Categories
blog

Which scene are you writing: Fight, Negotiation, or Seduction?

Let’s assume that one of the main goals of telling a story is to reveal some deeper truth about its characters to the audience.

What we know about a character, what we can believe to be true about them, comes from watching what they say and do. Their actions reveal their character.

But people do plenty of things throughout their day that don’t tell us much of any importance about them. They sleep, cough, use the bathroom, stare out the window, put gas in the car, and so on.

So, in writing to expose a deeper truth about a character, we need a way to push them toward meaningful action.

Which is what makes conflict important.

If your car skids off a bridge into a lake and starts filling with water, you’re not going to spend time changing the radio station or calling in a carryout order.

Conflict forces characters to take action to resolve that conflict to their benefit.

We learn what’s important to them, and what they think are the best strategies and tactics to protect what they have or gain what they desire.

If these things are true, a scene without a clear conflict is a scene that’s not revealing something meaningful about the characters to the audience.

Meaningful Conflict

Conflict is about unresolved, impeded desire: Somebody wants something badly, but they’re having difficulty getting it.

A strong desire is [fueled by something that causes the character to suffer; something that makes them wish the state of their world was vastly different.

A character arguing with a cashier to accept an expired coupon is a conflict, but that conflict isn’t meaningful unless it’s tied to some larger goal.

If they want the coupon honored because they don’t want to spend an extra 75 cents on avocados, that reveals something about their character, but that conflict may not be an essential part of their story. It’s an anecdote that reveals part of their values, but if they begrudgingly buy the avocados anyway, it may be wasted time for them and the audience.

If they can’t afford what they think is the perfect birthday gift for their estranged daughter without this coupon, that argument becomes more meaningful. That’s fueled by some larger desire worth focusing on.

A meaningful conflict applies pressure to a character to act, because if they refuse to take action, their story ends.

I like to think about the scene in The Muppets where Kermit initially refuses to even try to get The Muppets back together and Mary (Amy Adams) breaks the fourth wall and says “This is going to be a really short movie.”

If you have a clear idea of your character’s desire, and you have reasons to put that goal in jeopardy, you need to think about the terms of that conflict.

And that’s where Mike Nichols comes in.

Three Kinds of Scenes

“There are only three kinds of scenes: negotiations, seductions and fights. I’ve finished. That’s all. All scenes come in one of those three categories. […] How often have you rehearsed a scene for two weeks, and said ‘Oh my God, it’s a fight!’… And you can do the same with seduction, and, most of all, with negotiations, because that’s mostly what we do in life, especially at home.”

Mike Nichols

Let’s break this down.

A fight is a test of strength or willpower. The winner of the scene is the one who can endure for the longest, or who can overpower their opponent.

This is about physical and mental toughness, as well as presence. Think about Captain America getting back up every time he’s knocked down and saying “I can do this all day.” John MacLaine walking barefoot over broken glass. Jen and Shu Lien dueling in a room full of weapons, continuing the fight even as weapon after weapon breaks. Dr. Ryan Stone climbing her way out of an escape pod and fighting her way back on to land.

A negotiation is a test of a person’s ability to craft compromise or display logical arguments. The winner is the person who is most capable of offering a logical solution in a way that makes their correctness obvious to everyone involved.

Think about Jo March crafting the terms of her publishing agreement. Michael Corleone convincing his brother and their associates that they can get away with killing a police officer as part of settling the score between two families. Stacker Pentecost showing up at a construction site to convince Raleigh Becket to stop hiding from who he is and get back in a giant robot to go punch monsters.

A seduction is about understanding and manipulating someone else’s desires. The winner in this kind of scene is the one who can best read someone else and understand their deepest desires.

This kind of scene always makes me think of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. When he tries to convince Luke to stop fighting and join the dark side, Vader offers Luke the two things he wants most: A place of consequence in a larger story, and a sense of belonging. Luke starts the Star Wars trilogy feeling powerless and alone, far from where important things are happening. Vader offers him a place not only as his son, but as the heir apparent to dominion over an entire galaxy. Luke refuses, but he knows the temptation is there.

The Choice Isn’t Always Obvious

You need to think about what kind of story you’re telling. It’s not just about the genre you’re working with, but also what’s most important to your characters.

