Theme & Scene: The Magic of Nuts & Bolts Week One Hello Everyone I’d like to welcome you to Theme & Scene: The Magic of Nuts & Bolts. Over the next ten weeks, we will be grounding ourselves in dramatic structure after which you may walk away with a killer instinct on what works and what doesn’t in your material. The advantage of the virtual classroom is twofold. First, you will have round-the-clock access to class materials and resources. So familiarize yourself with how the site works. Second, the bulletin boards offer you an opportunity to get to know your classmates who will provide invaluable feedback. Please introduce yourselves to the class and tell us about yourself—profession, tastes (film, television or theatre), and training/experience. Also, tell us why you took the class and what you intend to achieve at the end of ten weeks. Note: Post your bio/background on the Discussion Board under Week One.
Method to the Madness (first 5 weeks) The first few weeks may seem simple (sometimes obvious), but the course will build and accelerate quickly. Assigned exercises are critical to the build-up towards the second half of the course. I encourage you to dive in and give them your best shot. Above all, stumble. Fail. Fret. Wallow. That’s the beauty of a classroom setting. It’s a safe space to experiment and acquire skills via trial and error. These assigned exercises have been handed down to me from a mentor (Artistic Director of an OffBroadway theatre, NYC) whose knowledge of scene structure is profound. They are deliberately condensed and will expose gaps and weaknesses in your writing. They are designed to train writers on how to:
SET UP A SCENE (unit of action)
TURN A SCENE
ACHIEVE ECONOMY OF LANGUAGE / ACTION
HEIGHTEN DRAMATIC TENSION
REVEAL CHARACTER AS MOST TRUTHFUL & IDIOSYNCRATIC SELF
As you start inking on your own material, you’ll understand why I will carp about the DSs, PQs and DQs re when your set-ups or scenes are or are not working. We will develop a language together in order to strengthen our storytelling muscles.
That said, these are merely tools to help generate the magic in your material. There are times when you won’t need the tools. The material works. In those sublime instances, “let it be.” Other times, you might construct the perfect scene/story and it’s flat and uninteresting. The magic isn’t happening. So, “let it go.” Technique increases the probability that you’ll write material that works. (Craft unleashes talent.) And it gives you the tools to fix problems if and when they arise. As well, there are many techniques when it comes to writing. I adhere to the old dictum: Use what you can use and toss what doesn’t work for you. With every teacher and every class, you will learn something new and valuable. Above all, keep the “beginner’s mind.” Like a doctor keeps up with his/her discipline in the latest journals, a writer continually revitalizes his/her craft by going over old techniques and learning new ones. For those of you who are seasoned and accomplished writers, bear with me during the first few weeks. Dive in and try these exercises, because…I repeat…they are not easy. You will gain a new appreciation of Shakespeare. The hardest feat in writing (stage, TV or film) is to sustain a monologue. There are no cheats or escapes. You are naked on stage and every word counts (is motivated) or you will lose your audience. Film example: THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS (where Marlon Brando talks to his dead wife’s corpse). Note: The first lecture is long but most important. Please read through carefully and give the exercises a try. I will spend the next three weeks, going over and expanding on what is presented in this document.
Lecture One: The Language of Action What is the fundamental difference between dramatic narrative and other kinds of writing? Many elements from one type of writing can be employed in another type of writing. Are not Shakespeare’s plays composed in verse? Aren’t fiction writers as concerned about character as a screenwriter? Don’t journalists strive to catch the eye of the reader with a heart-pounding headline in the same way that playwright wants to hit the ground running with the opening punch of a scene? Let’s take a brief look at various types of writing: Newspaper New York Times: November 8, 2006
Poem SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY
British Muslim Sentenced in Terror Attacks By ALAN COWELL
LONDON, Nov. 7 — A British Muslim was sentenced Tuesday to a minimum of 40 years for planning terror attacks in the United States and Britain intended to bring what the judge in the case called carnage “on a colossal and unprecedented scale.” The defendant, Dhiren Barot, 34, was said by the police to have been the most senior figure of Al Qaeda brought to trial in Britain. The sentence he received was one of the longest handed down in recent years, reflecting claims by British counterterrorism officers that they had thwarted
She walks in beauty, like the night Of cloudless climes and starry skies; And all that's best of dark and bright Meet in her aspect and her eyes: Thus mellow'd to that tender light Which heaven to gaudy day denies. One shade the more, one ray the less, Had half impair'd the nameless grace Which waves in every raven tress, Or softly lightens o'er her face; Where thoughts serenely sweet express How pure, how dear their dwelling-place. --Lord Byron
major conspiracies when they arrested him in August 2004, after he made detailed observations to plan synchronized attacks in New York, Newark, London and Washington, D.C.
