Saturday, August 31, 2013

Writing a Scene

Let's start off with answering the question, what is a scene? There are definitions from various sources. For the purpose of this discussion I'll define it this way. A scene is the narrative action that takes place in a specific location at one time.

That's a general rule it is not hard and fast. Some action sequences, such as a phone conversation may include two locations at the same time. Some action sequences that are contiguous in one location may consist of more than one scene. An example of that would be a conversation in one location followed by a fight in the same location where the conversation is one scene and the fight is another.

A scene should include three elements. Those are conflict, change and what is called a button.

Wait. Wait. What's a button? Think of it as a punch line. Blake Snyder in his book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, defines button this way. "A line or visual punctuation that ends a scene: an ironic comment, a joke or a note of deep meaning."

Shakespeare tended to use rhyming couplets to end his scenes. See, this stuff has been around a long, long time. We're not just now making it up.

A scene in a dramatic performance is fairly obvious. In a narrative work, such as a short story or novel scenes are still used to move a story forward but they may not be quite so obvious as they are in performance.

Scenes tend to vary in length. Sometimes each chapter in a story is a scene. Sometimes each chapter may consist of several scenes. There are no real rules on how a writer should structure a story. If there were then stories could be churned out like paint by number pictures. Some stories are done that way, by the numbers. When they are done they tend not to garner any kind of critical acclaim.

Here's one way to look at a scene and this might help you with writing them. Think of a scene as a comedy sketch, that doesn't necessarily have to be funny.

Here's one way we used to structure comedy sketches when I was on the writing team for RIOT at what was then called the Ryerson Institute Of Technology. The initials of the school took on the quality of a pun, you see.

The first thing needed is a premise. A premise is a statement that says what the sketch is about. Here are some examples with being funny in mind: "We're going to make fun of math teachers." "Plants at a flower show." "Jesus goes through customs." "We're going to shoot the boots to telemarketers." "A series of one liners on consumerism."

Usually the very next thing to come up with is what we called the blow line. This is another term for button. In a joke it would be called the punch line. In an academic paper or essay it's called a conclusion. With a comedy sketch the last line in the sketch is hopefully the funniest line in the sketch and leaves the audience laughing heartily with eager anticipation for the next part of the show.

There can be other funny things within the sketch but the blow line is the most important one. When I say usually it's the very next thing worked on tells you that it isn't always that way. Sometimes the blow line/button comes later on in the writing process. Sometimes it doesn't come easily. I have been involved in writing sketches where the writing team has sat there for hours throwing out and rejecting ideas for one liners or visual action to end a sketch.

Sometimes in desperation we have gone for the cheap laugh. When you have a deadline breathing down your neck you have to resort to that kind of thing. Sometimes that worked.

If you can come up with a good blow line/button to back up your premise at the outset the other necessary elements of the sketch or scene are usually easier to create because there is an ending to write to. To put it another way metaphorically, once you have a destination it is easy to plan a route to get there.

You don't have to marry the blow line at the outset. You most likely will come up with something better along the way. You should feel free to change it.

How do you know something is funny? When your audience laughs at it. There are many books on what's funny but the only way to be sure is to get it out there and see if anyone laughs at it. The Marx Brothers would perform their movies to live audiences for about three months before filming them, so by the time the camera started rolling they knew they would be getting laughs.

If you can get people to laugh, you can elicit any other emotion you want. Laughter is the hard one. W. C. Fields has been cited for having said, "Comedy is serious business." What I'm getting at is if you can write a comedy sketch you should have no difficulty with any other kind of scene.

One more thing about a button/punch line/blow line/conclusion and then I'll get on with it. For every scene except the last one the last line or action in your scene should propel your reader or audience into the next scene. If only I had the secret for doing that. Practice, practice, practice. That's what separates a beginner from a master.

With the premise and conclusion arrived at, keeping in mind that they can be changed, we are ready to write the sketch. Where is this happening? Is location important? Who is in the sketch? How many cast members will it have? How do all these things serve the premise of the scene? In a story that is continuous, how will this scene change the story?

You can have a scene with as few characters as none in it. This doesn't happen very often with a stage show but it does happen frequently in motion pictures, television shows, novels and short stories. By the way, the advantage to novels, short stories and radio plays is that the entire action of the story takes place in the mind of the audience/reader and in the realm of a person's mind there are no limits.

A scene without anyone in it usually sets up a location, a mood, a look, or something of that nature. In such a scene conflict, change and button become extremely important. Otherwise such a scene is just filler and if the reader/audience picks up on that to some extent you will lose them.

