Saturday, February 24, 2007

Reflection Scenes

There are times when your character might need to spend some time alone remembering, sorting things out, or coming to a difficult conclusion. These reflection scenes are important because they give the character and viewer a quick time-out from the action to add things up without actually taking us out of the story.

THE GREEN MILE – The camera loves to watch Tom Hanks think and his character often puzzles things out by listening to the radio, having a glass of wine or thinking in bed.

DEAD MAN’S CHEST – Jack Sparrow has a moment in a longboat where he studies his compass and has to decide whether to head for land or help his friends.

MASTER AND COMMANDER – Reflection scenes abound but the one that stands out for me is the doctor’s lonely violin as the captain contemplates whether to pursue his nemesis or dry land where the doctor has a better chance of survival.

Many reflection scenes are added during the production process and don’t even appear in the shooting script. I don’t know if this is because writers are reluctant to write reflection scenes or because the need isn’t identified until production is underway. Maybe writers do include reflection scenes but the scenes are often cut because on paper, they appear to slow the read down.

Take for example:

THE FUGITIVE - Gerard often puffs on his cigar and ponders out a window or studies a crime scene while going over the facts in his head. These scenes appear often in the film but nowhere in the script. They must have been added after the script was written (or I don't have a final version of the script).

What I have noticed about reflection scenes:

1. The best ones are brief - A long walk along a beach or in the mountains is less effective than a woman looking at her wedding band and shoving it down the garbage disposal.

2. Self dialogue rarely works – Talking to a bloody handprint on a volleyball is better than a character talking to himself but I like NO dialogue the best.
Aside from giving us the aforementioned time to digest and add up, reflection scenes might also give us a glimpse into character or function as a transition.

If you have an awkward spot in your screenplay or outline, maybe it’s time for your protagonist or villain to take a breather.

Maybe not.

Reflection scenes aren’t to be written in as an afterthought since they imply an emotional state. But if you have an emotional state already taking place and need a transition, it’s certainly worth taking a look. It might be the bridge you need for that certain gap.

6 comments:

oneslackmartian said...

These scenes also allow characters to drop their masks that they have been wearing for other characters. You can get a glimpse of who the character really is. So it’s beyond just emotion; it’s true, meaningful emotion . . . often that comes boiling out.

Mystery Man said...

Hey MaryAn,

There was that brief sequence in "Revenge of the Sith" that I actually enjoyed, that moment where everyone was thinking before the turning point of Anakin's betrayal - the Princess, Anakin, etc, and that was one of the few sequences in the new trilogy I can honestly say wasn't total shit.

Hehehe...

I love watching people think. I don't know why. Hanks is superb at it, particularly in "Saving Private Ryan."

-MM

MaryAn Batchellor said...

OSM, so they're naked moments.

Saw Sith, MM, and I'm sorry to say that the most memorable moment for me was that "I don't know who you are anymore" line that makes me want to punch a baby every time I hear it. Actually, I would never punch a baby but his momma who took him to the movie theater knowing all babies throw hungry, sleepy, ouch-those-speakers-hurt-my-nine-month-old-eardrum tantrums? Yeah, in a heartbeat.

Tracy said...

Hey MaryAn,

I think these reflective moments are built into character development. A character’s action is based on who they are. In most of the examples you listed, the character’s jobs require them moments of introspection. Cops, detectives, lawyers, captains, presidents, etc… When we have characters in leadership roles, it’s not what they say, but what they do that gives us the entertainment. And sometimes, silence speaks louder than words.

So, in a sense, I do think these moments are on the page. They might not be clear to a reader, but they’re definitely clear to an actor. When I first worked with actors I was so blown away by how much they wanted to understand their character BEYOND what I had put on the page. That’s why I love the collaboration process. But it starts with compelling characters that we have to create – on the page.

Okay, I babbled enough.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing, Tracy, although you are absolutely correct that creating compelling characters is critical. Why else would we spend so much time discussing character development on our blogs?

However, while an actor may portray a moment of reflection in just about any scene, I'm suggesting that certain scenes are written for the specific purpose of providing reflection as a story element.

Tracy said...

No, MaryAn, I clearly get what you are saying. For me, those reflective moments have to be built into my character. It’s not a plot point, or a moment in a scene. It’s my character’s behavior and/or misbehavior that those reflective moments will come out of. It’s organic.

It’s somewhat like subtext, and show, don’t tell. These silent and reflective moments come when my character has to SHOW an inner struggle or emotion. It’s internal conflict. There is also a point in my story where my characters have hit a wall – a low point. They FEEL all is lost. Again, feelings are an internal emotion, but giving those characters moments of silence to let it all sink in - that all hope seems to be lost - is crucial – well, at least for me it is. How will my audience know that my character is indeed struggling with inner conflict? There’s nothing more tense-riddled then silence and anticipation.

So, yes, I agree, these moments of reflection are important. It’s designing these moments and making them pay off in a natural, not forced way – that’s the rub.