Sunday, September 23, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #146: Every Scene is a Mini-Movie

Last time, we were talking about how an action sequence had to break down into a series of mini-goals, with the hero gathering clues and figuring out how to succeed. Let’s look at a short scene that’s full of mini-goals from this last season of “Breaking Bad.”

At the end of the episode “Buyout,” things have gone sour between Walt and his business partner Mike, so Mike zip-ties Walt’s wrist to a radiator to keep him out of the way while Mike goes to shut down their business. Walt sits there feeling furious, wanting to stop Mike’s plan, but what can he do?

In a remarkable silent sequence, we follow Walt’s every thought as he tries to get out, ultimately going through a ten-step problem solving sequence that should seem fairly familiar:

  1. Problem: Walt has been tied up with a zip tie connecting his wrist to a radiator, while his business is being shut down.
  2. Opportunity: He notices the coffeepot.  Maybe he can break the glass and use it cut the zip tie…
  3. Conflict: … But he can’t reach it.
  4. Hero tries the easy way: He hooks the coffeepot cord with his foot.
  5. The easy way culminates in a midpoint disaster: He yanks but the pot goes flying all the way across the room.  Walt is crushed.
  6. Hero finds the special weapon in the darkness of the cave: He realizes that the cord in his hand has another use…
  7. Hero tries the hard way: He strips the wires with his teeth...
  8. Spiritual crisis: He winces as he realizes that he must burn his own wrist, creating stigmata-like wounds…
  9. Commits to the right path, though he still has a long way to go: He grimaces as he slowly burns through the cord, and his wrist….
  10. Triumph: The cord breaks, Walt cools his wrist with water, then goes out to ruin Mike’s deal.
As I’ve said before, movie structure was discovered, not invented. It derives from the fact that most movies are about the solving of a big problem, and most human beings go through a familiar sequence of steps when trying to solve a big problem.

Once you embrace this model you see it everywhere. I pointed out here that I myself go through every step in my screenplay model whenever I attempt to write a screenplay. This sequence shows that the structure can also be shrunk down apply to individual scenes. This is just one silent scene, but it’s about a man trying to solve a huge problem, so, unsurprisingly, all of the necessary beats are there—they just go by really fast.

1 comment:

Kayla said...

This is a fascinating post. I keep rereading it, because it just makes sense!