Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Scene writing: power and victories

Where does tension come from? Thrilling scenes often involve characters who want different things, and the subtext that results from characters who can't communicate exactly what they're thinking or feeling. In my study of scenes that work - and add up to something much greater over the course of a show or movie - some writer friends have helped me notice that tension comes from the balance of power in any given scene, and who "wins" or "loses."

Take The Bridges of Madison County. It's a long, simple story, and many of its scenes feature Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood sitting at Meryl's kitchen table. However, the movie is incredibly compelling not only because of the strong performances, but also because of the shifts of power. In the first half, Meryl holds the power. She hasn't yet decided how she feels about this stranger. She can kick him out whenever she wants to. She can let him get to know just a little a bit about her, or everything. She can have an affair with him, or not.

In the second half, the power shifts to Clint. Meryl's feelings have started to win out over her better judgment. She feels torn and guilty, held back by the ticking clock of her husband and children's return home. Now Clint has the power, since he will be the one to leave her - both physically and emotionally.

Beyond that, each scene can be marked as a "win" or "loss" for Meryl and Clint. When Clint says something too provocative and Meryl closes him out, he loses. When Meryl starts to regret her decisions, she loses. Here is a great scene of one of Clint's losses:

The "win" or "loss" concept is also featured in Stranger Than Fiction (one of my faves!) when Will Ferrell starts marking off moments in his life as comedy or tragedy. Since he's hoping for a comedy in which he can survive, the comedic moments are wins and the tragic moments are losses.

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Dan Williams said...

Yes, that's a really intriguing concept, the idea that scenes show a character winning or losing. If you are doing a study of scenes that work, will it be published anytime soon? Sounds good!

I also think that a scene can end in a "draw." If A goes to a job interview, he might get the job (win), he might not (lose), or he might not get the job but get a tip to apply at another company (draw). He doesn't get what he wants but he gets something to further him on his way.

The scene with Clint and Meryl is so good, I'm going to reserve the movie DVD at the library and watch it. Thanks for the tip!

Marquis de Gstaad said...

"Stranger Than Fiction" is one of my favorites too. It's so heartbreaking when great films like that don't do that well at the box office. I don't know what people are thinking.

Anyway, to expand on your topic, I noticed this with Pixar films: They are so good at swapping the balance of power many times within single scenes. The hero is doomed and in a moment is on top of the world, then is doomed again and on top of the world yet again in a matter of thirty seconds. Marvelous.