When you write or direct a dramatic scene it’s essential to understand that your characters aren't operating in a vacuum. Every character is part of a far larger world - the story world - which, in a successful film, is continuously intersecting with the worlds of the audience, the tribe/s, and you - the writer or director. As a director your job is to conduct both cast and crew into an intimate relationship with and understanding of the characters that inhabit the screenplay, and whose actions are what drives the story. The act of initiating the actors and the crew into the story world involves thorough preparation, a preparation that is greatly aided by asking yourself five fundamental questions. The writer can greatly assist this process by asking the questions to begin with. These are the central questions any screen storyteller worthy of the name should be asking her/himself when writing and/or directing any scene. The answers to these questions - when vivid and compelling - form the Rosetta Stone of the story that IS the film-in-the-making, allowing everyone - actors as well as the crew - to work from a common understanding concerning the specifics of every scene and the way in which every scene is connected to the larger world of the story.
The questions are:
1) Where am I? The place. What are the sensory elements present, and how might they affect me? What is my relationship to this place? Familiar, unfamiliar, loaded with history with is mine, someone else’s etc. FIND THE NUANCES.
2) What am I doing? My activity. What is the physical activity required to be accomplished at this time? For what purpose am I in this place at this time? What am I here to do? Remember that the activity can be the conduit through which the inner life of the character can be revealed.
3) Where did I come from? The question has two distinct parts. The first: Where did I just come from and how might that affect my behavior? The second: Where did I come from in the long term? This is the history of the character- the physical and psychological elements which make up and determine character. There is always constant history impacting a scene that colors what the characters do. The scene does not just start when the director yells action.
4) What is my relationship to the other characters? In what ways are we familiar, intimate- in what ways strangers? What is the history of our relationship? How did it come into being? (This can be developed through improvisations between actors so that there is a common experience which all actors involved can hold) .
5) What is the spine of my character? The spine of the character determines the character’s actions and objectives both over the entire course of the film and in each individual scene; it drives the narrative. My character’s spine is “that without which I would not be who I am.”
Spine of the character -> Objective -> Action -> Transition -> Action-> Transition, etc through the scene.
ALWAYS UNDERSTAND THAT THE ACTORS HAVE AN OBJECTIVE, AND THEN A SUPER-OBJECTIVE.
DRAMA and THE SEARCH FOR REASONS
Dramatic structure is essentially a search for reasons. Why do the characters behave as they do? What are the reasons, and how can these reasons best be dramatised?
The structure must have its own precise line of logic. Would-be screenwriters often begin writing a story without having any idea of the problem or crises that will drive the action. Many become fascinated with a mere notion and ignorantly believe that that they can create an interesting story by illustrating the notion. If one is to dramatise and not simply illustrate one has to sit down and work out the dramatic significance of one’s characters and the context in which the action occurs.
The BIG PRINT is a major domain for both character and setting. The things a character doesn’t say can be expressed here. The character’s mannerisms, gestures, idiosyncrasies are expressed here. The environment which the character inhabits comes to life here.
What are the essential prerequisites of drama?
1. A good character
2. A clear and compelling emotional relationship
3. And a potent and credible crisis in that relationship
Essential character principles
1. There shouldn’t be a character in the script who doesn’t have to be there to answer the demands of the main character’s story. No matter how delightfully a character is written, he is a bore if he serves no definite plot purpose.
2. Character traits must satisfy the demands of the main character’s story.
Drama unfortunately will not allow for the complex, contradictory impulses that constitute real-life people. The best the writer can hope for is to achieve in dramatic characterisations an essence or a basic truth of the character. DON’T hold on to preconceptions you have formed about a character… keep open… one learns about a character as one learns about a person… through gradual revelation and modification of one’s assumptions as to WHAT they are.
Characterisations devolve from the incidents in the main story. And the story in turn devolves from the characters and what they do and say.
Everyone that has ever written a screenplay and has shown it to a script editor has probably heard the question: "What's at stake?"
So, what exactly are we talking about when we talk about stakes? Stakes are not the same as objectives or goals, which is what the protagonist wants and is actively pursuing. The hero of a story, for example, may want more than anything to win a hard-boiled-egg-eating contest. That is the character's goal, and every scene may be arcing towards that outcome. But winning the contest is not what’s at stake. The stakes are defined by the distance between success and failure, and the price exacted for having a shot at success. What will happen if he/she gets what he/she wants? And, often more importantly, what will happen if he/she doesn’t?
