Let’s Get Physical
One of the many advantages of using actors to work scripts is that they take up space. They’re real flesh and bone people who need things to sit on and to hold. They also react to the physical world: they stumble, they get cold, they cry, and they play with things they shouldn’t.
The good news is you have exactly the same resources available in your own imagination. The bad news is it’s easy to get caught up in what your characters are saying instead of what they’re doing.
If you can stop, take a breath, and give some honest thought to what your characters are doing and the impact their actions are likely to have on the physical world you’ll set yourself up for some wonderful discoveries. When you cry your nose runs. Cry enough and you’ll need a tissue. What if there are no tissues around?
Focusing on the physical also creates an economy of communication making your scenes more visual and less talky. We all know what a good actor can “say” with just a look. As a writer, you can manipulate objects and actions to “talk” for you, too. It’s your world.
So, let’s get physical. As you write, ask yourself these questions:
1. What really happens when...?
Taking a step back from your scene and checking for simple cause and effect can have a big impact. As an example, a writer brought us a scene in which the main character shoots a gun and the bullet accidentally pierces the wall of a shack. The shack sits on a friend’s gas station lot. According to the script, the bullet passes through the wall, strikes a water bottle held by the owner of the gas station, and then lodges harmlessly in the front of his shop. The script treated the shooting like a gag, almost a non-event. Naturally, the dialogue that followed lacked significance and emotion.
Now, a gas station and a gun are a great combination -- if we think honestly about the given circumstances. What really happens when...bullets hit fuel tanks? Even if the bullet doesn’t blow the tank, the station owner certainly knows it could. It’s a great opportunity for tension. Bullets do a lot of damage in other ways. What else could it hit to cause conflict? A leg? A dog? The only Coke? machine for miles?
In one improvisation when the gun went off the actor playing the station owner threw himself to the ground. He then crawled on his belly and lunged for the pump’s emergency shut-off valve. Of course, there was no such thing. He made it up and pantomimed the whole thing. We got it. The dialogue that followed was urgent and emotionally charged. The actor managed to turn the encounter into a meaningful conflict and a great springboard for the next scene.
2. What can I show so that I don’t have to tell?
There’s a classic scene mentioned in our Special Report, between two brothers at a frat party. The younger one, Joe, is drunk and throwing up in the bushes. The older one, Bob, is trying to carry him out of the party when Joe spots a pretty girl. In the first line of dialogue in the improvised scene, Joe turns to his older brother and demands in a drunken lisp, “Give me your shirt.”
Now, just reading this on the page you may be scratching your head, but if you’ve just witnessed Joe tossing his cookies in the bushes you get it. He wants a clean shirt that doesn’t reek of vomit so he can hit on the girl. Not only is the line completely original, but the characters never have to explain it because they can just look at each other and the pretty girl. If we can see it you don’t need to say it and the scene becomes richer for it.
3. Is there an object that can inject more meaning into this scene?
Physical objects are loaded with associations. Sometimes just placing the right object within sight can add extra texture to a scene. In other cases, an object can become the focal point to sharpen and clarify the scene. A writer brought us a scene in which a flight line worker at a military airport is forced to deny the existence of a top-secret airplane he works on every day. A special agent lectures the worker on the dire consequences of even mentioning the plane to family or friends. The scene contained clever lines but was diffuse and long. The other problem was the plane was nowhere in sight.
We suggested bringing the plane front and center. The idea was to use just the heart of the dialogue as the spy plane rolls up behind and over the heads of the characters to park. Now the plane could provide an absurd point of contrast and menace their conversation. It literally hangs over them as the worker is forced to deny it. The point of the scene is made quickly, visually, and in one beat instead of two pages.
4. What can a character play with in this environment?
Just asking yourself this question will sometimes lead to unexpected insights and material. We’ve seen actors use food as weapons, create mystery with just a scarf, and seduce with a bible. Don’t be afraid to let your characters play a little. They may be trying to tell you they’re tired of talking.