THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
We all know how to show a character entering a building or walking up stairs or driving a car - physical activities, but how do you show what a character is FEELING? How can you show a character suffering from a broken heart or feeling alone or feeling sad? The best way to do this is by using CONTRAST and surrounding your protagonist with people feeling the OPPOSITE emotions.
My Webster's Dictionary defines contrast as:
1) The degree to which a photograph or image displays sharp differences in brightness between adjacent areas.
2) To show marked differences when compared.
3) A relationship of difference demonstrated by juxtaposition.
So contrast is basically another form of conflict, and we all know that conflict is the basis of drama, character, plot, and creating an engaging story. But contrast is a subtle version of conflict... one we may not be aware of. Let's say we want to show that our character is sad - if we surround them with happy people we can see the marked differences by comparison.
In my script ALTITUDE I needed to show a broken heart. Here's the set up: My protagonist Jason Bolt has had a big fight with his girlfriend on his way out the door to the airport. He tells her to stay at the apartment, he'll call between flights in Chicago and they'll discuss the problem. He calls - no answer.
INT. O'HARE AIRPORT -- NIGHT
Bolt slowly hangs up the phone. She's gone.
All around him passengers are meeting loved ones - hugging each
other, kissing each other, holding each other close.
Airports are the place where people come together.
Bolt is alone.
PUBLIC ADDRESS (V.O.)
Windstar Airlines Chicago to Washington, DC
shuttle is now boarding at gate 37...
Bolt grabs his suitcase and walks through the ocean of hugging
people to his gate. A frown creases his face.
By surrounding him with that ocean of hugging people I can show how alone Bolt is. The audience will feel his pain. Everybody has a loved one at the airport EXCEPT Bolt. The contrast between Bolt and everyone else at the airport SHOWS us what Bolt is feeling.
The easiest way to show how someone is feeling is to surround them with people who feel the opposite. It's impossible to see black letters on a black page, but white letters on a black page are easy to read. The reason why is contrast. Are your character's emotions easy to read?
OLD CARD, NEW CARD
Hitchcock silent film THE RING also uses contrast as a visual storytelling technique. The story is about a boxer at a carnival, "One Round Jack" who will fight anyone in the audience for a price... and if they win, they win some huge amount of money. The girl selling ticket's is Jack's fiance. We see a bunch of guys get knocked down by Jack within moments of entering the ring. The "Round 1" card is dirty, torn up. Then a Big Guy starts flirting with Jack's fiance. Jack is jealous, goads him into paying to fight him. The Big Guy gets in the ring... and puts up a fight! After the first round, they put up the "Round 2" card and it's brand new - never been used before!
The contrast between the old torn up "Round 1" card and the brand new unused "Round 2" card tells us something.
Now you see the fiance at the ticket window and a big roll of tickets... which spins into a very small roll as a crowd buys tickets to see the fight. More visual storytelling. When the Big Guy knocks Jack down and wins the fight, the carnival guy doesn't have the promised winner's money - this has never happened before! He has to go around collecting money from other carnies. We have learned *visually* that One Round Jack has never lost a fight before - they have no plan in place for losing.
The Big Guy uses his winnings to buy a piece of jewelry for the fiance - a gold band that goes around her upper arm. He flirts with her and gives her his card... he's a professional boxer. Jack sees the way his fiance looks at the Big Guy - so he proposes to her. From the *cause* - seeing the Big Guy flirt with his fiancé, to the *effect* - the marriage proposal, we learn what Jack is thinking and feeling. He's afraid of losing his fiancé to the Big Guy... feeling insecure.
Jack and his fiance get married - and we have a different kind of ring. It's a funny wedding - a *carnival* wedding - so we get a dozen sight gags just in the scene where the guests are being seated, ending with the topper: Siamese Twins, one wants to sit on the groom side, one wants to sit on the bride side. The wedding situation allows for many different sight gags - we don't need dialogue, because we all know what happens at a wedding. The "set up" for the gag is in place, we only need the visual punch lines.
After the wedding, Jack just isn't his old self in the boxing ring. You can figure out the symbolism of that on your own.
Remember that gold arm band the Big Guy gave the fiance? It keeps sliding down her arm and covering the wedding ring. There have got to be a half dozen different scenes with that gold band *showing* us the fight between Jack and the Big Guy for his fiance's heart - two pieces of jewelry fighting it out. All visual - no dialogue that explains her heart being pulled two ways - we can see the jewelry battling it out.
Failed fighter Jack quits the carnival... and ends up becoming the sparring partner for the Big Guy as the Big Guy makes his run at champion. Jack's job is now to get beaten up on a regular basis by the guy who made passes at his fiance... now wife.
Well, kind of now wife - because she is less interested in Jack The Loser and much more interested in Big Guy The Winner... and starts an affair with the Big Guy! Now Jack is beat up by the Big Guy every day and goes home to an empty bed. You can see why they didn't need many "dialogue cards" - this story is told through the actions and situations.
I'll bet you can tell where this story is going... Jack is going to have to get into the ring again, and work his way up to fighting the Big Guy (who will be champion by this time) in order to win back his wife. This was in the days before Viagra, you had to fight your way back.
CLIMBING TO THE TOP
There's a great visual for Jack's rise from nothing to contender - outside the big boxing arena there's a huge wall-sized sign listing the weekend's bouts. Jack begins at the very bottom of the sign in letters so small you can barely see them... then with every fight we see, his name moves up on the sign and the lettering becomes larger, until he is on the line just below the Big Guy in lettering almost as big. Again - this is a way to *show* his progress and *show* what these fights we see mean. No one has to say, "Hey, if you win one more fight you'll be a contender for champion" - we can see it on the sign outside the boxing arena.
There's a scene in the film that really choked me up - amazing how a scene from a movie made in 1927 can do that to a viewer in 2010. Jack wins the fight that bumps him up to the same line as the Big Guy and celebrates with his entourage. The entourage is an interesting bunch - they are the same guys who were part of the carnival boxing crew, and Jack has brought them along on his rise to contender. So we've had a whole movie to get to know them. By now, they are *our friends* as well as Jack's. So Jack invites them back to his apartment to celebrate, and can't find his wife. She's not in the kitchen when he gets the champagne and glasses, so he searches the bedroom... she's not there either. Well, not in *his* bedroom. So there's a big embarrassing scene where Jack looks at his watch waiting for his wife to return before they drink the champagne... and his friends wait... and they *know* his wife is somewhere with the Big Guy... and the champagne in the glasses goes flat - we *see* it go flat. Then it gets late and the friends all have to leave - flat champagne untouched in the glasses. It's a heart-breaker. Your tear-ducts get a work out. But it also primes you for the championship bout with the Big Guy.
I'm going to give away the end - after that big championship bout, the Big Guy's trainer finds the gold arm band discarded ringside - just thrown away - and gives it to the Big Guy.
Okay, what has that shown us?
Film is a visual medium, and as screenwriters we need to think in pictures. Tell our story through the actions of the characters, the use of symbols like the ring and bracelet, and by using contrast.
More on this in the VISUAL STORYTELLING Blue Book.
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