• Member Since 11th Apr, 2012
  • offline last seen 3 hours ago

Bad Horse


Good stories defend us from bad philosophy.

More Blog Posts672

Feb
19th
2018

Advanced Scene Writing by Jim Mercurio · 1:45am Feb 19th, 2018

Trick Question & I went to Jim Mercurio's "Advanced Scene Writing" class on Jan. 27; here are my notes.  I may steal some of this for a Bronycon talk.  Thanks to Trick Question for letting me crib from her notes too.

BREAKING NEWS, 2019: The book is out! You can buy it from Amazon here. If you buy the ebook, that will give you a copy-protected .mobi file that you can read only on a Kindle or on a computer.

Barnes & Noble also sells it, and previously, I would have recommended buying it there, because their books used to be DRM-free. But now, not only are they not DRM-free, their website gives no indication of how to transfer the ebook to your e-reader. So, fuck Barnes & Noble.

CHARACTER INTRODUCTIONS

The way you introduce a character should foreshadow his/her character arc.

This isn't advice for scenes in general--really it doesn't have to do with scene structure, but with story structure.  Each character has an issue (a problem or something they want), and ideally a character arc--a story about how they deal with this issue and change, stay steadfast, or fail to change.  The way you introduce them should foreshadow what their issue is, and possibly how they deal with it.

He gave a lot of examples from movies, but I'll just describe three, from LA Confidential: the two heroes, Bud White (the tough cop), Ed Exley (the brainy cop), and Dudley (the villain).  Spoilers for LA Confidential follow.

Bud is introduced sitting in a cop car outside a house where a couple are fighting.  He introduces himself as "the ghost of Christmas past", then beats up the man of the house and warns him he'll do worse if he ever lays a hand on the woman again, after which she runs away.  We don't see any evidence that the man was in fact beating the woman up.

Bud's obsessed with being the white knight who helps women in distress, because his dad beat his mother.  Him calling himself "the ghost of Christmas past" suggests that he himself is the "ghost" of the family problems of his youth.  Violence is his approach to every problem.  His problem is that this means he's not very different from his dad.

Ed is introduced at a Christmas party in the police station. The first words when he appears are a newspaper reporter saying, "Sgt. Ed Exley. Son of the legendary Preston Exley. Must be a hard act to follow."  This immediately sets up Ed's source of motivation and anxiety.

Then an older officer, Dudley (the big bad), offers him eggnog. Ed doesn't refuse it or set it down, but he holds it down at his side without drinking any.  The eggnog is alcoholic, and police aren't supposed to drink alcohol on duty.  This hints both that Ed's problem is that he's too straightlaced and by-the-book, and that Dudley will tempt Ed to come over to the Dark Side.

Dudley asks Ed what he wants to do in the police force, and Ed says he wants to be a detective. Dudley says that Ed's got the heart for it, but not the guts for it.  He asks him: "Would you plant evidence on someone you knew was guilty?  Would you beat someone you knew was guilty to get a confession?  Would you shoot a killer in the back to stop him?"  These are all things that Ed eventually does in order to bring Dudley down.

It's best to provide some skeleton character arc [a problem or claim, followed by a decision, resolution, or revelation] even for bit parts.  He used, I think, Batman: The Dark Knight as an example of quickly running minor characters through mini character-arcs.

WHAT IS A SCENE?

A scene is one action in one place and time where at least one person has a goal and an obstacle, and the story and that person both change.

[A scene is a zig and a zag that move the story and one character one step forward.]

A scene is one action, but one action may seem to be two things: X allows Y to happen, or X leads to its inverse.

This is part definition and part prescription; you can write a scene in which neither story nor person change, but Jim would call it a badly written scene.  The second line is my definition, paraphrased from what Jim said.  I'll put my interpretations and interjections inside [brackets like this].

Jim believes scenes are driven by surprise, and surprise is driven by expectations.  He used the phrase "frustrated expectation", but I'd rather not, because that makes it sound like the surprise leaves you feeling frustrated.  No; he means that the scene sets up one expectation, then delivers something else.  You set the scene up so that the zag is plausible, but the zig is what is expected.  Screenwriters call these zig-zags reversals.  Jim says it's best to ramp up expectation of the zig just seconds before the zag.  You can lead up to this by foreshadowing the zig with blocking (stage directions), descriptions, action, and dialogue.

