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WHERE'S THE DRAMA?

The stuff that dreams are made of

               P O I N T   O F   A T T A C K


Unlike novels, screenplays don't have time to begin at the beginning. 

They begin at a point just before the primary conflict erupts out of the history of the story. Sometimes, they are that conflict!  This dramatic jumping-off place is sometimes referred to as THE POINT OF ATTACK.

The Point of Attack is the first thing the audience will see or hear as the story begins.

In The Snake Pit, it is the character of Mrs Cunningham whose head is full of voices and questions.  In Fallen, it is the Denzil Washington character (we think) who seems to be dying in the snow and telling us about it in V/O.

Your story’s P of A is one of the few decisions you face in this business that can actually make or break a great idea for a script.

(Please note!! Every scene you write has a point of attack.)

As you think about and make judgements about where the Point of Attack should be, remember that every story (and its characters) has a history. The problem is to decide where in that history to begin telling the tale. Likewise, every scene is like a glimpse into an on-going, unbroken continuum, with its own dramatic structure, its particular rhythm and interactions with the scenes that have come before and the scenes that come after. There is also the CUT – a much underrated and undervalued element of storytelling that can convey much simply by virtue of the RELATIONSHIP of one scene to another, and the implication of what happened in the space between them.  

The dramatic action of screenplays is fueled by conflict and change. Telling powerful stories (especially in the format of the short film) requires this "fuel" to catch fire very quickly. Even if you are working in a feature length format, you want to start fanning the flames within the first ten or twelve pages after the Point of Attack. Consider the following examples from plays and screenplays: 

 

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN 

Ariel Dorfman's play begins at the moment the lights of the car carrying Paulina's husband and the doctor who may have tortured her flash into the living room. The Point of Attack comes about 17 years after Paulina had been arrested for subversive political activity, tortured, and then released. It also happens to be the day the first democratically elected President of this unnamed Latin American country has offered her husband the position of chair of its new Human Rights Commission.

 

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF

Tennessee William's play begins the evening Big Daddy finally realizes he must decide which of his two sons should be the heir to his forty thousand acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile.  The Point of Attack is 65 years into Big Daddy's history, 49 years after he got the plantation, and 5 years after his son Brick's marriage to Maggie.

 

DELIVERANCE 

Boorman’s screen adaptation of Dickey’s novel forsakes the early opening passages of the novel, which focus on the suburbanite world of the four principle characters as they go about their day-to-day lives in Atlanta. In the film, we meet them en route (in Voice Over), on their way into the hill country to begin their canoe trip.  

 

 

THE VERDICT

 The story begins with, the down-at-heel-lawyer-turned-ambulance-chaser, Frank Galvin, playing a pinball machine, and gravitates to a funeral where he is trying to scrounge up enough business to pay the rent on his down-market office. How he got like this comes out – quite naturally – later, when his adversaries are hatching a strategy to beat him in a court case and are researching his personal history for anything they might use against him.

 

 

TEASER / FALSE POINTS OF ATTACK

The complexity or richness of a story may sometimes demand development through as much as 10 or more pages before the major conflict of the screenplay can be introduced in a clear enough way to hold an audience's attention. 

A 'Teaser' or false Point of Attack can keep the audience's interest while you gradually draw them into the background of the conflict that will eventually erupt.  (e.g.: The opening introduction of  The Last Voyage, or Vertical Limit)

A false point of attack usually involves one of these techniques:

* Borrowing a small portion of the Climax.  This can even be the actual moment of the play's Climax.  (e.g.: Fallen, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre)

* Excerpting a short section having considerable tension. (e.g. : The Hit)

* Inserting a dramatic prologue from much earlier in the life of the characters whose story we are going to see. (e.g.: American Splendor, Lean On Me)

* Having a Narrator directly address the audience. The Narrator hints at the conflict to come. (Stand By Me, Little Big Man, To Kill A Mockingbird, Goodfellas, Run Lola Run, Fallen)

These borrowed scenes or images are "false" Points of Attack. They're a trick to hold the audience's attention from the moment of the "true" Point of Attack through a more leisurely series of flashbacks sketching in the years or days prior to the conflict shown in the false Point of Attack.

