Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Practical Application of the Atoms of Cinema: Part III

(Click here for the previous article in this series)

In previous articles, I introduced the “Atoms of Information” approach towards story analysis, and have presented examples of expertly written scenes that reflect hows its ideas work to create an effective story experience in its audience. In the following article, I present a REAL scene from a REAL spec screenplay, used with the permission of the writer, to illustrate how this approach can be used to break down, analyze, and improve a scene during the rewrite process.

But first let's review the basic ideas behind this approach:
1) Storytelling, cinematic or otherwise, is a process of communication from storyteller to audience. 2) The smallest unit of storytelling is the communication of a single piece of information. 3) It is through the piece-by-piece accumulation of important information that the audience can understand and enjoy a story. 4) Therefore, the most effective and pleasing screen narratives are those in which every moment, every image, sound, or action, works to communicate a piece of new and important information to the audience, ideally in a manner that encourages the audience to become mentally involved in the story process.

Here is our scene:

FADE IN:

EXT. ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND - WATER STREET - DAY


JOHN O’BRIEN, a lanky 30ish white Irish Catholic, steps to
the curb on a steep street at the bottom of a massive exposed
granite rock hill.

It is sunny but cold.

He looks across a large oval-shaped harbor to a clump of
fishermans’ houses lashed to the side of the opposing rock
face like so many brightly colored life rafts, then back at
the building he has just exited: A big Mansard-roofed, three
story clapboard walk-up, white with black trim and upper
story bay windows.

INSERT white with black trim letters on a glass door:

GOVERNMENT OF CANADA
DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES AND OCEANS

END INSERT

A pale white male OFFICE WORKER in his sixties, guilty
looking, steps out of the DFO door.

OFFICE WORKER
O’Brien, it’s not me, sure.
It’s...
(pointing up a floor)
Them that says he can’t take the
fish.

John turns away and starts off up the hill.

OFFICE WORKER
Tell your father I did all I could
for me will you?

John dismisses the guy with a wave without turning.

JOHN
Yes, b’y. I’ll tell him you did
all you could for you.

The Office Worker waves John off, too, and heads back inside.

OFFICE WORKER
Ah, go on. You know what I mean.

ON JOHN

Trudging halfway up the hill to a statue of a black anchor
and chain embedded in the top of a large granite boulder
marked by a weathered bronze plaque.

INSERT PLAQUE INSCRIPTION

O’Brien Park

Dedicated to the O’Brien family who lived on this site.
Four members of the family paid the supreme sacrifice while
serving with the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy in World
War II, 1939 - 1945.
Maurice - H.M.S. Forfar, December 2, 1940.
Michael - S.S. Eastlea, March 30, 1941.
James - Lost at sea, July 22, 1942.
David - H.M.S. Frisky, October 5, 1942.
Their mother, Margaret O’Brien, who died June 12, 1963, was
recognized as Newfoundland’s most bereaved mother for World
War II. Their father Maurice O’Brien, died August 30, 1942.
“Let us then follow after the things that make peace.” Romans
14:19.

END INSERT

John touches the plague in a familiar worn spot as he walks
by.

JOHN
(to himself)
Yes, b’y. We’ll go on. What else?

He continues climbing the street, assisted by the occasional
cracked concrete step and rusty iron railing, the ship-like
colors of the houses changing kaleidoscopically beside him.

FURTHER ON

John crests the hill and comes upon a picturesque little

CITY PARK

No more than a small grassy clearing sandwiched between more
walk-ups, home to a small bandstand trimmed with lacy
woodwork and sitting comfortably beneath two large leafy
trees.

John goes to the bandstand, sits on its steps, crosses his
arms tight across his chest, closes his eyes and breathes
deeply of the clean, salty air.

A COUPLE OF KIDS carrying baseball gloves, bat and ball, stop
in front of him. They appear not to be bothered by the
chilly temperature.

John opens his eyes.

KID #1
Hit a few flies, mister?

JOHN
Fly balls?

KID #2
Sure, b’y. What else?

