THINK Picture, THINK Action, THINK Dialogue: A Screenwriter’s Approach

Excerpt from Thomas B. Sawyer’s book, Fiction Writing Demystifed. Thomas B. Sawyer is an Emmy & Edgar-nominated, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and was Head Writer-Showrunner of the classic TV series, Murder, She Wrote.

BEGINNINGS – Kicking It Off – That Super-Critical Opening Moment

fiction-writing-demystified-thomas-sawyer_smallWhere and how to start one’s yarn – choosing the just right opening words for a novel, play or short story – selecting that optimum moment for the beginning of a screenplay or teleplay – the crucially important first meeting between your fictional creation and your audience is – once again – about hooking them.

Right up there in importance with how you choose to introduce your characters, those initial words involve creative decisions not to be taken lightly. Nor usually are they easily arrived at. The estimable novelist/screenwriter Elmore Leonard, by the way, suggests that most of us should never start with weather.

Look at some incredibly memorable opening lines, two of them dialogue, the others narrative:

  • “Now is the winter of our discontent…”
    (William Shakespeare – Richard III)
  • Let me tell you about the very rich – they are different from you and me…
    (F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Rich Boy)
  • “Call me Ishmael…”
    (Herman Melville – Moby Dick)
  • As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect…
    (Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis)

Or check out some great opening movie scenes, from Raiders of the Lost Ark (Scr. Lawrence Kasdan, Story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman – Dir. Steven Spielberg), to His Girl Friday and others. Or the awesome first few minutes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Scr. William Goldman – Dir. George Roy Hill). Or The Godfather (Scr. Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola, based on Puzo’s novel – Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), in which a dozen-or-so characters are introduced, all of them – and their complex relationships – vividly-and-economically defined, riveting our curiosity. Examine how these films hook us, how deftly they handle exposition, how quickly they are into the story. Writers of any type of fiction, as well as authors of nonfiction, can learn a lot from the choices made, from the way those movies begin.

There is much about storytelling technique to be learned from the visual media, all the way from TV commercial spots to epic movies and miniseries. How it looks, and how it’s written. The effective juxtaposition of sounds and images.

Has the influence of film and TV on narrative writing been consistently positive? Of course not. But cinema has definitely changed – and refreshed – the way novelists, historians and biographers practice their art.

I don’t know that there is a for-certain technique for writing terrific opening scenes, nor any guarantee that yours will be as effective as those cited. But, like so much of the mindset I acquired while writing for TV, awareness of the problem – of the need for truly arresting hooks and grabbers – will ultimately improve your writing. And in any case, I deeply believe that whatever extra effort you put into such details will be rewarded – bigtime.

MIDDLES – Finding and Creating Compelling Scenes

Let’s start by thinking about dialogue. You’ve done your homework, you’ve outlined. You have a pretty solid idea of where you’re going with it. But suddenly you come to a necessary scene that stumps you. Though you may know what it’s supposed to accomplish in terms of an A-to-B goal, you cannot quite visualize how you’re going to get it there.

One of the more useful techniques I’ve developed for “finding” a scene, for getting into a scene which I either don’t know how to start, or one in which the “meat” is eluding me, is by writing the participating characters’ “sides” (their lines, the he-said-she-said) in their entirety, with little or no attention to action or picture. In a way, it can be thought of as allowing the characters to write the scene for you. I’ve even done it by ad-libbing into a tape recorder, playing all of the roles.

Rarely do I use all of what they say. Sometimes none of it survives the cut. But I’ve found it a great way to develop a scene that I’m unclear about — a scene that, because of its subject, or objective in terms of storytelling, and/or structure, needs to be there, but isn’t automatically coming alive in my head. Often, the process will lead to business and/or a dynamic I hadn’t anticipated – stuff that may add dimension to the scene.

Now, the action part. Once the dialogue begins to gel, and I’ve gotten it all down, the next step for me in this particular process is cutting. Which may begin with finding places where the spoken words can be augmented – or better, supplanted by action or business. Those looks or gestures or pauses during which a character can take a sip of coffee – in place of a verbal response.

Or even better yet, finding material tha can be eliminated.

And of course the outside trims – snipping off the ends.

At the the top, discovering how much I can can get rid of – how  deep into the scene I can be when it begins. This part usually surprises – not only about how little is really necessary to make a significant story point, but also how effective it can be to throw your audience momentarily off-balance. Disorienting readers or viewers, wondering what in hell you’re up to is, incidentally, another convincing argument in favor of peeling back your exposition a layer at a time.

And similarly, best-case, leaving them with their mouths agape at the far end of the scene.

And – the picture: Regarding descriptive passages, my suggestion is that unless your name is F. Scott Fitzgerald and/or you have more than a touch of the poet, keep yours brief.

Sure, sometimes elaborately delineated physical characteristics, or the finer points of how a room is furnished have their place. Principally, of course, if you’re writing period stories, or scenes in which research is key. Even there, however, I recommend economy. Say it in as few words as possible. Let your action and dialogue carry the scene. Almost invariably, less will turn out to be more.

