Build a Scene

Rulebook Casefile: The Peril of Bad Scenework in Justice League

So I finally got around to seeing Justice League, which is nowhere near as bad as Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but still terrible. I don’t talk a lot about “how not to” examples on this blog, but I thought we might pause to look some terrible scenework.

The original version of this movie was made by BvS:DoJ writer/director Zach Snyder, and then it was taken away from him (supposedly he left due to a family emergency, but many reports claim he’d already been forced off the project) and massively rewritten/reshot by Joss Whedon. Everybody liked Whedon’s The Avengers, so the hope was that he would purge Snyder’s darkness, lighten it up, add some jokes, and save the franchise. He did the first three, but not the fourth. From everything I’ve heard, Snyder’s version would have been even worse (Cyborg causes his mom’s death and then dies gruesomely at the end, for instance), but the scenes that are understood to be Whedon’s are pretty terrible, and worse than the remaining Snyder scenes.

To be fair, Whedon had to work incredibly fast and all of the actors were busy doing other things. Gal Gadot was off promoting Wonder Woman and had to be added to many reshot scenes using green screen later. Jason Momoa was shooting his own Aquaman movie. Henry Cavill was famously shooting the latest Mission: Impossible movie and not allowed to shave his mustache to play Superman. So it’s a miracle anything coherent was produced.

Let’s look at three bad scenes, all of which are rumored to be Whedon scenes: Lois Lane’s sit-and-talk with Martha (“Martha!”) Kent,

Bruce Wayne’s walk-and-talk with Diana Prince,

and Aquaman’s stand-and-talk with Mera.

These scenes break all my rules for scenework, and they show how my tips can be useful. Most importantly:

  • There is no reblocking (Bruce and Diana walk parallel to each other, but that doesn’t count)
  • There is no touching in any of the three scenes.
  • There are no objects exchanged (Lois does give Martha [“Martha!”] a coffee cup before they sit down, but then the scene really begins)

Each of these scenes would have been helped immensely by literal push and pull between the characters, preferably with one significant touch. Each would have been far more dynamic if the plot point they were discussing was represented by an object that changed hands.

Worst of all is that, according to the scale I describe here, they’re all level-one “listen and accept” scenes. The first two are bland and placid, while the Aquaman scene is more volatile, but there’s still not any convincing going on. They don’t like each other, but Mera tells Aquaman what he needs to do and Aquaman agrees. In none of them does either party try to force or cajole or trick or seduce the other into doing anything, and nobody is being clever.

Now let’s look at a better scene. This one had reshot inserts by Whedon to interject jokes, but it’s mostly Snyder. Bruce Wayne meets with Barry Allen to try to recruit him for the team.

Bruce actually wants something and is determined to get it. And how does he do that? First Bruce forces Barry to accept a photo of himself showing him using his powers, then Bruce cleverly throws a bat-thingie at Barry to see if he’ll grab it out of the air, and by doing so Barry visibly admits his powers and tacitly accepts his place on the new team. That’s good, basic meat-and-potatoes scenework. It’s not an Oscar clip, but it’s a thousand times more engaging than the other three scenes.

Based on what we’ve seen in other projects, Whedon has more storytelling talent in his pinkie than Snyder has all over, so it’s pretty obvious that Whedon (who took a re-write credit but no re-directing credit) was just spackling in the cracks here. Snyder turned in an unwatchable three hour cut, WB cut all the awfulness out until it was an incomprehensible 90 minutes, and then Whedon had to shoot 30 more minutes to tie everything together with spit and baling wire, even though he couldn’t get all the actors in the same room. So he made it easier on himself by shooting listless unambitious scenes.

The result was a big flop that killed the franchise. The movie technically made a profit but it tanked its company’s stock, which is far worst than losing money.  Aquaman and another Wonder Woman are in the can, but The Flash and Cyborg seem to be cancelled and Affleck and Cavill were let go. Supposedly, WB executives rushed the reshoots so that they didn’t lose their year-end bonuses. Hope they invested the money.