He showed some examples, including another one from LA Confidential: the climax, where Bud comes into Ed's office to kill him after Dudley showed him photos of Ed screwing Bud's "girlfriend" (who isn't really his girlfriend, but… it's complicated.)

Bud is acting exactly the way he always acts, just stepping it up a notch.  Bud lifts up a chair over his head, ready to finish Ed off, and Ed, lying on the ground, tells Bud that Dudley is the bad guy and wants Bud to kill Ed.

Then Bud screams and swings the chair, but instead of killing Ed, he throws it out the window.  Jim had a lot of points to make about this scene, but these are the key ones:

  • The zag is Bud controlling his rage with his rational thinking.
  • A dramatic character change should be dramatic.  Hence it should

    • be sudden (one to two seconds)
    • be a large change
    • change everything in the scene: elements, camera angle, action, lighting, tempo, music.  [You can figure out the analogous things to change in prose.]
  • Whatever direction the character change is going in, the characters should zig as far as possible in "the" opposite direction just before the zag.

    • Make action stand out by contrast: If the zag is someone hitting someone, the moment before it should be calm, still, or de-escalating [like the moment before Han Solo shoots first].

    • [If the zag is a peaceful resolution to conflict, the zig might be threatening to hit someone.]
    • Any zig or zag has more than one "opposite"!  So while this is formulaic, it isn't predictable.  [If your zag is predictable, you failed.  If it is unforseeable, you also failed.]
    • [You can write a scene backward--knowing the zag you want, and choosing a zig for it-- or forward, just knowing the current situation and the obvious zig, then finding an opposing zag.]

      • [Pulp novels, 1950s serials, old superhero comics, and James Bond movies usually wrote the zag for the zig, putting the hero in some seemingly fatal situation (zig), which would usually be resolved at the start of the next scene or episode with some improbable escape or deus ex machina (zag).  The TV series Lost was written this way.]
      • An example of writing the zig for the zag is in The Hangover.  The zag has to be that the characters have just woken up after an outrageous party and don't remember what happened.  The zig, therefore, which comes just before, is someone at the beginning of the party making a toast to "a night that we'll never forget".

He showed a simpler and shorter zig-zag from How to Train Your Dragon, in a scene with two major zig-zags.  Here's the shorter one:  Hiccup wakes up in bed, sees something that startles him, then gets out of bed.  Then they cut to a close-up of the spot on the floor where his feet will come down.  First one foot comes down onto the floor, then… a peg leg comes down beside it, revealing that Hiccup has lost a foot in the battle.

Jim emphasized how that shot would have been ruined if the feet had come down in the opposite order.  The first foot set up the expectation that another foot would come down.

Jim used other examples to emphasize that if a reveal or reversal occurs in a line of dialogue, you need to trim that line of any excess words, and arrange the words so that the surprise comes at the very end of the sentence.  This is good:

Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to the other side.

This is bad:

Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to the other side of the road.

FORESHADOWING WITH DESCRIPTION

Descriptions are also storytelling.

Jim gave some examples of how you can use physical descriptions of the setting to hint visually at what's going to happen, or at the character of the people who live in that setting.  Say you're describing someone's workshop.

  • If the light is bright, and there's a pegboard on the wall, with white outlines of every tool, and every tool in its place, that person is probably OCD.
  • If the light is dim and the air dusty, and the tools are all piled on a table, that person is at best a slob.
  • If there's a pegboard on the wall, with white outlines of every tool, and the tools are all piled in a heap on a table, something's up with that person.

Jim Mercutio offers script consulting services (described on jamespmercurio.com) and DVDs on screenwriting (available here).  He's coming out with a book on scene writing this fall.

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Comments ( 14 )

It's hard to even think about this sort of script work shopping without Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation coming to mind.

"A scene is one action in one place and time where at least one person has a goal and an obstacle, and the story and that person both change."