As an example, I took a fairly trope-y scene (a bank holdup) and tried to spin it out as each one of these types of scenes.

Note: Because I’ve used these scenes before in the classroom, and it’s easier in that environment to shorthand some things by talking about actors instead of one-shot characters, I cast these scenes. For our purposes, Michael Keaton is the bank robber and Awkwafina is the bank teller he confronts.

First, the Fight Version:

Click/tap to read the PDF of the full scene.

Next, the Negotiation Version:

Click/tap to read the PDF of the full scene.

Finally, the Seduction Version:

Click/tap to read the PDF of the full scene.

Each one has its merits, and each one sets a different tone for what type of story you would tell before and after that scene happened.

The Fight version raises specific questions: Why is Awkwafina’s character so ready to take action in a dangerous situation? Is there something about her past that prepared her for this moment? Is she going to face more fights as the consequences of foiling this robbery chase after her?

With the Negotiation version, we’re asking different questions: How did she stay so cool under pressure? How will her savvy handling of this situation help her in the future? Could it be used against her? How will standing up in a life or death situation like this change her perception of herself and how others see her?

And with the Seduction version, there’s one big question: Can she get away with helping to rob the bank she works for?

But in each version, it starts with the same basic premise.

I’m just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to give me all the money in this bank.

Choosing which style of conflict works best depends on the story you want to tell before and after.

Categories
blog

Life vs. Liberty vs. The Pursuit of Happiness

Between CostCo and every other store creating policies about who should wear masks while shopping and people sharing a dubious video suggesting that mandatory mask-wearing is part of a larger conspiracy to force mass vaccinations, there’s a lot of grousing going on over social media and in public about masking up.

It ties in with the protests around the country where people are claiming that Stay At Home orders are an unconscionable threat to their freedom. They wave their Gadsden flags, yell about how measures to prevent a more deadly pandemic are just a test run for martial law, and demand their right to manicures, lawn care, and riding with more than one person in a golf cart.

Are there reasonable reasons to feel anxiety and anger over an inability to work, earn income, and provide for yourself and your family? Definitely. And reasonable problems can have reasonable solutions.

Unless some people’s unreasonable demands control the conversation.

A person who’s upset that they’re being asked to wear a mask or use one-way aisles in a store isn’t helping the employees who need that store to be open so they can earn money.

That person is not making a principled protest about freedom. They’re throwing a selfish tantrum about their personal convenience.

I know a thing or two about recognizing selfish tantrums, because I have a five-and-a-half-year-old at home.

When I see this kind of rhetoric, and I think about part of what inspires it, it’s the idea that we are a nation founded on the principles of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But the words don’t always mean what people want them to mean.

These Protests And Complaints Are Not About Liberty

When people make these protests about liberty and freedom, they’re using a very specific definition of what kind of freedom they’re interested in: Freedom from the consequences of their actions.

In the above example, nobody was forcing the shopper to leave the store without getting a toaster oven. No government entity banned the sale of toaster ovens, or specifically imprisoned this person within their home.

He was upset that he was unable to walk through the store in the manner he preferred.

That’s not infringing on his liberty. It is an exceedingly mild infringement on his pursuit of happiness.

And it takes some serious gall to publicly assert that your pursuit of happiness trumps concerns about the life and liberty of others.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Emphasis on pursuit.

Nowhere does it say in the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution or any of its amendments (or any other federal statute or decree that I’m aware of), that it is the government’s responsibility to make sure that every citizen is happy.

The only safeguard for happiness that the government provides is protecting its pursuit. Your happiness is still up to you, the individual.

So if that pursuit is considered a right, it needs to be considered that for a right to be truly universal, it must be equally true for all people that it applies to.

All Rights Inherently Have Limits

Your rights end at the border of another person’s rights.

You have a right to peaceably assemble and protest your grievances with the government in public spaces. You have no right to force yourself into the private home of a politician and stage a protest there against their will.

You’re allowed to yell “FIRE!” if you’re alerting other people of a fire. You’re allowed to yell “FIRE!” if you’re alone in your home or your vehicle and the spirit moves you. You’re not allowed to yell “FIRE!” in a crowded building where no fire exists, because the ensuing panic could cause injury to others.

