I’m writing the pilot for a Crime/Mystery/Thriller.

When we first meet the lead detective character - he is depressed about not being able to work. Not at his best, but that is about to change for him - sort of.

I want to describe that (normally) he’s a calm/confident/wise etc... So that the person reading my script will know how the detective is supposed to act when the time comes for him to shine.

Or should I not describe how he normally is until he is normal?


  • Your question title as well as its body could be reworded to improve searchability of the question, e.g. “How to describe a character with changing features on multiple occasions“ or something along those lines.
    – Orphevs
    Apr 1, 2018 at 23:34
  • Good point. I may change it. Apr 4, 2018 at 14:39

4 Answers 4


In a novel, you can mention that the protagonist's current behaviour is out of character in an aside.

In a screenplay, you have to show it (e.g. in a flashback), let the narrator tell it to the viewer (e.g. in voiceover), or have another character mention it (e.g. in dialogue).

A flashback is usually too much of a break in the narrative for a commentary on the protagonist, unless you want to show other aspects of the characters backstory as well (e.g. how witnessing the murder of his child broke him). A narrator can briefly mention a change in character, just as the narrator in a novel would, if you want to have a voiceover narrator, but if you don't, the easiest method would be to have another character say something like:

John, usually you are such a calm and confident person. What happened to you?

That is both brief and easy to accomplish in any type of movie or tv show.

  • +1, but it's very easy to overdo that kind of dialog. Ideally it should be backed up by the character actually being calm and confident later in the story.
    – Kevin
    Apr 2, 2018 at 19:09

I think you should give him a small win too show off his best.

Maybe the detective is too depressed to do well at solving crimes, but he can still manage something small day to day. Let him solve who is stole his newspaper. Let him be so confident that when confronting his neighbor, the neighbor tries to deny it, but then confesses under the sheer evidence, and the confidence at whit it's delivered. Show him in his best doing this trivial task and then go back to moping about not having a case.

  • Thanks! I guess what I really meant to ask is: “How do I let the reader of my screenplay know who/how the detective normally really is?” Not necessarily the audience. Because a part of me want to put “normally blah blah blah” in his character description. Apr 4, 2018 at 14:30
  • @MarcusMeier that's an interesting problem. I am imagining a book. I guess i should pay attention to tags more My answer is entirely writer to reader, without meta. If you are including it as part of the text i don't like the idea of just telling the reader "he is confident" I would much rather show it somehow
    – Andrey
    Apr 4, 2018 at 16:26

Characters have multiple facets: how they perceived themselves, how others perceive them, what they do, what they won't do, and expectations. No character is a thing at all times. Tell your story with the character as he is, reveal that he's more through interactions and decision. In almost all cases it is better to characterize through interactions than to tell a reader how someone is. When you tell, do so through another characters' perception (work compression).

The reason why is because your reader will trust what they observe, not what you explicitly tell them. So the answer is show, don't tell. Look up that Maxim, as it is almost always the right answer for novice writers.

  • Kirk, the question is about screenplays, so there are no readers. Note the tag "screenwriting", the mention of a "pilot" (for a tv show), and the asker's profile that says he is a screenwriter.
    – user29032
    Apr 1, 2018 at 17:56
  • Then it's even more true that he should use action and interaction. I'll revise for the medium, but the spirit of the answer is the same. Can't edit this moment
    – Kirk
    Apr 1, 2018 at 18:05

Do not describe his general demeanor.

I believe in The Mentalist, Patrick Jane's origin was dissheveled, unshaven, suicidally depressed and he came wanting to help capture Red John, the serial killer that, because Patrick Jane mocked Red John on TV, killed his wife and young daughter, and left them dead in the bedroom for him to find when he got home.

He was a mess. Even so, through his unique skills (cold reading), he helped solve a case right away.

Don't dilute the impact of the depression, embrace it. This is what motivates him to work, he cannot stand to not work. Show him watching TV detective shows or something, bored and nailing the outcomes, but depressed doing it. Still it is the closest he can get to working.

Your longer (series) backstory is "Why is he this way? Why is Jack all work and no play?"

When he gets a job, he is transformed, and professional. Then the audience sees this side of him, but they should keep that original "mystery" depressed guy in mind, that is what lies beneath that professional. The depression gives him depth of character; don't dilute it by saying "this isn't the real Jack." It is a side of the real Jack, it happened, and it hurt him. Hopefully you will let us know how and why someday.

  • Thanks! I guess I should’ve clarified - I’m mostly concerned with the people that will be reading my screenplay. Should I put the detective’s normal character traits in his character description too - so that when the times comes for the detective to shine - the reader will know how the detective is shining. Or - like you said - should I save those parts for when they happen? Apr 4, 2018 at 14:38
  • I would still save those parts for when they happen, screenplay readers want to see the movie unfold as the audience would, they don't want "spoilers" in the character descriptions. If your character starts off at a low point, show them there, then the change in attitude is a positive development whenever it happens.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 4, 2018 at 18:18

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