As far as story's concerned, what a character wants is a screenwriter's jackpot. It's the driving force that creates your story, energy system, emotional flow, and pattern of change. Look at Pulp Fiction: Marsellus Wallace wants his briefcase. Vincent and Jules want to get it back for him. Bullets barely miss them. Suddenly, Jules wants to retire.
Marsellus wants Vincent to take Mia out on a date. Vincent doesn't want to, given what happened to Tony Rocky Horror, but he wants to do his duty to Marsellus.
Marsellus wants Butch to throw the fight. Butch wants to double-cross him, and he does, but he loses his precious gold watch in the process. He wants it back. Marsellus wants revenge. They collide—literally—on the street. Butch wants to get away. Marsellus wants to kill him. They stumble into a pawn shop, into the owner's wants. They want to get out. Butch does; Marsellus doesn't. Butch wants to save him.
And so the stories spin out. Want after want. Agenda after agenda. Crossed agendas. Wanting breeding new wanting.
Develop your story by brainstorming and playing the consequences of your character's want. What does she do to get it from Character B? What strategies does she try? What does Character B do to stop her? What does
Character A do when her strategies fail? Or do they? Does she get what she wants? Or not? And what difference does it make to her in the end?
Play the possibilities. Every screenplay has its own rich variations. A character might not get what he wants but he gets what he needs. Look at Good Will Hunting and As Good As It Gets. Or African Queen or Casablanca or so many great films, for that matter. Short ones, too. In tongue, Joe wants to remain isolated, but life throws him Anna, a young woman with a will of her own, and she wants what Joe does not want to give—connection. A kiss.
"The protagonist has a need or goal, an object of desire and knows it," Robert McKee writes in Story. "However, the most memorable, fascinating characters tend to have not only a conscious but an unconscious desire What he believes he wants is the antithesis of what he actually but unwittingly wants."
Which brings us back to character because at the highest level, story is character, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Once you've developed your story, clearly define its surface action/ pattern of change/throughline/spine:
Character A is trying to get (object of desire). Nail it in one simple dynamic sentence and write it down on a three-by-five card. Then define your story's deep action/character arc, how Character A's inner landscape is changed by the external events:
Character A is (describe the internal change). Describe the internal change with an -ing verb. This keeps it dynamic. Is your character coming to realize something important? Learning something? Reappraising? Overcoming her fears? Nail the pattern of internal change and write it on a three-by-five card, too.
Then brainstorm and decide what moments of change you will need to show to make the surface and deep action happen. These are the pearls in the oysters—the scenes—that you'll write (remember, more than one pearl may occur in one scene). Write each scene on a three-by-five card, arranging them until you find the order you want. Dump any scene that doesn't serve your surface or deep action or illuminate it in some way, like the dreams illuminating Joe's fear in tongue. Make sure you establish Character A's want nice and early, so your story/energy system/pattern of change begins on page one (as you've seen in Pulp Fiction, it can begin on line one). And make sure it ends. Does Character A fail or succeed? Make sure the precise moment when the outcome is known—your screenplay's climax—happens on screen. And make sure we understand the significance of this success or failure to Character A.
When you've done all this—and it is a great deal—outline your screenplay in a Scene-by-Scene. Read the outline over and over, letting the short film play in your head, checking your character's emotional flow.
"A strong emotional line is what drives a film or play and engages an audience," Jan Sardi says in the introduction to his screenplay for Shine.
We're never more emotional than when we want something badly and our wanting meets obstacles.
Put your surface and deep action three-by-five cards where you can see them so you don't lose sight of your screenplay's spine and your character arc as you start to write. If your story starts to drift as you draft, or you otherwise get lost in the fun house, consult these cards to keep your story on track.
Craft your scenes with great care. They're patterns of change in themselves, with a beginning, middle, and end, though you may not want to show all of that. A character's arrival or departure, for example, might not be interesting or contribute to your dramatic purpose. If not, use the magic of the story leap and hit the scene later or get out earlier.
But sometimes you do need to show the beginning, middle, and end, as Robert Benton does in the restaurant boxing match scene in Kramer vs. Kramer when Ted and Joanna Kramer meet for the first time since Joanna walked out eighteen months ago. It's a reconnection/disconnection scene between these two characters, so Ted's arrival and departure at Joanna's table are both important.
Cue up this scene on video (it's close to the midpoint) and screen it. It's one of the best examples of a well-written scene, exquisitely crafted with dialogue beats (not to be confused with action beats—events that move the story forward).
"A beat of dialogue is similar to a paragraph of prose or a verse of poetry," Sam Smiley says.
In the previous chapter I mentioned that the word "beat" in a character's speech indicates a snap pause or a change in subject. You can think of a dialogue beat as a paragraph or short unit of speech about one particular subject.
When you screen the scene in Kramer vs. Kramer, outline the beats. Give them brief titles based on each beat's subject. The first beat, for example, might be titled "Hi/hi/chitchat." What are the other beats in the scene?
Why and how do the subjects change or flow to the next beat?
Notice that each beat has a beginning, middle, and end. To me, this is one of the most marvelous things about a well-crafted screenplay: The smallest building block—the dialogue beat—is a microcosm for the scene and for the whole screenplay. Each is an energy system that begins, develops, and ends. Somewhere in each beat there's some tiny impulse or change that throws the scene into the next beat (notice the frequent use of questions to trigger new beats). And so the scene and screenplay move forward.
