Podcast

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?

Until the nineteenth century, most armies would just march right at each other, but Napoleon perfected the “flanking maneuver,” in which one army would sweep around and attack the other from the side. This became many nineteenth-century generals' preferred method of attack, even though it quickly turned comical. In the American Civil War, both sides were obsessed with Napoleon and determined to outflank each other most of time, so the result was thousands of armed men endlessly circling each other in the woods, only fighting when one army accidentally backed into the other. 

Here’s what this has to do with scene construction: Once you know what your characters want and what obstacles are in their way, it’s time to figure out what strategy they’ll use to get it. In every scene, one or more of the scene partners are pursuing an objective and encountering an obstacle. If that obstacle is another character, then the solution will probably involve seduction, friendship, or belligerence (and sometimes all three). Each of these three methods requires strategy.

Of course, your characters can walk right up to one another, state their case plainly, reasonably discuss every possible objection, come to a resolution, and then move on. But they won’t seem like human beings. We won’t even admit what we want to ourselves, much less to each other. As a result, we hide our true objectives in every possible way. Real-life conversations, even with people we love—especially with people we love—are full of little verbal tricks and traps.

In any negotiation, the one who lays out his position first usually loses because it allows his opponent to reposition accordingly and outflank him. This is true whether you want a kiss, a confession, or a treaty. Clever people play their cards close to the vest and lead their verbal sparring partners on until they can trap them with their own words.

Don’t assume that only unsympathetic or devious characters do this. All people who are clever and persuasive know they must pepper their conversation with tricks and traps.

Take, for example, the famous knife scene from 12 Angry Men. As a lone holdout juror in a murder trial, Henry Fonda pretty much plays the ultimate embodiment of human decency. He’s one of the most humble and noble heroes in the history of storytelling. But he does it all with tricks and traps!

Fonda's character, Juror 8, sits there throughout the first half of the story hiding a big secret that’s burning a hole in his pocket: He has gone out the night before and found a knife identical to the one that was supposedly used in the murder. But he doesn’t walk into the jury room and present his exculpatory evidence right away. No, he waits and lays traps for his eleven opponents.

He insists they speak first, laying out their cases for conviction, knowing that ultimately they will have no choice but to brag about the supposed uniqueness of the murder weapon. He’s hoping they’ll literally throw the knife in his face so he can dramatically produce his identical knife and do the same. Ultimately, his patience pays off.

Juror 8 is not some righteous blunderer who stumbles upon the truth. He’s a steely but wily crusader who verbally traps and defeats his opponents one by one. That’s what makes him heroic. All compelling characters, whether heroes or villains, best serve their own cause by laying verbal traps and outflanking their opponents at every turn. Those who get fed up with maneuvering and simply plow straight ahead (as if they were at Pickett’s Charge) lose their battles and our sympathy.

For this Scenework series, we’re examining these scenes:

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Andy goes home with a drunk woman from a Bachelorette party.

Alien

After the deaths of Kane, Brett and Dallas, Ripley becomes captain, so she has a meeting with the other survivors, Ash, Parker, and Lambert, to decide what to do next.

An Education

Jenny is amazed as David gets permission from her parents to take her on a weekend trip to Oxford by claiming to know C.S. Lewis.

The Babadook

Amelia chases her son Sam down to the basement, where he knocks her out, ties her up, and drives the Babadook out of her, temporarily.

Blazing Saddles

Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople

Blue Velvet

Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy catches Jeffrey in her apartment and has sex with him at knifepoint.

The Bourne Identity

Jason and Marie are attacked at her family’s farm by the assassin known as The Professor. Jason blows up a propane tank to distract him and kills him, but as the Professor dies he convinces Jason to come back.

Bridesmaids

Annie is driving angry after feuding with Helen when she gets pulled over by a cute cop, who gives her his number under the pretense of recommending a place to get her tail light fixed.

Casablanca

Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.

Chinatown

Jake confronts Noah Cross with the glasses

Donnie Brasco

Lefty seeks to go behind Sonny Black’s back to set up his own meeting in Florida with Trifficante. He has Donnie borrow a boat for this purpose, but Sonny Black knows everything, and he crashes the party.  Lefty bitterly assumes that Donnie has betrayed him, and shuns him.  Sonny takes Donnie aside and elevates him above Lefty.

Do the Right Thing

Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.

