Thursday, October 02, 2014

Great advice for all writers (not just young ones)

This quote from Oscar, Tony, and probably Heisman Trophy winner, Mike Nichols:

Every scene is either a fight, seduction, or negotiation.

Now you could say he’s stretching it, and you could argue that at times seductions are negotiations, but the real point here is that every effective scene needs some dynamic.

Two baseball fans in the stands just talking about the weather isn’t interesting. Umpires trying to decide whether the rain is coming down hard enough to stop a World Series game is.

A couple agreeing on what color to paint the house is boring. A couple throwing paint at each other is not.

Your scene needs some conflict, or one of the characters has a specific goal. There’s a dramatic reason for the scene.

It may be subtle. People are always looking for that little edge, couples are consciously or subconsciously trying to be in the power position in their relationship. Although a union contract might not be the topic on the table, this is still negotiation. Trying to get someone to agree with you is a form of seduction. The truth is in our daily lives we use most of these conventions all the time in our interactions; we just don’t recognize it. But for writers, they're the fuel that makes the engine go.

Rule of thumb: if you can just lift a scene out of a screenplay or TV show, or whatever without anyone missing it then it didn’t belong in the first place. We’re in a golden age of TV drama. Watch the good shows. See how every scene, every moment has a purpose, and is integral to the narrative.

A fight, seduction, or negotiation may be a little simplistic. But it gives you a good starting point. If you’ve written a scene that is just flat you can check it against those three dynamics. If it has none, or one but very mild, suddenly it’s no longer a mystery why your scene doesn’t work. Pick one or two or strengthen one or two.

Use Nichols’ quote as a guide. It may not be perfect, but it’s much more eloquent than mine.

A scene has to have… stuff.

And that’s why he is who he is and I am who I am.

29 comments:

Gene P. said...

And an even better scene if contains all three.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

(Perhaps this is a Friday Question) Isn't it all about context, though? A couple agreeing to paint their walls blue might be pretty interesting if surrounding scenes establishes that there is something the couple doesn't know that would alter the meaning of their decision. For example, that they're painting the walls blue because it's a nursery and they're planning for a baby boy (who a girl, or damaged, or brings heartbreak)...or, I suppose, that in this universe blue attracts evil monsters that devour you.

wg

Aaliyah Miller said...

This was a nice writing tid bit. Thanks.

Dan Ball said...

Great article today!

I've been questioning this philosophy lately. So often in art, it seems like the artist has the freedom to do something totally extraneous just to add depth to the work, whether it's needed or not. In a screenplay, it seems like authors should have that luxury too, but we don't. If we don't keep things moving along for an audience, they'll hate us for wasting their time. We'll abide with Picasso or Dali or even a prose author doing it, but not a filmmaker. I don't get that.

Pallas said...

Running this rule of thumb through my head, I have to say I don't think it applies to a scene where, say, Clint Eastwood is polishing his gun in anticipation for a gun fight, or any similar tension building "getting ready for action" scene where someone is anticipating a fight, seduction, or negotiation in a subsequent scene. Good rule of thumb, though.

Jim S said...

Normally, I agree, but the masters like Quentin Tarantino can have to hitmen talking about a Royale with Cheese.

But that's the exception. It takes an Elmore Leonard or Tarantino to make chit chat interesting.

The real trick is making exposition sound like something you'd want to listen to even without it moving the story forward.

Scooter Schechtman said...

"Mrs Robinson, are you trying to negotiate with me?"

Hamid said...

Rule of thumb: if you can just lift a scene out of a screenplay or TV show, or whatever without anyone missing it then it didn’t belong in the first place.

That would have left Tarantino's Death Proof 1 minute long, which wouldn't have been a bad thing.

MikeN said...

Best show for this, The Unit.

Anonymous said...

Pallas, he's negotiating with himself how many people he wants to kill.

Mary Stella said...

When the conflict ends, the story's over.

Bryan near Seattle said...

One big exception: the scene in the restaurant in Fargo, in which the Frances McD character is talking to one of her high school classmates and learned his life wasn't all that great. The scene had nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but it was beautifully done.

Stephen Robinson said...

Wendy said:

"Isn't it all about context, though? A couple agreeing to paint their walls blue might be pretty interesting if surrounding scenes establishes that there is something the couple doesn't know that would alter the meaning of their decision. For example, that they're painting the walls blue because it's a nursery and they're planning for a baby boy (who a girl, or damaged, or brings heartbreak)...or, I suppose, that in this universe blue attracts evil monsters that devour you."