Notice, too, that the beats begin to break down as the scene becomes more emotional. Again, it's Eisenstein's montage applied to dialogue—accelerating the pace of the cuts (in this case, cut lines) to reflect the scene's rising emotion.
I like to think of beats as Legos because they're the smallest building block of drama (I'm not counting words) and they can be moved around, rearranged in a scene or screenplay for the greatest dramatic effect (Sundance tells Butch he can't swim just before they jump off the cliff into the river). And for the most compelling and credible emotional flow.
Take a close look at this excerpt from Robert Benton's screenplay after Ted discovers that Joanna's been watching Billy from the coffee shop across the street from his school:
You sat in that coffee shop across from school—
JOANNA (completing his sentence) Watching my son. . . Ted, I've been living in New York for the past two months.
You've been living here, in the city?
JOANNA (a deep breath) Ted. . . The reason I wanted to see you ... I want Billy back.
You want what?!
I want my son. I'm through sitting in coffee shops looking at him from across the street. I want my son.
Are you out of your mind?! You're the one that walked out on him, remember?
JOANNA (trying to explain) Ted listen to me. . . You and I, we had a really crappy marriage—
Look, don't get defensive, okay? It was probably as much my fault as it was yours . . . Anyway when I left I was really screwed up—
JOANNA (she will be heard) Ted, all my life I'd either been somebody's daughter or somebody's wife, or somebody else's mother. Then, all of a sudden, I was a thirty-year-old, highly neurotic woman who had just walked out on her husband and child. I went to California because that was about as far away as I could get. Only... I guess it wasn't far enough. So I started going to a shrink.
(leaning forward, very sincere) Ted, I've had time to think. I've been through some changes. I've learned a lot about myself.7
Now compare the order of beats to the beats that you outlined when you screened the scene. The lines changed a little, of course—they always do— but sometime, during pre-production or production, the order of the beats was reversed. Why? Because emotionally, it just didn't work.
When Joanna tells Ted she wants Billy back, she's dropping a bomb. There's no way in hell Ted's going to sit there and listen to her long explanation about going to California and finding herself (a line I never thought anyone could make work, but Meryl Streep did). By reversing the beats— the long explanation then the bomb about Billy—the emotional flow is believable. Things are relatively calm when Joanna tells Ted about California—we believe he would listen—but once she says she wants Billy back, he cares about only one thing—keeping her from taking his son. A boxing match.
This switching of beats also makes the scene more dramatic. Now there's a build to Joanna's revelation that she wants Billy back (in the screenplay it feels unprepared for, unmotivated, out of the blue). Talk about a moment of change. I mean kablooey! The scene explodes, words flying like shrapnel— overlapping, interrupting—the beats breaking down as all hell breaks loose and Ted tells Joanna to go fuck herself. But notice, on screen, he doesn't tell her with words. Benton made a wonderful choice to show it, not tell it, as Ted smashes his glass of white wine—which was a sign of connection— against the brick wall. As Lani Sciandra learned in Cool Breeze, the nonverbal reaction is often much stronger.
And so, as you're designing your scenes, noodle your beats. Outline them in the order you think they will happen. But remember they're Legos— moveable pieces—and feel free to move them around until the scene works. Outlining the beats before you draft a scene helps you design scenes that don't spin their wheels—characters talking about the same subject over and over. You may decide to let the wheels spin for dramatic effect. Fine. Just make sure you're not having more fun than your audience. And keep in mind that most scenes work best when the beats change and the story moves forward.
Beats are also a wonderful tool for revision. Say a scene you wrote isn't working. Outline the beats. You might well discover what's wrong. You might have a beat that doesn't work in the scene, but it's important to the overall story. Try moving it to another scene in your screenplay. I just critiqued a student screenplay where two young women, total strangers, meet on a train. Right off the bat, one starts telling the other her problems. It felt too early for the character. I suggested moving the beat a bit later, and it worked much better. Of course, if the screenwriter had wanted to create a character who goes around accosting strangers with her personal problems, the beat would have been fine where it was.
This is why feedback from others is so very important. They can tell you if your character's emotional flow rings true in your scenes and story. Find out, too, from others if Character A's want is clear. Do they understand why she wants it? Does Character B provide obstacles to this want? Do you play the consequences of Character A discovering these obstacles and/or deciding to do something different? How could Character A's strategies for getting what she wants be improved? Is the outcome of your boxing match clear?
Do we grasp its significance? Does the character's inner change get across? Be open and listen to the answers they give you. Take notes. And as Joanna says to Ted, "Don't get defensive."
Once you've harvested their responses, set your screenplay aside—if you can—before you rewrite. This allows everyone else's opinions to settle until you know in your gut what you need to do. Your considered opinion is usually best.
1. Humphry House, Aristotle's Poetics, Madeline House, London, 1956, p. 74. (I'm indebted to Janet Burroway for giving me a copy of House's wonderful book).
2. Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction, screenplay manuscript, last draft, May 1993, pp. 1-6.
3. Jeffrey Sweet, "An Object Lesson for Playwrights," The Writer, December 1989, p. 19.
4. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, Viking Press, New York, 1949, p. 132.
5. Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, Bantam Books, New York, 1990, p. 36.
7. Robert Benton, Kramer Versus Kramer, screenplay manuscript, revised third draft, July 14, 1978, pp. 75, 76.
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