The Farewell

Billi finds out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents.

The Fighter

Micky and Charlene confront Micky’s family about his career.

Frozen

Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace

The Fugitive

Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off.

Get Out

Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy drinking tea.  She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup.  She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.

Groundhog Day

Phil takes Rita to a cafe and tries to convince her that he’s living the same day over and over. He convinces her by predicting what Larry will say.

How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.

In a Lonely Place

Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others.

Iron Man

Tony has built a better chest-device to keep shrapnel out of his heart, so he calls Pepper in to reach into his chest and replace the old one with a new one.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird flirts with Kyle in the parking lot.

Raising Arizona

During Hi and Ed’s first night with Junior, brothers Gale and Evelle show up having just escaped from jail, and begin to suspect the truth.

Rushmore

Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers.

Selma

King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act

The Shining

Jack finally takes a drink from the ghosts in the ballroom. A waiter spills a drink on him, and takes him to the bathroom to clean it off.  While he does so, Jack realizes that the waiter is actually Grady, the former caretaker that killed his family.  Grady encourages him to do the same, but Jack is uncertain.

Sideways

Miles has struck out with Maya, but Jack comes back to the motel after a wild night with Steph, intending to go back out. Miles tries to get Jack to stay by forcing him to call his fiancé, but she doesn’t answer and Jack takes off with Steph after getting Miles to return his unused condom from the night before.

The Silence of the Lambs

Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.

Star Wars

The gang takes over the Death Star command office.

Sunset Boulevard

Joe discovers Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.


So how do those scenes answer this question?

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. He just tries to grab the wheel, but she tries to trap him into complimenting her.

Alien

YES. They’re mostly in direct confrontation mode, but Ripley is still trying to get the truth out of Ash indirectly.

An Education

YES. Very much so. David traps the parents using their own insecurities, traps Jenny into lying to them.

The Babadook

YES. He uses literal physical traps.  She feigns stillness to draw him near.  He appeals to her emotions, uses reverse psychology.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Very much so, on Bart’s part.

Blue Velvet

YES. they each trick information out of the other.

The Bourne Identity

YES.  Jason uses a spectacular non-verbal decoy to avoid direct confrontation

Bridesmaids

YES. He uses the tail-lights as an excuse to give her his number. She at first tries charm, then pity to get out of the ticket.

Casablanca

YES. Ugarte tries to trick Rick into talking about his past.  Rick gets Ugarte to almost admit to killing the German couriers.

Chinatown

YES. He asks Cross to read the obituary column in low light, forcing him to take out his (back-up pair of?) reading glasses, thus proving that they’re the same as the ones he has. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Sonny hits Donny with the fact that he knows about the club at just the moment to throw him off balance and get him to agree to stay in Florida.

Do the Right Thing

YES. When Buggin’ asks “How much?”, he’s implying that this isn’t worth $1.50.

The Farewell

YES. Her mom references her dad’s joke, which Billi laughed at before, to mock Billi’s position, which Billi has no response to.  

The Fighter

YES. Alice and Dicky offer a new bout to pre-empt the conversation.  Dicky claims he can get money.

Frozen

NO. it’s just direct confrontation. 

The Fugitive

NO. Only in the sense that Gerard allows Kimble to think that he doesn’t have a back-up gun.

Get Out

YES. She gets him to laugh at his stereotypes about hypnotism, but ensnares him as she’s doing it. 

Groundhog Day

YES. He traps her into saying things that will be disproved by his predictions. He predicts explainable things to lull her, so that it will be more shocking when he predicts unexplainable things. She tries to get him with logic traps.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Hiccup openly asks about Night Furies, Snortlout tries to pick up Astrid covertly, everybody tries to outsmart the dragons (look for blind spots, etc.)

In a Lonely Place

YES. Dix traps his agent, demands to hear the phone call, Dix’s ex tries to ruin the marriage.

Iron Man

YES. He suddenly gives her much-needed compliments to get her to do it, playing on her suppressed feelings.

Lady Bird

YES. He pretends that he’s getting her number so that his band can play his café. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Gale traps them into lying about where the baby came from, traps Hi into letting them stay by ribbing him.

Rushmore

YES. Did he steal her lighter? It’s possible.  He pretends to read a book he thinks will impress her.  He feigns lack of knowledge about her.  

