The Write Stuff (of the Scene)

It was another absorbing and in-depth discussion with novel writing professor Eversz and others in the writer’s workshop discussion group. I had so much intensity personally, professionally, intellectually and spiritually this past week (culminated by Mercury Retrograde) I am just now able to type my comments on our discussion about “writing the scene.”

Eversz begins with: “start at the point of attack”

Look for the scene’s first event of dramatic consequence, then build the scene to get to that point without the wasted motion of distracting dialog or meaningless action.

Many writers write sumptuously about place and character, and strong sensory detail can effectively delay the point of attack. Mundane conversation, however, kills a scene before it starts.

Scenes that begin nearest the point of attack also prevent the story from dragging when scenes are strung together, scene by scene and chapter by chapter. Rather than wading through inconsequential chatter and action, the reader is propelled through the story by each dramatic turn of events.

We start at the point of attack when we write screenplays, too. Additionally, I get the chance to enhance this when I edit a scene on film. I trim ~ frame by frame ~ to create an even greater effect of launching the viewer breathlessly into that moment and point of attack. I learned it is all about the frames (in film), and it is certainly all about the words (in novels). How can we shave or add the words on the page so that moment of attack will thrust the reader into the scene? That is where magic occurs and borders on the edge of mysticism for me when I write novels and screenplays.

Eversz on “scene-specific objectives”

One concept is key to structuring and writing effective scenes: give each character in the scene one or more specific objectives to achieve. Even secondary characters need a specific and personal reason to be in a scene, something they want from the action. In addition to scene-specific objectives, complex protagonists have a conscious dramatic need and an often conflicting unconscious dramatic need.

The conscious and unconscious needs of the protagonist conflict in ways that influence their behavior, making them less rational and therefore less predictable.

I have written this as a “mental note-to-self” when directing actors (and writing screenplays). Oftentimes, my favorite part when I write, or direct, is to create this conflict between the conscious and unconscious needs of the characters. This makes multi-dimensional individuals and intriguing scenes. Observing life and people helps us to do this. Frequently, I study and make a mental record of this “conscious / unconscious needs” conflict when I talk and listen to others, especially when it someone new in my life. Is there a mismatch between their body language, words, and/or tone? What does this person really want, because it isn’t just what they say. The conscious – unconscious disconnect reveals to us so much more. Associate Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. writes,

Roughly 90 percent of all emotional information, and more than half all information whatsoever, is carried not by your word, but by the body language—especially intonation and tone of the voice—that goes with those words.

Noting and remembering this not only helps me communicate more effectively but it improves my writing and directing, too. My quest is to translate it to the written page and/or the big screen. Elgin recommends we remember this basic principle,

Any words, be they ever so flawless, can have their meaning cancelled by body language—but not vice versa. There are no words capable of canceling the meaning transmitted by body language.

It exists at the core of great acting and is utilized by the great directors who guide actors. I think this principle can be a powerful tool when we explore the conscious dramatic need and conflicting unconscious dramatic need revealed by body language, word emphasis and tone when we write. I have utilized it lightly in the restricted formula of my screenplay writing and it is one of the best tools in my film directing. I think in novels, we have an incredible opportunity to exploit it to its maximum potential. It is one of the biggest things that attracts me to read and write books.

The concept leads well into Eversz’s next point on “subtext”

Readers glean meaning from the subtext; good readers get more meaning from artfully hidden subtext than any text spelled out by the writer. If a dramatic moment turns on the realization of a character’s unconscious dramatic need, let it be exposed as part of the conflict between characters, or through a character’s inner monolog, or by epiphany. Characters should directly voice their subtext rarely, and only when pressed by events or other characters.

Eversz goes on to explain the “spine objective (super objective)”

In dramatic terms, a character’s conscious dramatic need is also called a spine objective (and sometimes a super objective) because it forms the spine of the character’s dramatic arc, and often of the story itself. A character’s spine objective is his quest, the goal the character pursues throughout the story.

I fancy the term “Super Objective” when writing novels. “Super objective” fits my style. I call it the “Big Picture” when I make films where the central question and quest is the main issue our story is going to answer. In screenplays, we write and reveal the story through dialogue, visuals, and actions. We expand scenarios to tell a compelling story sequenced to fit the Hollywood formula, so it will be more accessible and sellable. This is a very narrow path.

I love the freedom, depth and breadth when writing novels because there are so many other ways to explore the super objective.

Eversz on the “scene objective”

In addition to a spine objective, every character has a dramatic need specific to each scene that complements or conflicts with their spine objective. This scene-specific dramatic need is most commonly called a scene objective.

Drama happens when characters in a scene want something that conflicts with what the other wants. In dramatic terms, this is called a conflicting scene objective. Good scenes involve characters who have conflicting scene objectives. Powerful and moving scenes involve characters who not only have conflicting scene objectives but also conflict on the deeper levels of conscious and unconscious dramatic needs.

This is so true in writing and in life! I especially enjoy when Eversz writes: “powerful and moving scenes involve characters who not only have conflicting scene objectives but also conflict on the deeper levels of conscious and unconscious dramatic needs.” It goes back to what I wrote earlier in this discussion about “scene specific objective” that the conscious – unconscious disconnect reveals to us so much more, and it is exceedingly interesting with more characters in a scene wanting something that conflicts with what others want. Likewise, comedy also happens when characters in a scene want something that conflicts with what others want.

Eversz wraps the discussion up with “end with an open ending”

The same rule about beginning a scene nearest the point of attack applies in reverse to scene endings; in general, look to end the scene as closely as possible to the resolution or final turning point. Don’t allow a scene to drag past its dramatic purpose. When possible, end a scene at the first possible moment.

Ninety-nine percent of the scenes in a novel – every scene except the last one – will have an open ending that raises new dramatic issues for the characters and that, most importantly, provokes in the reader’s mind a simple, page-turning question: What happens next?

Naturally, we end scenes with an open ending when we write screenplays, too. This reinforces what I wrote earlier about when we edit the film story. At the end of film scene, I get to trim ~ frame by frame ~ to create an even greater effect of leaving it open ended. I like that about film.  But when I write novels, there is so much more I can do to tease What happens next? That’s why I crossed back over to this side. It is more fulfilling and meaningful when I write a book. Screenplays have their place with me since I can reveal the movies in my mind on the big screen with music, sound, color, emotion – they are like moving paintings on a wall. But novel writing allows me to reveal my soul and the readers imagination takes my stories so much further beyond my moving pictures. It is about balance and I have wanted this balance with writing my book for many years.

I shall end this discussion with an open ending, because after a turbulent and exhilarating week I have reached another turning point in my life and my career; but that, perhaps, is a topic for another day~sb

to be continued…

"Hurl (The Write Stuff) Here" - photo by sarah nean bruce 08-08-08 in WeHo

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