3) Novel Helen looked at her. Her face was weak rather than decided, saved from insipidity by the large enquiring eyes; denied beauty, now that she was sheltered indoors, by the lack of colour and definite outline. Moreover, a hesitation in speaking, or rather a tendency to use the wrong words, made her seem more than normally incompetent for her years. Mrs. Ambrose, who had been speaking much at random, now reflected that she certainly did not look forward to the intimacy of three or four weeks on board ship which was threatened. Women of her own age usually boring her, she supposed that girls would be worse. She glanced at Rachel again. Yes! how clear it was that she would be vacillating, emotional, and when you said something to her it would make no more lasting impression than the stroke of a stick upon water. --The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
4) Play (A complex of levels and spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters, who mostly remain around the periphery of action when not actually involved in it, listening or unobtrusively involved in their work.) GUILLAUME …Every now and then Willy hears faint sounds over his head. Footsteps. The scrape of a chair. KRETSCHMANN That’s you? GUILLAUME My office is directly above his. KRETSCHMANN His own weevil in the woodwork. Can you hear him? GUILLAUME Not a sound. KRETSCHMANN Ear to the floor? GUILLAUME Nothing. He works very quietly. And when I come downstairs… WILKE (with Guillaume) Herr Guillaume.
GUILLAUME Günter! Please! Call me Günter! --Democracy by Michael Frayn
Differences in Types of Writing We don’t have the room to go into an in-depth analysis on different kinds of writing. For the purposes of this class, we will glance at some definitions. I have also noted some buzzwords on each of kind of writing so that you can get a sense of how they might differ. On Journalism Buzzwords: Facts, information, analysis, reporting, events
On Fiction Buzzwords: Invention, imagination, prose, narrative, character, setting, interior life
Journalism is a discipline of collecting, verifying, reporting and analyzing information gathered regarding current events, including trends, issues and people.
Anything that is invented or imagined, especially a prose narrative. Although fiction may be based on actual events or personal experiences, its characters and settings are invented. Even if a story is set in an actual place and involves recognizable characters or details, we understand the story itself to be fictitious.
On Poetry Buzzwords: Emotions, passion, imagery, language, abstraction The terms beg many questions, of course, but poetry today is commonly an amalgam of three distinct viewpoints. Traditionalists argue that a poem is an expression of a vision that is rendered in a form intelligible and pleasurable to others and so likely to arouse kindred emotions. For Modernists, a poem is an autonomous object that may or may not represent the real world but is created in language made distinctive by its complex web of references. Postmodernists look on poems as collages of current idioms that are intriguing but self-contained — they employ, challenge and/or mock preconceptions, but refer to nothing beyond themselves. http://www.poetrymagic.co.uk/whatisp oetry.html
On Drama: Buzzwords: Dialogue, spoken, actors, characters, conflict, tension Literary work with dialogue written in verse and spoken by actors playing characters experiencing conflict and tension. In Greek drama, a play derives its plot from stories from history or mythology. The English word drama comes from the Greek word "dran," meaning "to do." --www.cummingsstudyguides.net/terms.html
Dramatic Narrative There is only ONE fundamental difference between dramatic narrative and other types of writing. Only one element must be present in plays, screenplays and teleplays that is not necessary for other types of writing to work. Without this element, you have no play, no film, and no TV show. You’ve got a body with no heart. A car without an engine. Drama requires: Action. Let’s take a look at three images: I
Is this action? People cycling? No. This is an “activity.” Although “to cycle” is an action verb, it is not an action in terms of writing dramatic narrative.
Is this action? A car crash? No. A car crash is not an action. It may be an “incident”—i.e., something that happens in the story—or an “event,” which is the culmination of an action taken.
This is a defendant who is on trial for shooting his girlfriend. In a burst of remorse, he APOLOGIZES for his crime to his ex-girlfriend (who survived) in the courtroom. No car crashes. He’s just talking. Is this Action? Yes. Under extreme duress, the defendant DECIDES to CONFESS his crime.
Definition Action is the decision to do “something” given a set of circumstances. Point 1: All of drama – tragic or comedic – is based on the language of action. Point 2: Action equates to a character choice made in the heat of conflict that will impact his/her/its life. There is no turning back. Once that choice is made, the deal is done. Point 3: That choice leads to either win or lose. There is no such thing as a tie in drama. We witness inherently dramatic situations in real life. Examples: sporting events, courtroom trials, and war.