I was going to object. Thankfully, I re-read the line several times and caught "...and that person both change."
Action scenes have 'something' obvious happen. Character development scenes *can* have something happen, or perhaps nothing happens at all except for the way that the reader/watcher perceives one of the characters. Anton Chigurh has one of these in No Country For Old Men, a scene that is quite popular despite *all* that happens is the character buys some stuff at the gas station, and bets on a quarter toss. It doesn't seem to advance the plot, there's no goal or obstacle shown, and yet Anton just kills the scene. Murders it, even.

One of the key parts of pruning away the crap out of your story, is to spot 'not-scenes' and nuke them, *but* keep an eye out for stealth scenes where you may have done foreshadowing/character development/scene setting. Those are important. You can trim and tidy them up, but don't kill.


Edit: Addition! I just remembered there are perfectly good scenes done in which practically nothing happens, no goals are achieved, and no character is built. Done badly, they are 'Scenery Porn' and done well, they are 'the train scene from Miyazaki's Spirited Away'

4800206
The question is, is there anything in a story which isn't a scene, but cannot be excised without weakening it? I'm talking about structural material like scene-setting, movement, and basic exposition. Even action films have to introduce the audience to the setting in some fashion, if only via some sort of Miami Vice style montage. And caper films in particular are full of procedure glitz - of the characters being awesome, doing their thing, hitting their beats. Nothing is changed, no character is challenged, the goal is trivial and the obstacles utterly bamboozled - the point is audience excitement, vicarious success. You're seeing consequences, not the challenge itself.

By this definition, denouement and falling action can be said to consist largely of non-scenes, and I'd argue that many recent Hollywood pictures have been poisoned by one too many 'zig-zags' in what should be the falling action. The writers/directors/story-botherers just have to get in one more, two more, a half-dozen more little jinks at the end of the picture. And especially in American pictures, this is where they betray the sensibility of the told story with unearned escapes and redemptions that break the film. Some of Spielberg's lesser pictures do this - I'm thinking of his War of the Worlds adaptation in particular. But it also includes stories where the Villain Sue revives again and again, stretching out the conflict by karma-houdining multiple times just because the writer wasn't done with the story yet.

4800279 yeah, I can define that in one word: Superman. (Well, technically Man of Steel)

Every (censored) scene in the movie is a drama shot, posed and poised to show the characters in noble stances or swift actions. I can't remember the Fimfiction blog that reviewed it, but I agree pretty much so. It's a *pretty* movie, what can be seen of it, so it's not a loss, and it's awesome in explosions and fight scenes, but...

Zach, turn on the lights when you're filming, please.

4800279

The question is, is there anything in a story which isn't a scene, but cannot be excised without weakening it?
...
And caper films in particular are full of procedure glitz - of the characters being awesome, doing their thing, hitting their beats. Nothing is changed, no character is challenged, the goal is trivial and the obstacles utterly bamboozled - the point is audience excitement, vicarious success.
...
denouement and falling action can be said to consist largely of non-scenes, and I'd argue that many recent Hollywood pictures have been poisoned by one too many 'zig-zags' in what should be the falling action.

These are all great points. I can think of some qualifications to Jim's teaching:

* Jim is describing how Hollywood films are made now. This doctrine of the zig-zag is associated with the doctrine of scene-sequel, which I criticized in "Mythbusting: Scene + Sequel structure". Both are very popular right now. They were also both popular (tho not by name) in the days of silent film; if you watch Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton films, they're very tight, and every scene has some action and some funny character response. I think they were popular all thru the days of black & white film; I saw part of "Mr Deeds Goes to Town" last night, and IIRC it was also like that.

But if we looked at movies made around the 1970s, the years of grand sweeping cinematography, I think we'd find scenes in movies like On Golden Pond, The Black Stallion, even Star Wars, with little or no dialogue or action, but grand vistas, an expanse of time and space, and a sense of the eternal or the sublime.

* I'm going to guess that exceptions come disproportionately in fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, action, porn, and other genres which have another primary emotion (respectively sense of wonder x 2, fear, mystery, excitement, arousal). That emotion can be the focus of a scene. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I don't think there's any character development at all in the movie 300. There are montages in Apocalypse Now (which I think is a kind of subversion of horror movies) that create feelings of dread or bewilderment, and scenes that I could say primarily develop the setting rather than a person as a malevolent character. I could also mention the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, except I think they were a failure. There's also an unidentified nature-related genre, like The Black Stallion or The Yearling, which focus on nature and especially wild animals as a sense of wonder, and have long montages of animals or wilderness with no plot or character development, which may focus on gradually building (or breaking) a bond between a human and a wild animal, or a human and a wild environment.

