Vol. I, Issue 4, August 16, 2007
|In this Issue|
Just Beat It
Not all conflict is created equal. Sometimes what passes for conflict is really just bickering. Bickering can give your scene a halting, staccato feel. We’ll show you how to re-organize a choppy scene into a flowing, organic whole.
Author Ben Sherman shares how his self-published book got snapped up by a major publishing house, turned into a screenplay and is now being shopped around Hollywood.
Learn to write a scene or your whole script at lightning speed.
|A Note from Lisa|
My son wants the toy Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots. The whole idea makes me cringe, but I’m trying to keep an open mind. If you’re not familiar with the toy, bear with me while I explain.
Like boxers in a ring, two plastic, toy robots square off. The idea is that one child operates the red robot and another child operates the blue robot. Separate controllers let the child punch the opponent robot with his robot’s right fist or left fist or both fists at once. The robots “sock” each other until eventually one of their heads pops up. The headless robot, of course, loses. His owner pushes the head back down and the battle begins anew.
You may see why I’d hesitate to put this toy on Jack’s birthday list. It occurs to me, though, that occasionally we’ll see a scene like this. Characters furiously trade verbal blows until – surprise! – someone’s head flies off. Not literally, of course, but you get the idea.
If you’d like to avoid a scene with this kind of choppy, tedious conflict and learn to choreograph a more elegant fight, read on.
Lisa Phelps Dawes
Better than a podcast! A live phone interview -- so you can ask questions -- with author Ben Sherman. Coming in mid-September.
Look for the date in the next issue of SceneZine.
An interview with a man who wrote the book on lightning speed. More details soon!
If you’d like to read back issues of SceneZine you can find them in the article archive on the Free Resources page at www.sceneplay.net.
Just Beat It
Conflict comes in many forms. Not all of them can sustain an entire scene. Imagine, for example, being trapped on a long car trip with squabbling siblings. Endless rounds of “Did not!” and “Did too!” don’t really count as conflict. It’s bickering. Mind-numbing bickering at that.
Yet, a good fight is fascinating. People pay top dollar to see two cagey boxers at the top of their game trying to bring each other to the mat. The secret is deep engagement. The boxers probe each other looking for a weakness to exploit. They dance, weave and feign. They lure and then attack suddenly. Eventually one fighter comes out on top, but in the meantime, there are lots of small battles for him to lose. It’s the unexpected twists and turns of the fight that make it worthwhile.
So, recently, when a writer brought in a scene complaining that it felt choppy and erratic, we had an idea what the problem might be. The scene involved two roommates fighting over the same guy. On the face of it, the scene was filled with conflict, yet the action came across as random and unsatisfying.
Like the Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots mentioned earlier, the characters were too busy trying to top each other. None of the blows they dished out really had an impact on the other character. The dialogue didn’t reveal any weakness or vulnerability. Instead, the roommates just kept pounding away at each other. It looked like what it was: sophisticated bickering.
The key to turning dull-as-a-stone bickering into an elegant fight is to use beats. Beats are the smaller chunks of action that form the underlying structure of your scene. The easiest way to identify a beat is by subject. If the subject of the conversation changes, usually the beat does too. Beats follow a pattern of action, reaction and response. The pattern can continue, but the least a beat can be is action, reaction, response.
The reason scenes becomes choppy is because the beats don’t fully play out. If characters simply trade lines, and every line is a new thought, then beats can’t develop properly.
In this case, we took the actors off-book and let them improvise their responses. We encouraged them to really take in what the other character was saying. Let the words land. Honest reactions from the actors created new complexity and depth in the argument. Also, in their reactions, something new was created for the other character to respond to.
Now, you have a beat. The characters are actively engaged with each other. There’s give and take as they each look for openings and weak spots.
Or course, not all of parts of the beat have to be verbal either. A character can certainly use a physical action to initiate, react, or respond to another character.
The beat ends when one character wins and the other loses. You can’t be afraid to let your main character take one on the chin. That’s what makes the overall scene interesting and actually fuels the next beat. With fully developed beats, winners and losers, you can choreograph the action for maximum impact. You can arrange the beats to build toward your emotional event.
Using beats effectively, you’ll get a scene that flows naturally, yet still manages to surprise. Then, if a head does pop off, you can be confident someone earned it and the audience didn’t have to slog through tedious arguments to see it.
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Lisa Phelps Dawes, President of Sceneplay, is an Emmy® award-winning writer/director helping screenwriters and producers rewrite their scripts using professional actors. If you’re ready for your scenes to jump to life, work three times harder, and get noticed, get your FREE tips now at www.sceneplay.net.
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