Author, Actor, Playwright, Excellent Parallel Parker

Rules of the Lake and Ashes to Water are now available for Kindle and Nook!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In Which We Discuss the Elements of a Scene

I got to spend some time with Valley Haggard this week. Lucky me. We met at Becky's and over coffee and chocolate chip scones, talked about Ashes to Water for an article Valley is writing. The barista was watching USA vs Algeria on his laptop, but we got him to snap a quick pic before Landon Donovan performed his now historic miracle.

Valley also runs the Writing Show, a monthly program sponsored by James River Writers, and fueled by Valley's creative energy, which is formidable in a way most excellent and true. Valley asked me to moderate a panel for playwrights, entitled "Scene and Subtext: How to Write Scenes That Jump Off the Page."

I said yes.

So last Thursday, I was in the auspicious company of three Richmond playwrights: Doug Jones, Marta Rainer and Bo Wilson. We were appropriately pithy and polite. This is what we looked like.
I started by asking the definition of a scene, and Doug offered this: "A scene is a script segment consisting of continuous action in a single setting." Works for me!

We all know rules are made to be broken, and we acknowledged as much as we discussed the elements of a scene, which are:

Dramatic tension and high stakes 

Conflict is the essence of drama, and in a stage play, dialogue is (nearly always) the only way in which the central conflict is enacted. Conflict is generated between characters through their contrasting worldviews. All this means is that one character feels one way about life in general, and the other character feels oppositely. Think "The Odd Couple," or any buddy movie involving cops. That's your basic "two hander," and a good place to start when learning to write effective dialogue. 

But arguing about how to pronounce "tomato" does not a good scene make unless there is action.  Ever sit through a play heavy on exposition? It's murder. Only when something happens will we perk up again. Action derives from objectives. Your main character must want or need something. The more dire the consequences, the higher the stakes. Stakes can be understood through the question, “What is at stake for my character in this scene?” He must try everything within his power to achieve his objective.  

Dramatic tension is related to dramatic stakes. What the characters want from each other depends on the character's deepest need, and whether or not they thing the other character is going to fulfill that need.  
Take a simple premise: two characters have just met and they're flirting with each other. If they don't care about the outcome, there are no stakes.
But what if both characters have a great need for attention and approval that they've never received? Suddenly there are stakes involved in the outcome.

And what if, due to their fear of rejection, they rarely flirt with anyone? This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot, and if it doesn't work out they may never reach out to anyone again.

What do the characters want from each other? Approval. What happens if they don't get it in this scene? Their worst fears about themselves will be confirmed. 

With this foundation, the writer can play with the audience to increase the stakes and keep tension up. Alternate between making the audience think the characters will get what they want and making them think the characters won't get what they want, and you ratchet the tension with each value change. 

Putting it together:
Overall character objective: get the other character to agree to go out with them.
Immediate need: approval.
Obstacle: their own fears.
Stakes: their worst fears about themselves will be confirmed... or disproved.

Then we talked about subtext, which deserves it's own blog. Stay tuned.

It was fun talking about this stuff with these seasoned playwrights, as well as the young playwrights in the audience from SPARC's New Voices for the Theatre program. You should have been there. And if you were, thanks for coming!


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