Rulebook Casefile: Two Final Rules from Selma

We’ll move on after this, but I wanted to pause to point out that Selma has excellent examples of two more of our old rules:
Have One Touch in Each Dialogue Scene: The opening scene between MLK and LBJ begins with a handshake and aggressive shoulder grab, at which point they sit down and begin their meeting. After they really start their conversation, there is one more touch, and it’s a classic example of how the one-touch rule works.

This is a classically constructed scene: two fully humanized characters with justifiable points of view both want something, and they’re each confronting the other determined to get it immediately. In this case, each is the idol of millions and used to getting his way.

King sits down to make his case, and Johnson sits to listen for a while, then gets up when he makes his counterproposal, goes over to get his War on Poverty proposal from his desk and tries to hand it to King. When King refuses to take it, Johnson instead leans over and touches King once on the back as he says, “I want you to help. Help me with this.” King instead stands up to make his point more emphatically as Johnson backs off to listen. Things end there, with them both standing, at an impasse.

Obviously, in film, the blocking is more up to the director than the screenwriter, but it’s still good to indicate one touch in your write-up of each scene. In prose, you don’t want to spend too much time on blocking, which is up to how your reader pictures the scene, but again, it’s good to indicate that one touch, which is a simple way to show the crux of the scene.

The Hero Should Have Three Rules He Lives By: All heroes need special skills, so that they’re not just reacting the way an “everyman” would react. They need to have their unique volatility: Only this hero would have reacted this way to this challenge. That’s why we root for them.

King doesn’t know karate, and he never uses a blowtorch to build himself a tank. In his case, his specials skills overlap with another thing it’s good for every hero to have, three rules he lives by: “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist.” He has learned these rules slowly and painfully, over the course of some campaigns that failed and others that succeeded. They are pithy and definitively stated. He will brook no counterproposals.

Obviously, not every great hero has a list of three they enumerate, but many do, and most heroes have a list like this implied if not stated. This fits into another thing most heroes have, a default argument tactic. Heroes should be specific, both so that we believe in their reality and so that we can invest our hopes in them alone: Specific language, specific tactics, specific ethos.

Rulebook Casefile: The Power of Objects and Kitchens in “Beloved”

You can marvel over just about any paragraph from “Beloved”, but let’s look at this one:

  • The fat white circles of dough lined the pan in rows. Once more Sethe touched a wet forefinger to the stove. She opened the oven door and slid the pan of biscuits in. As she raised up from the heat she felt Paul D behind her and his hands under her breasts. She straightened up and knew, but could not feel, that his cheek was pressing into the branches of her chokecherry tree.

I’ve written before, both here and in my book, about the value of placing scenes in kitchens. In this case we have a semi sex-scene in a kitchen, and because of the stove we already have a wet finger and rising heat before the man has crossed the room. The kitchen does half the work of getting characters where they want to go.

(And speaking of food, can we talk about how great the word “chokecherry” is? Sethe’s back has been whipped so badly that the scar tissue resembles a tree, but not just any generic tree, a very specific chokecherry tree. When Morrison encountered this word, you know she fell in love with it and cherished it until she found a devastating place to deploy it.)

At the end of the chapter, Sethe goes upstairs with Paul D, leaving her dejected daughter Denver downstairs:

  • Now her mother was upstairs with the man who had gotten rid of the only other company she had. Denver dipped a bit of bread into the jelly. Slowly, methodically, miserably she ate it.

Denver isn’t just sitting there feeling miserable, she’s got some food in her hand and she’s eating it slowly, methodically, and miserably. The object allows Morrison to describe a state that is physically visible, instead of her inner turmoil. Seeing is believing. Behavior is better than internal description.  Put objects in their hands.

Best of 2017, Runner-Up #6: Call Me By Your Name

This is a good, old-fashioned coming of age romance. Beautifully shot and acted.  It felt like Truffaut.

Let’s talk about a twist on the “I understand you” scene: Call it the “I don’t understand you but I find that somewhat sexy” scene.

Both of our potential lovers are intellectual Jewish American young men enjoying a lazy summer in Italy, so they have a lot in common, but they’re also separated by temperament and age. They spend most of the movie circling each other and only get together late in the story.

Early on there’s a great scene where the older one, Oliver, begins to be smitten with the younger one, Elio, who plays a Bach composition on the guitar, and then, by request, plays it on the piano a few times.

