Sunday, July 13, 2014

How to Build a Scene, Addendum: Leave the Hero and/or the Audience with a Growing Hope and/or Fear

I’ve talked about the importance of ending a scene on a question (often to be answered immediately by the circumstances of the next scene) but you should also keep your audience looking further ahead, breathlessly wondering how the events they’ve just witnessed will affect the rest of the story.

If your scene has pushed both the outer and inner journey forward, then we’ll be left with more and/or different hopes and fears going forward. By now, our initial hopes for what the hero might accomplish in this scene have either been gratified or dashed, resulting in a surge of hope or a deepening dread (and sometimes both).
  • I’m excited by the romantic potential of the person the hero has just met.
  • I’m scared by this villain-scene, and increasingly tense about what will happen when the villain collides with the hero.
  • I’m becoming confident that the hero’s plan will work.
  • I can see what the heroes can’t see, and I’m dreading the consequences of their limited perspective.
  • I’m rooting for what the hero is doing, but I’m also dreading the inevitable consequences of this action.
A scene can be very well-written, but if it comes to its own self-sufficient ending and tries to create its own meaning, rather than propelling us forward to future events, then it can still hurt the overall story.

The scene that we looked at in Iron Man has just one big problem: it doesn’t affect our hopes or fears for the rest of the story, so it creates a dangerous moment of dead momentum. The next scene could be the beginning of a new movie. In this case, the movie quickly recovers its momentum, but that break in anticipation was a big risk.

Let’s look at the scenes I chose to examine from these movies and how those scenes left audience with growing hope or dread.
  • Casablanca: We’ve already seen people get killed over these letters of transit, and now our hero has them. There is talk of a deal going down in the bar that night, which makes even our unflappable hero nervous, so we’re nervous about it, too.
  • Sunset Boulevard: We have a dread that Joe’s scheme to extract money out of Norma will probably fail as much as his other schemes, but with worse consequences. (Partially because we’ve already seen him dead in her pool!)
  • In a Lonely Place: After intercepting that phone call, we are downright terrified of what Dix will do when he catches up to Laurel (terrified for both their sakes)!
  • Alien: We have a surging hope that Ripley is finally going to kick some ass and solve the secondary mystery (What’s up with Mother/Ash?) and a fear for what will happen to Parker when he goes off alone.
  • The Shining: Yes, we’re terrified now that Jack’s really going to kill his family, now that the former caretaker has pushed him to do it.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, we’re now worried that Jeffrey is losing his soul in the process of his investigation.
  • Silence of the Lambs: We are left with a hope that Lecter’s info will advance Sterling’s career. (I’m not sure that we’re really afraid yet of what he’ll do to her. It still seems like she can outsmart him at this point.)
  • Groundhog Day: Yes, we are happy that Phil now has a confidant and hopeful that she is about to help him figure his way out this.
  • Donnie Brasco: We’re filled with a growing dread for the future, now that Donnie is alienated from Lefty and more tied to Sonny Black.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes, we’re glad that Jason’s going to keep Marie safe and we’re anticipating that he’s finally going take care of the problem.
  • Sideways: Not really. Miles is stuck in a holding pattern and we don’t feel much hope for it getting better or fear of it getting worse.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Not really. Things haven’t gotten much better or worse for the hero in this scene.
  • Iron Man: Not really. Things haven’t gotten much better or worse for the hero in this scene.
  • An Education: Yes, we’re anticipating a thrilling time for our heroine but dreading the downfall even more now that we know her parents can’t protect her.
  • Bridesmaids: Yes, we’re happy to finally have a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, now that a new guy has appeared, but we’re also wary of the likelihood that she will mess it up.
So this was true in 12 of the 15 scenes we looked at. This is another big task that you should take on in almost every scene.

1 comment:

j.s. said...

I know I've mentioned this before, and I know you're a fan of the film too, so: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. I can't think of another film that so relentlessly locks each scene to the next with such an unbroken chain of cause and effect. Every scene ends by setting up some kind of question/expectation that is almost immediately answered/reversed/undone by the beginning of the next scene.