“Heyyyyy, nice jorb on da symbolism dere!”
If you’re curious about what my “fiction coaching” looks like (which can also include screenplays), below is what a report may look like from me. Please note that this is IN ADDITION to one-on-one communication and the annotations made on the work under discussion. My remarks may seem awfully bold, but this writer and I had a working relationship already, so there was no need to pussyfoot around things. I make sure to always take the writer’s feelings into consideration — I’m more of a Dr. Doug Ross than a House, M.D.
He made groundbreaking advances in clitoral massage.
I just did some in-depth coverage of a client’s screenplay. S/he has the look and feel of screenplays down and has obviously read many of them. However, outside of the visual feel, I can tell that few lessons have been learned from this client reading them. WHICH IS FINE! S/he wrote a draft and hired me to help whip it into shape. So after my initial detailed commentary on the PDF of this screenplay, I wrote the following note to the author to help get him or her ready for rewrite time.
Message to my author client
- Develop every scene into something longer and with a definite beginning, middle, and end. The character has a goal in that scene; he faces opposition in that scene; he either wins or loses in that scene. Don’t worry about making the script “too long” — you are several drafts away from having to worry about what it will look like in its end form.
- Put every action on its own separate line. Time your action and dialogue to be about one minute of screen time per page. You can write a 300-minute movie right now and then edit it down to normal feature length.
- Just go into detail and parse out your action according to how long you want it to take on the screen. Do this with the entire script.
NOTE THAT I AM EMPHASIZING THIS: Don’t worry at this point about the length of your entire script. Let it be as long as it needs to in order to have every scene — EVERY SCENE — have a goal, opposition, and resolution. Have we ever talked about the four kinds of resolutions? If not, see the end of this message — it will change your life as a dramatic writer.
- Make all of your dialogue — ALL OF IT — indirect and interesting. Have no character just agree with another. Make people at odds with each other, maybe trying to one-up each other and make the other feel stupid or look bad. Maybe just trying to make themselves look smart or otherwise good. No dialogue should be exactly what a character means like “That sounds good” or “I have to go now” or anything like that. Dialogue is EVERYTHING when it comes to character. (Well, actions, too. But you get me.)
Okay, maybe some situations are automatically interesting.
The conception of what a “scene” is that I’m going to share here is more or less lifted from Jack Bickham’s indispensible book on plotting, Scene and Structure. What I am providing here is my own take on it and my own examples, but that book goes into amazing and wonderfully helpful detail on the “scene and sequel” plotting technique.
What is a “scene”?
Unfortunately, a lot of new writers—and a lot of experienced writers going purely on intuition—think the definition of a scene is “something that happens in a story.” While this is trivially true, it doesn’t help at all with designing and writing scenes. No, a “scene” for our purposes here is defined as: Statement of goal, conflict against achieving goal, and resolution of conflict. That’s it; that’s what a scene is. Lacking even one of these three elements, and you got some stuff happening (maybe), but it ain’t a scene. Let’s look at the different elements of a scene, in order:
Statement of goal
Every scene—and I mean EVERY scene—must start with a declaration by the central character of that scene (not always the protagonist; for example, in James Bond movies where the villain is talking to his henchmen, the villain is the central character; that is, the one with the goal in that scene) of his or her GOAL.
Let me repeat, for clarity: EVERY scene. And note that the scene doesn’t begin with a goal as such, although the character does have a goal—it begins with the implicit or explicit STATEMENT of that goal. Here are some examples:
- Indiana Jones walks into Marion’s bar in Nepal. Within thirty seconds he tells her (and us) that he’s there for her father’s medallion.
- Darth Vader strolls on the Rebel cruiser and starts choking folks and cracking skulls, wanting to know where the stolen Death Star plans are.
“Not until … you say … the … magic … word …”
- In Whale Rider, young Paikea wants to honor her grandfather with her speech at school.
In the first two examples, the goal-seeking character states explicitly what it is he wants (the medallion, the Death Star plans); in the last, the goal-seeking character SHOWS implicitly what she wants by looking into the audience for her beloved but disapproving grandfather. We know that whatever she is going to do, she’s doing it to gain his respect and lost love.
Every scene, with goals from “I want to make love to you” to “Let’s scalp us some Nazis” and anything and everything in between, starts with an explicit or implicit statement of a goal. The audience either already knows what the goal is from a previous scene (a group trying to scale Everest is probably still trying to scale it the next time we see them, although the PARTICULAR goal of the next scene might involve a different obstacle for them to overcome), or the character just says what the new goal is to another character (“I’ve got to get that promotion!”) or the character SHOWS his desire for this new goal (comes out of the hotel in the rain, searches desperately for a taxi—fairly obvious what the goal is). One super-nice thing about writing fiction is that we can always, ALWAYS have the character (if he or she is the viewpoint character in that scene) just THINK what the goal is. (Man, I need that promotion.)