  • ELIO plays the piece on the piano. OLIVER leans on the door looking in. The music sounds very different from when he played it on his guitar.
  • You changed it. What did you do to it? Is it Bach?
  • ELIO
  • I just played it the way Liszt would have played it if he’d jimmied around with it.
  • Just play it again, please!
  • ELIO begins playing the piece again. OLIVER listens, then speaks:
  • I can’t believe you changed it again.
  • ELIO
  • Not by much. That’s how Busoni would've played it if he’d altered Liszt’s version.
  • Can’t you just play the Bach the way Bach wrote it?
  • ELIO
  • Bach never wrote it for guitar. In fact, we’re not even sure it’s Bach at all.
  • OLIVER Forget I asked.
  • ELIO
  • Okay, okay. No need to get so worked up.
  • ELIO begins to play the Bach in its original form. OLIVER, who had turned away, comes back to the door. ELIO says, softly, over his playing:
  • It’s young Bach, he dedicated it to his brother.
  • He plays it beautifully, as if sending it to OLIVER as a gift. 

Oliver isn’t just flirting, he’s genuinely frustrated by Elio’s intellectually-bratty explanations for the changes: He’s annoyed, but he’s also intrigued and bewitched. Elio is now a puzzle he wants to solve.  Crucially, we feel the same way.  Who would not be both repelled and attracted by this brilliant-but-arrogant kid?   The best romances are those in which we can see and feel contradictory reasons for the romance to succeed and not succeed, along with the heroes.

How to Build a Scene: The Archive

Listen to the Nazi monkey!

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Never Change the Topic of Conversation in a Scene

Plays follow different rules than novels, screenplays, or comics. In a play, we’re plucked down in one location for a long time, and characters come and go to give us scene after scene set in that same place, right after another. It’s claustrophobic, but it’s an inherent limitation of the medium.

But if you’re not writing a play, you have the freedom not to do that, which means that you’re pretty much not allowed to do that.

I’ve found this frustrating in my own scripts: I have two characters, I’ve brought them together in a certain time and place, and they two different discussions they need to have, so why can’t I just get halfway through the scene and have them say, “Anyway, moving on, I also thought we should discuss…” But such transitions never work. After that scene gets attacked by every reader, I have to reluctantly break it up or cut it.

Scenes should be short. You should use any possible excuse to change the scene, and a change in topic is the most obvious excuse you could have. Cut to later, as the characters are doing something different, to cover the next topic of conversation. Ideally, in fact, you would break it up with another scene, because it’s best not to have two scenes in a row with the same two scene partners.

Another thing that they have to do in plays that you should therefore avoid in any other medium, in order to avoid staginess: Whenever someone enters a scene and announces that something visually interesting has just occurred elsewhere.  Cut away and show us the thing happening!

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Avoid “Character Scenes”

