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Monday, March 31, 2008

Questions From the MailBag:

Rouge Waver Hazeem sent in some really great questions and Script Departmentpartner Andrew Zinnes took a few minutes to answer them:

When screenwriting people refer to “moving the story forward” do they just mean “moving the story to the climax?” If so, how does a scene where the character fails to progress on their main goal or retreats/moves further away from it possibly “move the story forward”? How does a thematic scene move the story forward?

Yes, in broad terms "moving the story forward" means having the plot constantly progress until the end. There should be no scene in the film that doesn't keep propelling the story onward. A thematic scene as you mention would help move the story along in a number of ways. The two most common would be advancing a character's internal development or to show on a macro scale how the world the character lives in is changing or to give it context. A good example of the first comes in FARGO when Marge has drinks with that Asian man who was a friend of hers in high school. At first, we think, "Why is this scene in the film? It has nothing to do with the plot." But when Marge learns that he has been lying to her - that he isn't what he seems - she now thinks that Jerry (William H. Macy) might not be what he seems. Then she goes back to his car lot and all hell breaks loose. The second way is a little more difficult to explain as sometimes they come at the impetus of the director. But one that broaches it comes in PRETTY WOMAN when the homeless person at the beginning and the end of the film talks about "how we all have dreams." He plays no part in the film plot-wise - he is merely there for theme.

A directing book of mine (still related to screenwriting) mentions that “narrative beats” need to be articulated by the director/screenwriter. These are “units that progress the narrative.” If I’m writing a scene, what is something that “progresses the narrative?” This is similar to the question above.

I am not 100% clear on your question, but from what you are saying, yes they are the same. My guess here is that directors (especially those that come from music videos and commercials) sometimes get hung up on creating interesting images rather than enhancing the writing and working with actors. This sounds like a warning to them to make sure you have the story coming through instead of letting the cool digital T-rex save your ass.

I’m also having trouble with the idea of what, exactly, is important information for the audience. Everything in a screenplay, since it’s motivated and somewhat relevant, can be said to be important to some degree. What information, exactly, is most relevant? The fact that my character makes mention of a family member she hasn’t visited in a while to another character is important in giving her a past relationship to make her human/real but does this information “progress the narrative”? How does Malcolm in “The Sixth Sense” failing to get his objective in the scene where he plays the “game” with Cole move the story forward? Is it because it contributes to his growth later and this growth causes him to succeed?

Keep this one simple thought in mind and it will help clear things up: film is a visual medium. If you can't see it on a movie screen, then it might not be all that important. Meaning - really internal stuff about how a character is feeling is better for a novel. And yet you have to get your characters' internal feelings out on the screen in order for them to appear three dimensional. Your question about the family member addresses this very issue.

At first blush it sounds like this might be an Act 1 beat in which case it is setting things up. Got to have a starting point if you want to move forward! If it comes in the middle then it probably is more secondary because it is telling us the character's state of mind as they move through the story. That is how you get internal information out on the screen.

As for The 6th Sense reference - the only way Bruce Willis is going to get to the bottom of Cole's problem and thereby solve his issue is to get Cole to trust him.
That is what the game is intended to do and if memory serves, Bruce fails to get Cole to sit down next to him. But Cole does end up liking Bruce and begins to open up to him later.

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