Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 3 - Clarice and Hannibal

Real blood doesn’t bug me. My brain can protect itself when I need to respond to an urgent situation. But I am repelled by movie violence. I’ve missed some classic scenes because I’ve closed my eyes. So what — among the horrifying clips of The Silence of the Lambs is my nightmare? I know immediately. It’s in the scene I’ll cover this week, and you may be surprised why. It’s not a scene I wanted to revisit, but it has real value as I continue to explore making scenes brilliant.

The first week, I began a list of things to look for in a scene, including conflict, escalation, power shifts, imagery, and meaning. Ultimately, I’ll build this into a list of questions that can help you make sure that being squeamish, walking away too soon, or not making a big enough effort is not shortchanging your story. Last week, with a look at the comedy Some Like It Hot, I added promise, escalation, and irony.

This time, it’s The Silence of the Lambs, and the scene where Clarice gets the name she needs. The deeper purpose of this scene appears to be to reveal the motivation — the deep and touching motivation — for Clarice’s sacrificial work to save a woman. Powerful stuff.  (You can see the scene yourself via 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.)

Beat 1Time is running out,
Beat 2 Argument: Clarice demands the killer’s name, but Hannibal wins, insisting on his quid pro quo.
Beat 3 Interrogation: Clarice’s story is revealed, prompted by Hannibal.
    Beat A Clarice awakes to screams.
    Beat B Clarice discovers the slaughter.
    Beat C She frees a lamb.
    Beat D She flees with it.
    Beat E She’s caught.
    Beat F Consequences: Clarice is exiled to the orphanage. The lamb is slaughtered.
Beat 4 The MEANING of the story is revealed.
Beat 5 Hannibal accepts her offering. (“Thank you.”)
Beat 6 Clarice demands her reward.
Beat 7 But they are interrupted by Chilton, who has her taken away.
Beat 8 A last bid by Clarice.
Beat 9 Clarice gets her reward.
Beat 10 She has a dividend taken from her. Hannibal’s touch.
Beat 11 Clarice and Hannibal are separated.

This scene is a bit of a cheat. A narrated sequence is embedded in the overall scene. The past collides with the urgent present. That takes time — over four minutes. The text in the script is amazing. (The scene starts on page 88.) But director’s choice was to forgo the flashback visuals. Instead,  the acting and camera work, especially Lecter’s eyes, SHOW us the cost to Clarice (and, by extension, the price she’s willing to pay for her quest).

The plot would have been served by Clarice asking for the name and Hannibal providing it. The scene purpose might have been served if Clarice (provided she knew it) had simply stated why she left the ranch and what had scarred her. The writer, instead, deepened the scene with a story that had to be extracted. And more. Want to guess what creeped me out the most here? That stolen touch.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a ticking clock.
  • It moves into a conflict.
  • The interrogation is filled with imagery, supplied by the imagination of the audience.
  • A revelation —through the symbolism of saving a screaming lamb (and a redemption) — is presented.
  • A false ending is provided with Hannibal’s thank you and Clarice’s demand. (Set up with incessant quid pro quos. We know how this works.)
  • This is frustrated by the interruption.
  • Clarice makes a final attempt. It’s her Hail Mary play.
  • She succeeds.
  • But she pays a higher price.
It's filled with power shifts that add to audience engagement, along with elements covered earlier (conflict, imagery). While the many techniques of film used to add to the scenes effectiveness can’t be ignored, some additional writer’s tools are on display: a ticking clock, suggestion (for imagination), a revelation, a false ending, frustration, a last chance, an unexpected loss (higher price).

I’ll continue to expand the options for brilliant scenes next week with the exploration of another classic scene.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 2: Some Like It Hot milks a joke

I suspect the reason why most people don’t get the most out of high-potential scenes is because the same parts of the brain the concepts boil up from contain a lot of disturbing and embarrassing material. Of course, it could also be a lack of persistence. (The thrill of a good idea can be enough of a payoff.) Or even laziness. (Exploration takes work.)

Last week, I began a list of things to look for in a scene, including conflict, escalation, power shifts, imagery, and meaning. Ultimately, I’ll build this into a list of questions that can help you make sure that being squeamish, walking away too soon, or not making a big enough effort is not shortchanging your story.

