Establishing Characters: It’s a Wonderful Life

‘Tis the season to kick up your feet and watch a classic Christmas movie.

One staple of the season is It’s a Wonderful Life. As I started watching the Jimmy Stewart perennial, I noticed how much the screenwriters fully used the first 12 minutes of the movie to establish characters that continually feedback into the story for the next two hours. Stick around to the end of this post and download the screenplay.

Here are 10 ways the movie sets the pace for main and supporting characters, and examples of how you can do this with your story.

1. The movie opens with voiceovers in Bedford Falls home and establishments praying to help George Bailey. This brings up the biggest question of all: why does George need saving? And we wonder what roles these voices will play going forward.

2. We’re then lead into space as two angels discuss the need to help Bailey. They recruit the daft old Angel 2nd Class Clarence to be the one to set the depressed earthling straight. But first, they must share the story of why Bailey needs help. This establishes the angels and how Bailey is eventually saved. Although there is a little voiceover from these angels, it’s critical to know they’re looking down.

3. The following scene shows Young George Bailey announcing his brother as the next person to sled down a hill, that is unless he’s too scared. But Harry Bailey isn’t afraid of anything.

a. This establishes Harry being fearless and thus not being afraid of anything. We continue to see this especially when he becomes the hero who saves a transport troop during World War II.

b. When Harry falls through the ice, George is the selfless brother who jumps in to save him ultimately causing him to have a bad cold and lose his hearing in one ear. This creates an interesting aspect of the character – what’s the point of him losing his hearing? Well, it’s one of the reasons we as the audience know immediately something is up when he regains his hearing when his wish of never being born comes true about an hour later.

4. Young George then goes to the drug store where he works. Two girls are there:

a. Mary – the future love of George’s life who whispers into his bad ear she will love him until the day he dies, and

b. Victoria – who has a future reputation of being promiscuous. And some of her first lines as a child are saying that she loves all the boys

c. Mary’s role is obviously critical as she becomes George’s wife whereas Victoria’s reputation and George’s charity also come into play later in the film.

5. Also in this scene at the drug store, we learn that Mr. Gower’s son died in the First World War. Mr. Gower is distraught and has taken to the bottle. This leads to his clumsiness in preparing a prescription and gives Young George the pills to deliver.

6. Concerned about delivering poison to a customer, George spots a sign that states: “Ask Dad, he Always Knows.” So, George heads to the Bedford Falls Building & Loan where he first runs into his bumbling uncle Billy (something that establishes how George treats him at a major turning point later in the film).

7. Then George rushes into his father’s office where Mr. Potter’s greedy and uncaring nature is on full display. He tries to bully Peter Bailey and seems to only care about money.

8. This scene also shows Peter Bailey stand up to Potter, which then leads to George standing up to Potter as well, showing how George is the only one with heart enough to keep Potter from taking over.

9. We’re now back at the drug store as George returns the pills and, before he can explain, is smacked by the inebriated Mr. Gower. But George shows his sympathetic nature and justifies why he never delivered the medicine. Not only is Mr. Gower saved from negligence and manslaughter, but it shows Young George’s wiliness to stand up for what’s right even if it costs him personally (in this case, violence).

10. Finally, we’re in “Modern-day” when George is ready to embark on an adventure. He’s grown up and ready to take on the world; just as long as nothing gets in his way. We see George’s eagerness to leave his hometown and travel the world, just as he pointed out to Mary in the drug store all those years ago.

These ten points were all made within the first 12 minutes of It’s a Wonderful Life and for anyone who has seen the movie, they know how critical it is to establish George as becoming the empathetic adult that drives the story and the supporting characters who are there for the journey.

Meanwhile, we were introduced to just a handful of the many supporting characters:

• Mary

• Victoria

• Mr. Gower

• Peter Bailey

• Uncle Billy

• Mr. Potter

• Sam Wainwright (one of the kids – “HeeHaw”)

• Clarence

• Mr. Martini (as voiceover)

• The importance of the Building & Loan

When writing a script it’s imperative to make every word count and establish the world around the main character, their differing personalities, and a glimpse at how they act throughout the movie without being too “on-the-nose.”

While packing so much background seamlessly into the first part of your screenplay seems like a daunting task, remember that it doesn’t have to be in the first draft, or even the second. These elements can be included and updated throughout the rewrite process as later parts of the story are discovered.

As you embark on a new draft of your current screenplay, think about how to weave in supporting characters earlier in the script to set up their actions and behaviors later on.

For another example of how to make every moment and character count, I recommend studying the opening 10 pages of Back to the Future.

Download the script ⬇


Steven Hartman has had multiple screenplays recognized in several competitions including Big Break and Script Summit. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.


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