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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Screenplay Tips # 1: Static Scenes

Scripts in the spec pile often suffer from static scenes. Very often this is due to exchange after exchange of dialogue, going on and on for pages ad pages. In cases like this, it's always wise to not let dialogue run away with you: just because it feels good to write lots of dialogue, doesn't mean it should ALL be there. As I always say -- ALL scripts have too much dialogue. Think of dialogue as a scriptwriting device like any other: HOW does it SERVE the scene? How does it contribute to the OVERALL STORY? If it doesn't do either, the answer is simple: CUT CUT CUT (no matter how much you like the lines themselves).

Other times, these static scenes are created because the writer is putting some kind of constraint on themselves, real or imagined. New writers often labour under the notion a "low budget film" is made up entirely of people within the same location, speaking (or that television is simply page after page of dialogue exchange with no movement). Sometimes short film directors will limit everything to a single location - a park bench, a lift, a basement etc - and not allow characters to move away from that place because they don't want to have to set up the camera and the equipment again. But limited locations do not mean static scenes - it just means you have to get CREATIVE within those specified place/s. This is something continuing drama does especially well, so even if you don't like soap it's worth having a good look for that in terms of craft.

Lastly, sometimes static scenes are created because the only "movement" within the scene relates to very specific body/placing movements, ie:

NICK puts his head in his hands. Sighs.

NICK: I don't think I can do it.

RACHEL approaches, hands on hips. Annoyed, she walks to the window, stares outside.

RACHEL: You always do this.

Nick erupts from his chair, turns her around - grabs Rachel by the arms.

NICK: Don't... talk to me like that.

Rachel shakes her head. She throws her head back and laughs.

RACHEL: I'll talk to you however I want.

This usually happens when a writer realises there needs to be more *to* a scene, but believes the only way they can do this is through ACTUAL PHYSICAL HAPPENINGS. Newsflash - it doesn't have to. What's more, as the writer strives to account for every action to "paint a picture" of that movement, it actually creates the opposite effect -- making the scene turgid. What about:

NICK: I don't think I can do it.

RACHEL: You always do this.

Suddenly, Nick grabs Rachel. She stiffens, threatened.

NICK: Don't... talk to me like that.

The threat evaporates: Rachel sneers - Little Big Man.

RACHEL: I'll talk to you however I want.

2 comments:

jazad said...

I like your example, Lucy. I've found myself in that situation lately because of the nature of my script - mates sitting around in a pub, e.g., "he sips his pint." Think I'll check them on the next rewrite.

I also admit that on occasion I'll include these "static" actions when I feel the scene needs a brief pause between character speeches. judging from your blog, that would be a no, no.

In many scripts, I've noticed that writers use "a beat," or "a pause" to obtain this effect.
What's your feeling on this?

Lucy V said...

Like all things in this screenwriting malarkey Jaz, there's no such thing as a "no no": it's all about context, the type of story being told and just *what fits*. The examples I've cited are generalised and by their very nature cannot encompass everything. I suppose it's more about what *works* -- those examples I've made in the post often don't because the scripts do them TOO MUCH.

As for "a beat" and "a pause" -- personally, I find them rather directorial and frankly, dull. I reckon there are waaaaaaaaay better ways to indicate a pause or lull, perhaps taking in that idea of not always needing to be entirely physical. How about:

Their eyes lock: oh shit.

A moment passes between them -- phwoargh.

Character 1 passes the note, signals with his eyes: Don't. Say. A. Word.