Thursday, March 02, 2017

Storyteller's Rulebook: Avoid "Character Scenes"

I thought it might be instructive to look at a truly terrible scene. As you begin a story, it’s always tempting to just launch right into the plot, but of course most writers know that they need to first take some time first to establish their characters. But how do you write a good “character scene”? Not like this one, from Star Trek Beyond:
  • [Montage of life on ship]
  • KIRK: Captain's Log, Stardate 2263.2. Today is our 966th day in deep space. A little under three years into our five-year mission. The more time we spend out here, the harder it is to tell where one day ends and next one begins. It could be a challenge to feel grounded when even gravity is artificial. But we do what we can to make it feel like home. The crew as always continues to act admirably despite the rigors of our extended stay here in outer space and the personal sacrifices they have made. We continue to search for new life forms in order to establish firm diplomatic ties. Our extended time in uncharted territories has stretched the ship's mechanical capabilities but fortunately, our engineering department led by Mr. Scott is more than up to the job. The ship aside, prolonged cohabitation has definitely had affects on interpersonal dynamics. Some experiences for better and some for the worse. As for me, things have started to feel a little episodic. The farther out we go, the more I found myself wondering what it is we're trying to accomplish. If the universe is truly endless, then are we not striving for something forever out of reach? The Enterprise is scheduled for a reprovisioning stop at Yorktown, the Federation's newest and most advanced starbase. Perhaps a break from routine will offer us some respite from the mysteries of the unknown.
  • [Kirk drinks in his quarters, looking glum. Bones arrives with a bottle]
  • BONES: Sorry I'm late. Keenser's leaking some kind of highly acidic green goo and Scotty’s terrified he’s going to sneeze on the warp core and kill us all. What the hell are you drinking?
  • KIRK: I'm pretty sure it’s the rest of that Saurian brandy we picked up on Thasus.
  • BONES: My God, man! Are you trying to go blind? This stuff is illegal. Besides, I found this in Chekov's locker. [Offers bottle]
  • KIRK: Wow.
  • BONES: Right? I always assumed he’d be a vodka guy.
  • KIRK: Vodka. Exactly.
  • BONES: I wanted to have something appropriate for your birthday.
  • KIRK: It's in a couple of days. You know I don’t care about that.
  • BONES: I know. And I know you don't like to celebrate on the day because it is also the day your pa bit the dust. I was being sensitive.
  • KIRK: Didn't they teach you about bedside manner in medical school? Or is it just your southern charm?
  • [They drink]
  • KIRK: That's good.
  • BONES: Lordy. Are you going to call your mom?
  • KIRK: Yes, of course I will call her on the day. One year older.
  • BONES: Yeah, that's usually how it works.
  • KIRK: A year older than he ever got to be. He joined Starfleet because he… he believed in it. I joined on a dare.
  • BONES: You joined to see if you could live up to him. You spent all this time trying to be George Kirk, and now you're wondering what it means to be Jim. And why you're out here. [proposes toast] To perfect eyesight and a full-head hair
  • KIRK: Kirk Here.
  • SULU [on radio]: Captain. Approaching Yorktown Base.
  • KIRK: I'm on my way, Mr. Sulu. [Hangs up] Let's keep the birthday thing under wraps, huh?
  • BONES: You know me, Mr. Sensitive. 
This has so many elements of the bad character scene:
  • They’re just sitting around talking, with no other activity to busy their hands.
  • The hero’s selfless friend has come to have a conversation about the hero’s problem and nothing else. This is a classic “Do you know what your problem is?” scene. In real life, nobody ever asks that question, which is good because nobody wants to hear it.
  • The hero is not worried about a specific problem or crisis, he’s just vaguely discontent with life. This is a problem so vague that it can addressed by virtually anything that might happen in the movie. Basically, he just wishes something interesting will happen. Unsurprisingly, it does, and this vague discontent is immediately dispelled, and never mentioned again.
  • The closest thing he has to a specific problem is his father issue, but the actual story will do nothing to address this issue.
Ideally, a story will have no “character scene”. There will be early scenes that involve the hero engaged in some activity in which the hero and/or others will say things that speak to a growing annoyance (either from or towards the hero) with the hero’s longstanding personal problem, but the story won’t stop dead for a moment of reflection. The rest of story will stem from this personal problem and address it, directly and/or ironically. It’s good for a hero to have growing discontent with one specific, untenable situation, but not general discontent with life or aging in a vague way.