I've had writers ask me this before and my response is generally that the tension needs to be present in the scene. What are the stakes? If husband is excited about painting the walls blue for the nursery, but the wife just heard from her doctor that they're having a girl, you have *potential* for conflict. But to take it to the next level, you need what Ken describes: A fight, a seduction, or a negotiation.

Dramatic irony -- the audience or one character in a scene knowing something the other doesn't -- can fall flat without active conflict. In the scene you describe, the wife might try to temper her husband's enthusiasm -- suggest not rushing out to buy paint just yet, though her husband doesn't know why they shouldn't get started as he's convinced they're having a boy. The wife tries to steer him to her point of view (negotiation): As long as the baby is healthy, everything is OK, but then the husband can reveal his issues with having a girl: Ideally, something beyond "boys are cooler." Perhaps, breast cancer runs in his family or he never had a good relationship with his sisters. The former is good because it provides *new* information. Now, even the wife is concerned.

Ultimately, if a scene only has tension because of surrounding scenes, without advancing plot or character* within the scene itself, it should be removed or revised.

*One trap some writers fall into is to think a scene works because it reveals character alone. I've made this mistake before with my first book. I've had a redundant scene -- one that I thought was well-written and engaging but didn't provide new information or take the characters to a new place or raise stakes.

But if you follow Nichols's rules, you'd be surprised by how often your scenes do what they should.

Stephen Robinson said...

Pallas:

"Running this rule of thumb through my head, I have to say I don't think it applies to a scene where, say, Clint Eastwood is polishing his gun in anticipation for a gun fight, or any similar tension building "getting ready for action" scene where someone is anticipating a fight, seduction, or negotiation in a subsequent scene."

I'd argue that either that scene wasn't necessary or that there was a subtle fight, seduction, or negotiation in the scene itself.

Speaking in the language of Eastwood films, we already know Dirty Harry is prepared to kill the bad guy. We don't really need a "getting ready for a fight" scene. If he shows up with a gun at the bad guy's lair, we won't be left wondering how he got there.

However, in "Unforgiven," the arc for Eastwood's character is what drives him both to the bottle and to violence again. He hears his friend his dead. Then seeing how that gets him to where he is when he confronts Hackman's character is key. The "getting ready" scene is essentially a fight *and* a seduction. He is being 'seduced' back to violence and revenge and the man he wanted to be is losing the fight to the man he was.

Pallas said...

Stephen:

"Speaking in the language of Eastwood films, we already know Dirty Harry is prepared to kill the bad guy. We don't really need a "getting ready for a fight" scene. If he shows up with a gun at the bad guy's lair, we won't be left wondering how he got there."

I was thinking more of a hypothetical scene where Clint Eastwood is grabbing his gun from his home, then you cut to the bad guy hiring eight henchmen and supplying eight guns (or whatever)

It's dramatic and tense for the audience, (Oh noes, Eastwood is outnumbered!) but neither Eastwood or the badguy are yet at conflict.

Putting this another way, you can get a collage effect by contrasting and inter-cutting between dramatic and non dramatic moments.

Someone is taking a shower, innocently humming, no conflict there, but the audience knows there's a serial killer who just murdered someone across the street in the previous scene! That's where the drama comes from.

Also, what's the harm of a fifteen second scene of Eastwood walking to the bad guys home? It might be visually interesting. I think you're being pretty strict to rule out a little stylistic scene like that.

Mike said...

@Stephen Robinson & @Pallas: Interesting. This is a scene specifically to build suspense, convey character and directly contrast with the action immediately following. There's no dialogue, so (arguably) it doesn't contradict Nichols (not that I'm advocating Nichols). As a cliche, a sniper assembles his rifle. Two famous examples:
a) Once Upon a Time in the West. At the start of the film, the three gunmen waiting at the train station.
b) The Wild Bunch. Near the end of the film, the gang march from the brothel to the General's courtyard. (Improvised on the spur of the moment.)

gottacook said...

Regarding Fargo: I saw a broadcast TV cut a few years ago that excised not only the restaurant scene but the two related phone calls before and after (the call from Mike Yanagita to Marge, and the conversation with a female ex-classmate concerning what his real circumstances are). The movie does lose something without him. Perhaps it's that despite her good judgment concerning police work, she's totally gullible when it comes to his story about Linda Cooksey. Her line "That's a surprise!" (or at least Frances McDormand's delivery of it) is one of the funniest lines in the movie to me.

tb said...