This time, let’s look at a scene from a comedy, Some Like It Hot. The purpose of this scene appears to be to show Jerry (Daphne) the price of his pretending to be a woman. More immediately, his intent to get alone time with Sugar is frustrated. The natural stopping point would be his attempt being aborted by Joe (Josephine). After all, Jerry has been warned, and their lives are in danger. But here’s what happens. (Again, you can see the scene yourself via 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.)

Beat 1 Banter with a caution. We can’t be discovered.
Beat 2 This may be a surprise party. (Secret)
Beat 3 Double entendre stated related to the secret.
Beat 4 Telling intruder it’s private.
Beat 5 Cocktails. And it’s a party now.
Beat 6 Many people. Food. Crowding. “Daphne” fights against the tide.
Beat 7 “Josephine” is asked for cherries.

All this happens in about two and a half minutes. We are SHOWN Jerry is reckless, persistent, and horny.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a deception.
  • Hints at a secret (which is also a promise).
  • Private becomes public, with the intrusion.
  • Jerry and Sugar work at cross purposes.
  • The humor leans heavily on irony, 
    • since the audience (but not Sugar) gets “Daphne’s” joke
    • and understands the sexual frustration.
    • And the audience also sees the growing danger, something Jerry’s distracted from and Joe is sleeping through.
  • There is escalation. The growing number of partygoers continues to be obliviousness and their increased participation in the party (more complicated drinks, food, enthusiasm) makes it tough to back out. The widely shared event raises the risk and stakes.
  • Imagery is pajama party sexual, something Jerry can’t indulge in.
  • The power shifts from Jerry’s sexual designs and a powerful secret to Sugar’s desire for alcohol and fun.
  • Still, as Jerry’s frustration grows, he acts obsessively. He doesn’t give up. Even as things get crazier and crazier.
  • Ultimately, authority is brought in with Joe’s awareness of the situation.
Much of the scene is adding to the complication by making a romantic tête-à-tête into a party. But the humor is milked by raising the complications, number of participants, obsession, and dangers. Underneath it all is growing panic that turns a chuckle into a belly laugh.

This adds a promise, escalation, and irony to the list of elements of a great scene, but there’s more to come. Next week, a look at a horror scene.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Brilliant Scenes for Your Story 1: Lessons from Casablanca

There are places in a story where you get to really know a character. Or places where the writer makes a promise. Sometimes, tension will build to an unbearable level or laughs will cascade, one upon the other.

Each great scene has a promise, but that's not enough. It must include a beginning, middle, and end. There must be careful balancing of the elements, whether that's imagery, dialogue, narrative, or description. Curiously, there must also be timing. Scenes that are too abrupt or too padded never work. How long do you extend the tension? How much should you milk the joke? How detailed do the descriptions need to be to suggest just enough of the experience?

For most writers, getting the timing right means cutting away clutter that's disguised as brilliant prose. I think 90% of the professional writers I know write "long." My own first drafts are almost telegraphic. There's nothing to cut. Much to add. And the inspiration for looking more closely at how great scenes are given the space they deserve came from some recent critiques I've gotten where readers asked for me to extend scenes.

So, first I made notes on my assumptions regarding great scenes, based on a lot of wonderful reading experiences and my own struggles to put what's in my head onto a page. Then I explored great scenes in film (because sharing these in a blog post works better than quoting from novels and short stories). Here's a source I'll work from 36 Of The Greatest Movie Scenes Ever Made.

Some scenes on this list are less useful than others. The one from Atonement leans heavily on the work of the director and cinematographer. The scene from Singin’ in the Rain depends on music and dancing. And many of these are climaxes, endings, or reveals. Those scenes follow slightly different rules. They may work because they pull together bits of information from across the whole story or they may intentionally leave pieces out so the film continues to resonate with audiences long after they left the theater. In most cases, scenes that carry the story forward provide the most insights.

Let's start with Casablanca's dueling anthems scene (one of the 36, if you want to look at the video). The purpose appears to be to provide Victor Laszlo’s bona fides as a heroic leader. We’ve already heard about him. Now we get a chance to see him at work.

Beat 1: The annoying Nazi’s treat the bar to a patriotic German song.
Beat 2: Which causes irritation and fear.
Beat 3: Victor moves to take control.
Beat 4: Ilsa notices (and becomes the viewpoint character).
Beat 5: Victor instructs the band to play The Marseilles over the Germans.
Beat 6: Rick gives approval.
Beat 7: Led by Victor, the singing of The Marseilles, bit by bit, drowns out the Nazis.
Beat 8: The Nazis give up their singing.
Beat 9: Victor is at the center of it all, the focus of the shift in power from the Nazis to the French.
Beat 10: People react, including those we doubted, joining in with tears and urgency.
Beat 11: Ilsa sees the man she worships.
Beat 12: It all culminates with Viva La France!
Beat 13: The defeated Nazis scowl.
Beat 14: People applaud and cheer.