A writer can easily dismiss a reader’s critique of the stakes like so: “Whatever. He (the reader) just doesn’t care as much about contests as I do. Obviously, this story isn’t for him.” Wrong attitude. If your screenplay/film is aimed strictly towards people that are passionate about eating excessive amounts of hard-boiled eggs, you’re stuck trying to sell your story to a very small and specialised group of people.
How do you force otherwise uninterested people to walk towards the light and see the beauty of egg-eating, to understand that it’s more than stuffing your face; it’s an art and even a philosophy of living? Well, you don’t have to. All you have to do is focus on the life of your character and determine the "price" or cost to him/her of winning and/or losing. Cause, really, it's not about eggs at all. It's much more personal than that.
In the film, Cool Hand Luke, its about mind over matter - Luke's "sermon" to the other inmates about the nature of power and self-belief - the transforming energy of inspiration and the will to power. In the act of eating 50 eggs Luke confounds the conventional logic and show how the impossible is possible; he also manages - unwittingly - to provoke in his fellow chain-gang mates the vision of himself as a kind of saviour figure - a person that they can believe in, who they might imagine is qute capable of leading them to the promised land, whatever that metaphor may appear to be for each of them. As Dragline says, "Ol' Luke is a genuine world-shaker." We begin to care more about Luke and th price that must eventually be exacted for his elevation to the status of a Christ-figure.
When someone tells you to raise the stakes in your story, think about the PRICE that the character must pay in order to give him/herself the best chance of success. Think of what the protagonist does and the response to what s/he does - widen the gap between success and failure as much as possible. If it appears now as a pothole in the road, transform the pothole into a canyon. That may entail making major changes throughout the script or it may mean altering a small handful of scenes in the beginning and end. Either way, it requires work, and quite a lot of courage. It can mean the difference between getting your script rejected at every turn or optioning it and launching a career in screenwriting. Stakes is high.
Martin Buber, in his major contribution to modern thought, I and Thou, posits a philosophy of personal dialogue in which human existence may be understood and differentiated in terms of the way in which we humans engage in dialogue with each other, with the world, and with the divine. Buber contends that human beings invariably alternate between two attitudes toward the world – one which is expressed through what he refers to as an I-Thou relationship, and the other, which he terms an I-It relationship. I-Thou signifies the relation of subject-to-subject, while I-It is a relation of subject-to-object.
Likewise, the screen storyteller’s relationship with characters may also be understood in terms of such a choice. Does the writer choose an I-Thou relationship, in which the writer is cognizant of and emotionally open to ALL of the characters necessary for finding the story, or does the writer simply enforce his own separate role of chauvinistic puppeteer, armed with a predetermined agenda, which the dramatis personae are obliged to dance to though they were mere puppets dancing at the end of not-quite invisible strings?
In the former relationship, the writer is an equal – no more or less important than the other characters (including the audience and the tribe or tribes whose story is being told). In such a relationship, the writer acts and interacts within a context in which none of the characters becomes a slave to formula. In an I-Thou relationship, the roles of the characters, including the role of the writer, are not subsumed under the tyranny of method or served up in answer to the requirements of technique or as some simple-minded response to unmanaged fear or prejudice. Successful – i.e.: fresh and original – dramatic characters do not live at the pleasure of the storyteller alone, to be manipulated according to every passing fit and whim. Instead of perceiving one’s fellow characters as separate, isolated beings whose raison d’etre is is to serve the insecurities and needs of the writer, and whose actions serve only to hit each plot target in a timely fashion, the mediumistic writer is immersed in a vital, transformative dialogue in which ALL of the characters are involved with all of their being with each other.
In contradistinction to this, the I-It relationship, is largely an act of insecurity, a misguided need to control events at any cost, the full meaning of which usually lies beyond one’s emotional comprehension. In an I-It relationship, the screenwriter perceives the characters largely as consisting of specific, isolated qualities and attributes. How many fledging writers have wasted their time and energy compiling copious lists of what foods, colours, clothes, hobbies and attributes their characters like or possess? To perceive characters simply as a list of attributes and attitudes is to view them – and oneself – as fragments of an objectified world of things. I-Thou is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, while I-It is a relationship of separateness and detachment.