I keep seeing what my friend and I now call "The Breakfast Scene". Something is going to happen later, whether the monster arrives or the hurricane or whatever. I understand they're trying to get us acquainted with the characters. But this scene goes on and on and on. Excruciating. "Kids, don't forget your lunches", etc. blah, blah.

Anonymous said...

Bryan near Seattle said...

"One big exception: the scene in the restaurant in Fargo, in which the Frances McD character is talking to one of her high school classmates and learned his life wasn't all that great. The scene had nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but it was beautifully done."

It had plenty to do with the theme of the movie: What happens when goodness and order are enticed by evil and chaos?

Answer in this movie's case: Evil eventually consumes itself.

Evil consumed the car salesman. With Marge, evil did not.

Choices...

The "old friend" was a desperate, degenerate, on his last legs, looking to entice Marge into his pathetic world. Marge shut him down.

That was an existential seduction scene. In it, Marge wins, and is defined further as impeccably, implicitly good. As an audience member, I get reinforcement of who/what I'm rooting for. I know Marge is not going to trick me.

Because by now, I'm certain, she's Marge.

--Guy Who Liked Fargo

Anonymous said...

Excellent comments, Guy Who Liked Fargo. I was going to respond to Bryan's initial comment re: the Fargo restaurant with essentially the same response, but you wrote it much better.
- Another Guy Who Loved Fargo (and even gets misty every time I hear the theme song...so, maybe I'm not so much a "guy" who loved Fargo...)

Johnny Walker said...

I often think it's good to imagine yourself telling a story to your friends. If they're anything like mine, the story better be somewhat interesting or you'll lose their interest, and they'll start telling their own. Just because you took the time to write down your story doesnt change that. If it doesn't have people wanting to know what happens next, it's never going to work. And your scenes should help tell THAT story.

(In my opinion you only get to slow down when the audience REALLY wants to know what's going to happen next... Ie. Rarely. And if you have earned it, then you *should* slow down, and let them enjoy that feeling.)

I'm no expert, but I think you can't go wrong if you can make your scene should play like an interesting anecdote. Tough to do with every scene, but I bet the best the scripts gets close if you analyse them.

Johnny Walker said...

Also, the thing with that scene from Fargo is that it's highly entertaining. It's a great anecdote -- "you'll never guess what happened to me".

Anonymous said...

The restaurant scene makes Marge realise that she was lied to at the dealership. It's pivotal.

David Willis said...

"Bryan near Seattle said...
One big exception: the scene in the restaurant in Fargo, in which the Frances McD character is talking to one of her high school classmates and learned his life wasn't all that great. The scene had nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but it was beautifully done."

Bryan, that scene served a VERY valuable purpose. Frances had just come from interviewing Bill Macy's character, who seemed very innocuous. After her high school classmate reveals his own lies, it highlights to her that even the most plain folks can lie big. That's what spurs her to re-examine his story and dig deeper. It's very, very subtle, but very powerful. That's why the scene is there. It drives her next action. Take the scene out, and there's no tangible motivation for her to think Wm. Macy is anything but what he says.

norm said...

About the cassette tape....to a computer: "Play the tape into a free program you download; called Audacity" Save it as a WAV file and you can copy to the blog or a CD. Even a bumbling nerd like me can do it, and I am 65 yo today!

Jim said...

http://www.espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/11617731/the-giant-friendship-san-francisco-giants-announcers-mike-krukow-duane-kuiper

Great article on Kruk and Kuip. I remember Kuiper as the Indians second baseman when I was a kid.

Kyle said...

Isn't fight, negotiation, seduction every scene from Breaking Bad and makes it the best show on TV in past 10 years. Every episode had Walter, Jessie or Hank bloody or beaten. Every episode was a negotiation to be on top. And seduction was sexual (Ted and Skyler, Walter always trying to seduce Skyler to love and trust him again) and non-sexual (the seduction of power and money).

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Two related questions. How much should a scene advance story? Can it be a 'bubble' in the storyline? Could you make a 45minue episode of Blackadder by adding one more funny failed efoort to solve that episodes problem or should very failure aso add a twist?

And related to the first part and possibly a Friday Question: what is a 'situation'? I get asked that so much with the tern sitcom...

Julie Musil said...

Oh, I've never heard that before! Cool quote to remember. Thanks.