John smiles, takes the bat and ball, walks to the far end of
the field, waits for the kids to position themselves opposite
him, then pops a high fly in the air.



Okay. This seems like a decent opening scene on the first read. It sets up the story's characters, setting, and conflict. But let's see what happens when we break it down moment-by-moment, and REALLY look at what the audience would get from this scene.


FADE IN:

EXT. ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND - WATER STREET - DAY

JOHN O’BRIEN, a lanky 30ish white Irish Catholic, steps to
the curb on a steep street at the bottom of a massive exposed
granite rock hill.


Few moments in a film rival the importance of the opening image. It is the first thing presented to the audience, the very first building block that your entire story will be constructed. Give the audience a dramatic, visual piece of information that arouses their curiosity and they will immediately sit up and take notice. One good piece of information and they are already hooked into your story.

The opening moment is also has the most potential for creativity. Your film begins as a blank slate. At this moment, there are limitless possibilities with what you can do with it. Good opening moments are handled in two different ways. The first is to open with an image of dramatic action. Something is happening, causing the audience to get mentally involved because they wish to know what. The second is with a visual image that has multiple levels of meaning. A simple images that not only communicates literal information, but also tone, theme, genre, or perhaps symbolic meaning. For instance, a story filled with people with rotten souls, can open with a rotten apple core sitting in the garbage. A story of violence and anger set at sea could start with rough, storm-fueled ocean waves.

But the writer of this scene has missed this opportunity with his opening image. All this image communicates is “There is an Irish-looking man standing at the bottom of a hill.” This information is neutral and nondramatic. The audience is given no reason to be interested. They have no idea who this person is -so they have no reason to care about seeing him, nor is he doing anything at the moment that that engages their curiosity.

If the writer wishes to open his film with an image of the protagonist, he should open with the protagonist in the middle of DRAMATIC ACTION. Have him throwing a fit, screaming and flailing his arms. Or have him shredding a document and throwing it into the water. Or have him casually walk down the stairs, and then spit on the doorstep. Now, we are communicating something dramatic and emotional: “This man is upset.” This in turn engages the audience's interest as they wonder “Who is this man? Why is he upset?”

It is sunny but cold.

“Sunny” can be communicated in cinema. “Cold” cannot. There is no way you can make the audience feel the temperature. Anything one puts in a script that cannot be communicated through sight or sound amounts to “NONINFORMATION.” To communicate “cold” you must instead supply visual information that would suggest the temperature, such as seeing one's breath, or tucking one's chin inside their coat.

He looks across a large oval-shaped harbor to a clump of
fishermans’ houses lashed to the side of the opposing rock
face like so many brightly colored life rafts,

Here the writer suggests a shot to communicate the environment. The comparison of the houseboats to life rafts is suggestive of something with deeper meaning- but how will this comparison be communicated visually to the audience? What image can the writer give to make that suggestion?

All in all, the info in this section is still very neutral, one-sided, and literal. Nothing is communicated to the audience other than factual information of what is around John. Here, the writer misses another opportunity. Whenever possible, a writer should strive to communicate meaning on multiple levels. A picture is worth a thousand words, so there is plenty of room for any image to communicate many things at once. The writer could use this visual to get across something of deeper significance. Such as, if there is conflict and violence on the story's horizon, the writer could foreshadow this with blood-red waters reflecting the sunset. Or if the writer has characters who are emotionally repressed, stuck in stubborn habits, this could be suggested symbolically by an iced-over harbor with boats stuck in their docks.

then back at
the building he has just exited: A big Mansard-roofed, three
story clapboard walk-up, white with black trim and upper
story bay windows.


I don't see why a description of the building needs to be communicated in such a detailed manner. The Atoms theory is based in the idea that everything seen or heard on screen communicates a piece of new information that is important to advance the scene, and thus the story. If it doesn't have story importance, it is not necessary to include.