Moving up from a scene with no characters in it we move up to a scene with two characters. Wait. What? What about a scene with one character in it? That's what I'm talking about. When you have a scene with one character in it you actually have two characters involved. You have the person in the book, on the stage or on the screen. The other character in the scene is the reader or audience collectively. In such a scene the reader or audience tends to be addressed more or less directly and their involvement becomes greater, even if that involvement is only implied.

There is of course the special case of a monologue, where the character on stage directly addresses the audience or reader. Stories told in first person tend to be like this. Read Catcher in the Rye and you'll find Holden Caulfield talking to you like you were his very close long time buddy and personal friend.

With the premise, blow line, setting and characters figured out the body of the sketch tends to come out rather quickly because the sketch or scene is pretty much mapped out. When we were writing as a team, we went over everything at least twice and usually three or four times, if possible. Remember we were writing with a deadline.

With a two to five minute sketch every line becomes important. We were writing comedy (supposedly) and we wanted to load every sketch with as many verbal gags and visual business as possible.

The way to get comedy into a scene is mainly with conflict. Yes, puns are great. As are reversals or other types of word play. If you are interested you will find some of that dealt with in Melvin Hlitzer's Comedy Writing Secrets. It's a good book but it isn't the be all end all of comedy. In my opinion, nobody really knows what is funny until someone laughs. If it gets laughs it's funny. If it doesn't get laughs it's not funny.

With a comedy sketch and with the last scene in your movie, book or whatever the goal of the scene it to achieve an ending that is satisfying to the audience or reader. With every other scene in your movie or book there are three basic goals to the scene. One is to move the narrative forward by making some kind of change. Another is to make the audience or reader eager to get to the next scene. The third main goal is to hold the audience's or reader's attention so as not to lose them.

How you keep their attention is with conflict. What the characters say to each other and the actions they perform should all contain conflict. This is easy when the characters are opposed to each other such as the confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist. Very often the most memorable lines come from those. The example that leaps to mind is from the movie Goldfinger.

James Bond bound to a slab with a cutting laser approaching his privates says to Auric Goldfinger, "Do you expect me to talk?"

Goldfinger flatly replies, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

But you want to do the same thing with two lovers whispering sweet nothings to each other. That dialogue must also be loaded with conflict. The audience or reader may not be aware that there is conflict in such a conversation but they'll miss it if it isn't there.

I wish I could tell you how to do that or give you examples. I can't tell you and I can't think of any. This is something you, as a writer just have to work on. That's one reason why you need to do several drafts of what you write.

That's also a reason why if you can find someone who will criticize what you write honestly you need to make them a very close friend. Most people will tell you your stuff is just great just to be nice and that isn't at all helpful for you to improve your writing skills.

Don't ever be discouraged by someone saying to you, "That sucks," "That's boring," "That doesn't play," "That doesn't make sense," or anything like that because when they do that they are telling you what you need to do to make what you do better. Don't get upset when you hear statements like that. Ask them why they said that. Then pay close attention to their answer.

There, I'm finished. I hope there's something in there that will help you. I know I learned a few things by writing this.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

How To Cut Open A Box

The title of this piece might make you raise an eyebrow or place your palm on your forehead. I mean really, now, how difficult can it be to use a utility knife to cut the tape sealing a box shut?

The ease of cutting open a box isn't the point. The trick is to cut the box open without damaging any of the contents. Often a person in a store will not notice goods that they have damaged by cutting open a box the wrong way. How do you know it's the wrong way? You know because the contents get cut as well as the tape that seals the box.

I commonly see this in bookstores. There will be a book with a knife slit in the dust jacket and in the cover. I've seen it with a variety of boxed goods in grocery stores, too - cereal, cookies, powdered detergent, oatmeal, and so on. How does this happen?

It happens because the person opening the box, takes a utility knife with the blade extending about an inch and they hold it at ninety degrees to the top of the box and draw it firmly along the length of the box. Anything in the box underneath the join in the top gets cut.

I have seen experienced people who should know better do that. I cringe every time I see it. Sometimes they're lucky and there's nothing there under the lid but how often does that happen?

So here's the proper way to cut open a box and it's very easy to do. Angle the knife so the blade is almost parallel to the top of the box, such that the blade does not extend below the thickness of the cardboard. Then draw the knife cutting the tape. If there is anything inside the box just under the lid the knife will not cut it.

If you do not have a job that involves cutting open boxes you may think the above is some pretty useless advice for you. What, you never get a package with something nice in it for you that you need to cut the tape to open?