Which comes first, "character" or "story"? Scott Edward Smith explains that finding "the hook" is the key to both character and story development, where one informs the other.
Melissa: Hey there. Welcome to Writing for Actors. I'm Melissa Jobe. I'm an actor and content creator here in Los Angeles, and today, as always, I have the absolute pleasure of speaking with one of my favorite people, Scott Edward Smith. He is the writer and creator of Intimate Fame, the audio drama series of one person performances that you can listen to on any of your favorite podcast apps, and I highly recommend them. They're wonderful.
So today we're going to get into some really exciting stuff. We're going to talk about character development. Now for me, this always turns into a chicken and egg problem. Do you develop your characters first and then build the story around the characters, or do you frame the story and then build your characters within the story? Scott, we're all waiting to hear how you do it. So how do you do it?
Scott: Okay. The first thing, the most important thing is to start with is the three big “whats”, and those are “What they do”, which is action, “What they say”, which is dialogue, and “What they were”, which is backstory. That's how you kind of deal with the chicken and egg because I wouldn't say one comes before the other– one inspires the other. Here's a great example: in Intimate Fame, these one person shows we've made audio dramas out of, they're all fascinating characters. And why wouldn't you wanna be in a room with them or hear what they say? That's the dialogue. The same part of it for me, the struggle with each of them, is what I call “the hook.”
Melissa: Scott, why don't you take a moment and explain “the hook.”
Scott: Okay. So, as Melissa has mentioned, the chicken and egg thing of character and development: which comes first? And I sort of think either can come first or they happen together. What I think is really important is having “the hook”, and that's where, at least for me, the wandering time where I’m able to… I can know those scenes. I can know the dialogue, but I can't write them because I don't have “the hook.” I think the character or development that can come together, one can come before the other, but for me it's “the hook” has to come. You can know the character really well, and know where the scenes are, but if you don't have the hook and it and, and it, you can think of the word “hook” also as inspiration.
Like, why are you doing this? Why are you taking so much time, energy, and brain power and just consuming yourself over a character or a story if you're not inspired by it or you don't have the hook. And the hook can be actual physical things. Or just emotional images. And as I had mentioned with Wallis, it was deeply tied into Princess Diana there to buy Wallis's villa on the day she was killed, which just gave me everything I needed to know about writing Wallis.
All these biographies… but it came down to one man's biography whose preface opened with this story about Diana walking through it. And there it was. It was, you know, “the world's most famous royal outcast” before Diana then before Megan. And so then I had the inspiration, and that was my hook. A lot of times hooks can be your last scene with Chinatown: you know– my father, my daughter, or husband, my daughter. I mean, it can be that you can have a great ending and you have no idea how you're going to get, so do you know what the, you know what the shoe is? That drops and surprises everyone at the end. And that can be your inspiration.
Melissa: Is the hook a bit of an anchor for you?
Scott: Yes, absolutely. And I think it's worth the frustration and the time to find it, and find it early on in the writing. As I say, especially in the world I'm working in right now where I'm having to write one person monologues, basically one person shows, that are 90 minutes/two hours once a month. I can write the character, I can write the monologue, but it's a lot easier to do it, and it's more inspired, once the hook hits. Because what will happen if I'm just writing the dialogue and I don’t know what the setting is or what the intentions are, I'm just going to have to go back and rewrite a lot of stuff. So to avoid that it's better if I do some of the procrastination. If I give myself the ability and time to go “this is important.” It's really important to have “this.” And again, I'm no athlete, so I have never gotten up at six in the morning to do anything that involved athletics. But they have a goal, you know, and if they don't have that goal, they'll never reach it.
You know, say you, you can be the fastest runner ever, but if you don't understand your goal, you're not going to be the fastest runner ever. At the end of the day it's healthier just in terms of your level of frustration. Which goes back to the first conversation about the fear of writing. And it's not a fear. It is the DNA of it. It's like this: if you want this profession, you need to embrace these things and the fact that it's not going to go away. It's always going to be on your shoulder. You're always going to be thinking about it.
Melissa: I just wanna throw in that you say you're not athletic, but I have seen you ride a bicycle at 9:00 AM.
Scott: That's true. I'm not quite sure that falls into athletics. It does require clothes that are not normal day wear. So that's the level athleticism that I have.
Melissa: So, Scott, back to the three, "whats.” Would you give us an outline, like a summary, of the three what's for Marilyn Monroe in The Last Sitting?
