SCENE FIX: Tips for Elevating Tension, Characters and Conflict

Script’s feature gives aspiring scribes the chance to have their scenes evaluated by master screenwriters.

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Bill Kelly (Enchanted, Premonition, Blast From the Past) and Michael Seitzman (North Country, Here on Earth, Farmer & Chase) look at a scene from Doug Berger’s Running in a Whirlpool, a character drama about a working-class teenager who decides to clean up her life after she gives birth to a baby boy in prison.

BERGER, a 40-year-old customer service representative from Columbus, Ohio, wanted to write a film about real people who struggle to make it in today’s society. The story takes place in an industrial Midwestern town where just about everyone, including the teen’s unemployed mother and estranged boyfriend, make it difficult for her to live the straight life.

Although Berger says his characters are based on real people, he hopes to improve the realistic integrity of the story by heightening conflict and emotional drama in this scene. Here, a social worker examines whether the 18-year-old ex-con is a fit mother:

INT. MAUREEN’S BEDROOM — AFTERNOON
Beverly, the children’s services case worker, looks around the room. Maureen watches from the doorway while holding Justin.

MAUREEN
Can I help you with anything?

BEVERLY
(smiles)
No, I’m fine.

MAUREEN
What are you looking for?

BEVERLY
Nothing in particular.

Beverly opens the drawers of the dresser.

MAUREEN
Hey! You’re getting personal now.

BEVERLY
Yes, I know.

MAUREEN
Don’t you need a warrant or something for that?

Beverly turns toward Maureen.

BEVERLY
Actually, no. My job is to protect the child
so I need to see how he lives. I’m not out
to arrest anyone.

MAUREEN
Okay.

BEVERLY
Is there a reason you don’t want
me looking in these drawers?

MAUREEN
What?

BEVERLY
You aren’t hiding any drugs or anything?

MAUREEN
(angry)
No!

BEVERLY
Okay. Then you have nothing to worry about.

Beverly walks over to Maureen and Justin.

BEVERLY
May I?

Maureen hands Justin to her and she walks out of the bedroom.

AT THE LIVING ROOM COUCH

Beverly sits down, placing Justin on her knee. She looks him over and runs a hand through his hair, looking at his scalp.

BEVERLY
He looks good.

MAUREEN
(smiles)
His doctor gave him a good report
at our appointment last week.

BEVERLY
There haven’t been any issues from
your previous substance abuse?

MAUREEN
I’ve been lucky so far. That
was one good thing about being
pregnant in jail. It put me
on the wagon.

Beverly stands up and hands Justin back to Maureen.

BEVERLY
Things seem okay today so that’s good.
Just get him a sweater or something
for the draft.

MAUREEN
Okay.

BEVERLY
Call me if you have any questions.

MAUREEN
I will.

How can I juice up the tension in this scene without going over the top?

Bill Kelly says: There’s already a very tense dynamic in place. The social worker is searching Maureen’s bedroom for contraband. The stakes of her finding something bad are literally being held in Maureen’s arms: custody of her son. This is an unspoken, elephant-in-the-room consequence that both the characters, and we the audience, are aware of. I would concern myself with making this moment believable more than anything else. If we believe Maureen is a good mom and stands to lose her child, the tension will take care of itself.

Play the tension in the scene visually. If that’s successful, the dialogue is almost superfluous. Did Maureen use drugs earlier in our story? If so, was there a secret place she stored her stash that we as the audience are aware of? For instance, if she stored drugs in the top drawer of her dresser, you could have the social worker searching from the bottom drawer up. Regardless of the dialogue, we would be nervously waiting for the social worker to reach that top drawer (the equivalency of Hitchcock’s story about a mundane conversation going on when there’s a ticking bomb under the table). The tension will increase the closer we get.

Michael Seitzman says: The scene is already brimming with natural tension, but every scene can be made stronger. My first question is whether Maureen is actually hiding anything. If she is, then you have instant and obvious tension. Let’s say Maureen had a man sleep at the house the night before and he left something there—a bag of pot, maybe, and Maureen has hidden it. As Beverly gets closer to the hiding place, Maureen (and the audience) gets more and more nervous.