Point 4: Conflict is the result of characters making choices given a set of circumstances. Not the other way around. (If two strangers waiting for a bus suddenly punch each other, you may get conflict…possibly even psychosis…but not drama.) The focus is NOT on CONFLICT. The focus is ON the CIRCUMSTANCES compelling your characters to make choices while under pressure. Which leads us to… Point 5: As the writer, your primary task is to set up the circumstances. If you want proof of concept, just turn on the television. Reality TV: Ordinary people plunked into extraordinary circumstances. Audiences are glued to the set. The language of action is drilled into a playwright’s head until it becomes instinct. Why? A playwright is forced to sustain action on stage. There are no car crashes or cycle races to distract the audience; there are only people “talking” to each another. One of the most frequent problems (particularly with early drafts) is that major decisions occur offstage/offscreen, so that we are only shown the results of decisions. The material has not been properly “dramatized,” which is to say that that the action hasn’t been “set up” properly (nebulous circumstances) and crucial character choices have been left out.
Definition A scene is a unit of action and the fundamental building block of a story. Given this definition of Scene, what are the requisite “circumstances”?
THE CIRCUMSTANCES Three main circumstances are required to set up a scene: 1. Dramatic Situation (DS) The dramatic situation is the “problem.” The first question you ask yourself when you set up a scene is always: what is the problem? What is the external obstacle that the main character faces in trying to reach his/her goal? Few points:
The stakes (what is at risk) must be high (life or death). The death doesn’t have to be literal. It can be psychological—i.e., a spiritual bankruptcy. However, a squabble at a Chinese restaurant over whether to order egg rolls or the pork chow mein doesn’t constitute a dramatic situation unless the squabble is a cover-up for a much deeper problem. (We will address subtextual language is a subsequent lecture.) For the purposes of these exercises, explore big problems from the get-go.
The problem and action taken must be in proportion to the story that you’re trying to tell. For example, if a woman loses her child in the playground and suddenly pulls out a machine gun and starts rounding up every suspicious person in the area, then we get bad “melodrama.” That is, the action taken is out of proportion to the circumstances. The problem therefore escalates in an unbelievable way. Reverse it. A cop takes out a squirt gun in the middle of a dangerous hostage
situation and you get bad “farce.” For the purposes of Week One Assignments, “keep it real.”
Nothing in dramatic narrative is casual. Always look to raise the stakes. I’m a big fan of “24,” the television show about the Counter-Terrorist Unit in Los Angeles. However, in one season, Jack Bauer is called away and he leaves behind a woman. For some reason, the season started out “slow.” Why? Because the love relationship was tenuous. What the writers might’ve done is start the season with her discovering that she is pregnant. Instead of making the relationship tenuous, “load it.” Ah, so much more to lose. If the characters are invested, so is the audience. Always look to raise the stakes and avoid casual (easy-to-solve) problems.
2. Passover Question (PQ) For those of you who are Jewish, I believe that the question asked on Passover is: What makes this night different than any other? When constructing a scene (unit of action), the question is: What makes this time different than any other? Dramatic narrative captures the essence of real life. It condenses and heightens our experiences in such a way that it frames those special times that are different than any other. We just came out of the holidays. Why is it that life erupts during the holidays—biggest fights, biggest problems, biggest decisions—and not in the middle of February doldrums? Why is it that people tend to leave their spouses or lovers on those days? Why are secrets exposed on those days? People often quit jobs, change course, and start anew. Why is it that on those days it becomes…now or never? On special days, emotions rise to the surface. People tend to make decisions when they get fired up. Otherwise, human beings procrastinate. They will do everything they can to avoid decisions. In dramatic narrative, we create a situation where our characters have no other choice than to make a choice. And they have to be emotionally wound up to not only face change but also take on the consequences. A Passover Question (PQ) galvanizes the action in a scene. There are many ways to stitch in a PQ. For example:
Special days. Weddings, funerals, birthdays, holidays, ceremonies, etc. THE GODFATHER starts with a wedding. FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL--the title itself is a series of PQs. The narrative can be driven by a prelude to that special day. For example, a woman in love with a man must stop that man from marrying someone else and she only has a weekend to achieve her goal. Sound familiar?
Ticking clock. You must catch the serial killer before he/she strikes again. You must get the antidote for the poison in 24 hours or you will die. You’ve only got so much gas in the tank or the airplane will crash into the middle of Los Angeles. Watch “24” on television. The writers stitch in a PQ in almost every other scene. An external
circumstance galvanizes the action and keeps us on the edge of our seats. The germ/gas/bomb is set to go off at the eleventh-hour and they must diffuse the threat before the ticking stops.
