Sunday, March 12, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Never Change the Topic of Conversation in a Scene

Plays follow different rules than novels, screenplays, or comics. In a play, we’re plucked down in one location for a long time, and characters come and go to give us scene after scene set in that same place, right after another. It’s claustrophobic, but it’s an inherent limitation of the medium.

But if you’re not writing a play, you have the freedom not to do that, which means that you’re pretty much not allowed to do that.

I’ve found this frustrating in my own scripts: I have two characters, I’ve brought them together in a certain time and place, and they two different discussions they need to have, so why can’t I just get halfway through the scene and have them say, “Anyway, moving on, I also thought we should discuss…” But such transitions never work. After that scene gets attacked by every reader, I have to reluctantly break it up or cut it.

Scenes should be short. You should use any possible excuse to change the scene, and a change in topic is the most obvious excuse you could have. Cut to later, as the characters are doing something different, to cover the next topic of conversation. Ideally, in fact, you would break it up with another scene, because it’s best not to have two scenes in a row with the same two scene partners.

Another thing that they have to do in plays that you should therefore avoid in any other medium, in order to avoid staginess: Whenever someone enters a scene and announces that something visually interesting has just occurred elsewhere.  Cut away and show us the thing happening!


Emily said...

I struggled with this for a long time, and the hypothesis that I eventually formed was that whatever the scene is about should escalate to the point that the characters can't say "So by the way, what do you think we should do about that other thing?" - by introducing more conflicts, raising more urgent questions, etc. I don't know if that always holds, but it's helped my own writing, at least.

Matt Bird said...

Well put.

Anonymous said...

How about more natural transitions than “anyway, moving on”?

eg the topics are connected in some way and the transition occurs while discussing their overlap. Still hard to escalate that, but unlike movies, novels don’t escalate then cut away all the time.

Also, “Something visually interesting just occurred elsewhere” does happen in novels, because visually interesting is irrelevant to novels, and because many novels strictly follow the protagonist.

Matt Bird said...

Readers still want to "see" visually interesting things in novels. When this happens in novels with strict POV (whether 1st or 3rd person) I recommend to novelists that they find a way to insert their hero into that interesting scene. Put your hero where the action is.

Anonymous said...

Obviously the hero needs to be there more often than not when something interesting happens. Obviously you won’t have someone burst into the scene to declare something happened like on stage. But it can be done once, maybe twice, per novel, if done for a reason.

After rewatching Frozen, I disagree about the main point: In multiple scenes, they change topics back and forth within seconds, and those scenes work precisely because of it.

I guess you found endless idle conversations in the scripts you critiqued and they were worst when they switched topics too (at least, I found that pattern in my first drafts). But switching topics isn’t the problem here, long pointless conversations are.

Matt Bird said...

One advantage of Frozen is that they're always on their feet and doing things, so it's easy to break the scenes up even when they don't switch locations. These scene break-ups can give you more of an excuse to hide a conversation-switch. There are no "Let's sit down and have a conversation" scenes.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. Some of your own advice was “only one character wants the conversation” and “actors need to do something with their hands“ (or something like that).
That combined pretty much rules out “Let’s sit down and have a conversation” scenes.