How Memorable Are You?


By Debbie Burke



Everyone in the writing community is part of a long continuum climbing a steep hill. Those who are ahead often reach down their hands to help those who are less experienced.

For three decades, my local writing group, the Authors of the Flathead (AOF), has thrived because of mentors who extended their hands to the rest of us, freely and generously sharing knowledge.

Barbara Schiffman, script consultant and creative producer

One of those mentors is Barbara Schiffman, who worked in Hollywood for 35+ years as a script consultant and creative producer. She reviewed potential projects for literary agencies and production companies like DreamWorks, HBO, Showtime, and more. After retirement, she and her author-husband Glenn moved to Montana in 2019 to live near their grandchildren and settled into a new home.

Before their boxes were unpacked, Barbara jumped in to help local writers. At the community college in Kalispell, she now facilitates monthly seminars about screenwriting sponsored by AOF and her MT Screenwriting Meetup (  – not limited to Montana writers).

At a recent meeting I attended, screenwriters had driven long distances from Polson (50 miles), Ovando (120 miles), Helena (220 miles), and Spokane, Washington (240 miles) to hear Barbara. With gas at more than $5/gallon, these are serious writers hungry to learn. The trip is worth it.

That evening, Barbara spoke about how to make a good first impression on people who might buy your stories. She stresses you never have a second chance to make a good first impression: “Get ’em in the beginning or you don’t get ’em.”

Her approach is two-pronged and applies to both to you as the author and to the main characters of your stories.

You, the writer, could be pitching to agents, editors, producers, etc., hoping to stand out among thousands of writers they meet.


Your book’s main character could be pitching to readers browsing thousands of books on virtual and physical shelves.

Both you as the author and your main character have the same goal: seduce the reader into saying, “I’ve got to hear/read more about this person!”

Barbara analyzed countless scripts and learned to read quickly, sometimes simultaneously writing a logline, one or two page synopsis, and comments for her clients.

The first 10 pages make or break a screenplay. Even when they didn’t grab her, she still needed to skim the rest, write a full summary, and make recommendations. The options were pass or consider, strong consider, or consider with recommendations.

An unqualified Recommend was rare. While many scripts were good, they needed to be great to earn a Recommend.

Insider tip: a reader’s analysis of each script or book must be thoroughly documented, including the date received and who submitted it, to protect the producer, director, and others from plagiarism claims.

Next, Barbara put us through an exercise to demonstrate everyone has a unique quality or experience that makes them memorable. She asked each person to give their name, where they’re from, and relate one unusual thing about themselves that isn’t generally known.

She offered her own example of a memorable event that led to a realization: a fire walk with motivational guru Tony Robbins. As she walked across the coals, she thought, This isn’t so hot. Yet afterward, she had a blister on her little toe. Even though her perception had been the walk was no big deal, the physical blister proved to her that, yes, the fire was indeed scorching.

Then she went around the room full of writers, ranging in age from early 20s to 70+, asking for their memorable events. Since I don’t have their permission, I can’t share what they said. But every single person, no matter how ordinary they appeared, had a unique, surprising story that caused the rest of us to say Wow!

Prior to that evening, I hadn’t met several newcomers. Next time I see them, I likely won’t remember their names or where they’re from but I will definitely remember the unique story they told.

That is exactly the effect a writer wants to achieve when meeting with a producer, actor, agent, or editor. According to Barbara, even if they don’t accept your current pitch, if you make a good impression, they will remember you and perhaps offer a different opportunity later.

Your main character must make a similar impact when s/he first walks onstage in the story.

If it’s a script, you want the actor reading it to say, “I have to play that character onscreen.”

If it’s a novel, you want the reader to say, “I have to learn more about this character. I need to buy this book.”

A current character description trend in screenwriting is to be minimalist—hair color, height, age. Barbara considers that “lazy writing.” When she reads scripts, she wants to know more than surface impressions. She says physical traits are important ONLY if they are integral to the plot.

“Less can be more but make it the right less,” she says.

Barbara recommends developing a skill she calls “screenplay haiku”—memorable phrases, especially in dialogue, that she says may wind up in a movie trailer and frequently in common lexicon.

Think: Make my day. (Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry).

Houston, we’ve had a problem. (Jim Lovell, Apollo 13)

I’ll be back. (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminator)

Barbara admires Taylor Sheridan, the creator-producer of Yellowstone and considers him “Shakespeare in the Wild West.”

