When my co-writer and I started our feature-length black comedy, we wrote a bunch of anecdotes that cracked us up whenever we told them to each other. They were funny; they took place in the imaginary circumstances; yet they did not hold together in a good plot. It was a necessary first step. The anecdotes gave us the “poster” for the film; they gave us a lot of what Blake Snyder called the “set pieces” for Act II. But we had a long way to go from anecdotes to script. A bunch of laughs strung together is not a story.
The problem with what we had written to this point was that the anecdotes didn’t reveal character growth or story arc. So, first we needed to write an outline (seemingly a step backward, but very necessary) that showed:
- the protagonist’s struggles, in increasing order of difficulty: the story spine
- how working through these struggles changed her as a person: the character arc
After the outline of the story was in place, we still had to bust out of my partner’s disposition to hang onto what she had first written. “It’s funny; I like it; let’s keep it.” So, I worked to get her to examine each scene to see if it met the criteria of:
- Moving the Story Forward
- Exposing the Character’s Internal Struggle
- Being Playable
Moving the Story Forward
You don’t write something just because it’s funny or dramatic or sexy or whatever yanks your crank. Each scene is about the obstacles which the protagonist must overcome and how she goes about doing that. There’s got to be a goal, a mini-struggle, in each scene, sometimes very subtle. A comedic moment in an office where nerd-boy spills a super-caffeinated drink all over the heroine cannot be included simply because it’s a moment of physical comedy or a moment of making fun of nerds. It could be a way to have the protag meet a potential ally, or it could be an example of the incompetence she must overcome in order to make a billion dollars, or it could be a romantic moment leading to a relationship, or it can be what puts her into the hospital with a cracked shin and makes it even harder for her to walk in the marathon, or it can be an impetus for her to quit the job and join NASA. But even though it’s funny, it doesn’t belong in the script unless it moves the story forward.
Exposing the Character’s Internal Struggle
The counterpart to Moving the Story Forward. As the external story (story spine) moves forward, the internal story (character arc) must also move forward. The protag must change as a result of going through the adventure. In each scene (yes, every one) someone must make decisions that cause her to change as a person. That someone is often the protag herself; but sometimes it’s another character whose decisions force the protag to move, to chante. The decisions are the movement of the story is the character’s choices are the change in the character is the movement of the character arc. If the Moving the Story Forward component of a scene is, for example, a car chase in which the hero’s team must elude the police in service of getting to the castle 40 pages later to save the Wall Street financier locked up in there with the dragon and the fire-breathing Left-Winger; then…then…then…while driving the car to elude the police, the hero (or his sidekick or his mentor) must be testing himself and learning about himself.
“Can I do this?”
“Do I care enough about the financier to risk my life?”
“Am I a good enough driver?”
“Will my team stick with me?”
“Do I have spinach in my teeth and will my love interest think it’s gross and should I stop driving and pick my teeth?”
“Shall I run over that little girl in service of a larger cause?”
By asking and answering those questions, the hero changes. Or, if it’s the antagonist’s scene, she can change. Or any character. But someone must.
If there’s nothing other than the physical action and the actual words said by the characters–if there is no subtext–then, hell, it’s boring crap.
A real need–driven by the main goal of the protagonist through the entire film. Real conflict–other characters are not cardboard foils but have their own needs, too. A real human trying to accomplish the need. We’ve all seen shitty films & plays where things happen but nobody cares. For me as a writer, playableNotBoring means the actor has room to breathe. Room to breathe means the actor can fully flesh out the character and take her beyond what the writer has imagined, into fully-realized LIFE. Must. Have. Subtext.
My co-writer and I had to analyze each sequence and each scene for these criteria. We had to be ruthless with the funny situations we had written. We had to ask if each one served the story and if an actor could play it.
Part Two tomorrow.