Writing Great Character Introductions: T2

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entrance in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the most memorable character introductions in action-movie history.  (Quick reminder: Check out the Terminator 2 Script or watch the opening again on YouTube – here’s the T2 Clip)

What makes this character introduction so good?  And why do we end up really liking this guy (Arnold) after only a few minutes on screen?

It all starts in the writing.  So let’s take a quick look and see what writers James Cameron and William Wisher Jr. did to make it work.  (They call the character “Terminator” so I will too.)

1. Fish-out-of-water An Eastern European bodybuilder goes into an American biker bar.  Naked.  What could go wrong?  I don’t know…how about everything?  The stage is set for conflict, conflict, conflict.

2. Confidence Arnold has it.  Where most of us might be a little worried about what we’re stepping on (who walks in a biker bar without shoes?), Terminator doesn’t sweat it…or much else.  We like confidence.

3. Humor Terminator gets impressed looks from the ladies.  This lightens the scene and also gives the Terminator even more credibility – he would definitely get the chicks…if only he were human.

4. Dialogue “I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle.”  Sparse, direct lines that get to the point with attitude and humor.

5. Music While not in any draft of the script I’ve read, and though it’s generally a bad idea to write in music cues, if you wrote something like: “‘Bad to the Bone’ kicks in as Terminator steps out of the bar, boots first,” you might just get away with it.

6. Surprise Just when you think the scene is over, the bar owner steps out with a shotgun.  But what does Terminator do?  Kill him and move on?  Nope.  Instead, he snatches his shotgun (for later use) and in a final twist, takes the man’s shades.

But 1-6 would have been negated had the scene not contained #7

7. Moral Compass (See: Blake Snyder) Basically, the scene is: A guy walks into a bar and steals clothes and a motorcycle.

And we’re supposed to root for this guy for the rest of the film?

Yep.  And we do.  So how did the writers pull it off?

a) The guys in the bar are rowdy bikers.  A stereotype, but we can assume that they’re not the nicest guys in town.

b) Arnold never hits first.  Take another look – the bikers attack HIM.  Cigar burn, pool cue to the head, one guy tries to stab him, and the cigar biker even tries to pull a gun on him in the end…  All Terminator is doing is asking for this guy’s clothes, sheesh.  To a machine who is trying to save the human race, this probably isn’t an unreasonable request.  Maybe if the bikers hadn’t attacked him, they could have seen Terminator’s point of view.  But we’ll never know.

c) Contrast.  In DIRECT CONTRAST to the other Terminator who immediately kills a cop, Arnold doesn’t kill anyone.  Even/especially the bar owner at the end who pulls a shotgun on him.  Instead, he just takes his sunglasses.

And with Bad to the Bone blasting, the bar owner scratching his head in confusion, Terminator peels out of the parking lot and hits the road.

But not before we saw that THIS Terminator seems to have a heart – and a sense humor – buried somewhere in those circuits.

Now stop procrastinating and get back to your own script…hopefully with a few new screenwriting tricks.



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