Friday, March 16, 2007

Ties That Bind -- Or Not

Ever wonder why kids walk around with their shoelaces untied? I hate that. They do it intentionally, too. It's cool. Or hip. Or, whatever the latest terminology is for "not a tool". Don't expect these "oppose establishment by not tying my shoes" kids to wear new laces either. Only bacteria soaked shreds will due. If the laces don't appear to have been pulled from a sneaker on the side of the highway and run over few hundred times, then no go.

That's not actually an analogy that works for anything I have to say here, by the way. It's just something that annoys me.

The "tying" I want to talk about is not laces in shoes (too late, already did that), but that invisible thread that connects our scenes. There seems to be some confusion among us newbies about what it means to transition our scenes.

What I really want to create, but haven't yet, is a screenplay so compelling that the reader's need to continue is the equivalent of standing in one of those crooked houses and being forced to lean forward. I want the reader to have no choice but to go forward. For now, though, putting the screenplay down and going out for a pizza is still an option.

I actually discovered three problems with tying scenes together but I've never witnessed one of them. So, here's the other two:

(1) Many of us screenwriters fail to connect our scenes at all so they wind up feeling more like a collection vignettes than a cohesive story. How do we get from one scene to the next? Okay, yes, we need to enter a scene at the latest possible moment and leave as early as we can, but if it isn't all tied together, it's like reading a choppy episodic novel.

(2) Many of us screenwriters seem to think transitioning our scenes means explaining how characters physically arrive from one scene to the next. I'm not kidding. There seems to be an abundance of opening doors, starting engines, closing doors and walking from here to there going on in screenplays. I mean a LOT. Nobody wants to read 25 pages of somebody riding to the office and back. Car chases? Yes. Driving behind a trailer of ostriches flinging poop on windshields? Maybe. Just moving for the sake of moving? No.

I went off in search of some ways to thread your story and transition your scenes and found a few (some are no-brainers). However, if you are one of those who shares this disjointed dilemma, you won't like the solutions because they aren't easy fixes like "oh just throw in a mailbox" or "cut little Johnny's fingers off so he doesn't have to play the piano". They are the kind of solutions that you wish you had before you knew there was a problem -- kind of like figuring out you need to go to bathroom after you've already passed the last rest stop on the highway.

(1) Sequence your scenes - This comes from Linda Seger but I don't know which book. She says to group your scenes in sequences toward the development of separate climactic moments in order to get a better connection between scenes. Kind of like clustering. Probably, many of us do this in our outlines anyway - we just don't call it "sequencing".

(2) Make sure the protagonist's goals are demonstrated through action and dialogue - is there really anyone left that doesn't know this? Yes. What I saw this past week was scene after scene with a protagonist saying and doing all kinds of stuff that didn't demonstrate their motive, goal, or any purpose that would lead them toward achieving that goal. Hence, the scenes just went all over the place - like throwing out jacks and hoping they land in a pattern.

(3) Cut the superfluous scenes (kill your babies) - another DUH comment because we all know to keep the story moving forward. We hear it all the time. Keep it moving. Keep it moving. I really don't think most of us mind killing our own babies. I just think now and then we have a difficult time identifying which ones need to die.

(4) Use locations to create familiar territory that crosses age, space, or time - The more locations in a film, the more often the audience has to move (and the more expensive the film is to shoot). Same Time Next Year shot most of the film in the same cabin. Everyone aged and time passed but the characters kept going back to the same cabin. Fewer sets mean a tighter story. Of course, if you're on a road trip like Little Miss Sunshine, you've got the bus to keep it all together.

(5) Use traits and behavior to create continuity - Characters with unique behavior, traits, or catch phrases create an element of familiarity even in their unpredictability. We know to expect a doomsday mega decibel gaspy voice from Darth Vader. We know to expect dronelike stupidity or a socially repressed outburst from Napolean Dynomite. And, we know that Jack Sparrow will fail any test for brain concussion or roadside sobriety. We may not know the details behind the behavior when we first meet these characters but we quickly get to know the behavior and it carries us from one scene into the next.

(6) Create action/reaction links between scenes - Start or imply an action in one scene and play it out in the next. A phone rings in one scene and somebody answers it in the next. A person rushes out in the rain in one scene and and comes in from the rain in the next. Somebody blows out a candle and makes a wish for a pony. In the next scene, she's riding a pony.

(7) Create contrast - Opposites attract, apparently, even in screenplays. This is another Linda Seger note I wrote down that says contrast creates ties. If you have a death in one scene, you can build a thread by having a birth in the next. The Godfather comes to mind where there were hits and a baptism at the same time. The same thing goes for heaven and hell, rage and joy, fire and rain (now James Taylor will sing in my head all day).

(8) Use reflective type props - If a boy is singing in the bathtub at the end of one scene, we can pass time and put him in the shower as an adult at the beginning of the next. Or, go from chopping onions to chopping wood or wheels on a toy bus to wheels on a real bus.

When we were little girls, my sister and I would act out Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in the back yard. We had a big wooden spool that served as Blanche's wheelchair, took turns saying, "but ya aaah, Blanche, ya aaah in that chair!", and made placards out of cardboard boxes to use between scenes. Why? I dunno. We were morbid kids and confused about the difference between stage and screen. But we took great pride in marking our placards "here's the dead bird" and "liar, liar pants on fire part".

Something on the creative side of my brain knew, even at that age, that a story had to be tied together somehow and scenes needed to be transitioned well.

So, while I may have a long way to go in mastering my scene transitions, I'm through with cardboard placards -- sort of. A woman on the side of the road the other day was holding a cardboard sign. It said "will work for food". I offered her a job. She asked for money. I offered her a job. She asked for money. I offered her a job again. She said 'no'. So, I stole her sign.


Mystery Man said...

Great post. I thought this was going to be about transitions, but I think you're touching upon continuity of scenes, which is even better. I posted a recent review of a story called "Inside" (4,000 word review) and one of the problems was scene continuity. You don't feel like there's any continuity if some of the scenes fail to push the story forward in some way. If you're at least consistent about your scenes moving the story forward, starting with one value and ending on a different value, you feel like that scene has meaning because it's an important part of the whole. Ya know? I'm rambling.

Great post.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Well, I think continuity solves a lot of your transition problems but yeah, that post kind of went all over the place.

Anonymous said...

'I want the reader to have no choice but to go forward'... one of the gurus. may have even been Bill Martell, says put a mini cliffhanger at the end of each page, with a question or something that bites at our subconscious to force us to turn that page. And if it doesn't fit, make it fit...