Selma

YES. Johnson offers King a job in his administration, by which he would actually silence him.  

The Shining

YES. At first (“you a married man, are ya?”), but they fail and then confront each other directly.

Sideways

YES. Tells him to check his messages.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. She tries to use his own words to trap him into filling out form, he tricks and traps her many times.

Star Wars

YES. Luke tempts Han into it by playing on his greed. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he subtly mentions that he’s a writer, knowing that she’ll take the bait.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Are the characters cagy or in denial about their own feelings?

Another problem with direct confrontation is that it turns every scene into a “big scene.” Your story gets buried in sturm und drang, with everybody yelling too much. The trick is to learn to write “small scenes” that pack in even more conflict than you might find in a big scene. 

Let’s look at a randomly selected example from Breaking Bad from the second season episode “Down.” Mild-mannered meth dealer Walter White has recently been kidnapped by a rival, and when he finally returns to his family, he gives an unconvincing lie about where he’s been. No one wants to confront him directly, but roiling suspicions are tightening the tension in every scene.

This is a seemingly inconsequential scene, but it contains four confrontations, each of which could have been its own “big scene”:
  1. Walt Jr. tells his dad he now wants a new name and separate identity. 
  2. Walt and his wife argue about supporting the name change. 
  3. Walt’s wife confronts him with her hurt feelings about his disappearances and lies. 
  4. Walt’s meth partner, Jesse, reaches out to him for help, but Walt refuses him. 
Instead of presenting these confrontations as separate scenes, the show layers all four on top of each other in one fluid, small scene: A friend comes to pick up Walt Jr. in the morning and accidentally calls him by his new name. Walt asks his son about this, and the son meekly confirms the new name on his way out the door. Walt, shocked, heads to the bathroom to ask his wife if she knew about this. She says she did, and explains it by saying, “He wants his own identity,” and “Your disappearance really hurt him.” Walt realizes that she’s talking about herself, not their son, and so he’s about to say something, but just then the phone rings. Jesse, his drug-dealing partner, is calling about yet another crisis. Walt lies to his wife about who is on the phone and tells Jesse to buzz off. But by the time Walt is off the phone, his wife is already angrily leaving the house.

All of these confrontations can happen at the same time because they’re more subtle:
  1. The first confrontation is replaced by symbolism: The name change says it all, relieving the need for an “I want my own identity” confrontation. The friend’s slip of the tongue allows the information to come out indirectly without forcing Walt Jr. to confront his dad at all. 
  2. Walt’s larger confrontation with his wife about his lies hides as subtext within the smaller confrontation about their son’s name change. 
  3. Walt doesn’t need to tell his wife, “There are things I can’t tell you,” because Jesse calls and she sees that he’s still lying. 
  4. Walt doesn’t need to tell Jesse, “You’re messing up my life,” because we see that happen. 
Four potentially melodramatic confrontations all happen at once, but the way it plays out, none of them feels melodramatic. Indirect confrontations are less upsetting to the characters than direct confrontations, which means that you get to have more of them.

For this Scenework series, we’re examining these scenes:

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Andy goes home with a drunk woman from a Bachelorette party.

Alien

After the deaths of Kane, Brett and Dallas, Ripley becomes captain, so she has a meeting with the other survivors, Ash, Parker, and Lambert, to decide what to do next.

An Education

Jenny is amazed as David gets permission from her parents to take her on a weekend trip to Oxford by claiming to know C.S. Lewis.

The Babadook

Amelia chases her son Sam down to the basement, where he knocks her out, ties her up, and drives the Babadook out of her, temporarily.

Blazing Saddles

Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople

Blue Velvet

Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy catches Jeffrey in her apartment and has sex with him at knifepoint.

The Bourne Identity

Jason and Marie are attacked at her family’s farm by the assassin known as The Professor. Jason blows up a propane tank to distract him and kills him, but as the Professor dies he convinces Jason to come back.

Bridesmaids

Annie is driving angry after feuding with Helen when she gets pulled over by a cute cop, who gives her his number under the pretense of recommending a place to get her tail light fixed.

Casablanca

Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.

Chinatown

Jake confronts Noah Cross with the glasses

Donnie Brasco

Lefty seeks to go behind Sonny Black’s back to set up his own meeting in Florida with Trifficante. He has Donnie borrow a boat for this purpose, but Sonny Black knows everything, and he crashes the party.  Lefty bitterly assumes that Donnie has betrayed him, and shuns him.  Sonny takes Donnie aside and elevates him above Lefty.

