Screenwriting Tip #42: Find the Watershed Line of Dialog




story structure

image by: jetheriot


Screenwriting Tip #42: Find the “watershed” line of dialog in every scene. You know — that one line that twists the situation and turns the conflict in a different direction. If you can’t find one, maybe there’s something wrong with the scene.

When we watch movies and television shows, we experience them as a whole, taking in entire character arcs over the course of an hour or two. When we think about screenplays, we think in terms of acts and turning points. But when we actually sit down to write, it’s all about scenes.

The scene is the smallest dramatic “unit” in a screenplay. When we outline in detail we do it scene by scene. But very rarely do our outlines go into fine detail on the scenes themselves. How many times has your outline said something like, “Act 2 – Scene 13: Natalie confronts Ricardo, makes him reveal the location of the diamonds,” but when you come to actually write that scene, you find you have no idea how it’s supposed to play out?

Well, here’s the shortcut – the trick that will make scenes easy: scenes, like screenplays, also have three acts. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And crucially, like screenplays, they have to transform the active characters in them from one state to another. What the hell does that mean? It means that your character should come out of a scene in a different state than she went in.

That’s what people mean when they say a scene sucked because it “didn’t advance the plot.” What they’re really saying is that the scene didn’t affect the characters in it – didn’t take them from one place to another. If you have a scene in which the protagonist and her partner talk about their relationship, both agree that it sucks, the scene ends, and they go back to doing what they were doing, you’ve written only half a scene. If instead they sit down to talk about their relationship, argue about it, and break up with each other, that’s a scene. The protagonist went into the scene in one state (frustrated with her relationship) and came out of it in an entirely different state (single and, most likely, sad).

By the way, this is why writers will tell you, “Don’t let characters agree with each other.” Arguments are good because they bring out emotions, force changes in characters, and galvanize action. Scenes are unlikely to have much effect on the state of the characters if everyone is sitting around politely chatting with each other.

So if scenes follow a miniature three-act structure of their own, then that implies that they must have a midpoint. You know what a midpoint is in terms of screenplay structure – it’s the turning point at the dead center (between pages 50–55) of the script in which everything gets flipped around. The protagonist’s goal changes, or the stakes get raised exponentially, or a key element of the story turns out to be something else entirely.

Here’s the cool part: scenes have midpoints, too. In action-based scenes, these are usually blatantly obvious. An alarm goes off, turning a stealthy mission into a run-and-gun. A firefight attracts the cops, forcing all the crooks to work together. A hunted victim turns the tables on the hunter.

(Television is a little different. In TV, the action turn will often come at the end of a major scene, as an act out to coincide with the commercial break. Think “He’s crashing!” on House…cut to a cartoon animal selling insurance. But I digress.)

In dialog-based scenes, the midpoint can be a little harder to, er, pinpoint. It might be when one party reveals hidden strengths that the other party never knew about. It could be the moment when somebody wins an argument, even if the other person doesn’t realize it yet. Or it could be when characters realize they’re saying one thing but meaning something entirely different (that hoary old scene in which two characters stop in the middle of a heated argument, then jump at each other and start ripping clothes off). I call it the “watershed” line of dialog because it’s a peak point – the first half of the scene consisted of climbing uphill to get here, and the second half will consist of sliding inevitably down the other side.

Let’s illustrate with the scene mentioned earlier, with the protagonist and her partner sitting down to have the Relationship Talk. Imagine that the protagonist initiated the talk, so she has the power to begin with. She starts laying down all the things that she thinks are going wrong with the relationship – he never washes the dishes, he drinks too much, he runs an illegal dog-fighting ring, and so on. He sits there and accepts it all, barely saying a word.

Frustrated, she asks him to come back at her with problems of his own. Is there anything he wishes she didn’t do? (She’s still treating this like a negotiation, you see.) But he keeps quiet, dodges the question. Finally, he plays his hand: “I don’t know what we’re doing any more. Where is this relationship going?”

She’s taken aback by this. Of course they can still salvage it, she tells him. It’ll just take a bit of work. He’ll change, she’ll change – it’ll all work out in the end. Then he comes out with the clincher, the watershed line of dialog that flips the entire scene around: “I still want to be friends.”

Bam. You don’t go back from a line like that – it’s all downhill from there. This just went from a “relationship in trouble” scene to a break-up scene. The protagonist just went from actively problem solving to backpedaling and defending. These two characters just went from lovers to exes. All in one scene, and all because of one line of dialog. (But hey, at least she won’t have to worry about those dog fights in the basement any more.)

That’s the power of the watershed line. Find it, use it, love it. Like so many things in writing, scenes become a lot easier to tackle if you just apply a little structure.

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Elsevier.  All rights Reserved.

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1 Comment
   JM Ringuet said on November 2, 2011 at 11:00 am

Very interesting on many levels!
At the moment I’m just wondering how to successfully apply this mini-3 acts to a very short scene, say one page or less, but I guess it’s perfectly doable if you think about it carefully.
As I said very interesting – food for thought.

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