You’re even within your rights to swing a big chef’s knife around wildly while singing selections of Gilbert & Sullivan, unless that knife winds up slashing or stabbing other people.

With that in mind, let’s look at the specific controversy of the moment: You’re allowed to shop in a CostCo. Nobody has stripped your right to engage in legal commerce with this business.

But you’re being asked to make sure that your right to choose how exposed you are to a virus doesn’t infringe on the rights of the other customers or employees who may be taking additional preventative measures to limit their exposure.

If you were to eat in a restaurant, that restaurant would be within its rights to kick you out if you walked into the kitchen and started sneezing and coughing on other people’s food. No one would suggest that you deserve the freedom to willingly contaminate the food of strangers.

This is a limit on individual freedom of choice that is not part of some novel campaign to turn the United States into a police state. It’s a reasonable extension of the existing limitations on people’s individual actions to prevent them from infringing on the rights of others.

It’s a reasonable attempt to protect people’s lives, the first, most important, part of that whole life, liberty, pursuit of happiness thing.

What They Say They Want Vs. What They Act Like They Want

People protesting to “reopen the economy” and go back to pre-pandemic behavior say they want to be able to patronize the businesses they want, and to make sure that people are able to go back to work again and not have to worry about how to pay their bills.

Okay. Then we need to take into consideration how to do that with guidelines and practices that will protect the health of those workers and the customers they come in contact with. Without their health, those employees can’t do their jobs, and businesses can’t stay open.

So mask up!

But if masks, one way aisles, and plexiglass safety shields are too high a price to pay for businesses to reopen, then was all this bloviating really about the economy?

Or was it about the fear of those protesting that they would need to acknowledge that they aren’t above restrictions? That their freedom has limits?

That other people matter?

The threats that stand to steal the life, liberty, and happiness from untold numbers of people demand a response that is organized and cooperative. They are challenges that demand the ability to see each other as valuable and trustworthy.

In the end, there can be no liberty without life, and the best chance we have at protecting our lives is to learn to live with trust in each other, and respect for each other’s rights being equal to our own.

Categories
blog

Batting Average

In the 2019 Major League season, the best batting average belonged to Tim Anderson, who had a .335 average. This means that he would get a hit roughly one out of every three times he would come up to the plate.

Hugh Duffy, the diminutive Hall of Fame player, holds the record for the best single season batting average of all time. In 1894, he had a .4397 average, which means he got a hit from less than half of his at bats.

#BostonStrong

These aren’t just people doing the job professionally. These are players who are the elite of the elite. And they still struck out more than they got on base.

Because even when you’re among the best at something, you’re not infallible.

So if you hold yourself to impossible standards, or feel a deep frustration with how many times your best efforts wind up with little to show for them, there’s no time like now to stop.

I’ve had students telling me that they don’t understand why they can’t push themselves to do work up to the quality they held themselves to back in February.

I’ve seen it in myself, wondering why it is that even when I can clear some time off, my focus isn’t as strong as it could have been a few weeks ago.

Any number of people I’ve spoken with have talked about the sense that there may be something wrong with them since they’re not one of the people who have taken to this quarantime with aplomb.

Those people showcasing their bread, crafts, writing, music, community organizing, or hilarious videos? That’s not everyone. Not by a long shot.

There’s the line of thought that we should just snap back to normal after adjusting our lives to staying at home, staying safe, and confronting the realities of a pandemic. But we can also see this as an opportunity to reflect, and re-evaluate the things we’ve taken for granted before we were forced to choose what’s essential and what commands our attention.

And one of those things I’ve been revisiting is the idea that one bad day doesn’t need to mean all that much in the grand scheme of things.

Which is what brings me back to batting averages.

Under the best of conditions, with a singular goal and a life built around pursuing it, professional baseball players still regularly strike out more than they get on base.

So no matter what goal you’re pursuing, one bad day doesn’t hurt your average all that much. It doesn’t deserve your anger. It doesn’t deserve all that much of your focus.

You need to work for the average. Play the full season.

From that view, even a string of bad days isn’t that disruptive.

So if you feel like you’re in a slump, or that things aren’t moving as quickly as you’d like, or that today is just another example of why “I cannot do The Thing That Matters To Me,” stop.

Breathe.

Remember what game you’re playing.

