POSTS Screenwriting

Making an Image or Action Crucial to the Scene

Liking an image is not enough. No one cares what you want, what you like. They care if the story is pulling them forward, interesting them, confusing them in interesting ways. In my years of teaching screenwriting, the most frequent response given by a student to the question “Why did you do this or that?” has started with the phrase “I wanted…” or “I like….”

Photo by kainr

The fact that you like something is not a reason to keep it. It’s not a determinative reason to cut it either. But those things we are most fond of are those that must be challenged the most for necessity. If you build a scene around what you like, or what you want, around a favorite image or action, the scene will be doomed to failure. It will feel contrived and forced.

This is not to say you must abandon your beloved image or action. It means you must lock them into the scene, you must make them seem inevitable. It must seem like there is no other image, no other action that would feel correct. And how is that done? By motivating the image or action through character.

Let’s say you think it would be really cool if, during a heated argument over the nature of love and life and things that make the heart go, one of the characters knocks over a goldfish bowl. It shatters. The poor fish is flopping about. What you want is the image of them fighting over the dying fish. How do you make it necessary and believable, so that it can’t be cut from the final film? That’s the challenge of screenwriting. Accident. She throws a pillow. It hits the goldfish bowl. He backs up awkwardly, knocks it over. Image accomplished. But not really nailed into the scene. Because it’s her fish, that would stop the argument, as she frantically tries to save Goldie. Deliberate. He picks it up and throws it down. “I hate this fish,” he says. Same problem. Argument over.

He threatens to drop the bowl. “I swear, if you don’t cut it with the blather about commitment, I’ll do the fish.” And she calls his bluff. “Go ahead. Asshole.” He doesn’t. In a reversal, she knocks it out of his hand and continues berating him for his cowardice. In another reversal, he’s the one frantically trying to save Goldie. She continues on in her tirade.

Seems to me the last version goes farthest in making the flopping goldfish integral to the scene. So. If you want something, if you like an image, your best chance of getting it into the film is if you spend some time thinking how best to make it necessary to the scene. Not bending the scene to the thing you like. But bending the thing you like to the scene.

Excerpted from Screenwriter’s Compass: Character As True North by Guy Gallo ©2012 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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