This scene sets up the movie for failure. It makes Kirk and Bones both seem annoying and unrealistic, and gives the hero a problem that we cannot invest our interest in. Do not write these “character scenes”.


Anonymous said...

>but not general discontent with life or aging in a vague way.

Unless life or aging is the problem the hero solves (a story about the latter might actually be possible). Of course, it still can’t be vague, still needs to be motivated properly--most people don’t become genius scientists from discontent with aging.

>This is a classic “Do you know what your problem is?” scene. In real life, nobody ever asks that question

except parents. Of course, the problem needs to have existed for a while, so the story can’t begin with that. And the reaction won’t be too positive.

Adam said...

Wow, that scene is epically bad. I assume it's a bandaid in response to a note like "Why does Kirk NEED this adventure?" The correct answer would have been "because it's Star Trek."

Sean said...

The ship aside, prolonged cohabitation has definitely had affects on interpersonal dynamics. Some experiences for better and some for the worse.

Good lord that's boring. I expect the montage provided some visual excitement and maybe some ironic counterpoints to Kirk's words, but those words are nothing but whiny, vague, midddle-managerese, and they just go on and on.

Compare to the captain's logs from the Original Series: punchy, exact, somewhat hurried, with an occasional burst of poetic sentiment. The words of someone with enough initiative and inner resources to not get bored while captaining a city-sized starship.

Glen said...

Established Franchise/Brand = guaranteed revenue = no one is concerned about quality?

We must remember that this beauty went via 1-n re-writes, readings, script reviews, casting, filming, editing…etc, before we had the pleasure of making its acquaintance.

Pegg, Jung & Lin may not know any better but you would have expected JJ to step in at some stage and ask what’s going on here.

If you fail at everything else in the writing of a scene you must, at the very least, make it entertaining. Tarantino has been getting away with it for years.

There’s a scene in ‘Hell or High Water’, the T-Bone steak scene, where they go to a restaurant to eat, before waiting for the brothers to arrive and rob the bank. It’s only purpose may be to give us a lighted hearted racial tension lifting moment between the two characters before one of them is killed. Otherwise, it could have been cut as it serves no real purpose, but it was left in, and damn is it entertaining.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

In this particular scene, it doesn't help that Kirk is expressing boredom at exploring outer space and contacting new alien life. Holy shitballs, Jimmy! There isn't a Trek fan in the world who wouldn't donate at least one gonad to take your spot, and you're moping about it? Go climb into a Jeffries Tube and think about what you've done.

It also doesn't help that his attempt to sound philosophical is crushingly stupid. "If the universe is truly endless, then are we not striving for something forever out of reach?" That's nonsense on multiple levels. "If the universe is truly endless" is made stupid by its shape as a question; Kirk and the audience know damn well that it is, so that's like a naval captain saying "If the ocean is truly salty..."

The second half is even dumber. "...then are we not striving for something forever out of reach?" This is confusing because the goal towards which they are striving is not defined. A few sentences earlier, Kirk said the closest thing to it: "We continue to search for new life forms in order to establish firm diplomatic ties." That's not an ideal to strive for, that's a task to be accomplished. They aren't striving to search, they're actually searching. Jimbo, you left out mentioning the goal of the searching, the thing you're actually striving for. That leads to the question what, exactly, is "forever out of reach?" Again, Kirk only referenced concrete actions: exploration and alien contacts. Neither is out of reach - they're literally doing it.

What he's apparently trying to say is that the universe's vastness makes their actions seem pointless. There's always another star, another planet, another species, so what's the point? This is insane. A ship full of dedicated scientific explorers are tired that there's too much out there to find? Are you high?

So Kirk is expressing discontent at a career that everyone wants to do and his laments don't make sense. Yeah, not a good way to win us over to his side.

Brian Malbon said...

I think it would be very useful for you to do this more often - take bad movies and subject them to your checklist and see how they stack up (or don't).

Brian Malbon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The movie is being shown free at Amazon at the moment, and this scene between Kirk and Bones was so repellent that I gave up immediately. Whatever the failings of the original Trek, Shatner-Kirk was not a moper.