And remember that even Hugh “Nobody Has Had A Better Single Season Batting Average Than Me In Over 100 Years” Duffy wound up back on the bench more times than he got on base.

Get back up. Tap the dirt from your cleats. Keep swinging.

Categories
blog

Don’t just follow the recipe

I’ve made a dog’s breakfast of some of the last few dinners I’ve cooked for my family.

There was the pork loin that I pulled too soon after failing to temp properly. We wound up eating ham sandwiches instead while it finished cooking and went directly to becoming leftovers. There were chicken legs that I flipped too frequently on the grill, and the charcoal died down before they were cooked all the way through. I didn’t take enough time to fully sweat the vegetables for a minestrone before adding in the broth, meaning we had to boil everything longer.

Dena could see the common thread: I was following recipes too closely. I was looking at recommended times without stepping back to make sure that I was accomplishing the goal of that step of the recipe.

I’ve been rushing. We’ve been spending so much time for the last few weeks reminding our five-and-a-half-year-old daughter that she needs to be patient, yet I completely missed my own impatience.

I was trying to make the recipes conform to the written time instead of accepting that they’ll be ready when they’re ready.

When I cook a meal I have down cold, I know what I’m looking for. With those meals, I don’t set a lot of timers. I can tell by texture, or smell, or any number of little indicators that I’ve learned to watch for.

I know how to let the food tell me when it’s ready.

That waiting is important, because if you decide ahead of time how long you need to cook a chicken, your family winds up with salmonella on their plates.

It’s only natural to want to know how long things are going to take when we start them. The mind sees something starting and begins imagining what completion is going to look like.

We’re narrative creatures, and we want to get to the end of the story.

And all this gets me thinking about the bigger picture of the moment.

Right now, as we wait for the relaxing of social distancing and a view of what normal is going to look like for the conceivable future, there are plenty of people who want to conform to a set time table.

There are even people who want to demand we end things now: That we’ve done enough and it’s time to move on. That their impatience and personal freedom is more important than following the indicators of the virus and our responsibilities to each other.

But if we rush to try and return to what things were like before, to make the new normal as close to the old normal as fast as possible, we’re liable to wind up causing more harm.

You can’t tell a virus when it’s done spreading any more than you can demand for chicken legs to temp exactly when you want them to be done. You can’t make the natural world re-order itself according to your impatience.

We need to pay attention to the worthwhile indicators, and accept that things will be ready according to their time, not ours.

It’s an idea worth carrying beyond These Uncertain Times™ and into our daily life. Your willpower can help you get things done, but your willpower and efforts cannot enforce the desired consequences of your actions.

All you can control is what you put out into the world. The rest is up to the actions and reactions of others.

All you can control is what you do and how patient you are for the results.

Categories
blog

I want to be where the people are

As the conversations start about how and when to peel back the layers of restrictions set up by stay at home orders, I’m thinking about one part of this as a person who loves going to the movies:

Until there’s a widely available vaccine, how are we going to go back to movie theaters?

How can we return to being comfortable sharing that much personal space with a room full of strangers, sitting elbow-to-elbow (or recliner-to-recliner)? Even if theaters adopt a practice of underselling venues, that doesn’t change the basic theater layout that requires you to squeeze past each other to find your seat, go to the bathroom, or get a refill.

But if we’re unable to confidently return to the theater, part of what makes movies so memorable and engaging could be drastically altered.

The crowd is part of the story

My high school drama teacher always reminded us that “acting is reacting,” and that it wasn’t just about reacting to the other performers on stage, but knowing how to draw energy from the audience. It made every performance different.

With a film, the performances are always the same, but the people you view those performances with can shape a completely different experience.

It’s like in 12 Monkeys, when Bruce Willis’s James Cole sits in a theater with Madeline Stowe’s Dr. Kathryn Railly as they watch a movie he remembers from childhood:

“The movie never changes. It can’t change; but every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things.”

I thought about this when I read the Indoor Voices blog post I Miss Audiences Losing Their Shit, because it reminded me of all the times that the people I was in the theater with changed the way I saw the movie.

Because it wasn’t just the film that was memorable

I think about the night I went to see Snakes on a Plane on its opening weekend, and how the entire packed theater started howling with laughter from the moment the title card appeared on screen and didn’t stop until the credits rolled.

