Pivotal Scene Fully Structured

September 17, 2009

I finally hit a breakthrough today on how to plant Joe’s seeds of doubt in the team member who is ultimately revealed as a Judas. I think it will work well. 

The trick to making this first act moment work is that Joe needs to figure out that this purportedly loyal team member cannot be trusted but before we do, so that his intuition and skill revealed to us the truth later in the story in such a way that we are surprised by the revelation but not incredulous; so that we see that the clues were there all along (so that we can buy in to the resolution) but not easily pieced together without the extraordinary sleuthing skills of a man like Joe.

And, by Jove, I think I’ve got it.

I’d love to give more details right now, but (A.) It would be a plot spoiler and (B.) I’m beat. As in “tired,” not as in beaten. Between wrestling this dramaturgical construct into submission and packing up the house for my impending move (on the 30th), I am done, adjourning this day and retiring to the companionship of my feather pillow.

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Maybe Just One More Analogy…

September 5, 2009

To summarize my last post: A writer can infuse a scene or moment with dimensional richness by planning out and artfully revealing story threads. Largely, this richness comes from giving the viewer (or reader) a completely different perspective on the plot and the protagonist.

Maybe you’ve also seen this?

image I remember watching a chess player in a very intense match who, after studying the board for several minutes to strategize his next move, suddenly got up and walked over to his opponent’s side of the board to study it from that viewpoint before eventually returning to his side and making his move.

Obviously, he was seeking to optimize his strategy by…

Getting a fresh perspective

Nearly always, the storyline is centered on the hero, right?

Right. But what or who influences the hero as the story unfolds? And what or who does the hero effect?

While screenwriters are inclined to write from the perspective of the hero/protagonist as they create each moment, the story can have greater realism and richness if they also take the time to look at what else is (or could be) happening in the unfolding moment, and consider what fresh insights the viewer may enjoy from the vantage points of your protagonist’s influencers or influenced.

While planning out a story, I think about events or conditions or people — the influencing and influenced — and consider where a moment in the story might be much more dramatic or meaningful if I pump it up by revealing the moment from those alternative perspectives, not just the protagonist’s.

But as I suggested in The Five Steps of Story Deconstruction, such elements or characters have limited dramatic value if presented as a singular event or “beat.” They gain their greatest impact when they are strung together to form a series of building story revelations. That’s a story thread.

More on the power of the story thread tomorrow…


Story Threads: Same Thing, New Angle

September 4, 2009

If you ask three people to describe an event they all witnessed or were a part of, what do you think the odds are that you’ll hear the same description from all three? For instance…

I remember one family vacation…

It was several years ago. From our Kansas City home, we trekked westward in our minivan for famed Yellowstone and Grand Teton national Parks, with a brief stop en route at Mount Rushmore. I was shocked when, a couple years later, the four of us were describing that vacation to our relatives. You would have thought we were describing four completely different trips!

  • I remember it as breathtaking, majestic, full of adventure, and loaded with quality one-on-one time.
  • My son described the two-week trip as being two weeks too long.
  • My daughter described it as torturous entrapment.
  • And my wife remembered enjoying the natural wonders, but being too exhausted (dealing with CFS at the time) to enjoy much of it, and finding the cabin accommodations too “rustic.”

One experience, but four radically different remembrances. Which is a roundabout way of explaining the value of knowing well your story threads, because…

Story threads are just like that

Sometimes, separate story threads are describing the same event, but from a different point of view. For example, here are two of the story threads i developed:

Joe’s Son — since Joe is a single dad, a pivotal character is his young-adult son, Sean, who is also a rookie officer under Joe’s authority. He often influences what Joe does or says, or what happens to Joe. So, I’ve got about 15 cards in the “Joe’s son” thread representing 15 story beats that involve Sean.

Spring Breakers — it would be a plot spoiler to explain why a group of American college students on spring break are important enough to the story that I’ve developed a story thread just for them. What I can share: Sandy, one of the students, becomes romantically involved with Joe’s son Sean. Though not as interwoven into the story as Sean is, I’ve got about 10 cards in the “Spring Breakers” thread, representing key moments in the story that involve the students or their parents.

Watch how these threads intersect

Here is the same scene as described on one card from each of these two story threads; it’s the same moment, but from unique perspectives. Notice the differences here:

image image

When I finally write the one scene described on these two cards, we will see this moment revealed primarily from Sean’s perspective. But we will also see what Sandy sees — perhaps how she reacts when Sean isn’t looking.