Scott: Sure. Let's mix it up a little bit. So the “what they do,” which is “action.” Marilyn comes to a private bungalow that has basically been turned into a photo studio - that all the furniture has been removed out and thrown into the other rooms. She arrives five hours late and part of her requirements was like five cases of champagne, and Bert brought a lot of uppers. So that adds to a lot of action. So that's what it's like. She's going to be shot. She's never met this guy, and she knows right from the beginning he's after her. She knows the moment she walks in and she tells him, and this is an actual quote, she comes up to him and says, “You keep that camera around your neck and you won't get into any trouble.”
And it's like you can't make these lines up. So that sets up the action. Then the “what they say” is like, you know, Marilyn's just talking during the shoot. And it was a bit of a dilemma because the premise of all this is they are one person shows, and in this one there's actually someone else on stage. Even though Bert doesn't audibly talk, he talks through his camera flashing. So that's his response and we know it. So there is a dialogue actually going back when she talks to him and she's calling him out on stuff. And whether it's a single flash, or whether it's a flutter of flashes, we start to hear another person in the room.
And so that's the dialogue part of it. And then the backstory is literally the monologue that Marilyn tells of her life. And hopefully in all of these, you know, it's not the basic stuff. It's just like they grew up in a barn and this happened to them, and their mother was a stage mom and took her to LA or something. It's the… you know what happened on the set of Giant. Or not Giant– Some Like It Hot, or these movies where you don't really know the backstory of the dish that was going on. And so that to me… that's the backstory. It's the fun stuff which you don't get to hear about.
Because if you want to know about what Marilyn's life was, or Wallis's life, you can pick up a book or go Google it, and in 20 minutes you can basically get all the information. But to know the, the Royal Palace intrigue from, you know, the Most Famous Royal Outcast, which Wallis was. She was an American twice divorced, and the king gave up a country for her. And wow– they didn't learn anything. That went so badly. And then they repeated it with Diana, and they're repeating it with Megan. And it's just weird how specifically they're repeating it on all of these outsiders who come in and shake up the model of the royal family.
But I think that now I’ll go back very quickly to that hook thing. When you asked me about the hook. With Wallis it's a cocktail party, and with Marilyn it's the last sitting– the last 2000 plus photographs that were ever taken of her before she unfortunately died. And what you do get out of this is that she had no interest in killing herself. There's a lot of the press, a lot of the writings that have really misrepresented what happened needless to say. And then James Dean, which is the third one, the point of view is inside his head where it all takes place. The second before he's killed in the car crash on his way to Salinas, California for a race. And that was it. It was like when I read James Dean, when I just looked at it, I knew I wanted to write it.
And what was the context it was going to be in? And when I read the… there's always a book. There's always something that makes it make sense. And there's one called Road to Salinas, and it's just a time reference from about 7:00 in the morning till 5: 45 in the afternoon when impact happens and he's killed.
And that opened up the door to me and I wanted to write it. Just like with Wallis. Great biographies. Really interesting woman. And then I read one, Greg King was a fantastic biographer, and he opens it with his preface about Princess Diana walking through Wallis's home. Yeah. And the echo of her shoes, cause there's no furniture in it. She's with Dody and she, another royal outcast that has been thrown out of the UK. Dodi's father owns the Wallis Villa– The Windsor Villa. And Princess Diana is walking through it to buy it for refuge, to save herself with somewhere to go. And she and Dodi decide to buy it. They go back to Dodi's apartment. She calls Harry and William as Mommy's moving to Paris. They go to dinner. Twleve hours after walking through the villa, she's killed in a car accident. Yeah. So when I read that I knew what I wanted. Fear. Inspiration. And with all these great biographies it wasn't until I read Greg's intro. The reason Diana was in Paris the weekend she was killed was to buy the home of the last royal outcast.
So it just made it all sense, you know, just like the Bel-Air Hotel. 2000 pictures. Marilyn would never be photographed again. Never captured like that. And that there was all this sexual tension going on. Plus the drinking and they were doing drugs and they shot all night. He had one intention, and at the end of it she was like, no, this is not going to happen. And she stood her ground. Hooks are really important.
Melissa: Well, Scott, this was great. Thank you so much for sharing all of this information with us. You know, all of these suggestions and methods that you use are great gifts to all of us actors and writers as we start to build our characters within our stories. So we really appreciate it. I'm inspired. I can't wait to work on my next project.
Scott: Thank you, and I'm looking forward to this. We're going to have a couple more conversations. Melissa had some great ideas about talking about “Story versus Plot,” which is an interesting one. And a big one for me is “Corporate vs Creative.” Boy, if you don't have a sense and a handle on that, you're going to have some issues in your life and in your work. So I look forward to talking to you again and continuing the conversation.
Melissa: Thank you, Scott.