20 July 2008 - 8:36Orange You Glad I Didn’t Say Banana?

I’m reading a pile of scripts right now.  Funny how a lot of common issues pop right out at you. Today’s script had a curious but common problem: There was no give an take in the scenes.  The beats were in the right place, the pacing was okay. The characters probably do have decent motivations and a character arc, but you couldn’t really tell because the scenes were so flat.

Give and take is the basis of scene structure.  You have two characters who want something. Their desires are in conflict.  In order to get what they want, they have to play a little chess game.  To play chess, you’ve got to move the pieces.  It doesn’t matter how safe your character feels behind a wall of other pieces, one of those pieces has to move with every beat.  Every bit of dialog, every action by a character changes the board.

Most people instinctively know this, but they don’t know how to do it.  So they start out with a character who, say, wants to be left alone.  And then there is somebody who desperately needs her help.  So you establish the situation with “Help me, please!”  “No!” …. and get stuck.  How do you get from there to “Okay I’ll help you”?  It shouldn’t be easy.  It’s got to take up some time.

So the writer puts in a place holder, and it goes like this:

Help me!
Help me, please.
No, I won’t.
Help me!
Please help me! Help me help me!
Oh, all right.

It’s like the Banana Knock Knock Joke.  It just repeats the exact same beat, exact same info, exact same character posture, until it changes, much to the relief of every one.  And while a lot of writers might use this just for a place holder, you NEVER let this kind of thing live to be read by anyone.

Maybe you aren’t sure now to fix this, but it’s really pretty simple.  (It takes practice, but it’s simple.)  Make your characters negotiate.  Maybe one of them can be stupid and stubborn, but the other will have to pick up on the very first beat that she has to change tactics to persuade, force or cajole the other into changing.

Really great scenes are like a dance.  It’s step and counter-step.  There’s movement.  There’s progress.  It can be serious, subtle, playful, wild, but it does move.

(The Banana Knock Knock Joke, for those who managed to somehow miss it in childhood, goes thusly:

Knock knock.  Who’s there? Banana.  Banana who?
Knock knock.  Who’s there? Banana.  Banana who?
(repeat until nauseated)
Knock knock.  Who’s there?  Orange.  Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn’t say Banana?

Here’s a particularly extreme version on YouTube, featuring an animated banana and orange. )

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9 July 2008 - 21:58Boulders, Sand and Jokes

A wise teacher once set a bucket and three boxes before his students.  He opened the first box, and pulled out some very large stones (or “boulders” as they call them in Zen Koan speak, although my idea of a boulder wouldn’t fit in a bucket).  He piled the rocks into the bucket until he couldn’t fit any more in.

“Is this bucket full?” he asked his students.

“You can’t fit any more stones in it, so yes, it’s full,” said the students.

So the teacher opened the second box and scooped out handfuls of pebbles. He dumped them into the bucket and shook the bucket so they would trickle down between the stones.

“Is the bucket full?” he asked again.  And again the students said “ah, yes, NOW it’s full.  You can’t get any more pebbles into it either.”

So the teacher opened the third box and he started scooping sand into the bucket, and the sand trickled down between the pebbles.

“Full now?”

The students hesitated, but seeing that he only had three boxes, they said “yes, it is now full.”

“You’re right,” said the teacher, and he dumped the bucket out.

This time he filled the bucket first with sand, all the way to the top.

“Is it full now?”

“No?” said the students.

“Can you fit any rocks or pebbles into it now that it is full of sand?”

“No,” agreed the students.  “It is too full of sand.”

And here’s where the teacher lectured them about how they should identify the most important things and make sure there is room for them FIRST, then let the unimportant things trickle in later.

I tell you this story because Complications Ensue just posted an excellent tip about comedy writing that really fits some of my philosophy of writing:  Always start with the best, coolest, most intense, most exciting, most important elements of your story.  They are your boulders.  Sand can trickle in later.

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