Or seeing Toy Story 3 at a late evening screening in a theater with few, if any children. Most of us in the seats had been kids when the first Toy Story came out, and while we’d grown up a little faster than Andy, his sense of putting away childish things still felt raw, and the toys’ fears of annihilation felt a little more tangible.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and knowing that the other adults in the room were sobbing just as hard over a cartoon gave everyone that little bit of emotional space to let it all out.

There was the opening night of the 46th Ann Arbor Film Festival, where I sat with my co-workers from the festival in the Michigan Theater, enjoying not only the films that were programmed that night, but the fact that we’d kept the doors open with a Hail Mary fundraising drive and survived a First Amendment lawsuit against the state government.

We weren’t just celebrating the films, but the triumph of preserving a showcase for this type of independent, experimental filmmaking.

And there was the entire third act of Avengers: Endgame, where ten years of storytelling came together, plants were paid off, the crowd cheered at all the big moments, and that long fought battle of good vs. evil finally, finally gave the good guys a win that didn’t hint at a larger conflict still to come.

For once, good could rest knowing its work was done, and we as an audience could exhale, feeling like the most important thing to talk about as we left the theater was the movie we just watched, and not the next one.

But it’s not just the audience: It’s the theater itself

The theater provides a sense of place for the story you’re about to watch. We buy our tickets, find our seats, see an uninterrupted story from start to finish, and watch our hopes and fears made manifest.

It’s a sacred space, cut off from the rest of our day, in which we enter the dark to briefly dream together.

I think about the time I took my daughter to see her first film in the theater. It was Despicable Me 3. She was going to go on a field trip to the movies with her day care the next week, and I didn’t want her first major theatrical experience to be without me.

We were able to go to a matinee on a Tuesday and do the whole traditional theater experience thanks in part to discounted tickets and half-price popcorn.

There weren’t many people there (the film had been in release for over two weeks at the time), and we settled in to our seats. We ate popcorn. We laughed. She was incredibly focused for being so young and never having been in the theater before. But that’s part of it.

There are rules. This isn’t sitting at home on your couch. You can’t just pause the movie, or trade seats, or decide that you’d rather wander over to another corner of the room and play with some toys for a little bit.

When we go to the theater, we share the space and should be mindful of the others we share it with. We want to be a good audience, not only for the film, but for each other.

It’s not the same if the movie plays in your home.

Our family rented Trolls: World Tour when it was released on demand. We talked about how it was actually kind of nice to be able to see a brand new movie without setting up a sitter for our youngest, and not having to schlep ourselves to the theater. To be able to pause the movie (and to watch it again if we started it within the next 72 hours). We talked about the fact that it cost less than taking our whole family to a matinee.

But all the convenience and economy of the moment couldn’t replace the idea of fully surrendering to another world.

We were watching the movie in the same room that we FaceTime our extended family, or do Cosmic Kids yoga videos, check work emails, or let Button roll and wiggle on the floor as he tries to figure out how to crawl.

There was no sense of surrender to the film, or of communion with strangers. We weren’t stepping into another world, but bringing a story into our private space. The story was framed by all the reminders of our present daily life, good and bad.

Right now, a chance to step outside of our world, even for 80 or 90 minutes, would be a welcome thing.

But the calculus has changed

We will be told it’s safe to come back probably sooner than many people will feel comfortable doing so. Our individual hope to return to some sense of normal will tug at us, and make us want to believe that it will be easy to slip back into at least some of our old routines.

But I think about how people are reacting to a clear and present danger right now, and wonder how I’ll feel about them after the current crisis has been contained.

I think about the people who are ignoring (and in some cases, flaunting their refusal to follow) social distancing guidelines at this time of high rates of infection. And I think about how these are potentially the same people who may also have shrugged off actually washing their hands when they left a public restroom before concepts like “flattening the curve” became part of our daily conversation.

Because if there are enough people not taking hygiene and communicable disease seriously now, chances are they’re only going to continue to laugh it off later.

It’s not just a question of when will infection rates and precautionary measures make the risk low enough to return theater-going to a normal part of life: It’s a question of if we will we feel we can trust our seat neighbors to care about the people around them.

Because if we want a chance to share the experience in the theater again, we will all need to agree how to safely share space.