All this happens in less than two minutes. We are SHOWN Victor is a hero.

This great scene:
  • Begins with a conflict.
  • Is engaged by a character’s (Victor’s) deliberate (and courageous) intention.
  • Builds in terms of those engaged and the intensity of the gesture.
  • Is sensual (music, great faces).
  • Involves multiple (in this case, the three main) characters.
  • Includes growing role by and risk to a character (Victor).
  • Shows an unmistakable shift in power.
  • Advances the story.
  • Supports the theme with imagery and meaning.
  • Includes both action and reaction.
  • Provides a stand-in (Ilsa) for the audience and demands attention.
The essentials are Nazis singing, Victor cuing The Marseilles, and the Nazis being drowned out. But these alone would not have been enough for a great scene. Without the time investment made in showing reactions, including other characters, and presenting an intensifying struggle, it would not have been noteworthy.

Next week, I’ll look at another scene with some different lessons.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Humor Between Characters - Disconnection, reactions, and affection

I've been studying Neil Simon's work as part of an acting class. Inhabiting the role of Oscar Madison (in The Odd Couple) got me thinking about humor from the inside. Neil's brother Danny was the model for Felix Unger and was one of the great teachers of comedy. In fact, he is the one who told a generation of writers they needed to focus on relationships over what he called "joke jokes."

One practice that helps create humorous relationships is contrasts between the characters. (The Odd Couple, with slob Oscar and fussy Felix is an obvious example.) Big differences create conflict, which can drive your story. And though it's not always the case, most comedies have strong stories. But sharp contrasts create commitment, which makes compromise and connection difficult.

A major characteristic of a good comic character is determination. In general, great humor comes from obsession and the unwillingness to explore alternatives. When two characters both are convinced that they are right and they know what must be done, sparks fly. From their points of view, there is nothing funny or strange about their decisions, actions, and positions. Those of us who observe these characters find humor in this sort of blindness. I suspect, on some level, many of us are aware that we have acted in similar ways without going as far as comic characters do. Being in a superior position (or presuming we are) allows us to laugh while still embracing the characters.

Both characters can't be right all the time. But both characters tend to feel they are only being sensible. They miss the absurdity, but we don't.

The disconnection between committed characters is funny, but also creates tension. It keeps us involved in worried about the characters. (Really bad things might happen, but unless it's very dark humor, we can assume there is a tacit agreement between us as readers/viewers and the writer that no one will truly be hurt.)

While occasionally characters may (with feelings of justification) intentionally hurt others, usually the negative impacts they have are surprises to them. They are not looking to alienate or harm the other characters. Felix is a great example of this. How could he be anything but the perfect roommate when he keeps things clean and organized and he serves up gourmet meals? He doesn't see his lack of flexibility or the way he constrains Oscar.

So announced that the humor when good intentions lead to horrible consequences or surprising reactions from others. Often, we can see it coming while the character can't. This terrific plan or perfect solution will be disastrous. And it ends up being even worse than we suspected to our surprise and, mostly, to the comic character's surprise.

And here's an important point. While it's all funny to us, it's deadly serious to the characters. One thing I saw over and over in my acting class was if the actor seem to be in on the joke or trying to make it funnier, it lost its spark. Playing it straight was always funnier. So it's the human obsessions, not ironic behavior, that provides the foundation for much of great humor writing.

There is a third thing beyond disconnections and surprising reactions that is invaluable to relational humor. That's affection. First, we usually have affection for the characters. There's a level of empathy even if they are ridiculous. Even as we can see them stumbling, our hearts go out to them.

And this is made more powerful and compelling when the characters have or discover affection for each other. As different as they are, they don't want the inevitable conflicts to pull them apart. They really want to find legitimate connection with each other. Oscar Madison and Felix Unger really care about each other. Even when they want to kill each other, they have affection for each other. That's a subtle kind of writing that works well in tragedy as well as comedy. Exploring the common humanity between very different characters elevates all kinds of stories and makes them unforgettable.