Where to Start a Scene and Where to End it

Unlike the printed page or the movie-or-TV screen – either of which can provide close-ups or their equivalent, the theater stage is essentially, in movie-jargon, a wide shot. While adept stagecraft, and/or artful, modern lighting can isolate – and focus an audience’s attention – on a particular part of the scene – even approximating movie-type cutting – the fact remains that it’s still taking place at a distance from the viewer.

Another aspect of the Playwright’s Curse – mostly the playwright is stuck with that tedious physical, logistical problem – the inescapable need to write entrances and exits – the necessity of moving actors on and off the stage. And with it, the challenge of keeping it entertaining.

Entrance Lines. From “Hello,” to “Tennis, anyone?” – it’s hard to come up with one that’s fresh. Same with Exit Lines. Sure, there are some memorable ones, lines that make a point, that have impact because they are delivered on an exit. Largely, though, they are the bane of most playwrights’ existence.

The screenwriter or novelist, on the other hand, can start in the middle of the scene!

And should!

Unless there’s a helluvva good reason to open it at the beginning, by bringing a new person through a doorway and into a room, or onto a location, don’t.

William Goldman’s motto for this says it very succinctly: Get into a scene as late as possible. (The same can be said of your story as a whole.)

And – your scenes can be buttoned without anyone needing to leave.

Bringing a new person onstage – or having one exit, say, in anger – in the middle of an ongoing scene – that’s something else, a device that can be very effective in introducing a new element – another level of excitement, conflict or humor.

Sure, there will be times when seeing somebody entering or exiting at the top – or bottom – of a scene is valuable, even essential. Obviously, a character bursting through a door on some sort of urgent mission (or storming out) can be highly effective (arguably, falling through a skylight is even better). But if the entrance you’re imagining isn’t dramatic, if it’s just a ho-hum way to start, you don’t have to write it that way. If the moment doesn’t count for something such as character development or exposition, if it isn’t adding anything – such as surprise – or urgency – or a button – or unless it has comedic value (as in Kramer’s entrances and exits on Seinfeld), why do it at all?

One of my reasons for emphasizing this is that so many writers – even professionals – as they’re devising a scene, tend to envision the entire transaction from the beginning – the client walking into the lawyer’s office, for example, including the “Hello, how are you” business that usually has no dramatic/entertainment value whatever – and is at best mostly OTN exposition. Alas, far too many otherwise competent novelists seem to think that because they’ve pictured that their hero has to enter a room and meet someone – even if the meeting has no dramatic value – they feel obligated to include the non-event anyway. And they may imagine – and write it clear through to the excruciatingly dull end, when the characters say their goodbyes and so on, and then exit the room.

Don’t.

As with dialoguing, imagining it’s entirety is an okay approach to creating your scene – but not if you then leave it that way, without trimming the fat.

Punchlines, Buttons and Act-Outs

Scene-endings, curtain-lines, are challenges all of us face, though the playwright’s may differ from those of the novelist or screenwriter, who can limit what the reader or viewer sees or hears – as much or as little as the author chooses. The equivalent, in film, of calling for a close-up, of focusing audience-attention where we want it.

Okay, but how does this apply to other writing-forms?

As a cautionary note. Make sure all of your scene-and/or-chapter-buttons are as strong as you can make them – especially if, in the next scene you’re abruptly changing locales, dealing for example with parallel action.

Leave your audiences hanging. Make ‘em anxious about what’s going to become of the characters they’ve just left.

This caveat, by the way, is not limited to melodrama or suspense yarns. It should be part of the writer’s thinking for even the softest, most lyrical of stories. It’s another essential part of hanging onto your audience.

Often, the scene-button, the “out,” is not a line of dialogue, but rather a moment, as in a look, a silent reaction from one of the players. Obviously, this is a lot easier for the writer to control in a novel, or in movie and TV scripts, than it is in a stageplay. And it is definitely a place where – in TV anyway – the writer can and should direct the scene on the page, with a specific instruction for actor, director and film editor:

“Off Millie’s look, we go to:” Followed by the next scene.

Or:

“Richard sags.”

Clearly, such cinematic stage directions would be unsuitable for all but the quirkiest novels. But paraphrased equivalents – written in the appropriate tense, in an acceptable prose style (in your style) – can be very effective in narrative fiction. And by limiting it to the outward description, rather than explaining the character’s inner feelings, one can leave the audience, whether readers or viewers, with the opportunity to project, to imagine what is going on behind the character’s eyes.

Nor is it wrong to button a scene from inside the mind of one of your characters.

A good button is a good button.

ENDINGS – Payoffs and Blowoffs

Guy gets the girl. The murder is solved. Girl gets other guy. The world is rescued from the bad guy. Girl loses guy. The farm is saved. Justice prevails. Earthlings survive attack from outer space. Problems are cleaned up – or not. Loose ends are knotted, snipped – or not.

