Plots Should Be Revelatory of CharacterComplications Ensue
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Sunday, July 06, 2008

I've been revising episode 1.02 of the pay cable series I'm developing. One scene just wasn't working, between a kid and his recently separated dad. There was conflict but the scene felt mushy to me. It was boring Lisa, who felt that the scene was something we could see in any show, between any kid and his recently separated dad.

In other words, the scene was not revealing the dad's character. And that was, in turn, because the dad's plot wasn't revelatory of character. It was basically a conflict between him and his new girlfriend, which created a conflict between him and his kids. Move along, please, people. Nothing to see here. You've seen one train wreck, you've seen them all.

What I had to do was rethink the plot so it was revelatory of the father's character. This is hyper-important in such an early script, especially because he hadn't got a lot of air time in the pilot. But it is really important in any character drama. Ideally, you should never have a story about one of your core cast that could be told in the same way about a different character. The story has to come out of who that character is. 

In fact, every scene should be revelatory of character. The one scene that was blowing the whistle on my plot lacked flavor because it had nothing to say about the dad except that he was an okay guy and he loved his son; which, hey, is great, but doesn't get you on TV. 

As it turned out, the beats I had for the dad plot weren't bad. The scenes I needed were the scenes I already had. But they weren't working because I hadn't pinned down the underlying story structure. I hadn't pinned down what the dad wanted, and what it was in his character that made it hard for him to get it. 

Once I nailed those structural elements down, then the beats weren't too hard to rewrite. Even some of the dialog still worked, but it meant something fresh and new now. As it turned out, the dad came off as much more of an asshat, but in one scene we learned that it wasn't from selfishness so much as emotional blindness. Which is exactly the character I was shooting for.

If something's not working -- or even if it is -- doublecheck to see if each story is saying something distinct about its central character. If it isn't, figure out how to make it do so.

Remember, on screen (as, philosophically perhaps, in life), we can only judge someone's character by what they do, not what's merely said about them. 

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Good point. And definitely something I should use in my prose writing, where the scenes tell a bit about the setting but not much about the central character of the scene.

By Blogger The_Lex, at 3:10 PM  

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