But remember: Sean and Sandy only exist in this story to push the protagonist or the plot forward. So, we need to understand this event from the perspective of a third character in the scene – Joe. The way I envision the scene unfolding, I want us to notice when Joe first notices the rapidly developing romantic chemistry between Sean and Sandy. I suspect we will be aware of Joe’s feelings about this before the other characters are.

There you have it: one moment within one scene, affecting three different people in three different ways.

Okay, different perspectives… so what?

So, while almost all screenplays are written from a particular character’s point of view (usually the hero’s), the medium of film is so multidimensional that it’s dramaturgical suicide when a writer forces the viewer to see the story unfold through only one character’s eyes.

As a writer — and as a director — I feel it’s important to create scenes that consider what is happening to other characters and to represent, if I feel it’s appropriate to the story, how other characters are viewing the unfolding drama.

An example from this story:

There’s a Family Gathering scene in the first act that introduces us to some of Joe’s relatives. In that moment, it’s important for us to see, among other things, that Joe loves and respects his mother and that she strongly affects Joe’s sense of right and wrong.

At the same time that this is being revealed, Joe’s older brother — the primary antagonist — is there, revealing to us his insecurities. We see that, while he is politically one of the strongest people in the country and is viewed by the family as an authority figure (since he is, by many years, the eldest brother), he nonetheless feels like the lesser brother around the family, and therefore harbors jealousy. We see this when he subtly belittles Joe as his mother praises little brother for some recent accomplishment. But his lame effort to look superior by making Joe look inferior backfires when their elderly mother scolds him briefly and returns her attention to Joe again. This leaves the older brother smoldering with a growing hatred for Joe.

What we see the older brother going through in that moment is hardly noticed by anyone else in the crowded home, even though it affects the man so much that it becomes a pivotal event in his life, planting the seed for revenge. Meanwhile, we see that Joe leaves that family gathering feeling both encouraged by his mom to not give up his vision, and challenged by her vision for what Joe is capable of doing for the good of the country.

See? One event, but two radically different viewpoints

And, because they are both leading characters, my responsibility as a writer is to make sure that we understand both characters’ psyche in that moment.

Creating not only the primary story line but also planning out a story thread for Joe’s mom and brother has helped me to retain their importance in the story and the pace of their character revelation as I craft the screenplay.

For a future post, I’ll come up with an example or two from an existing movie of how well-constructed story threads create better drama.


Playing with “Judas”

August 7, 2009

I’ve been looking forward to planning out this thread. I’ve known since one of the earliest story summaries that I wanted to turn up the heat on our hero Joe by creating a “Judas” — a trusted member of his team who eventually proves to be untrustworthy. Up until this morning, it was merely a sticky note reminder to test out the idea.

The goal is to create a character who, like Jesus’ disciple Judas, starts out as a follower or supporter, but ultimately reveals that he cannot be trusted. My dramaturgical motive is to increase the story tension by establishing that Joe doesn’t know who to trust anymore.

With each story thread I plan out, I look for opportunities to give them their own 3-act structure of sorts: to set up, nurture, and pay off the thread. This structural exercise helps me to weed out weaker story threads. If an idea for the story does not fit well into a rise-and-fall dramatic arc, it usually turns out that the element wasn’t worth developing: that it doesn’t do enough to thicken the plot, to move it forward, or to develop the main characters.

Happily, this thread is not only following a nice story arc, but it’s also proving useful in several unexpected places, answering questions I had about how to cause certain things to happen that, as yet, didn’t have the right setup or motive to justify them. 

The solutions presented themselves to me when I considered how a person would react when ousted from the group because his treachery has been revealed. How would he feel? Would he want revenge or to slink away in disgrace? Playing on the possibilities that would add the most tension to the story, I added an element that Joe, when he sees that he nearly lost an officer as a result of this character’s traitorous actions, goes ballistic, severely hurting the man.  Since we’ve already established that Joe is a passionate man who values loyalty, it’s a believable action. Now, I can use Joe’s harsh reaction; it comes back to bite him later in the story when the spurned traitor’s anger turns to revenge. In fact, this reaction allows the traitor to heighten the jeopardy for Joe in three critical plot points later in the story.

Exciting stuff.  Can’t wait to layer this in to the actual script.