She also mentioned Sheridan’s screenplay of Hell or High Water as a prime example of memorable screenwriting. A number of TKZers have recommended the film. Here’s a scene-by-scene dissection by director David Mackenzie.


Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender book series has also earned Barbara’s admiration. She says he’s a cross between Carl Hiaasen and Donald Westlake.

From Crashed: A Junior Bender Mystery, here’s Hallinan’s first description of a dirty cop named Hacker:

The face in the rear-view mirror possessed more distinctive characteristics than you’d normally find in a whole room full of faces. The eyes, black as a curse, were so close to each other they nearly touched, barely bisected by the tiniest nose ever to adorn an adult male face. I’d seen bigger noses on a pizza. The guy had no eyebrows and a mouth that looked like it was assembled in the dark: no upper lip to speak of, and a lower that plumped out like a throw pillow, above a chin as sharp as an elbow.

It wasn’t a nice face, but that was misleading. The man who owned it wasn’t just not nice: he was a venal, calculating, corrupt son of a bitch.


That’s a character most readers will remember!


Thanks, Barbara, for sharing tips on how to make a memorable first impression.

For more info about her, visit:

Check out:


My memorable detail for today is I’m having cataract surgery. Barbara kindly offered to pinch-hit and respond to comments, as well as answer questions.


TKZers: What makes your main character memorable?

If you dare, share a memorable detail about yourself.


51 thoughts on “How Memorable Are You?

  1. Thank you Debbie and Barbara for the peek(s) behind the curtain.

    I’ve watched Hell or High Water more times than I can count. I had not seen the “Anatomy of a Scene” video. Amazing. Shooting in sequence can be difficult, but it certainly works here.

    Timothy Hallinan’s books are worth stopping everything and picking up right now. His Junior Bender series is excellent. If you really feel the need to immerse yourself in unfamiliar territory and are looking for a new addiction, try Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty novels. They concern an American travel writer living in Bangkok. Hallinan knows the territory, including but not limited to the flora, the fauna, and the carnivores.

    Debbie and Barbara…have a great week!

    • One memorable detail about you, Joe, is that you’re usually the earliest bird at TKZ!

      Hallinan definitely showed his skill in the description above.

      Barbara and I were joking that if our TBR piles ever fell over, we’d both be crushed and suffocated. Hmm, new idea for a murder weapon.

    • Joe – Glad to hear we have similar tastes inmovies and books! The screenplay of Hell or High Water is absolutely worth a read if you like the film (or not) — an inspiring example of memorable but simple and vivid writing. See if you can find it on the web- ifnot, let me know…

      Happy reading and writing this summer!

  2. “Get ’em in the beginning or you don’t get ’em.” Well, you can’t be more succinct than that. Love it.

    Also gonna steal her idea about having students relate a memorable moment. That’s so instructive and would give anyone confidence in their ability to tell a story.

    • Glad you like the memorable exercise! It’s always amazing to me that writers think that they don’t have anything memorable about themselves. But it helps to have a memorable item in your back pocket for those “Tell me about yourself..” questions at meetings, pitch sessions, interviews, panels and of course podcasts! Get your students thinking about this now so they’ll be prepared.

  3. Thanks for sharing, and good luck with your cataract surgery. The hubster had his done a few years ago, and was thrilled with the results. I have a feeling I’ll be there soon, myself.
    I’m with Kris about the best takeaway line.
    I’ve done variations on the ‘most memorable’ question when I’ve moderated panels at conferences. I hate the introductions where the moderator reads the bio from the program. Duh. We’re at a reading/writing conference. We know how to read. Instead, before the conference, I ask each panelist to give me one interesting fact about themselves, and that’s what I use in my intro. Often without saying which panelist owns which fact. It’s up to them if they want to ‘fess up.

    • Thanks for the good wishes, Terry. Surgery went well and I’m able to see the computer…a little. Excuse typos please.

      Excellent idea for an improvement on the canned bio.

  4. Thanks, Debbie and Barbara. Wonderful presentation on making a memorable first impression. This is gold, since this is the area I’m currently working on in my writing.

    Good luck with your cataract surgery, Debbie. Thanks for responding to comments today, Barbara. And thanks for your tips. Terrific!

  5. Good luck with the surgery, Debbie. That’s not the problem. Behaving yourself after the surgery is a problem. So little you can do.

    I went to my 51st high school reunion, two weeks ago. Some of the attendees wanted to tell me what I meant to them during those years. I was remembered as kind, creative, and smart. Mainly, kind. Plus, my dad had that awesome store on North Main. Oh, and how is your much more popular and prettier younger sister?