Do the Right Thing

Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.

The Farewell

Billi finds out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents.

The Fighter

Micky and Charlene confront Micky’s family about his career.

Frozen

Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace

The Fugitive

Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off.

Get Out

Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy drinking tea.  She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup.  She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.

Groundhog Day

Phil takes Rita to a cafe and tries to convince her that he’s living the same day over and over. He convinces her by predicting what Larry will say.

How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.

In a Lonely Place

Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others.

Iron Man

Tony has built a better chest-device to keep shrapnel out of his heart, so he calls Pepper in to reach into his chest and replace the old one with a new one.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird flirts with Kyle in the parking lot.

Raising Arizona

During Hi and Ed’s first night with Junior, brothers Gale and Evelle show up having just escaped from jail, and begin to suspect the truth.

Rushmore

Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers.

Selma

King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act

The Shining

Jack finally takes a drink from the ghosts in the ballroom. A waiter spills a drink on him, and takes him to the bathroom to clean it off.  While he does so, Jack realizes that the waiter is actually Grady, the former caretaker that killed his family.  Grady encourages him to do the same, but Jack is uncertain.

Sideways

Miles has struck out with Maya, but Jack comes back to the motel after a wild night with Steph, intending to go back out. Miles tries to get Jack to stay by forcing him to call his fiancé, but she doesn’t answer and Jack takes off with Steph after getting Miles to return his unused condom from the night before.

The Silence of the Lambs

Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.

Star Wars

The gang takes over the Death Star command office.

Sunset Boulevard

Joe discovers Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.


So how do those scenes answer this question?

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. He’s pretending to be comfortable, she’s pretending that she’s not furious at her friend and ex.

Alien

YES. Ash and Ripley don’t directly confront each other.

An Education

YES. David and Jenny are lying, and dad doesn’t want to admit how scared he is of leaving home.

The Babadook

YES. He seems to be totally open at this point, but we suspect that even here he’s masking his emotions somewhat to get what he wants.  “I won’t leave you.  You said we’d protect each other.” She refuses to speak.

Blazing Saddles

YES. His dialogue brings out their conflicted feelings about race (and his own.)

Blue Velvet

YES.

The Bourne Identity

NO. Not really, it’s all out in the open here.

Bridesmaids

YES. He won’t admit he’s asking her out, she won’t admit her pain about losing the bakery.

Casablanca

YES. Rick doesn’t betray his interest in the letter, tries to hide his disgust for Ugarte until the end, Ugarte tries to hide his fear of the Germans.

Chinatown

YES. They’re both suprisingly cool customers given what they’re discussing. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  

Do the Right Thing

YES. Mookie, as always, keeps his feelings on this issue hidden and/or suppressed.

The Farewell

YES. The parents pretend not to be too upset. 

The Fighter

YES. All except Charlene.

Frozen

NO. they’re pretty open about it.  

The Fugitive

YES. Kimble no, Gerard yes.  Does he really care?  

Get Out

YES. He’s very reluctant to talk about his mom. 

Groundhog Day

NO. Not really. They’re pretty up front.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Hiccup pretends to still hate dragons,  Snortlout is cagy about his crush on Astrid, Astrid might have feelings for Hiccup.

In a Lonely Place

YES. Laurel is lying that she still loves Dix, the agent lies about his feelings about the script.  Dix is in denial about his suspicion that Laurel is about to flee.

Iron Man

YES. He finally admits “I don’t have anyone but you.” But she doesn’t respond and he quickly says “Anyway.”

Lady Bird

YES. She’s pretending to be blasé but she’s asdaf anything but. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Ed uses the baby as an excuse to kick them out.

Rushmore

YES. Very much so on his part. 

Selma

YES. As two southerners, they were raised to repel and fear each other, but they each suppress that. 

The Shining

YES. both.

Sideways

YES. Miles doesn’t say Jack shouldn’t cheat, he just says to check his messages.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Very much so, but they each call each on various things the other is hiding.

Star Wars

YES. Luke sells Han by mentioning the princess’s money, not her beauty, because he’s fallen in love with her himself.

Sunset Boulevard

NO. they’re pretty open about them.