What about scenes that don’t feature any of the story’s heroes? There still needs to be conflict within that scene, and the audience should be able to pick a favorite to root for in that conflict. There’s a fun little scene in Die Hard where we cut away to the local news coverage: The anchorman mistakenly refers to Stockholm syndrome as “Helsinki syndrome,” and his co-anchor rolls her eyes. Even this small scene has its own hero and villain: We side with the anchor who spots her colleague’s mistake.
Even if the scene merely consists of two villains, then that scene also needs its own “hero” whom we want to see “triumph” in this interaction. We should admire one villain’s reaction to this situation (even if it’s only to admire the competence of his villainy), and we should disdain the other.
And in some scenes, even if the overall hero of the story is present, the audience is actually rooting for someone else. For instance, sometimes we’re rooting for someone else to set the hero straight. When Buffy and Willow disagree on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the audience almost always sides with Willow. Buffy is better in a fight, which makes her the capital-H “Hero” of the show, but Willow is wiser, which makes her the “hero of the scene” in most of her interactions with Buffy.
When you let different characters establish dominance in each scene, you build up potential energy. If your hero and villain keep running circles around inferior scene partners in separate scenes, then the audience will get more and more excited about their eventual confrontation. The audience will start saying, “Wow, these two each dominate every scene they’re in! What happens when they’re finally in a scene together?” Which one will be humbled for the first time?
Sometimes you can allow your audience to have ambiguous identification in a scene. In some scenes, we will be rooting for some heroes not to get what they want. For one reason or another, we know they are pursuing a false goal, and what they’re attempting to do will only make their problem worse. In these scenes, we root for the heroes to realize that what they want is not what they really need. One thing to be aware of: It’s very hard to watch characters do anything and not root for them to succeed, even if they’re taking an action we disagree with. This can be dangerous: French filmmaker Francois Truffaut claimed it was impossible to make an anti-war film, because anytime you show someone doing something difficult, the audience starts to root for them to succeed—even if they don’t approve.
A perfect example is the swamp scene in Psycho. We’ve spent the first half of the movie rooting for Janet Leigh, but when she’s killed by serial killer Norman, our identification switches to him very quickly.
At what point do we suddenly realize we’ve come to sympathize with Norman? With much difficulty, he’s killed our heroine, put her body in the trunk of her own car, and then dumped that car in the swamp. We’re horrified, but we can’t help but get wrapped up in his grim determination. Then, suddenly, the plan hits a hitch—the car bobs back up instead of sinking. And what do we think? We should think, “Hurray, our heroine’s killer will be caught!” but we don’t. Instead we say, “Oh no, our new hero, Norman, might get caught!”
It turns out that what’s really required to generate sympathy is to closely watch someone who is (a) making decisions, (b) doing something difficult, and (c) overcoming setbacks.
Hitchcock is forcing us to root for what Norman wants (to get away with it) and what he needs (to get professional help) at the same time, even though they conflict. But it’s okay for each audience member to have two competing rooting interests. The problem is when the audience has no rooting interest in a scene: “Why are they showing me this? This isn’t moving the story forward. I can’t figure out what’s supposed to happen here or how to feel about it.”
Instead, you must either trigger straightforward feelings in your audience (stand up and cheer!) or trigger two ambiguous feelings (I want the hero to succeed and fail, and I can’t decide which I want to see more). What you can’t do is fail to trigger any feelings.
As soon as a scene begins, let your audience know that one of several things might happen. Then get them to root for one or the other, or maybe, if you’re really good, for more than one irreconcilable option. Once they’re rooting for a certain outcome, the way you end the scene will either make them feel good, bad, or something more complex, but you must make them feel something.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople
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.
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.
Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.
Jake confronts Noah Cross with the glasses
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.
Billi finds out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents.
Micky and Charlene confront Micky’s family about his career.
Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace
Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off.
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.
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.
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 flirts with Kyle in the parking lot.
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.
Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers.
King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act
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.
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.
The gang takes over the Death Star command office.
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.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. At first we want him to have sex no matter what, but we gradually decide, along with him, that it’s not worth it.
YES, for the first time, we know that Ripley is clearly our hero.
YES. We’re on Jenny’s side as she hopes David succeeds, but feels a little scared of David’s ability to lie so well.
YES. We’re entirely on his side
YES. It’s all Bart.
YES. It’s interesting: at first, we share his salacious desires, then when he succeeds beyond his and our wildest dreams (He finds out her dark secrets, sees her undress, sees her cry, then gets to have sex with her. That’s pretty much the peeping tom’s grand slam) we’re both turned on and revolted, both by the general situation and his sketchy reaction. By the end, we’re rooting for him to not have sex with her, but he does it anyway.
The Bourne Identity
YES. we very much want Jason to keep Marie and her relatives safe, but we’re also sympathetic to the man he must kill to do so.
YES. It shifts: first we’re rooting for her to beat the ticket, then we’re rooting for him to get her to go out with him.
YES. we instantly like Rick and share his distaste for Ugarte.
YES. We quickly discover that we were wrong to doubt Gittes, so we’re on his side.
YES. The audience is very torn at this point between rooting for / sympathizing with Donnie vs. Lefty, which is good.
Do the Right Thing
YES. As with almost every scene in the movie, our sympathies are totally split. We basically side with Sal (as Mookie does, at this point) but Buggin’ Out makes a pretty good case.
YES. We identify with Billi and want her to find out the truth.
YES. We are rooting for Charlene to break Micky free of Dicky and Alice.
YES. We can root for both, but we’re more on Anna’s side.
YES. Gerard and Kimble have had no scenes together, so until this point we’ve happily cheered for Kimble in the Kimble scenes and Gerard in the Gerard scenes. Now we are forced to choose between them, which is fun. Ultimately, we’re on Kimble’s side, of course.
YES. We’re rooting for Chris and don’t trust Missy. (Maybe if the movie had a different title, white audiences might still be giving her a bit of a benefit of a doubt at this point.)
YES. We’re rooting for him to convince her, as opposed to the previous sequence where we were rooting for her to resist him.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. We want Hiccup to get the information he wants (but we also share Astrid’s frustration with him.)
In a Lonely Place
YES. We’re split, we can’t decide if we want her to get away or want him to win her back
YES. We’re on her side: we don’t know what’s going on, feel this is too much to ask. (later, when she gets too grossed, out, we switch to his side somewhat, and share his lack of patience.)
YES. Our rooting interest is complicated. We love Lady Bird, but we’re not really on board with this guy, so we’re starting to want our heroine to not get what she wants. (But we’re also seeing that the theater activity she’s skipping is now run by a football coach and amusingly lame.)
YES. We mostly side with Ed, but we’re very sympathetic to Hi’s dilemma.
YES. We’re rooting for him but identifying with her.
YES. DuVernay keeps us on King’s side. We’ve seen a victim that will be helped by voting rights, but not anybody that will be helped by the War on Poverty.
YES. we’re on Jack’s side for once (not only because Grady is so evil, but because Jack is finally investigating and resisting.)
YES. We totally share Miles’s frustration
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. We want her to get Lecter to do what she wants, and to get clues about Bill.
YES. In the first debate, we’re not sure if Luke should go with Obi-Wan. In the second, we’ve come to love Leia, so we side with Luke when he tries to convince Han to rescue her.
YES. we want him to uses Norma to get what he wants.