If Maureen hasn’t hidden something, there are other ways to squeeze the scene. You can give the scene a clock. Maureen has to get somewhere—a job interview. Maybe Beverly is taking too long to examine the house and the baby. She’s asking too many questions. Maureen keeps looking at her watch. Finally, Beverly asks her, “Is there somewhere more important you have to be?” The stress of a ticking clock is often a welcome engine to a scene that might otherwise be static. But it has to be organic. The audience smells a contrivance like a dirty diaper.

WORKSHOP: As many an Oscar® statuette can attest, there’s nothing like a complex character journey to win over an audience. The struggle for inner strength is a universal quest, and as Kelly says, if the writer takes an ordinary act and infuses it with the character’s turmoil in a visual way, the audience feels the pressure. And they love it. Menno Meyjes (screenplay) and Alice Walker (novel) use this technique in The Color Purple. They give the protagonist, Celie, an outward expression for her inner struggle. As she wrestles with her sense of self, her abusive husband Albert demands she shave him. Celie sharpens the knife, and her anger builds. All the while, the audience stares at Albert’s exposed neck. One misstep and he won’t make it to the next scene. That kind of layered tension captivates audiences.

Script EXTRA: Dances with Costner – Scene Writing from A to Z to A-List Actor

How can I make the one-year-old son more of an involved character rather than just a prop?

Bill Kelly says: You have the perfect visual representation of what Maureen stands to lose in her arms. Finding a natural (not cloying) way of having the baby express affection for his mother (smiling, laughing, playing with her hair) intercut against the unspoken tension of the social worker’s room search will be a natural help to the scene’s dramatic dynamics.

Michael Seitzman says: The child is another way to answer the tension question. Maybe he’s screaming, and she can’t seem to stop him. She bounces him on her lap, she tries to hum in his ear, she does everything she can but he just won’t let up. It’s like a parent desperately trying to stop a screaming kid on an airplane—the looks of the other passengers are excruciating. Same thing here. Beverly’s glances only seem to make Maureen feel more helpless—“I swear, he’s not usually like this!” Finally, Beverly tells her the baby’s diaper probably needs to be changed. Maureen is now humiliated.

WORKSHOP: Kelly and Seitzman have different, but equally effective, ideas about how Maureen’s baby should be reacting in the scene. The point speaks to the importance of children and other secondary characters in feature-length scripts. How can sub-characters add tension and complicate the plot? Matt Damon and Ben Affleck use secondary characters to this effect in their character drama Good Will Hunting. When Will’s friends create trouble in a bar on the other side of town, Will must come to their rescue. When they get tired of seeing him waste his potential, they push him to change. Their actions create conflict and heighten drama.

Is the interaction between Maureen and the social worker believable?

Bill Kelly says: It feels like this is how we might expect the social worker to act, overbearing and intrusive. There’s more reality to be realized if you played against that expectation. What if the social worker were actually a kind person, conscientious about her job, and sympathetic to her clients? She would still have to perform the responsibilities of her job (i.e., the room search, determining Maureen’s fitness), and it would even help the tension if the social worker were someone we (and Maureen) wouldn’t want to disappoint by possibly finding contraband. Instead of the social worker’s snippy remark about “having nothing to worry about,” you might have the social worker proactively put Maureen at ease as far as the search: “I know it’s intrusive, but we have to do it.” If you have any clunky exposition you need to get out about Maureen, this exchange would be a great opportunity to do it since any mundane conversation will be forgiven as our attention will be focused on the tension of the social worker’s search.

Michael Seitzman says: I believe the scene, but sharpening the characters’ points of view could strengthen it. Maureen doesn’t want Beverly in her house and Beverly is trained to not believe a thing Maureen says. If you start with that probable truth, the scene will immediately become more tense and the dialogue more specific. For example, when Maureen says, “That was one good thing about being pregnant in jail, it put me on the wagon,” Beverly’s response might be more authentic if she asked an obvious question: Now that Maureen is out of jail and not pregnant, what’s to keep her from falling off the wagon?

Great scenes tend to have more than one thing going on at a time. There is usually a manifest story and an implicit story. The manifest, or obvious, story in this scene is that of a case worker examining the home to see if it’s suitable for the baby and a nervous mother who needs to get that stamp of approval. What’s the implicit story, though? What’s the story underneath the one we’re watching? Maybe Maureen is secretly worried that she’s not a good mother. Maybe she’s angry at the constant character tests she has to endure as an ex-con. How do you show this to the audience? One way might be to have Beverly take a call on her cell phone, a personal call that gives us a brief glimpse into a life that Maureen wishes she had. Beverly is on the phone with her husband, for example, telling him what time their dinner reservation is, or what time the movie starts, and the names of the other couple joining them, ending the call by saying, “I love you, too.” The way Maureen listens to this seemingly ordinary and routine conversation reminds us how completely out of reach those kinds of simple joys seem to be for her.

