Monday, November 26, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 4: Misconceptions About Scenework

Why are some scenes so much more compelling than others?

What I Used to Think: A scene is primarily an exchange of dialogue.
What I Used to Think: A conversation happens when two people want to have a conversation.
  • What I Now Realize: Usually only one person wants to have a conversation.  The other should already be doing something important, and that other activity should continue to distract them both as the conversation continues.  This is why you have to know what every minor character does all day.  No one should ever be sitting around waiting to have a conversation when the hero arrives.
What I Used to Think: Couples like to sit down and talk about their relationship.
  • What I Now Realize: Couples hate that.  This is why the love interest should have another role in the story, so that the couple can talk about the plot on one level while talking about their relationship in the subtext.
What I Used to Think: A disagreement makes for good conflict.
  • What I Now Realize: Rather than simply disputing each other, both scene partners should try, one way or another, to get the other to do something that he or she does not want to do, and one or both of them should succeed. 
What I Used to Think: Morally upright characters will speak plainly and directly about their goals and feelings, rather than engage in surreptitious tricks and traps to get what they want.
  • What I Now Realize: It is human nature to avoid direct conflict, both because it is unpleasant and because it is usually ineffective.  Everybody, even nice folks, gets they want through subtle verbal tricks and traps, including seduction, flirtation, passive aggression, blackmail, outwitting, and many more. 
What I Used to Think: It’s your characters’ job to tell the audience what the plot is.
  • What I Now Realize: As the writer, it’s your job to show the plot to the audience, not have the audience explain it through dialogue.  The characters should not be thinking about or talking about the plot.  They should be talking about their own wants and needs, openly, surreptitiously, or unconsciously.
What I Used to Think: Exposition scenes must be avoided.
  • What I Now Realize: Exposition is necessary for every story, and there is no reason that exposition scenes can’t be great, if you’re careful to ensure these three things:
  1. Exposition should be withheld until both the hero and the audience are demanding to know it.  Let the questions start to burn before you answer them.
  2. Ideally, one should trick or trap the other into revealing the exposition.
  3. The scene partner who reluctantly reveals the exposition should nevertheless do so in a way that advances his or her own goals, whether openly, surreptitiously, or unconsciously.
What I Used to Think: A scene is about what the characters are talking about.
  • What I Now Realize: Scenes are equally about what the characters are not talking about.  This is either because they are intentionally avoiding the main topic, or because they’re unintentionally bringing up a topic that they’re trying to ignore.  
What I Used to Think: You should whisk your characters through scenes as quickly as possible so that they can keep pushing the story forward.
  • What I Now Realize: You must allow your characters’ volatile personalities, their emotional baggage from previous scenes, and the inherent obstacles of the setting to create friction, even if that friction slows down your scene. 
What I Used to Think: Characters should let us know through dialogue that they are shocked by a reversal of expectations.
  • What I Now Realize: We should know before the scene begins what the characters’ false expectations are, and we should share their shock and disappointment (or happiness and relief) as the reversal of expectations occurs.  
 Tomorrow: Dialogue!


j.s. said...

Really enjoying this whole Losing My Religion series. Nothing to add to this one except that you picked the perfect image to intro it, a still from "Three Men and Adena," a protracted scene which is in itself a whole episode, and one that helped define the greatness of the series HOMICIDE. Also quite a play-like choice, which goes to show how much the fundamentals of good scenework in screenwriting owe to the dramatic traditions of theater and how much you can accomplish with the barest means. Such an organic, minimal scenario: An interrogation room, a suspect, two cops, a ticking clock and only a few objects to exchange -- food, cigarettes, evidence.

Matt Bird said...

I'm having a hard time coming up with images for many of these, since they're mostly example-free. I didn't mention any specific scenes in the article, but I just racked my brain to come with an image from a scene (granted, a 30-minute long scene) that applied to greatest number of these points. Maybe the greatest single episode of TV ever.

Beth said...

Great condensed version of all your other posts! This is forcing me to go back and rethink all my scenes.

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