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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.

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When writing feels like cutting teeth

My son is teething hard. I had a dream that he suddenly went from no teeth to eight teeth overnight, and some days it seems like he’s determined to make that a reality.

“nom nom nom”

It’s a hard process. Each tooth needs to erupt from the gums, which takes a lot of time, force, and pain.

And when it’s all done, and they get those baby teeth in, that’s not the end of the story. There’s a second draft of that mouthful of teeth, waiting on deck.

If you’ve never seen an image of a child’s skull with both sets of teeth inside, it’s… something else.

I’m a little sorry if this makes you horrified of small children.

I’ve been focused on new projects lately. First drafts and new collaborations. Ideas pushing hard, trying to break through and emerge.

And there are times when it feels painful. Like things aren’t moving fast enough, and you just wish you could force things along faster, (like how I imagine Button feels when he’s gnawing on a teether).

Yes, it looks like a coffee cup. I am relentlessly #onbrand, even when picking out baby stuff.

Or when you know that you need to choose to put your butt in the seat and get some ideas out onto the page, but you have to choose that over other things that might also be be fun or important.

But I have to remind myself that the work can continue, and the pages will come, and then… well that’s when it’s time for the next draft.

Which brings me back to that baby skull full of teeth.

Because getting the idea out into the world isn’t the final act. Those pages and ideas fall out and get cast off to make way for bigger, stronger ideas.

But trust that even before that first idea has broken through, the full shape of what’s to come is there, in your head. And it just takes time, and force, and pain.

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Meaningful Work

While heading home from picking up a pizza, another driver sped up and swerved in front of me.

It’s a fairly busy stretch of road with two lanes going each way. I kept watching this driver weave in-between the other cars in front of me, sometimes signaling, other times not. Moments later, they slammed on the brakes at a red light.

I got to that same light about five seconds later, having stayed in one lane, traveling the speed limit, and leaving ample room between myself and the car in front of me.

This isn’t a story about bad drivers or being considerate on the road.

Think about the number of decisions the driver had to make to change lanes five or more times in that stretch of the road we shared.

Each time, they had to judge the distance between themselves and the other cars to avoid an accident. They had to decide if they felt it was necessary to signal, how fast they needed to go, and how soon they would need to change lanes again.

What were they thinking about as they worked to thread themselves up through traffic, trying to get ahead just a little bit faster than everybody else?

Were they annoyed? Nervous? Focused less on the current moment and more about where they were headed?

For all that effort, all they gained was five additional seconds spent waiting at a red light.

Did that satisfy whatever desire motivated them?

When we worry about optimization

Regardless of their exact circumstances, this driver wanted to feel like they were headed toward their destination as fast as possible, even if it didn’t get them there any faster.

They wanted to put their effort into optimizing speed in the moment instead of looking for ways to get tangible benefit.

Sure, you could race between cars to make it to a red light a little faster than everyone else, or you could find a way to get in your car and start driving a few minutes earlier.

We can’t be certain that any one change will definitely result in a better outcome, but we can try to put our behavior in line with better possible outcomes by focusing on actions that are more likely to matter.

Doctor Strange Looks Into The Future
Because we don’t all have an Eye of Agamotto to figure out the best course of action. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s easy to confuse action with progress

It’s the difference between being busy and getting meaningful work done.

If I spend my time color coding a bullet journal, or arranging a cascading hierarchy of tags in a task manager app, how long will it take for those actions to show substantive improvements in the way I do necessary, rewarding work? Are they a layer of distraction, or a tool for focus?

How many passes and revisions can I make on a set of pages, or a blog post before all I’m doing is making things different instead of making them better?

The siren’s song of optimization is like pressing your foot a little harder on the pedal. You’re feeling acceleration, but you’re not necessarily reaching your destination any earlier.

But how do you tell the difference?

The tasks with meaning aren’t always obvious, but they never lie to you after they’re finished.

Busy tasks always try too hard to assert their importance, like a compulsive liar who peppers their speech with admonishments to “trust me.”

They shout at you that these five life hacks will help you finally clear your inbox…

But the time you spend reading that article could be used to answer two or three of those emails, or asking yourself the question about how necessary is it to reach Inbox Zero.

You could look through a gallery of dozens of great new themes for your website…

Or you could grab a pen and some paper and start coming up with new content to put on that site.

You could read all about how people whose success you wish to emulate schedule their day, or what bullet journal notebook and software they use…

Or you could do work with the tools you have and the time you have, and test things to see what works for you.

Better or Different
Busy work turns time into an I.O.U. where you promise yourself that you’ll eventually get around to what matters.

Meaningful work leaves something behind. It transforms time into something tangible that you can point to.

Shout it from the rooftops: I did this. I made this. It is here now where it wasn’t before.

I did this I made this
Celebrate finishing something, no matter the scale.

