Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #41: No power exchange in scenes

One of the easiest mistakes to make in screenwriting is to think about just one character’s perspective in each scene. When I first started writing screenplays, all I thought about when approaching a scene was what the protagonist wanted and how he was going to accomplish it. All of the other characters were just props whose sole purpose was to help the protagonist get from one end of the scene to the other. That kind of writing should come with a warning not to drive or operate heavy machinery because it’s more effective than Ambien at putting people to sleep.

The solution to this problem is to plan what each character’s goal will be in every scene and then have them battle it out to see which one of them will end up getting what they want. The first step is to decide which character will have the upper hand at the beginning of the scene and then shift that power to a different character before the end of the scene. Good scenes always have one clear power shift, but the really fun ones show one character starting out with the power, losing it and then gaining it back.

Let’s look at an example from this year’s Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay winner, “The King’s Speech.” In the initial meeting between speech therapist Lionel Logue and Princess Elizabeth, Lionel begins the scene with the clear upper hand. He makes the princess wait while he uses the bathroom and then informs her that she’s late for the appointment. He follows that up by bragging about his skills, complaining that her husband didn’t come with her and even requesting that her “hubby” pop around on Tuesday to give his personal history. The princess is not amused, so she takes the power away from Lionel by revealing who she is and saying that he should address her as “Your Royal Highness.” Lionel is so screwed. But wait! Lionel takes the power back by telling Princess Elizabeth that his method requires total equality – no exceptions – so she agrees to his terms. Lionel had the power, then he lost it and then he gained it back again. That is a perfect scene and one that all of us should try to emulate in our own scripts.

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