Monday, June 06, 2011

How to Build a Scene, Epilogue: Mix and Match

Last week, I talked about how to juice a scene, and I ended with a checklist of all the elements a great scene has. But one thing I didn’t talk about was what you could do if one or more scene failed the checklist. You have three choices:
  1. Beef up the scene
  2. Cut the scene
  3. Combine two or more weak scenes together to become one rich scene with a lot of subtext.
Resist the urge to add elements to beef up a lacking scene. Listen to the scene: If it’s lacking, that’s telling you something. Transform the text of this scene into the subtext of another scene, or vice versa. Let’s go back to that episode of “Breaking Bad” that I charted: It has one seemingly small scene that could have been four scenes. Each of these confrontations could have been its own scene:
  1. Walt Jr. tells his dad that he wants a new name and new identity.
  2. Later, Walt confronts his wife to ask if she knew about this, she says that she supports Walt Jr.’s decision.
  3. Later, Walt’s wife confronts him with her hurt feelings about his disappearances and lies.
  4. Later, Walt’s meth partner Jesse reaches out to him for help, Walt refuses him.
Instead of presenting these four confrontations as separate scenes, the show layers all four confrontations on top of each other in one small scene: 

A friend comes to pick up Walt Jr. in the morning and accidentally calls him by his new name. Walt asks his son about this and he meekly confirms the new name on his way out the door. Walt, shocked, goes to ask his wife if she knew about this. She says she did, and explains it by saying “He wants his own identity” and “Your disappearance really hurt him.” Walt realizes that she’s talking about herself, not their son. He’s about to say something when the phone rings: Jesse is facing another crisis. Walt lies to his wife about who is on the phone and tells Jesse he’s on his own. By the time he gets off the phone, his wife is angrily leaving the house. All four confrontations can happen at the same time because they’re more subtle:
  1. The first confrontation is replaced by symbolism: The name change says it all, relieving the need for an “I want my own identity” confrontation. The friend’s slip of the tongue allows the information to come out without the son confronting the dad.
  2. Walt’s larger confrontation with his wife about his lies hides as subtext within the smaller confrontation about their son’s name change.
  3. Walt doesn’t have to tell his wife “there are things I can’t tell you” because Jesse calls and she sees that.
  4. Walt doesn’t have to tell Jesse, “you’re messing up my life,” because we see that happen.
Four potentially melodramatic confrontations all happen at once, but the way it plays out, none of them feels melodramatic. Indirect confrontations are less upsetting to the characters than direct confrontations, which means that you get to have more of them.

1 comment:

adite said...

Loads of interesting stuff. Glad I discovered your blog. Look forward to reading your articles at leisure. :)