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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I'm going through my beat sheet, making little improvements. One of them might be instructive:
Kid thinks Mom betrayed him. (Let's says she tried to get a doctor to prescribe drugs for him.) Mom defends herself, then gets mad and says "Dad wanted to do it too!"
That's dramatic. But this is a family. They know each other pretty well. Let's make this scene specific to their relationship. Kid knows Dad really well and can hear what he's not saying.
Kid thinks Mom betrayed him. Mom defends herself, but as she talks, Kid gradually realizes the truth: Dad wanted to do it, too. Didn't he?
That's a good, handy sort of generic tweak that very often improves a scene: have a character pull the truth out rather than having the other character push it out there.

But in this story, Mom is a bit of a jerk, and Kid has is on the autistic spectrum -- he doesn't get subtext. So an even better tweak makes the scene specific to these specific characters and not just their generic relationship:
Kid thinks Mom betrayed him. Mom defends herself, but as she talks, we begin to realize that Dad wanted to do it, too. But Kid doesn't pick up on Mom's use of "we," and keeps blasting Mom. Finally Mom loses it and blurts out, "It was Dad's idea!"
Your first stab at a scene will often be functional. It gets information across. It gets information into the hands of the characters. It puts characters into conflict.

Then see if you can tweak it to make it more specific to who these characters are. Can you accomplish the same plot goals by having the characters react in ways that only people with their specific flaws would react?

As I've said elsewhere, good dialog is when the character only says stuff that character would say; great dialog is when the character says stuff only that character would say.

This is the same thing on the scene level. Good scene craft has the characters doing and saying only things those characters would do. Great scene craft has the characters doing things that only those characters would do.

It's a tough standard, but I'm told that Jack Nicholson will do a script if it has "three great scenes and no bad ones."

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I've been trying to apply these principles as I polish a script I'm working on. Do you think there's ever a danger though in going overboard? For example, if a character is simply responding "yes" to a straightforward question, must it always be tailored to that character (e.g. Yes, Ma'am; Yep; *grunt*)?

Hmmm, well looking at it I suppose each of those do in fact tell us something about the character, but I'm still curious if you think there's ever a point beyond which "individualizing" each and every single phrase can get in the way of the storytelling.

P.S. Should the "only" be removed from the first line about scenes (i.e. Good scene craft has the characters doing and saying [only] things those characters would do)?

By Blogger Wade White, at 11:28 AM  

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