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Professionalism and Style

While listening to the latest episode of The West Wing Weekly, there was a great comment from presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg that

“Your job is to decide how much you’re willing to conform to [what’s expected of you]. It’s often ocurred to me that all the ways in which you — in any profession, not just politics — but all the ways in which you conform to what’s expected of you, the sum total of that becomes your professionalism. And then all the ways in which you decide not to conform, the sum total of that becomes your style.”

(You can listen to the full interview here.)

This comment encapsulates a lot of the things I try to get across when talking to writing students.

You learn the rules, tactics, and techniques of writing not so that you can follow them religiously, but so that you know what’s expected of you.

What do people who consume a lot of material see frequently, and what conforms to their expectations? What has worked for other writers in the past? What can you draw from the past that applies to your work in the present?

But you also have to find ways to make something your own. To differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace of ideas.

A thousand other people could be writing a story just like yours right now, so what is it that you’re going to do that subverts the expectations of the audience? What bends (or breaks) the tropes and rules and traditions of the kind of story you’re trying to tell?

And this quote makes a case for thinking on a continuum, where every choice moves your position just a little bit between one end where you’re all professionalism (but no individuality) and one end where you’re all style (but with no sense of accountability or being responsive to expectations and norms).

It suggests a mentality where skill comes from learning to serve expectations where it makes sense, and carve your own path when necessary. And that seems like a pretty healthy mindset to aim for.

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Plants and Payoffs in Comedy Writing: Parks and Recreation

Comedy Has Structure

Long form comedy isn’t just a series of jokes. Whether it’s a sitcom, a film, or a stand-up set, there’s a structure to humor that relates to dramatic structure.

Over time, strong comedy builds. New jokes call back to previous jokes. By the end, you haven’t just watched a string of unrelated funny moments, but you’ve seen how one joke leads into a joke later on.

Great comedy builds. It lifts the audience up.

To show you what I’m talking about, I’d like pick apart the inner workings of an episode of Parks & Recreation.

Parks and Recreation Episode 4×11 – “The Comeback Kid”

There are a few key elements of the larger story of this season that help set up this episode:

  • Leslie and Ben are in a relationship, but Chris had a policy forbidding romantic relationships between co-workers.
  • The discovery of this relationship created the scandal that damaged Leslie’s candidacy for city council and lead to Ben resigning his position in the government.

A quick synopsis of the episode:

With Leslie still reeling from her poll numbers plummeting and her campaign staff abandoning her, she recruits her co-workers as a replacement staff to stage a re-launch for her city council campaign at the Pawnee Sports Building. Seeing that Ben has spiraled into a depression brought on by resigning his job, Chris attempts to lift his spirits.

There are three main plot lines to this episode:

  1. Leslie and Ann attempt to convince former Pawnee High School basketball star “Pistol” Pete to appear at the event and endorse Leslie.
  2. Ron leads a group of the rest of the new campaign staff in preparing for the event.
  3. Chris attempts to break Ben out of his funk, which needs to start with getting Ben to recognize he’s depressed.

Plants and Payoffs

A plant is when a writer offers a piece of information to the audience early on in a story ahead of when they absolutely must use it. It’s making sure the audience is thinking about some aspect of the story, be it the stakes, a task some character needs to perform, or even a specific object important to the story.

A payoff is when the writer cashes in on the audience’s memory of that earlier plant, using that information to resolve a story, tell a joke, or throw a twist at the audience.

There are two specific payoffs in this story that weave together the three story lines, and we need to talk about them first to get a better idea of what to look for in their construction.

Payoff One – The Climax

Leslie prepares to walk out into the Pawnee Sports Building believing that she doesn’t have Pistol Pete, her stage is incomplete, the banner she ordered has an error, and to make matters worse, the basketball court she thought she’d be walking out on has been resurfaced as ice for an upcoming hockey game.

Screen Cap 1.png

Leslie’s campaign staff vows to go out and help her try and save face, only to see that Tom couldn’t order a red carpet that leads all the way to the stage.

Screen Cap 2.png

Screen Cap 3.png

As they shuffle together across the ice, a short clip of Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” loops (a clip that would’ve been a perfect duration for a brisk walk across a basketball court).

Screen Cap 5.png

Champion, April and Andy’s new dog, starts peeing on Ron.

Screen Cap 4.png

In the scramble to get up on the stage, Leslie’s notecards got out of order, and she starts delivering an incoherent speech.

Screen Cap 6.png

Screen Cap 7.png

At the last moment, when Leslie admits to the crowd that this campaign event was a disaster, Pistol Pete shows up in his old jersey to endorse Leslie. When he attempts to make a slam dunk at the end of his speech, he slips on the ice and injures himself.

Screen Cap 8.png

Even out of context, these moments are funny, but there’s more at work. Each of these jokes has an origin point earlier in the episode, planting these ideas to play with the audience’s expectations.

Because you were taught what to expect by the earlier parts of this episode, you’re rewarded for your attention and your patience with even bigger laughs.

