Character Development, Technique

The Benefits of Pre-Existing Relationships in Your Script

Pre-existing relationships can benefit your script in many ways such as providing natural exposition or the feeling of a lived in world.

Characters have to interact with each other. And that means meeting each other. And sometimes, you need that meeting, but often, you actually don’t. There are a lot of benefits to having your characters already know each other, in some sort of pre-existing relationship.

What is a Pre-existing Relationship?

First of all, what do I mean by a pre-existing relationship? Simply put, they knew each other before the point at which we met them. The relationship existed before the action of the script. The quality of this relationship can be of varying degrees:

– had been married for fifteen years when they were younger

– went to the same high school and kinda remember each other

– a bartender and a regular that recognize each other

Even if the characters don’t know each other, having them know of each other can be helpful.

“Oh, yeah, you’re Jack’s kid. I heard a’ you.”

It’s not the quality of the relationship that I want to discuss, but simply the utility of having something already there.

Here are some of the benefits:

– avoid awkward intros

– give a sense of a lived in world

– more natural exposition

– audience intrigue

– a place to draw from

Avoiding Awkward Introductions

There are some instances where you want characters to introduce themselves to each other. Good screenwriters make a point of making these interesting, but in the real world they are often not. A real world introduction could go like this:

INT. CONFERENCE ROOM

Jason enters. Across the table, Max rises, extends his hand.

MAX

Hi, I’m Max. Thanks for coming in today. How’d you hear about the job?

JASON

Hi, Jason. Thanks for having me. Ummm, I just saw the ad online and thought I’d be a good fit.

Not terribly interesting, right?

And a good screenwriter could make this interesting, but just because you can doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Maybe it’s not important, or maybe you just don’t have the real estate with the page count.

In the real world, these intros have to happen because people don’t just start speaking to others without first giving some context of themselves. But if they already know each other, you don’t have to do that.

Give A Sense of A Lived In World

Characters that know each other give a sense of a world that’s lived in.

The difference between a character walking in to a diner and saying:

I’ll have a cherry pie. Extra whip cream.

and

The usual.

Now, if a cherry pie, with extra whip cream, comes out in both instances, which one feels more lived in? The server understands what “the usual” means, which means that, to some degree, they know each other. The world feels lived in.

Natural Exposition

Characters that already know each other are able to give exposition in ways that could otherwise be difficult, especially early on when they’re reconnecting for the purposes of this story.

CHIEF

Meet your new partner.

OFFICER A

Actually, we went to high school together.

OFFICER B

Yeah I copied off his paper so many times. Dude, I never thought I’d see you after graduation.

OFFICER A

I never thought I’d see you at graduation.

Instead of having to establish the dynamic of these characters during an introduction, we learn a history and see an example of how they interact, and a glimpse into how they perceive the other.

Audience Intrigue

One of the things that a pre-existing relationship can help with is creating audience intrigue, especially if the relationship is charged in some way. Look at the difference in these two examples.

Example #1

A is a bartender, smiling/chatting up the regulars bellied up to the bar. B walks in.

CHARACTER A

Welcome. What can I get for you?

CHARACTER B

Actually, I’m here to ask you about...

Example #2

A is a bartender, smiling/chatting up the regulars bellied up to the bar. B walks in.

A drops their smile immediately.

CHARACTER A

No way. You get the hell out of here right now.

CHARACTER B

I can’t, I’m here to ask you about...

The pre-existing relationship adds another layer of depth to this scene.

A Place to Draw From

An additional benefit is that you have a seemingly endless well to draw from if you’re hitting a wall somewhere. If these characters’ relationship extends into the past beyond the scope of what we’re currently seeing, all of that is fair game. 

Characters can say things like:

It’s like that time we did x…

or

You’ve changed. I remember when you were just a…

or

Your mother never liked me.

These things can reveal character, signal growth, spark plot points, etc. Instead of having to invent something new, you can invent something old that has weight.

Case Study: Justified

If you want to see this in action, look no further than the television show Justified.

If you aren’t familiar, the basic premise of the show is that a US Marshall Raylan Givens gets reassigned to an office that’s essentially back in his hometown, which is a place full of criminals.

Almost every episode has an exchange that goes something like this:

CHIEF DEPUTY MARSHALL

We’ve got to go investigate CHARACTER X for drug trafficking.

GIVENS

Did you say CHARACTER X?

CHIEF DEPUTY MARSHALL

Yeah, CHARACTER X. Small time dealer, big scar on his left arm. You know him?

GIVENS

I wouldn’t say I know him well, but I did give him that scar when we were fourteen.

Look no further than the pilot. Of the five significant relationships shown in this hour of tv, four of them are pre-existing that reveal something significant. The pilot, and all six seasons, are on Hulu right now if you’d like to check it out for yourself.

Conclusion

In no way am I saying that a pre-existing relationship is better than two characters meeting for the first time within the context of your story. And sometimes, it’s important that your characters don’t know each other before they meet. But often, you’ll find a wealth of benefits if they do.

Can you think of any shows or films that utilize pre-existing relationships in an interesting way?

To go further with character creation:

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David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.