FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
The hallmark of a great scene is that is does several things at once in an effortless manner that appears to be unplanned... what the character would naturally do. This requires skill and planning on the part of the writer. Not all great scenes require dialogue - sometimes actions speak louder than words. In the Visual Storytelling Blue Book I look at a bunch of techniques for *showing* feelings and emotions instead of having characters discuss them - which is often unrealistic. As director Frank Capra noted before any of us were born, the goal in a screenplay isn’t to show the character feel the emotions... but to have the audience feel the emotions. Often if a character cries, the audience feels that they don’t need to cry... but igf a character must repress their emotions in a scene, the audience has to do the crying for them. So our goal is to make the *audience* feel something, and that is done through demonstration rather than description. A great tool for that is using a metaphor - a visual representation of the feelings inside the character so that the audience can react on their own...
In Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor's ABOUT SCHMIDT(2002), Jack Nicholson plays the title role - an expert in insurance actuarial tables for Woodmen Insurance who is retiring after dedicating most of his life to charting the exact moment when a man will die given various pieces of personal information for his job. He has compiled his life's work in a series of files and has lovingly placed them in several clearly labeled boxes so that the fellow who replaces him can use them. At exactly 5 pm on his last day he grabs his coat and leaves the office - the boxes containing his files neatly stacked against the wall. His life’s work available for the next person who has his job to learn from.
This story is *about* retirement. That moment in a person’s life when they have worked for 25-40 years at a company and now get the rewards of all of that work - they get to live out the rest of their days on a pension, doing all of those things that they wanted to do over those 25 years of work but just didn’t have the time. They can buy an RV and drive across country seeing all of the sights! They can spend more time with their spouse! They can do everything they have always dreamed of doing!
But we know that dreams don’t always work out. The fantasy of retirement that they have spent those 25-40 years working towards... is often a rather boring reality.
Retirement doesn't suit Schmidt - he gets tired of sitting around the house listening to his wife vacuum. So at 9am he heads down to the Woodmen Building, says "Good morning" to his co-workers as he passes them in the hallway, and enters his office...
Except it isn't his office anymore. The young whipper-snapper hired to replace him is sitting behind the desk. And the desk is in an entirely different spot. And there's no sign of his files (his life's work). He asks the young whipper-snapper if he needs any help with anything. Any questions about how to do the job? Any questions about anything in the files? We understand - through demonstration - that Schmidt is bored with retirement and feels as if he has no purpose in life anymore. When he worked for the insurance company and compiled those detailed files on when and how and why people die, he had a purpose - a reason to exist. People identify themselves with their jobs - whether they admit it or not - and see what they do for 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, as their contribution to society. They serve an important purpose! Their life has value! And when they retire, that purpose and that value seem to be over... So we understand what this scene is *really* about, and the more Schmidt asks if the new guy needs any help, the more we understand how much Schmidt feels that his life is now without purpose. He isn’t doing anything. He’s just sitting around the house watching his wife vacuum.
Schmidt didn’t have to *tell us* any of this through dialogue, the juxtaposition of the scene where he is bored at home watching his wife vacuum and this scene where he goes back to the office and asks if the whipper-snapper needs any help *demonstrates* that. The audience *feels* it. We feel what Schmidt is feeling.
After Schmidt has asked about every possible thing his replacement might need help with, the young whipper-snapper answers, "No". Then the phone rings and the whipper-snapper answers and has a conversation - completely ignoring Schmidt. As if the old man doesn’t exist. Schmidt looks around the office for his files - his 25 years of work... and they are no longer there. The cabinets have been moved somewhere - maybe to another room so that all of the employees can share in Schmidt’s 25 years of work? That would be a great thing - to have his 25 years of work shared by everyone in the company! The whipper-snapper’s phone call continues, and after a while, Schmidt realizes he's just in the way, grabs his coat and leaves... looking around for his files on his way out. Not visible anywhere.
On the street, he passes the building’s dumpsters... where the boxes containing his files are neatly stacked waiting for the garbage men to take them away. His files are unwanted, he is unwanted. After 25 years, they have thrown Schmidt away. The files are his life's work... and symbolize his life. Not a word of dialogue when Schmidt sees 25 years of his life in the dumpster - the pictures tell the story. The audience *feels* Schmidt’s pain and loss.
That is how a metaphor works. An object is made symbolic of someone or something, so what happens to that object demonstrates what is happening emotionally to the person. It takes thoughts and emotions and feelings that are inside a character and finds a way to externalize them so that the audience can respond using their own emotions. We can feel the character’s pain or joy or love or loss or fear or whatever. How about another example?
SHOW ME LOVE!
In LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001) future king Aragorn, Lord Of Dunedain, (Viggo Mortensen) has sworn his heart to elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) - even though human/elf love may be illegal in some states. Before he rides off to do battle with Dark Lord Sauron's evil orks, she gives him her medallion to wear close to his heart. That medallion is a symbol of Arwen - what I call a “twitch” or “touchstone” in the Visual Storytelling Blue Book. In this case, a touchstone - a positive token. Even though Aragorn is riding off to battle, that medallion is a reminder of the elf-woman that he loves. She is with him even when she is not there. The audience understands, every time that they see that medallion, that somewhere Arwen is thinking of Aragorn, and Aragorn is thinking of Arwen. We don’t need for him to ever say it.
A year later in THE TWO TOWERS (2002), the medallion is still his most cherished possession. A symbol of his love for Arwen. He has been through battles, he has been on a long arduous journey, and he still wears the symbol of his ardor for Arwen. When he sleeps, he holds the medallion in his hand and dreams of her... and we understand that this medallion is not just metal, but a symbol of his emotions and her emotions. Of their romantic bond.
But the battle rages on, the fellowship has broken, and Aragorn, plus too-short-to see-over-the-wall dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davis) and elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) find themselves in the kingdom of Rohan looking for help. Though the King is intent on remaining neutral, his beautiful sword-wielding daughter, Lady Eowyn (Miranda Otto) sides with Aragorn.... and she falls for him. The two are evenly matched with swords and with wit. Lady Eowyn has finally found a man who is her equal, and romance blossoms. In a battle scene, Aragorn loses his medallion...
What does the audience think when he loses the medallion?
How does the audience feel when he loses the medallion?
What do you think is the audience’s *reaction* to losing the medallion?
When Aragorn returns from the fierce battle, Lady Eowyn decides to profess her love for him... but stops when she sees Legolas handing Aragorn the medallion he had lost. Stops when she sees the way Aragorn holds the medallion, caressing it... as if it were princess Arwen herself. Even though millions of miles may separate the two, the medallion acts as a SYMBOL of their love. It's obvious by the way he holds the medallion, that he is still very much in love with Arwen. So Lady Eowyn turns and walks away - broken hearted. Not a word is spoken in this scene - that symbolic medallion says it all. The audience KNOWS how Aragorn feels and KNOWS how Lady Eowyn feels. We have been taken *inside* the story and allowed to share the feelings of the characters rather than being an outsider who is being told about those feelings through dialogue. We get the feelings first hand, rather than second hand by a character saying how they feel. That is the power of using metaphors.
HOW DO YOU DO THAT?
Using metaphors requires a good imagination on your part and the ability to figure out the core reasons and motivations of your characters. The first thing you need to do is figure out what it is about your character that you want the audience to *feel*. Do you want them to feel cast aside by the world? Do you want them to feel loss? Do you want them to feel love? Do you want them to feel confidence? What is the specific feeling that you want the readers or viewers to feel, that your character is feeling, in this scene? The more specific you can be the better - and that means that you need to understand your characters in order to make the audience understand your characters.
What can be the physical symbol of that emotion? Schmidt feels that he is without purpose or value after he has retired - so what is symbolic of his purpose and worth? Aragorn feels a deep love for Arwen - so what can be symbolic of that love? Often this is the difficult part, because you need to find a physical object that the audience easily sees as symbolic of those emotions or thoughts. In ABOUT SCHMIDT the actuary files are the perfect symbol of his value - 25 years of hard work has created them. Those are *character specific* - if he had been in a different line of work, you would need a different symbol. So knowing your character is required! Using your imagination to come up with that symbol is required! As writers, those actuary files don’t exist until we create them. So we need to know that we are going to use that symbol later so that we can invent it now.
I am all about making the best choice, which means that you need a choice... so whatever you want to show about your character - make a list of possible things that can symbolize that. Give yourself several good choices so that you can select the best. The physical object that the audience will instantly understand is symbolic of that feeling. Sometimes it’s a physical scar on a character that symbolizes an emotional scar. Sometimes it’s an object. In BASIC INSTINCT Michael Douglas’ cop has been dating police psychologist Jeanne Triplehorn for a while and have exchanged apartment keys - she has a keyfob of Homer Simpson. The *apartment keys* symbolize their relationship - and when he asks for his key back, that scene where the key is removed is an *emotional* scene... and later in the film, when she touches that keyfob in her pocket, we know that she is thinking about their relationship. So you will need to select the physical object that best represents the thought or feeling or emotion. We understand what the key really means.
Once we have that symbolic physical item, we have to show the audience what it means. The scene in SCHMIDT where he carefully makes sure that his replacement knows about his files, the scene in RINGS where Arwen gives him the medallion. Sometimes the audience can understand the symbol without a scene that sets it up, like the apartment keys in INSTINCT, or this great film...