    • Thanks, Marilynn. Yes, it’s tough to be “grounded”–like bending over when I drop something.

      Funny what people remember from high school. If I ever went to a HS reunion, I’d be mistaken for their old English teacher.

  6. So true–if you don’t draw people in early, you won’t draw them in at all. More so today than ever before since our attention spans are so much smaller and we’re already bombarded by so many distractions.

    I’m curious–we have writers of all experience levels here at TKZ. Do most writers feel they nail that bit about making their characters memorable in the first few pages the first time they draft? Or does it take several iterations before you feel like your character has grabbed the reader in the opening pages?

    • BK, readers’ short attention spans really make us writers up our game to compete with all the shiny objects out there. I have to work harder to come up with memorable details.

  7. What a wonderful lady! I’m jealous I didn’t see her speak but grateful for your thorough report.

    Hell or Highwater is one of my Top 10 movies of all time. It ticks off a lot of mg boxes: western, noir, heist, brothers bonding. It was a rare gem among the super hero garbage heap.

  8. I like the word Barbara used: seduce. Stephen J. Cannell used to say that the trick was not to write believable fiction, but seductive believability. If you give a character an immediate disturbance–paragraph one–you’ve begun the seduction.

    Interesting detail: I was about to sign a deal with a production company on a studio lot. The next week, the company’s deal with the studio was terminated. As Pauline Kael put it: “Hollywood is the only place where you can die of encouragement.”

  9. Oh wow. I would love to have been there. I think in movies so screenplays are my first love.

    Good luck with your surgery, Debbie!

    Interesting detail: I was one of the first females in my career field in the Air Force.

  10. Good morning, Debbie and Barbara. This post is pure gold. I have to echo Jim and say how much I like Barbara’s use of the word seduce in this context, and do it, like Jim said, via the novel’s opening disturbance. That’s how you draw the read into the story and get them engaged with your protagonist and their story.

    I haven’t seen Hell or High Waterbut it certainly sounds compelling. We did watch another compelling story last night on Netflix, Operation Mincemeat, the story of the grand deception British intelligence played on Hitler, fooling him and the German high command into believing that the Allies would invade Greece rather than Sicily. One of the characters is Ian Fleming, who was involved the deception in real life, and who provides a sort of narrative frame. A real-life cloak and dagger story compelling fictionalized.

    As far as memorable characters go, I’m currently working on doing exactly that with the hero of my library cozy mystery, Meg Booker. Newly put in charge of library while her boss takes a long overdue trip around the world, Meg cares deeply about others, sees the good in everyone, and misses nothing, always ready to help, in ways large and small, and wants to make things right. That’s what drives her to find out who murdered a reviled library patron.

    Memorable detail about myself: I’m living proof that the Heimlich maneuver works. Back in 1996, on a dinner break from work with a friend, a stranger saved my life using that technique when my airway was completely blocked by a piece of chicken I’d swallowed.

    Good luck with your cataract surgery today, Debbie. Barbara, thanks for being here!

  11. Thank you, Debbie, for introducing us to Barbara. You and the other Authors of the Flathead are fortunate to have such a knowledgeable and generous mentor. And thanks, Barbara, for these tips on making a strong first impression. I’ve never seen Hell or High Water, but it’s on my TBW list now.

    Something memorable about me? I will *never* walk across hot coals. Well, maybe if I had to get to my family or if somebody’s life was at stake. But those would be the only reasons. Okay, if there was a movie deal for one of my books on the other side. Or if I could get a first edition signed copy of … (I’ll make a list and get back to you.)

  12. Hey Deb. Really enjoyed this one today. I’m envious that you have that wealth of knowledge in your neighborhood. I know I’ve never asked, but I thought I would see what you through of this below in relation to the blog.

    I have three main characters. I have a “hero,” Reid, that’s looking for redemption. He’s constantly struggling with an old injury (3rd degree burn to his leg) that marks him a cripple. Reid also has PTSD and struggles to confront it, which is a transformation of character throughout the book.

    I have a mentor to my hero, Dave, who struggles with alcoholism. He checked out of normal society and he’s symbolic of every “jackass” I worked with in the Middle East—career functional but morally corrupt in different ways. Dave was a character I used to bring forward things about the Middle East you don’t hear about.

