Thursday, March 01, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #126: Some Scenes are More Ambitious Than Others

So I’m working on a screenplay and I’m hitting all my beats, but too much of it is falling flat.  I now realize that I need to start evaluating my outlines to determine if the scenes are juicy enough.  Not every scene needs to be juicy, but you can’t just have scene after scene of low-conflict information exchanges, no matter how interesting that information is.   

There are three key elements of juiciness in a scene:
  • There is conflict between the scene partners.
  • At least one of them ends up doing something they didn’t intend to do when the scene began.
  • At least one of them uses indirect tricks and traps, not just direct confrontation.
Mix and match those and you get the five levels of scenework, ranked from weakest to strongest:
  1. The Listen-and-Accept Scene: Two characters listen to each other and accept each other’s information. They may be surprised or upset, but they don’t reject what they’re hearing as untrue.  There’s no conflict, nobody does anything they didn’t intend to do, and nobody is clever.
  2. The Listen-and-Dispute Scene: Two characters tell each other things, but one or both of them rejects the other’s statement, so they argue, and then leave. There’s conflict, but nobody does anything they didn’t intend to do and nobody is clever.
  3. The Extract-Information-or-Action-Directly Scene: Same as above, but one of them directly convinces the other that they’re wrong and gets the other one to give them what they want.  There’s conflict and one person does something they didn’t intend to do, but nobody is clever.
  4. The Extract-Information-or-Action-Through-Tricks-And-Traps Scene: Same as above, but one of them tricks or traps the other one into giving up something unintentionally.  There’s conflict, one person does something they didn’t intend to do, and one person is clever.
  5. The Both-Try-to-Trick-Each-Other Scene: This is as tricky as it gets.  There’s conflict, at least one character does something they didn’t intend to do, and both are clever.
Remember this massive chart we made of every scene in episode 2.04 of “Breaking Bad”?  Let’s evaluate the dialogue scenes according to our new scale: 
Wow, there’s a reason why the tag line for “Breaking Bad” is “Extremely Volatile”. On the first draft of the TV spec script I’ve been writing, it goes more like 1, 1, 2, 1, 3, 1… etc.  

(And let me reiterate here: Cleverness has nothing to do with being smart!  Both Jesse and his mother, I would say, have below-average intelligence, but they still find a way cleverly attack each other’s positions.  These are character who each feel that they are teetering on the edge of an abyss, and they find hidden resources within themselves in order to survive.  The world’s dumbest animal feels the need for self-preservation, and, when threatened, can outsmart the world’s snootiest college professor in order to get what it needs. This is why compelling characters should frequently be on the edge of disaster: because that’s when people are the most resourceful and the most fascinating.)

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