Monday, May 23, 2011

How to Build a Scene, Part 1: Stop! Go Back!

Screenwriters, playwrights and novelists have a wonderful tool that serialized writers lack: we can write backwards. If you find you’ve run into trouble with a scene, or a character, or a plot, don’t try to plow forward and write your way out of it. Plow backwards, and bury the seed of the solution far enough in the past that it’ll be ready to sprout just when you need it. As with most other problems in life, the best time to fix a scene is before it starts:

  • If something wild is going to happen in this scene, can you foreshadow it? The audience is less likely to say “this makes no sense,” if they’re too busy saying, “Oh, this must be what that was referring to earlier! How clever!” “Doctor Who” gets away with this trick a lot.
  • Can you establish that the characters have painfully unrealistic expectations about what’s going to happen? A reversal is so much more upsetting if we know that the character (and the audience) were fully expecting and depending on a totally different outcome. Maybe you can add a little brief scene beforehand where the hero rehearses how well they think that it’s going to go… Or if they’re about to find a key resource is gone, then you end the previous scene by giving them a boast about how they’ve got an ace in the hole.
  • Can you pre-load the dialogue with meaning? If the hero said, many scenes back, “I always know she’s coming back because she always says [blank]” Then, in this scene, when she doesn’t say that, we instantly guess how serious it is, at the same time our hero does.

Think of the scene in Singles where Bridget Fonda sneezes and her humbled ex-boyfriend Matt Dillon automatically mumbles, “Bless you.” That’s it, but it’s a wonderful love scene, because we had heard her tell a friend many scenes back about how heartbreaking it was that he never said that. Rather than put them in that elevator and force them to spew reams of dialogue about how he’s changed and how she’s maybe ready to believe him, we get a wonderful two word scene that convinces us they will get back together, because the writer was clever enough to lay the groundwork beforehand.

Audiences love this. We love learning the secret language of characters. We love knowing that, for her, “bless you” means, “I love you.” We love it especially when we forget all about it, then see it suddenly pay off much later. Only if we know the characters’ expectations beforehand can we experience the same emotion reactions at the same time as they do. This is true emotional identification.


j.s. said...

I'll go you one better. If you're having problems with the structure of a sequence, an act or even a entire script, start with the ending and work it out step by step in reverse. I've just finished a draft of probably the plottiest thing I've yet done. And the only way I could figure it out was to write it backwards, sequence by sequence, finally setting up in the beginning what I'd already paid off.

Matt Bird said...

I'm in a similar situation, alas. I'm also writing something (not the adaptation) that is very plotty, and I've stopped going back and planting everything I need to set up because it's just too much. Instead, I'm just started "paying off" stuff I haven't set up yet in every scene. When I'm done with this terrible first draft, I'll work my way backwards and fill all that set-up in.

The risk in writing backwards is that character development can end up seeming non-organic, because the characters never have a chance to say to the writer, "I wouldn't do that." For my draft, I'm trying to get all the emotional beats right and leaving the plot details fuzzy the first time through, but that's dangerous, too. It's hard to have specific emotions about generic events.

rams said...

Joshilyn Jackson's Gods in Alabama(which someone should option) has lovers on a car trip play "What have I got in my pockets, in which one player tells the second half of a story and the other figures out what happened in the first half. What's true, of course, is that the book itself is a game of "What have I got in my pockets," with much of what the heroine believes/tells us being untrue. A good shorthand for this gambit.