BEVERLY
There haven’t been any issues from
your previous substance abuse?

MAUREEN
I’ve been lucky so far. That
was one good thing about being
pregnant in jail. It put me on the wagon.

Beverly stands up and hands Justin back to Maureen. [Her cell phone rings.

BEVERLY
I’m sorry, do you mind if I take this?

MAUREEN
Sure.

Maureen turns away to give Beverly more privacy.

BEVERLY
(on phone)
Good timing, I’m right down the street.
How about I meet you there?
(pause)
Okay, I love you, too.

Beverly turns back to Maureen, who grimaces.]

BEVERLY (CONT’D)
Things seem okay today so that’s good.
Just get him a sweater or something
for the draft.

WORKSHOP: Creating unique, unpredictable characters is the trademark of the dramatic screenwriter. Alan Ball does it flawlessly in his Oscar-winning screenplay American Beauty. If Mena Suvari’s sexy, fast-talking character didn’t turn out to be the complete opposite of what she says she was, the audience wouldn’t have been as surprised. The same technique was used with Chris Cooper’s character. How could a militant homophobe reveal his true colors? Ball answers the question and shocks the audience in the process. Look at each character, big or small, in your film and ask yourself if you’ve seen a character like this before. If the answer is yes, rethink how you can play against that stereotype and surprise your audience.

Script EXTRA: Writing (Not Overwriting) Description 

How can the descriptions show more and contrast with the dialogue?

Bill Kelly says: The descriptions need to support the characters and the dynamics of the scene. Maureen is clearly worried; the consequence of this search (losing her son) is immense. How does Maureen physically show that? Clutching her child tighter? A nervous tick? Brushing her hair? Does she reveal her fears in how she tries to hide them? Forcing an unnatural smile? Nervous laughter as she attempts a “normal” conversation in the middle of the search? There’s also the description of the search itself. What if we’re waiting for that social worker to reach the top shelf? We should describe every shelf that’s opened on the way to it, like a shrinking fuse leading us to a bomb.

Michael Seitzman says: Specificity and economy are always what you’re striving for in descriptions. You’ve opened with Beverly looking around the room. What does that room look like? More importantly, what does it look like from each character’s perspective? And watch out for the clichés—a sink full of dirty dishes, a screaming couple next door, etc. Poor is not synonymous with squalor. Remember what Stevie Wonder sang, “Her clothes are old but never are they dirty.” Now, that’s not to say that your character can’t be whatever you want her to be. If she were a meth addict, for example, the apartment probably would be filthy. But your scene, as written, suggests that Maureen is doing a pretty good job right now.

My other advice about action lines is to only use phrases like “Beverly turns toward Maureen” for a specific purpose. I’m not sure Beverly needs to turn to Maureen to tell her what her job is. Somebody in Beverly’s position is not overly concerned with Maureen understanding her job; she’s just doing it. You direct a character to turn her glance in order to either illuminate or conceal something. That could be something physical, like a crying baby or a bag of pot hidden in a drawer, or it could be to highlight a moment as surprising, alarming, endearing, etc. The important point here is that every single word you write in a script has to have a specific purpose.

WORKSHOP: Using descriptions effectively is a great way to get a reader (directors, actors, producers and agents) interested in your screenplay. That said, heed Seitzman’s warning: Be specific and brief. Hone your style. Avoid clichés, trite passages, and unnecessary actions. If you’re not sure which actions to describe, for example “Bob looks at Jane, and Jane looks back at Bob,” consider this rule of thumb—avoid describing body movements that include arms, legs, faces or eyes. Make every movement count. Reading award-winning screenplays helps clarify. For example, in The Shawshank Redemption, when Morgan Freeman’s character decides not to commit suicide, he doesn’t stare out the window or just turn to the side. He carves his name on one of the ceiling beams. This description gives the reader insight into the character but also moves the story economically.

What’s the best way to show the character’s emotional state?

