In my previous post on How to write a scene, I wrote that the first question a screenwriter should ask is, “What needs to happen in this scene?” Not only that…
Many screenwriting books will tell you to focus on what the characters want. This is wrong. The characters are not responsible for the story. You are. If characters were allowed to control their scenes, most characters would chose to avoid conflict, and movies would be crushingly boring.
As I typed this, I anticipated a sea of hands shooting into the air, a chorus of But! But! Buts! So I added a lengthy disclaimer in which I wrote about terms like “character driven” and “character motivation.” But then I decided to cut it, just to get the reaction:
John, are you fucking retarded? A character must act his character not what’s most convenient for you. — Chris
Now that Chris has lectured the professional screenwriter on the craft, we can take a look at why I stand by my point.
We’ve all seen dull, mechanical movies where the characters are pretty much spectators. The story is driven by external events, without any real engagement or decision-making by the so-called hero. Sure, at times they may discover information or get in a gunfight, but they’re basically zombies. Plot-bots.
This is a fundamental structural issue, not a scene problem. From the conceptual stage, the characters were placed in the wrong seat of the car. They’re in the passenger seat, staring out the window, when they should be behind the wheel. The best scene-work in the world isn’t going to solve this problem.
Remember: This is a tutorial about how to write one scene. The first question is, “What needs to happen in this scene?” Or, to rephrase it, “What do I need to show the audience?” Yes, the character should be responsible for his or her actions and decisions inside the movie, but you, the writer, are responsible for deciding which moments the audience gets to see.
Think of yourself as a documentary editor. You have hundreds of hours of footage. Which bits are you going to use to tell your story?
In your movie–an inspiring drama set against the majestic backdrop of Alaska–the hero may want to win the igloo-building championship to prove his dead architect father’s theories correct and reconnect with his Inuit half-brother. But in this particular scene, what needs to happen is that the judges rule that ice blocks must be quadrilateral, thus thwarting the hero’s geodesic ambitions.
Clear? Great. Now let’s talk about situations when “what a character wants” does become scene-specific.
Actors and directors often talk of “character motivation,” using phrases like, “What’s the character’s motivation in this scene?” That’s a valid if somewhat dispiriting question, particularly on the set; either they’ve shown up without doing their homework, or the script really is that confusing. You may find yourself explaining that the hero is trying to rescue his son from the avalanche because he loves him.
If you re-read my how-to, at no point was I advising forcing your characters to act against their natures. But I was telling you to take control. My post was about writing a single scene, and a single meandering scene can derail a script. The argument that, “But my hero really wanted to watch TV for a couple of hours!” won’t win you accolades for your dedication to the craft.