E.G.: EQUUS  - Peter Shaffer's play begins with the psychiatrist drawing our attention to a teenage boy embracing a stylized horse. And then he tells us that he must start at the beginning for us to understand the story. The image of the boy and the horse won't make complete sense to us until we see it again in context at the end of Act I.

The best Point of Attack for any story is the one that immediately gets you into the twin business of EXPOSITION & FORESHADOWING 

Exposition gives us information about the past, about what happened before your Point of Attack. (note: ex-position, that is, “former position”).  Since the Point of Attack in most contemporary screenplays comes very late in the game, there's a premium on weaving in enough information about what's happened before so that we can get our bearings.

Exposition is like awful medicine -- we need it, but nobody wants to know it's going down. So you need to do this without our realizing what you're up to.

In the good old days of theatrical drama, you could just send the maid out with her feather duster and have her chatter on about all the terrible, mysterious, scandalous, wonderful things that have befallen the family during the last 50 years. And for a change of pace, you could shove the butler out instead. This doesn't cut it anymore.

 

Exposition Rule: Just give us what we need to know, when we need to know it.

But if you're dead set on delivering the first instalment in one dose, there's always . . . THE NARRATOR

 

NARRATORS

Narrators are handy short-cuts for Exposition. And they can be great storytelling devices. In most contemporary screenplays, they're nearly always a central character.  (e.g.: The Barber character in The Man Who Wasn't There, Richard Dreyfus VO in Stand By Me, or Charlie Sheen’s in Platoon)

Narrators need to have a real stake in the consequences of the events in the story. Contemporary scriptwriters hardly ever use impartial and un-involved observers for this job. Weave all that Exposition into the personal concerns of your Narrator. 

And when Narrators serve this technical function, they're often put in service as Authorial Spokespersons to clarify thematic issues for us. That usually happens toward the end of the screenplay. In the meantime, they dish out the Exposition at important Time Jumps in the story. 

A rule of sorts: If a Narrator opens the screenplay -- or at least shows up within the first several scenes -- audiences will expect these folks to keep them company on the rest of the journey.

 

The usual places for them to do their thing

 Openings or endings of short Formal Scenes.   Technically, each time you start a new formal Scene, you're picking a new secondary Point of Attack. And by doing that, you've got the potential for a jump in time between these Scenes. What's happened in that break in time can refuel the conflict between your characters. (REMEMBER: powerful dramatic information can be conveyed in the interval between scenes (i.e.: "the cut").

Foreshadowing (plants & pointers) – Dramatic screen storytelling is all about PREPARATION – the laying of hints or clues about what may happen in the future of the story. The use of “plants” and “pointers” early in the screenplay – whether they be lines of dialogue, events or objects – suggest a range of possibilities to the audience. As you move forward in Act I, and then into Act II, this range narrows. The ultimate goal of Foreshadowing is to have the audience be both surprised by the story's “reveals” and by its climax, and to find it all perfectly logical. The logic of it comes from Foreshadowing.

 

THEMES

The best screenplays tend to be about something that matters; they dramatise a situation and its attendant value(s) and these invariably are something of consequence. 

Being about something that matters is the same thing as saying a screenplay comes with a Theme.

Themes come from the writer’s personal values – moral, social, political – and are expressed through the screenplay's Plot and Characters. The theme of a story will be the moral or ethical conclusions towards which it leads both the writer and his/her audience. 

Screenwriters don't often think consciously about their themes as they write. One’s personal values are integrated into the “what and why” of one’s life, and whenever one draws upon one’s most intimate insights, understandings and realisations about human existence, one will necessarily express these values through the story one is trying to tell, and one’s values will eventually manifest in the process of writing and re-writing. That's why the same themes often show up in a writer's work from one story to the next. Woody Allen, for example, or John Cassavetes.