3. Character Need This seems simple and self evident, but you’d be amazed at how much writing reflects tepid character needs (one problem with the opening of “24” during that slow season). Sometimes the characters appear onstage or onscreen and don’t need anything from each other. If you’ve got two characters on stage, one character must need something desperately from the other character. This is why so much material revolves around family relationships or “the ties that bind.” It wasn’t until Sam Shepard ventured to London that he was made aware of “character.” Up until then, he wrote plays like most people (in those heady years of the late 60s-70s) took drugs. The British theatre demands—insists—upon a rigorous understanding and delineation of character. I believe it was Peter Brook (British director) who influenced Shepard to explore his characters in more depth. When he returned to California, Shepard wrote “Buried Child” (Pulitzer), “Curse of the Starving Class,” “True West,” and “Fool for Love.” These plays revolved around deeply troubled relationships between family members or lovers, and established Shepard as a major artist to be reckoned with. To deepen character is to deepen their need for the other characters on stage/screen. It is not to make the character “deep”…that is to have the character isolated, soulful and melancholy in a dark room. Character is revealed through choices and those choices have to do with their relationships to other characters. The more entrenched the relationships, the deeper the need, and the more character choices reverberate throughout the material. Few points:
The main character must need something from the other character in the scene.
“Nail in the head.” The need is huge. If that need isn’t met, there are dire consequences. An obsessed character is far more compelling than a character that is too well adjusted. Drama begins when there is a serious imbalance in a character’s life.
All characters must be capable of fully rational decisions. Even if the character is insane, their internal logic is completely rational from their particular point of view. Example: Hannibal.
The opposing force (Antagonist) must be equal in force and wherewithal to the driving force (Protagonist). The driving force in any scene is the character with the deepest need and biggest problem. We will explore this further in the Character Lecture. For now, just go with this maxim for the exercises. Step by step, we will deepen our understanding of structure.
Week One Assignments Over the next few weeks, we will learn how to create the right set of circumstances that allow our characters and dialogue to pop off the page. After flexing our muscles, we will then dive into our own larger projects and leverage the skills that were honed in the beginning. The only way to learn these skills is to do the writing. You can’t learn it by reading a book (or this lecture). If you feel that you can’t finish a scene (exercise), bring in what you do have and explain why you’re unable to finish it. You will learn as much from your problems and stall-outs as you will from a perfectly
constructed scene. The more mistakes you make, the more you will learn. Take the opportunity in this class to fumble around, because when you start working as a professional writer, you won’t have that leisure. ASSIGNMENT A: Write a 3 page scene using ONLY DIALOGUE. Two characters. Make sure that you’ve got a dramatic situation (DS), passover question (PQ), and a deep character need—i.e., set up the scene.
Use stage play format (template available in Course Materials Section). Read the handouts of “Death of a Salesman” (Arthur Miller) and “Streetcar Named Desire” (Tennessee Williams). The master of scene structure is Arthur Miller. The excerpt from “Death of a Salesman” is the apex of strong scene structure. The Tennessee Williams/Elia Kazan team shaped scenes that are pristine. Remember that Williams did 60 plus drafts of “The Glass Menagerie.” He honed his scenes.
Beginning, middle, end. Shape the scene. Complete it. Don’t leave the work dangling.
No fantasy. Don’t rely on gimmicks or tricks.
Avoid clever, “quippy” dialogue unless it’s natural to the scene. Don’t seek to impress with dialogue. Instead, focus your attention on the emotional authenticity of the scene.
No insanity, no disease, no magic, no special powers, etc.
Don’t go over three pages. There is a reason for this limit. It will force you (and your characters) to meet the problem head-on. Believe it or not, shorter is harder.
ASSIGNMENT B: Write a 2 page scene using ONLY VISUALS. No dialogue. Make sure that you reveal the DS, PQ and character need via a progression of visual images. Use standard screenplay format. Same rules from Assignment A also apply. ASSIGNMENT C: Write a paragraph on three extraordinary events that you have either experienced or witnessed in your life. Describe the circumstances surrounding those events. Limit: one page. Tip: Leverage your own life experiences into the other assignments. If you’re bereft of ideas for Assignments A or B, do Assignment C first to get the right brain bubbling. NOTE: Since we are not all using the same hardware or software, please make sure to post your submissions in Rich Text File or PDF. Good luck! Dakota
UCLA Nuts & Bolts course, Lecture 1