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) is a gritty, realistic story of soldiers returning after World War 2 that won Best Picture Oscar and six others, and shows the intertwining stories of three different soldiers from the same small town returning home and attempting to readjust to society. It is an amazing example of visual storytelling because the soldier’s thoughts and feelings are never discussed - that is too painful, too private... these are war heroes! So the story demonstrates the problems they are struggling with - alcoholism, losing your limbs, and going from War Hero to unskilled civilian entering the work force. If you haven’t seen this film, check it out. I think Harold Russell is the only actor to win 2 Oscars for the same role - he was an actual soldier who lost both of his arms giving an amazing performance that probably hit way too close to home. He continued as an actor, doing great work, and the first time I saw him was in INSIDE MOVES (1980) as a smart alec supporting character.
One of the three stories stars Dana Andrews as an Air Force Hero who comes home from the war and can't seem to find a job anywhere. He was a Captain in the Air Force - who commanded men... but before he enlisted he worked behind the counter at a soda fountain - the equivalent of a fast food job today. While he was gone, his wife was busy screwing other guys (implied - this is a 40's film - but she worked in a sleazy night club as a waitress). He ends up working at a drugstore for minimum wage - kind of the same type of job he had before the war. His wages are so low, that his wife leaves him, and now he has nothing. We see him working the terrible job, with pushy a-hole customers, and how do we think he feels? Now, these scenes could have had wonderful customers... but that wouldn’t make the audience feel his pain, would it? He eventually loses his temper with a verbally abusive customer and is fired. The worst job there is - and he’s fired from it.
Everybody in town knows him... he was a war hero, but now he's a bum.
He packs his bags, puts on his Airforce uniform (how do you think that makes him feel?), and takes the bus to the nearest Airforce base. He asks the dispatcher if he'd do a favor for an ex-Airforce nose gunner. "What kind of favor?" "Can I hitch a ride on the next plane for the coast?" "Which coast?" "I really don't care." The dispatcher tells him there's a plane leaving at 8 pm, if he can wait. He has nothing else to do, no place else to go.
Andrew kills time by wandering through the airplane graveyard. Hundreds and hundreds of planes, as far as the eye can see, no longer needed after the war. Rusty,
dusty. A crew is dismantling them for the parts. For the scrap metal. They are junk. He is surrounded by Air Force planes which are no longer useful... just as he's no longer useful.
The writers found a metaphor for Andrew' character. The planes ARE Andrews.
We know exactly how useless Andrews is feeling. This is a big emotional moment in
the film, without a word of dialogue. When he finally climbs inside one of the planes,
brushing away the dust, and sits in the nose gunner's seat, you know that he's trying
to recapture those times when he was a hero... someone with a purpose... someone
who was appreciated by those around him. And this is a strong moment in the story. It doesn’t tell the audience how to feel, it doesn’t tell the audience how Andrews feels... it creates a situation using a metaphor that makes the audience feel what Andrews feels. Allows them inside of the story so that they can feel the emotions themselves, instead of watching the story from outside the frame.
Whether your story is about the battle for identity and dignity after retirement or the battle for Middle Earth, to rejoin society after returning from battle, using metaphors is a great way to SHOW how characters feel by using symbols.
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DESCRIPTION & VOICE Blue Book!
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E BOOKS PAGE
E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of
text to around 200 pages! Some are over 250 pages! See what is availabale and what is coming soon!Also, I've been writing Novelletes and there
will soon be novels.
E BOOKS: BLUE BOOKS & NOVELLETES
MY OTHER SITES
B MOVIE WORLD
Cult Films, Exploitation, Bikers & Women In Prison, Monster Movies.
FIRST STRIKE PRODUCTIONS
Producing my own scripts, investment possibilities, pipe dreams.
NAKED SCREENWRITING MP3s
The NAKED SCREENWRITING CLASS ON MP3!
The 2001 London Class on 8 MP3s! Recorded *live* the morning after the Raindance Film Festival
wrapped. The two day class on 8MP3s, plus a workbook, plus a bonus MP3 with PDFs.
The 2 Day Class on MP3!
Every screenwriting book in the world!
In Association With Amazon.com
From the latest screenwriting book to
guides for finding agents and producers... all with at the
BOOKLETS & PRODUCTS
FIRST STRIKE BLUE BOOKS
Each Blue Book is 48
pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings.
Seventeen Blue Books now available!
THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The
nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines,
several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
CLASSES ON MP3
CLASSES ON MP3! Take a class on MP3! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 Full length classes on MP3). Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on MP3!