Since I think genre-mixing is legit, it's legit for any movie to do any of these things-- but it usually won't work to try to pull too many different emotional strings in one movie.

* Jim is describing the ideal. In practice, it's very hard to make every scene advance both story and character.

* Jim is only representing one tradition of storytelling. It might be hard to fit a Hayao Miyazaki anime into this pattern. People might say that's because most Hayao Miyazaki animes are bad movies, what with all their slow and often aimless meandering, and their lack of any consistent or sensible structure in their pacing and tension. I have some sympathy for that view, but I suspect I would not if I were Japanese.

I liked this post! It was helpful.

Hap

Interesting.

The point about trimming around your reversals is a strong one. I don't think I'd ever stopped to formalize it as why I write the way I do, but I absolutely structure my prose that way to add punch to the punchlines.

Re. An introduction foreshadowing an arc. I wonder why that works. Maybe it's because it sets up audience expectations, and seeing those expectations realized makes the character's resolution that much more satisfying? That seems to contradict the zig-zag approach given that zigs set up exactly the wrong expectations. Zags don't always detract from satisfaction though, so that doesn't seem quite right either.

The zig-zag approach seems good for building and releasing suspense. I imagine it would make for a crappy ending to a story though, almost as if the story never really had an ending. I can't recall any good zag endings, except I guess in horror.

Maybe zig-zags are for telling the reader "you're not there yet," and foreshadowed resolutions are for telling the reader "you made it." I mentally associate zigs with a progression of some sort (maybe to a dead-end, or maybe in the wrong direction), zag with a collapse/regression of some sort, and a resolution as confirmation of completion. Does that seem right?

4802718
Good questions. I think--

- too precise foreshadowing might be bad. Jim said maybe foreshadowing that Ed would shoot Dudley in the back was too on-the-nose.

- foreshadowing usually indicates what someone's problem will be rather than what their outcome will be.

- At least one zag we looked at, in the fight between Ed and Bud, was the turning point for that character, so that zag was progression, not regression. zig-zag can be either progression or regression. The usual recommended structure in movie plots now (not character arcs) is to have all the zig-zags be regressions until the very end, and the whole movie a series of one step forward, 2 steps back, but I think that's a fad.

- Most blockbusters try for a kind of "zig-zag" ending, but it's not very effective because you know the good guys are going to win. Like the ending of any superhero movie has everything looking hopeless up until the last few minutes, when suddenly the good guys win.

- You can have two plotlines move in different directions at the same time, like at the ending of Logan, which has one happy story and one sad story come out of the final climax.

4803137
I guess in that sense foreshadowing is another tool to build up suspense. I think the problems-are-foreshadowed-not-solutions rule is sometimes violated though, often as a realization by the character that something discovered earlier is relevant to the problem at hand (like in a mystery). I get the feeling that foreshadowing plays other similar roles as well. If foreshadowing is a hazy reflection of a character's arc, including the solution, then the realization of that arc seems somehow "validated" by the foreshadow. I imagine far fewer people would have been happy with Neville Longbottom killing Nagini if it weren't for the prophesy. That rule also fails sometimes though, usually by way of a zag.

Those two interpretations raise the question of whether foreshadowing should always be about problems/solutions or if other things can be foreshadowed to good effect as well. If not, maybe there's some special relationship between problem-solution and suspense-validation. Something like "foresight of problems leads to suspense" and "foresight of solutions leads to validation."

4803724

If not, maybe there's some special relationship between problem-solution and suspense-validation. Something like "foresight of problems leads to suspense" and "foresight of solutions leads to validation."

That's an interesting hypothesis. I'll keep my eyes open for examples rather than trying to answer it offhand.

If you're going to keep all of this info up, would you mind referring to and linking to the book early in the post. Thanks.
https://www.amazon.com/Craft-Scene-Writing-Better-Script/dp/1610353307

Login or register to comment
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!