While writing our scenes let’s remember these 5 things:
Everyone is doing something. No one is just sitting around talking. Look at Frank and Clare Underwood in House of Cards. They don’t just sit and talk. They share a cigarette. Their ‘secret’ habit. In a later season Frank takes up a new hobby of painting his little soldiers. What secret habits or little hobbies do your characters have?
2. Power Play.
Each scene is a battle of desires between Hero and Opponent. Either a battle of action of a battle of words. Sometimes both. Take The Confrontation scene in Les Miserables. In the musical this is a battle of words between Jean Valjean and Jalvert. The battle is verbal. The words are aggressive:
I am warning you Javert.
There is nothing I won’t do.
If I have to kill you now,
I’ll do what must be done.
You know nothing of Javert.
I was born inside a jail.
I was born with scum like you.
I am from the gutter too!
But on screen we see a real, physical battle between Russel Crowe and Hugh Jackman. A good example of a battle of words and action.
Another great example of the power play between characters is between Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner in this scene from The Town. Or study this scene between Dexter and Hannah for a strong example of power play.
Everyone wants something. We want something in life and we want something now. Me? I just want to write this blog post without losing it. That’s now. This year I want to finish my novel. In my life I want to produce at least one of my feature scripts. We all want something. What do your characters want?
Every character in the scene has their own desire. Whether it’s a multi-character scene with more than two characters or a duologue we have to be aware of the desire of each character. If they have no desire, if they are just standing in the background doing nothing, cut them. However, if they speak, they have a desire. They have a desire for their life and they have a desire in that moment. What is it? What do they want 1. Overall in their life and 2. In that specific moment.
4. Conceal or Reveal.
David Mamet has often quoted the French writer Voltaire, saying, “words were invented to hide feelings”. Mamet believes we speak to conceal ourselves, not reveal ourselves. What is your character hiding? What truth is he or she concealing? Take these three lines of dialogue between Dexter and Hannah:
How did you do it?
Is it really important?
Is life in prison important?
Dexter asks a genuine question. He wants to know how she killed someone. But Hannah doesn’t want to reveal the fact that she did it, or how she did it. She conceals the truth. Later in the scene, when she wants to draw Dexter in, she reveals the truth.
Nobody says what they really feel. Until we do. In her book To Be a Playwright Janet Nepris implies that when we cannot keep inside of us what we truly feel that we reach the highest point of drama in a scene. Until that point we speak in riddles. Check out the Dexter scene again. In how many lines does a character try to conceal their self? And in how many lines does a character reveal their self? In the Hannah / Dexter scene Hannah only reveals the truth when she wants Dexter in her arms, by her side, in her heart. It’s a transaction. Truth comes at a price.
Price liked to chew on his pens.
The last one had a little something on it…
Hannah doesn’t say “I murdered him with poison.” But she implies it. Subtext.
Usually we cover up the truth, for fear of being hurt. We conceal our true desire. Every word we say becomes a wall of defense – a defense mechanism. What is your character hiding? Who does she want to reveal the truth to? Remember, everything a character says should seek to either: 1. attack or defend 2. conceal or reveal.