Screenwriters, and filmmakers generally, often try to convert (or pervert) the subject-to-subject relation to a subject-to-object relation, seldom realising that the being of a subject is a unity that cannot be analysed as an object. When one tries to analyse a subject as an object, the subject is no longer a subject, but becomes an object – in short, it becomes something that it is not – something inauthentic, something contrived or pretentious. When a subject is analysed as an object, the subject is no longer a Thou, but an It. The being, which is analysed as an object, is the It in an I-It relation.
The subject-to-subject relation affirms each subject as having a unity of being, and in that affirmation creates the possibility of recognising that larger unity, which is the resonant power of Love – as an emotional energy binding the two subjects into One. This atonement – or at-one-ment – is the essence of the experience of IDENTICATION, which is the emotional essence of the dramatic experience.
When a subject chooses, or is chosen by, the I-Thou relation, this act involves the subject’s whole being. Thus, the I-Thou relation is an act of choosing, or being chosen, to become the subject of a subject-to-subject relation. The subject becomes a subject through the I-Thou relation, and the act of choosing this relation affirms the subject’s whole being.
Buber says that the I-Thou relation is a direct interpersonal relation that is not mediated by any intervening system of ideas. No objects of thought intervene between I and Thou.1 I-Thou is a direct relation of subject-to-subject, which is not mediated by any other relation. To accept this is to suddenly be free of all those screenwriting tomes and how-to books by which the snake-oil salesmen ply their foolishness. One is either IN the drama and in an I-Thou relationship with one’s characters or one is not, and the only things that method, technique and formula can do is to keep you from entering into the only kind of relationship that will make any difference at all.
Thus, I-Thou is not a means to some object or goal, but is an ultimate relation involving the whole being of each subject.
Love, as a relation between I and Thou, is a subject-to-subject relation. Buber claims that love is not a relation of subject-to-object. In the I-Thou relation, subjects do not perceive each other as objects, but perceive each other’s unity of being. Love is an I-Thou relation in which subjects SHARE this unity of being. Love is also a relation in which I and Thou share a sense of caring, respect, commitment, and responsibility. In this way, the writer/story relationship is both a sacred trust and a secret feeling.
Buber argues that, although the I-Thou relation is an ideal relation, the I-It relation is an inescapable relation by which the world is viewed as consisting of knowable objects or things. The I-It relation is the means by which the world (or screenplay) is analysed and described. However, the I-It relation may become an I-Thou relation, and in the I-Thou relation we can interact with the world in its whole being.
In the I-Thou relation, the I is unified with the Thou, but in the I-It relation, the I is detached or separated from the It. The detachment is frequently perceived as a threat, something that must be manipulated or dominated, something that can be sorted out and when sorted out can produced money and fame.
In the I-Thou relation, the being of the I belongs both to I and to Thou.
In the I-It relation, the being of the I belongs to I, but not to It.
I-Thou is a relation in which I and Thou have a shared reality. And in the world of screen storytelling, this is nowhere better expressed than through STORY. Story is the shared reality of ALL the characters, but never becomes fully born unless all of the characters are involved with all of their being, and BEING WITH.
The I which has no Thou has a reality which is less complete than that of the I in the I-and-Thou. The I which has no Thou seeks meaning in what it might acquire – and in the realm of storytelling this often means the frantic acquisition of incompatible additions to that incomplete reality that will remain eternally incomplete by virtue or such additions.
The more that I-and-Thou share their reality, the more complete is their reality. No addition is necessary. Their completion merely multiplies completion.
Buber equates God with the eternal Thou. God is the Thou that sustains the I-Thou relation eternally. Whether one accepts the idea of God or not is less important to committed storyteller than the wisdom that the eternal Thou is not an object of experience, nor is it an object of thought. The eternal Thou is not something that can be pigeon-holed, investigated or examined. The eternal Thou is not a knowable object.
The unformed character – the goad to action – the uncarved block that pits one’s courage against unlimited possibilities – call it what you like – God or the imagination, or freedom (including the freedom to choose not to be free - as in the Garden of Eden story – whatever you like, Thou is the barrier-less Being through which and from which one speaks to the future and from which the future is becoming, becoming present, not yet. It is the courage to Be that appears when everything that we have held most dearly disappears in the anxiety of doubt.
One does not use knowledge to get one to the edge. Knowledge is the edge. If one is to leap into the unknown - which is the story - one will have to leave knowledge behind. The leaping IS the Thou before Thou appears.
1 Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p. 26.
"Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart." ~ Rainer Maria Rilke