An ending is – an ending. But…

But – like a lot of the stuff of good storytelling, it’s not that easy to do it well, to pull it off so that your audience says a collective “Wow!” The zinger, the twist, the topper they didn’t quite expect. You know the kind – those delicious finishes you’ve encountered in your favorite novels, stories, movies. As with memorable openings, satisfying, drop-dead endings can be elusive, difficult to create.

But they’re worth the striving.

In the action genre, whether TV, movies or novels, the end scene is  often – and appropriately – described as the blowoff. A good way – for the writer’s head – to regard the finish of even the most benign type of story.

How many times have we read novels where the last three or four pages were coda, where the whole thing just wound itself down, rather than presenting anything new – anything unanticipated? Satisfying, maybe. Blah, more likely. Like certain symphonic pieces that seem to end, but no, there’s more – and then more. And movies? A notable example was a rather pleasant Bette Midler vehicle, Beaches, (Scr. Mary Agnes Donoghue, from Iris Rainer Dart’s novel – Dir. Garry Marshall) which seemed to have three or four endings. They’d play a “final” scene, at the conclusion of which the audience expected to see the end-credits. Instead, another scene was played, and then another.

Looked at another way, I suppose it can be argued that they were giving us their own brand of surprise, but I’m not sure that that was the filmmakers’ intent.

Again using action films as a model, think of it as the challenge of coming up with a blowoff that tops all of the movie’s earlier fireworks and razzle-dazzle sequences. A superb example of a film that accomplished this at the end of an already breathless, seamless, relentlessly paced story that was full of Big Moments (including the all-but-impossible-to-surpass railroad locomotive/prison bus collision), the finale of The Fugitive manages to leave the viewer exhausted and gratified.

But helicopters, explosions and shootouts atop tall buildings aren’t a requirement. A much quieter though no less satisfying finish occurs in one of the best films ever made – the great, enduring Casablanca. Rick and Ilsa’s final goodbye was – and still is – flawless, almost unsurpassable, speaking to all but the most cynical among us, about sacrifice and lost love. But the film couldn’t end there. We had to see the plane taking off for Lisbon, as well as resolving Rick’s having shot the German Officer, Major Strasser. And ironically, the final, unforgettable line of dialogue – “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” – wasn’t even in the script. It was tacked on during the editing process.

Now – going for this type of ending seems on the face of it to be an obvious goal. And of course, from page one, you’ve been trying to give them stuff they don’t expect.

But the most important one you’re going to write is the one that resonates after the reader finishes your book, or your viewer turns off the TV or exits the theater. Sometimes it’s big without being slam-bang – a moral, a comment about life, or the world. Often it’s something small – smaller perhaps than the goal just achieved by your protagonist. A feelgood moment – or one that’s eerily ironic. Or humorous. Or full of portent. Again, the key is that it should seem unexpected – yet satisfyingly inevitable. It should feel right.

Always, when you devise your endings, your story’s final moments, your curtain-line – try to surprise. I’m not talking off-the-wall, come-from-nowhere, nonsense endings. I mean an end-frame that’s legitimate, organic to your story, that comes from deep within your construct, or your characters – one that seems right – and causes the audience to – if not gasp – perhaps think about.

A Curtain that stays with us.

One of my favorites is the final moment, the last line of dialogue in Three Days of the Condor. Aside from its superb execution, it struck a chilling note back in 1972. Seen today, in the context of what we now know, it’s spookily prophetic.

A few other killer endings: Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and John O’Hara’s novella, Natica Jackson. Both will remain with you for a long time. As will the final, devastating shot in the wonderful, funny/painful film, The Heartbreak Kid (Scr. Neil Simon, based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman – Dir. Elaine May). There are of course many others, and you probably have some favorites of your own.

Study them. Figure out what makes them work.

And then steal from them.

Admittedly, by the time we’ve completed our outline we may not always have found that stick-to-the-ribs, unexpected ending – the superbly orchestrated blowoff. Oh, we should be more-or-less there, have an idea of how it’s going to end, but – things occur to us as we write – it’s part of the process – and when it’s working, when we let art happen, one of the fun parts.

But certainly by the time you reach the end of your story there should be that turn, that switchback (or maybe several) that maybe even you – weren’t anticipating. I didn’t find the closing lines for my novel, The Sixteenth Man, until after I had finished what I assumed was my final draft. As with so many of the discoveries we make while in process, that one hit at about 4:30 AM, when it surprised the hell out of me, jolting me out of heavy sleep.

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Thomas B. Sawyer’s webinar Packaging Your Baby for Hollywood 

Screenwriting Webinar from The Writers Store

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At a Glance:

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thomas-sawyer_smallThomas B. Sawyer is an Emmy & Edgar-nominated, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and was Head Writer-Showrunner of classic TV series, Murder, She Wrote. He’s written 9 network TV pilots, 100 episodes, wrote-directed the cult film comedy, Gosh, Alice Goodbody, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Co-lyricist-librettist of JACK, an opera about JFK, author of bestseller No Place to Run, and Fiction Writing Demystified.

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