Payoff Two – The New Story Direction

After Chris talks Ben out of his funk and gets him thinking about how to make better use of his time, Leslie and the rest of the campaign team show up, fresh from the disaster at the Pawnee Sports Building.

Leslie approaches Ben and asks him to step in and be her new campaign manager. After seeing what happened without someone with political experience at the helm, she wants Ben there, no matter if his connection to her scandal and polling problems could damage her chances.

This launches a new phase of the story where Ben and Leslie will directly work together on her campaign, but the emotional payoff of this moment requires us to see how much Ben and Leslie need each other (due to seeing the disasters they have to deal with when they intentionally keep themselves apart).

Turn by Turn Directions to Our Destination

So let’s take a look at the big picture. In the following graphics, I’ve charted out, scene-by-scene, what happens, and what information is used to build the story toward the climactic moments.

Some things to pay attention to:

  • Notice how the writers keep most of these plot threads separate from scene to scene until we get to the final act. These individual threads and stories have a distant connection at first, but they start to interact the deeper we get into the story.
  • Look at the way the narrative moves between the different storylines. We spend a little time with Ben & Chris, then back to a part of the main storylines dealing with the “Comeback Kid” event.
  • The sheer density of this show’s writing. There are moments that barely qualify as having a setup, like how Jerry’s job to pass out flyers to get an audience is a note on a whiteboard, yet it comes back at a crucial moment to raise the stakes for Leslie.

The Comeback Kid - Chart 1.png
The Comeback Kid - Chart 2.png
The Comeback Kid - Chart 3.png
The Comeback Kid - Chart 4.png

Sleight of Hand

But the writers can’t just have the characters look at the audience and say “Hey, here’s a new dog for Andy and April! Pay attention to this dog’s wacky hi-jinks and get ready for it to do something really funny near the end of the episode!”

When planting an element to set up a later joke, it needs to be introduced to the audience so that they’re only mostly paying attention to it.

A successful plant lets the audience know something is there without giving away that the writer wants their attention drawn to it.

Think about a magician. They’ll tell you where they want you to look, and they’ll tell you what they’re going to do, but they’re always conscious about drawing your attention away from the actual work of the trick.

They want you to know you’re being fooled, but they don’t want you to know how.

It’s the same with comedic storytelling. The writer wants the audience to laugh as much as possible, but they know that laughter will be stifled if the audience is too aware of the construction of the jokes and the dramatic storytelling underneath.

Nothing kills a joke like telling somebody that it’s going to be so funny.

So let’s break down one scene as an example.

Anatomy of a scene

(Please note, this isn’t the actual script for the episode. It’s a transcription I made to help explain this point.)

I’ve added some notes to the scene highlighting where important plot threads are referenced or introduced, and adding specific notes on how these jokes introduce exposition and plant information in a way that avoids falling flat.

Comeback Kid - Example Scene 1.png
Comeback Kid - Example Scene 2.png

By disguising the planted elements with conflict and humor, the writers keep the audience’s attention on the present moment and don’t give too much away about what they have planned for Champion and Ben.

Tying it all together, these elements of conflict and humor are based in what the audience already knows about the characters. Ben is rigid in his behavior and frequently doesn’t understand other people’s enthusiasm. April & Andy are impulsive, and they regularly go all-in with their enthusiasm if it’s something they both care about.

We know these characters because we’ve grown to care about them. Without that emotional connection, the jokes can’t help to obscure the intent of the planted material, and the payoffs won’t land with full force.

We need to care if we’re going to laugh.

We need to care about Ben’s mental health, and his rebound from losing his job and sense of identity. We need to care about Leslie’s desire to win the election and become part of Pawnee’s City Council. We need to care about the desire of her friends and co-workers to help her.

We even need to care, at least a little bit, about Pistol Pete. A character we just met needs to be human enough that his decision to embrace his past and endorse Leslie with a dunk means something.

A man choosing to do something foolish, like try and dunk a basketball on a hockey rink, is funny. A man choosing to do something foolish because we know, in his heart, this is about rising up and coming to terms with a deep, internal pain… That’s comedy gold.

Mounting My Own Comeback

I used to write a lot more about film and television. I used to make a lot more time to watch film and television.

This blog was something I approached from a place of intense study and small a authority. Coming fresh out of grad school, I had a lot of information in my brain and not always a lot of clear outlets for it.

I don’t know what it is now. You’re just as likely to see me writing about my daughter and our cat as you are to see me dissect a television episode.

I’m not sure what it’s going to become, either.

I know this is my place on the internet to do what I wish. I know that I’ve got lots of ideas. I know that there are other things I’m writing and working on that aren’t even related to it.

Life is a lot messier than fiction. Not everything you plant pays off later.

But I care deeply about storytelling. And I care deeply about putting these ideas out there. I want to make sure I don’t leave that behind as I head toward whatever happens to come next.

I’ll leave the last words to Leslie Knope:

“Well, um, I can assure you people in the bleachers that, if you follow my campaign, it will be interesting.”