Bill Kelly says: There’s a great saying about actors playing drunks. Bad actors show people acting drunk. Good actors show drunks trying to convince people they’re sober. Real people (characters) are not actors. When it comes to uncomfortable emotions (as in your drama), our first inclination is not to show our emotions, but to hide them out of fear, insecurity and embarrassment It’s the character behavior that shows those true emotions bleeding through despite our efforts not to display them that is the most real, and thus the most convincing.

Michael Seitzman says: Remember the golden rule: A character is defined by the decisions she makes, preferably in a crisis. If you decide to use the baby crying as a source of added tension, does Maureen lose her temper with him? Does the stress of the scene overwhelm her? Does she break down in tears? Does she use humor? The scene is already showing Maureen to be honest and patient. Make the scene test those qualities and they’ll be even further illuminated for us.

INT. MAUREEN’S BEDROOM — AFTERNOON

Beverly, the children’s services case worker, looks around the room. Maureen watches from the doorway while holding Justin. [Justin is in baby hysterics.

MAUREEN
(trying to soothe Justin)]
Can I help you with anything?

BEVERLY
(smiles)
No, I’m fine.

MAUREEN
What are you looking for?

BEVERLY
Nothing in particular.

Beverly opens the drawers of the dresser. [Justin continues to wail.]

MAUREEN
Hey! You’re getting personal now.

BEVERLY
Yes, I know.

MAUREEN
Don’t you need a warrant or something for that?

Beverly turns toward Maureen.

BEVERLY
Actually, no. My job is to protect the
child so I need to see how he lives.
I’m not out to arrest anyone.

MAUREEN
Okay. [Well, I’ll be out here
going deaf if you need me.

Maureen exits the bedroom, bouncing Justin up and down, trying everything to calm him.]

Script EXTRA: Quirks, Flaws – Improve Plot with Character Development

WORKSHOP: Seitzman quotes the great authority on drama, Aristotle, when he says character is defined by choice. The most memorable character dramas prove this time and again. When Michael kills the heads of the other families in The Godfather, we know what kind of man he’s become. When Forrest Gump marries Jenny despite her questionable past, we know he truly loves her. Audiences understand characters when they see their choices. Practice by envisioning your protagonist sitting at a table eating dinner. He has two plates in front of him. Which one is he going to eat first, the small side salad or the large pizza? Even a simple choice like this tells the audience who your character is. Show the choices, and whether the characters win or lose, the audience will enjoy going on a two-hour journey with the heroes and villains you’ve created.

Originally published in Script magazine July/August 2008

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One thought on “SCENE FIX: Tips for Elevating Tension, Characters and Conflict

  1. David White

    Interesting article.

    I would pack even more drama into the few words exchanged between the two women. Instead of Maureen asking, “What are you looking for,” which is kind of bland, it would be more tense if she bristled and said, “What you think you’re gonna find?” To which Beverly would reply, with the same sweet smile, “You’d be surprised how many mothers hide their drugs in their kid’s room.”

    That would set up an even more defensive back-and-forth, as Beverly looks in the drawers, and Maureen gets defensive. “You ain’t gonna find no drugs in my kid’s room.” And Beverly, while still focused on the drawers, replies just as sweetly, “And where would I find them?”

    Also, anyone familiar with the way our criminal confinement system works — or doesn’t work — knows drugs are just as ubiquitous inside prison as outside. Maureen’s comment about being forced to stay clean is something of a laugh. In fact, Beverly should do just that: she should laugh at that, and reply, “Honey, I’ve been inside. I know what it’s like. Don’t try to bullshit me.”

    At this point, with tension about to burst over into something worse, Maureen breaks down and almost sobs. “But I love my son! I love him! He’s all I got!” With real tears in her eyes, she holds Justin close and kisses his head. Beverly would let that moment sink in, as she then answers her phone, with her hand running through Justin’s hair.

    “Yes? Yes, I’m right down the street.” Beverly would look into Maureen’s tear-brimming eyes and say, “Yes, I can meet you in ten minutes. I think I’m done here.”

    As she puts the phone away, Beverly would finally connect with Maureen on a personal level. “I’m not here to take away anyone’s child. I’m only here to protect the child.” Maureen says, “I thought that was my job?” And Bev would smile and nod gently. “It is.”

    Same amount of time, but far deeper involvement between the two women, and a much more powerful scene.

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