    My antagonist is gay, Ahmed, but he can’t be open out it because he lives in a country where homosexually is outlawed. He has a wife and children (his beard) and struggles with a daily question, “What would a normal husband do?” Ahmed is actually internalizing his homosexual urges with religion and figures it’s Allah who’s testing him. When were introduced to him, he’s almost over the edge crazy living in fear.

    All three of the above as based on several people I have worked with overseas.

    • Sorry, forgot to mention that I stick out in crowds. I once had a little kid say, “Mommy, mommy, it’s the Terminator” only to look at a woman rushing her kid away while scowling back at me.

      • Ben, when you come for the Flathead River Writers Conf in Oct., you’ll meet Barb in person, along with the rest of the wonderful community I’m lucky to be part of.

        I’d say your characters and you all check the boxes for memorability!

  13. I am about a month out from cataract surgery in both eyes. The first night driving after the first eye was done was scary. I realized I had been seeing about 2/3 of what I should have. I was mostly driving by memory.

    Speedy recovery! Move your computer screen to match your new vision.

    • Thanks, Alan, for your good wishes and your observation about night driving. I suspect I’ll be as shocked as you were, both for day and night driving.

  14. My main character is a recluse who has found a way as a writer to use all the drive she had before illness sidelined her career as a physician – and discovers she isn’t dead yet when she gives in to the impulse to help others with her disease for a once-in-a-lifetime foray onto a talk show.

    And I’m the only one in my cohort at a Catholic girls’ school in Mexico to end up with a PhD in Nuclear Engineering, and almost make it into the astronaut core – except for the tiny detail of a slightly substandard right eye.

    • Alicia, “almost make it into the astronaut core” and a PhD in nuclear engineering are certainly accomplishments few people, male or female, ever attain. Wow.

  15. Wow, this was SO helpful as I craft a new main character (who is, as of now, not overly memorable, but now will be!).

    Me? I’ve ridden over 100,000 miles on my motorcycles.

  16. Nice post, Debbie.

    Memorable Character: I like to think they all are but for my first novel “NEW YORK 1609,” my hero is memorable because he’s an independent-minded Native American boy who grows up battling European explorers, traders, settlers, and officials in the early 17th century. He does things like invent the wheel! (there were no practical wheels in those days there)

    Memorable Me? Tying back that novel, I swam around Manhattan Island non-stop (30 miles), which informed my deciding to write my novel 30 years later. And I just recently optioned the motion picture and television rights to book to Hollywood for development and production.

    • Harald, I remember years ago when I first read that you’d swum around Manhattan island and that has stuck with me all this time.

  17. This has been great! I’m just starting a new book and it came at a perfect time. Thanks for sharing your mentor’s words and for your great tips. And I loved reading all the comments!
    An interesting fact about me…I’ve been dating the same man for 24 years. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for us.

  18. Memorable detail about myself, Debbie? I’m a grabologist. Yes, that is a real word and it means a necktie collector. I have over 500 ties – some of them very valuable on the collector’s market like two that Frank Lloyd Wright personally designed in the early 1900s.

    Best wishes for your cataract surgery which, by now, should be successfully over. I had one eye done last January and it’s 20/15, but my depth perception needs careful attention – especially on stairs.

  19. Debbie, thanks for featuring Barbara’s willingness to share her experience. She continues to make a dramatic impact on writing in The Flathead. I miss the great talent you all have assembled there and wish I could have attended Barb’s talk.

    Personal fact: I am an introvert, but in earlier years I’d sing anywhere anytime a crowd of people gathered–restaurants, shopping malls, weddings, etc. That out-of-character behavior got me a scholarship.

    • Ann, after all these years, singing was a new detail I didn’t know about you. You should have burst into song at our crit. meetings!

  20. Thanks Debbie and Barbara! I’ve been studying screenwriting for a few years–I’m writing my memoir and the screenplay version simultaneously. The memorable thing about me is that I’m a Christian healthcare whistleblower. I spoke up to protect patients in a corrupt medical system, which led to a legal battle that tested my faith and resolve. I’m part of a FB script readers group (though I haven’t had official training), and some screenwriting groups. I also follow some screenwriting gurus online, such as Robert McKee and Scott Myers. I love storytelling in any form, and I love learning! Thanks again for your post!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Wendy. Definitely a memorable hook for your memoir and screenplay. Best of luck with them.

      The books and experts you cite are rock solid. You can develop excellent craft skills w/o “official” training by continuing to do what you’re doing. The thirst for knowledge will carry you far. Remember Abe Lincoln was self-taught.

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