good storytelling means the writer is communicating far more than the sum of the words on the page – they’re basically inviting a stranger into a fantasy world rich with emotional content. If I’m your reader, you have to give me enough to reel me in.

    Let’s just look at it from a practical perspective. In life, when you meet a new person, you’ll come away from the meeting with a very specific impression of an individual. You’ll get a name and a sense of age, but also you’ll know if they’re hip or not, interesting or not, successful or not. You’ll likely have a sense of their level of wealth, intelligence, etc. You can glean a TON of information from a first meeting. So, as a reader, I want to be introduced.

    Character introductions is one specific area where you get your 4/5 lines to plant a very carefully crafted seed of who that individual IS inside the reader’s mind. This is why I cannot stress proper character introductions enough! In order to properly introduce a character, you cannot just tell me that it’s a man wearing khakis. You can’t just give me a name and age – say, Jennifer, 30. There are millions of 30 year old Jennifers. That tells me nothing.

    You have to set up a scene and give me enough to indicate character – who that person is at the core. You have to firmly plant the seed of the beginning of the character arc and it should smack of where that character will possibly grow to.

    Why I chose The Hurt Locker as the example of this is because, with both of your examples, in one sentence I get a very clear idea of who that character is. The guy who quits Intel because it’s too easy and then goes to work disarming bombs is a very specific – and interesting – type of character. At once, in the mind of the reader, the writer has painted a specific image for you to remember, and also this is a guy I want to learn more about, he’s interesting, so I would keep reading. (And, by the way, this is character, so this is ultimately part of what the camera sees and the actor acts.)

    Thus, in one sentence, the goal has been accomplished: I’m interested and I want to keep reading. That’s the best you can get.

    If you don’t use very specific, concrete ways to introduce your characters, especially if you introduce more than 1 character at a time, then it’s just a scene with 3 guys standing around in military uniforms. None of the characters is defined, and I will read on getting more and more confused as to who is whom and who is doing what, why.

    Many people lose sight of what we’re trying to do: tell a great story. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. It is about what you choose to communicate and how you choose to do it. If you have to sometimes include something that communicates the spirit of what you’re getting at, as opposed to just the image, then write that.

    So, of course, on screen, in that exact shot in that moment, we’ll be seeing a guy dressed in fatigues. But, if that’s all you write, you’re doing a poor job as a storyteller. Just tell a good story.

    If this is still confusing to you, read more scripts. You’ll then start to understand what I’m talking about.

    Thanks!
    Monica

  3. Kristen May 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    Hey Monica-

    I just stumbled across your website and immediately bookmarked it. You have a lot of good stuff here! I’m really enjoying it, especially your articles on theme and the contest recommendations. 🙂

    On this point regarding character descriptions, though, I feel I must respectfully disagree.

    For the record, I worked as a reader off an on for three years, and I have a BA in Screenwriting. So I’m by no means an expert, but I would neither consider myself a beginner. (I learned far more from reading bad scripts than reading good ones!)

    Personally, I greatly disliked the descriptions here. It slowed the read down tremendously and immediately took me out of the story, which of course is not a good thing.

    I am a firm believer in the “writing what can be seen on screen” adage. There are clever ways you can insert much of the same information and make it colloquial *and* visual. But things such as “Before joining EOD, Sanborn was in Military Intelligence. He quit. Military Intel was too easy.” is superfluous. The audience will never see or understand this.

    Erin Brokovich was not my favorite example, either. However, although much of it could be cut, “Tall in a mini skirt, legs crossed, tight top, beautiful – but clearly from a social class and geographic orientation whose standards for displaying beauty are not based on subtlety.” says a lot and is still visual. That can be expressed in mannerisms and costume, and the dialogue clearly complements the description.

    One of my favorite character descriptions is actually from Pride & Prejudice (2005):

    “Elizabeth Bennet, 20, good humoured, attractive, clearly nobody’s fool, walks through a field of tall meadow grass. She is reading a novel entitled “First Impressions”.

    This tells us everything we need to know about her without delving into too much prose. “Clearly nobody’s fool” is something the actor could work with on screen in their posture, manner of walk, expression, etc., whereas some of the examples above are not. We also know she’s different, when we see her in contrast with her mother and sisters.

    I was honestly bored by the above descriptions (they sounded like something Quentin Tarantino would write), and personally I would much rather get a sense of the character based on their actions and choices. But if this isn’t done within the next page or two, they’ve lost me.

    And, to me, khakis would indicate a lot about someone’s social status and occupation, etc., so I guess I’m a little confused by your stance on that. I prefer not to describe dress most of the time, but I can see times when it could be a useful tool.

    This is all just IMHO, anyway, and is the only point I see you argue passionately on your website with which I happen to disagree. So I hope no offense is taken, as none is intended. 🙂

    Anyway, love the site and I look forward to more posts!

    Thanks and best wishes,
    Kristen