This cat knows what I’m talkin ’bout.
But the character in question must always know what the goal is. It can’t be a secret from the character, even if what she THINKS is her goal is quite different from what we think it is or should be.
Drama isn’t drama if there isn’t conflict. If the character’s stated goal is “I need my pencil for the meeting” and then finds it immediately, picks it up off the desk, and walks off with it, there’s no drama because there was no conflict between the statement of the goal and the resolution. There MUST be conflict, in EVERY scene. Make sure every scene has conflict keeping the goal-seeking character from realizing his or her goal.
This is where things get fun. In order to keep tension rising, you must constantly take the protagonist further and further away from his goal. And even if she achieves something that apparently brings her closer to the goal, it must turn out quickly that it puts the character is a new situation which is, in fact, further from her ultimate story goal! And here’s how you do it: by tailoring the resolutions you devise to the conflicts in scenes.
Some are simpler than others.
Following Bickham, there are FOUR kinds of resolutions: Yes; No; Yes, But; and No, and Furthermore. Yes and No are obvious resolutions, used best at the very end of a story when you don’t want any more rising tension or action. They’re boring resolutions. Avoid them as much as possible.
The “Yes, But” resolution is MUCH more interesting, and it’s my favorite. What happens in a “Yes, But” resolution is that technically, the goal-seeking character achieves the goal he was after. He gets the promotion! She can stay in the country! She’s finally pregnant like she’s been trying to do for months! This “Yes” part is great on the surface of it, but then the “But” comes in: He gets the promotion, BUT now he must work with his hated rival; She can stay in the country, BUT only if she enters into a sham marriage; She’s finally pregnant, BUT it is with an evil alien spawn.
The only response to these in real life is “Yay! Wait, SHIT. Screw that.”
But in the world of dramatic storytelling, the show must go on and characters must continue to strive to meet their story goals so they can fulfill their inner goals. Becoming Vice-President of Expense Accounts will mean he is finally more successful in business than was his overbearing, disapproving father, so he HAS to make it work with his hated rival. Staying in the country is the only way to become a citizen, obviously, so even though she’s committed to honesty, she must enter into this sham marriage. And okay, the baby is an evil alien spawn, but only HALF, right? It’s still her baby, something she’s always wanted, so she HAS to go through with the pregnancy.
To use the above examples:
- Yes, Marion gives Indy the medallion, BUT now she’s coming with him as her partner because her bar got burned down.
- Yes, Darth Vader figures out where the Death Star plans are, BUT they’re inside an escape pod shot onto the planet below.
- Yes, Paikea honors her grandfather with a speech, BUT he didn’t bother to show up to hear it.
Thanks for nothing, asshole.
Do you see how much more interesting dramatically these Yes, But resolutions are than a simple Yes would be?
No, and Furthermore
The No, and Furthermore resolution is excellent when you just want to get your character into the worst shape as fast as you can. It’s fun!
Here, not only does the goal-seeking character NOT achieve the goal, but then he is actually punished for even seeking it: No, you can’t have that promotion, and furthermore, you’re fired just for asking! No, you can’t stay in the country, and furthermore, instead of having to leave this year, you have to leave TONIGHT! No, you’re not pregnant, and furthermore, now your husband’s leaving you for having sex with an evil alien in the first place!
Not that anyone could blame you.
This is VERY effective for ratcheting up the story tension, because now your character has an automatic new goal: S/he must try to extricate himself or herself from the mess that’s been created by trying to seek the original goal! A driver’s goal is to get out of a ticket. The conflict is, of course, the ticket-writing cop, so the driver wraps his license in a $50 bill. The resolution (in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo) is NO, you can’t get out of the ticket, and FURTHERMORE, now you have to shoot the cop in order not to be arrested for attempted bribery! (There are LOTS of fantastic No, and Furthermore resolutions in the movie Fargo.)
Much like the “No, and furthermore” used when discussing the actual city of Fargo.
Think of some of your favorite scenes in movies and novels and try to identify the stated goal, conflict, and resolution. It’s a fun exercise that will give you an entirely new perspective on dramatic scenes.
Any thoughts? I’d love to hear them! Also, feel free to contact me about fiction and screenwriting coaching.