I thought it might be instructive to look at a truly terrible scene. As you begin a story, it’s always tempting to just launch right into the plot, but of course most writers know that they need to first take some time first to establish their characters. But how do you write a good “character scene”? Not like this one, from Star Trek Beyond:
  • [Montage of life on ship]
  • KIRK: Captain's Log, Stardate 2263.2. Today is our 966th day in deep space. A little under three years into our five-year mission. The more time we spend out here, the harder it is to tell where one day ends and next one begins. It could be a challenge to feel grounded when even gravity is artificial. But we do what we can to make it feel like home. The crew as always continues to act admirably despite the rigors of our extended stay here in outer space and the personal sacrifices they have made. We continue to search for new life forms in order to establish firm diplomatic ties. Our extended time in uncharted territories has stretched the ship's mechanical capabilities but fortunately, our engineering department led by Mr. Scott is more than up to the job. The ship aside, prolonged cohabitation has definitely had affects on interpersonal dynamics. Some experiences for better and some for the worse. As for me, things have started to feel a little episodic. The farther out we go, the more I found myself wondering what it is we're trying to accomplish. If the universe is truly endless, then are we not striving for something forever out of reach? The Enterprise is scheduled for a reprovisioning stop at Yorktown, the Federation's newest and most advanced starbase. Perhaps a break from routine will offer us some respite from the mysteries of the unknown.
  • [Kirk drinks in his quarters, looking glum. Bones arrives with a bottle]
  • BONES: Sorry I'm late. Keenser's leaking some kind of highly acidic green goo and Scotty’s terrified he’s going to sneeze on the warp core and kill us all. What the hell are you drinking?
  • KIRK: I'm pretty sure it’s the rest of that Saurian brandy we picked up on Thasus.
  • BONES: My God, man! Are you trying to go blind? This stuff is illegal. Besides, I found this in Chekov's locker. [Offers bottle]
  • KIRK: Wow.
  • BONES: Right? I always assumed he’d be a vodka guy.
  • KIRK: Vodka. Exactly.
  • BONES: I wanted to have something appropriate for your birthday.
  • KIRK: It's in a couple of days. You know I don’t care about that.
  • BONES: I know. And I know you don't like to celebrate on the day because it is also the day your pa bit the dust. I was being sensitive.
  • KIRK: Didn't they teach you about bedside manner in medical school? Or is it just your southern charm?
  • [They drink]
  • KIRK: That's good.
  • BONES: Lordy. Are you going to call your mom?
  • KIRK: Yes, of course I will call her on the day. One year older.
  • BONES: Yeah, that's usually how it works.
  • KIRK: A year older than he ever got to be. He joined Starfleet because he… he believed in it. I joined on a dare.
  • BONES: You joined to see if you could live up to him. You spent all this time trying to be George Kirk, and now you're wondering what it means to be Jim. And why you're out here. [proposes toast] To perfect eyesight and a full-head hair
  • KIRK: Kirk Here.
  • SULU [on radio]: Captain. Approaching Yorktown Base.
  • KIRK: I'm on my way, Mr. Sulu. [Hangs up] Let's keep the birthday thing under wraps, huh?
  • BONES: You know me, Mr. Sensitive. 
This has so many elements of the bad character scene:
  • They’re just sitting around talking, with no other activity to busy their hands.
  • The hero’s selfless friend has come to have a conversation about the hero’s problem and nothing else. This is a classic “Do you know what your problem is?” scene. In real life, nobody ever asks that question, which is good because nobody wants to hear it.
  • The hero is not worried about a specific problem or crisis, he’s just vaguely discontent with life. This is a problem so vague that it can addressed by virtually anything that might happen in the movie. Basically, he just wishes something interesting will happen. Unsurprisingly, it does, and this vague discontent is immediately dispelled, and never mentioned again.
  • The closest thing he has to a specific problem is his father issue, but the actual story will do nothing to address this issue.
Ideally, a story will have no “character scene”. There will be early scenes that involve the hero engaged in some activity in which the hero and/or others will say things that speak to a growing annoyance (either from or towards the hero) with the hero’s longstanding personal problem, but the story won’t stop dead for a moment of reflection. The rest of story will stem from this personal problem and address it, directly and/or ironically. It’s good for a hero to have growing discontent with one specific, untenable situation, but not general discontent with life or aging in a vague way.

This scene sets up the movie for failure. It makes Kirk and Bones both seem annoying and unrealistic, and gives the hero a problem that we cannot invest our interest in. Do not write these “character scenes”.

Our First Video: Let Your Objects Do the Talking

Okay, guys, here’s a big change six months in the making: I’ll now be posting videos!  I had to relearn Final Cut Pro (the lobotomized version) to put this together, but I think it turned out well, so I’m glad I put that time in.

This one has actually been done for a while, but I’d intended to stockpile more before I posted this, because I’m now going to commit to posting one of these every week! Unfortunately, I’ve only got one more ready to go, so I’ve got a lot of work to do! Hopefully this huge deadline on my head will light a fire under me every week!

For our first weekly video, I cheated and combined several rules / blog posts into one, all about ways to use objects in your writing. I hope you like it!

Now I’ll be honest with you: My whole goal in making these videos is to get one hosted on a site like io9 or the AVClub, where they regularly host these sorts of videos, so I really need your help publicizing this video: Share it far and wide until someone up there likes me and posts this in a widely-seen venue. Please share it on Facebook, share it on Twitter, put it on your own blogs, etc. Please help me get these videos out in the world.

Let me know what you think! And look for another big multi-media debut soon! The site it is a-changin’.