INSERT white with black trim letters on a glass door:
GOVERNMENT OF CANADA
DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES AND OCEANS
END INSERT


Okay, we have been given some information that will work to orientate the audience. The audience now knows where they are and has some clue as to what the characters are doing here. Unfortunately, this information has been given in a manner that engages the audience's interest in the least significant degree. Signs are a form of bald exposition. They give information directly to the audience in a direct, nondramatic manner.

The audience prefers not to be TOLD things. Facts are boring. Like children in gradeschool, audiences are more eager to learn when they are allowed to PARTICIPATE. They prefer to be indirectly given hints and clues that allow them to feel involved in the story process. The audience feels good when they get the impression that they are figuring out the story all by themselves.

The key is to find ways to SUGGEST information in a way that is easy for the audience to grasp, but doesn't feel like it is shoved in their face. There are many, many ways the information above might be suggested. One of the characters could be waving about a document with an official government seal. Or work it dramatically into the dialogue: JOHN: “I've dealt with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for ten years, and I've never had problems like this!”

A pale white male OFFICE WORKER in his sixties, guilty
looking, steps out of the DFO door.


Again, “guilty-looking” borders on noninformation. The writer should be more visually specific in order to communicate a character's emotions to the audience. What specifically could the office worker do to convey a feeling of guilt?

OFFICE WORKER
O’Brien, it’s not me, sure.
It’s...
(pointing up a floor)
Them that says he can’t take the
fish.


This moment is done well. The scene's very first line of dialogue immediately communicates the source of the conflict that drives the scene. The pointing upstairs is a good inclusion. It adds a visual element to the communication, and instead of TELLING the audience all the information directly, it IMPLIES. It encourages the audience to become mentally involved. They “get it” that John is having trouble with government bureaucrats.

John turns away and starts off up the hill.

John's reaction as written does not work to communicate much. He is simply walking away in an emotionally neutral fashion. Putting a little more thought into this action would work to give it some meaning – both to the conflict at hand and in conveying John's character.

OFFICE WORKER
Tell your father I did all I could
for me will you?


Nice. Story information that is given by making it dramatically relevant to the conflict at hand. The audience now knows that John has a father, and that father has a position of respect in this town. Enough respect that people wish to curry his favor.

John dismisses the guy with a wave without turning.

JOHN
Yes, b’y. I’ll tell him you did
all you could for you.


This reaction works better than the first. There are multiple levels of meaning communicated in how John dismisses his request. First, it implies that John feels that his cause is hopeless and is being treated unfairly. He does not have much respect for bureaucrats. The irony between his actions and his words communicates that he does not in fact believe that the office worker did all he could, and just wants the good favor of his father. John probably will not pass along the office worker's message.

However, I personally think John is being a little too passive in this scene and seems to give up on his goal too easily. This might make him come off too aloof to the audience. If the writer would include something here that would indicate that John cares more about the problem than he is letting on, the audience would feel a little more involved. But, if the protagonist doesn't care, why should the audience?

The Office Worker waves John off, too, and heads back inside.

OFFICE WORKER
Ah, go on. You know what I mean.

Like the last section, we can see that when a character gives a reaction based on emotion, it communicates far more to the audience through subtext than it ever could if it were communicated with direct literal speech. First we saw the office worker acting polite and supplicative. Now we see him blow John off with a wave of his hand. The contrast between these to moments implies through subtext that the office worker never really did care about John's problem. John's opinion of him is probably correct.

ON JOHN

Trudging halfway up the hill to a statue of a black anchor
and chain embedded in the top of a large granite boulder
marked by a weathered bronze plaque.

INSERT PLAQUE INSCRIPTION

O’Brien Park

Dedicated to the O’Brien family who lived on this site.
Four members of the family paid the supreme sacrifice while
serving with the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy in World
War II, 1939 - 1945.

Maurice - H.M.S. Forfar, December 2, 1940.

Michael - S.S. Eastlea, March 30, 1941.

James - Lost at sea, July 22, 1942.

David - H.M.S. Frisky, October 5, 1942.

Their mother, Margaret O’Brien, who died June 12, 1963, was
recognized as Newfoundland’s most bereaved mother for World
War II. Their father Maurice O’Brien, died August 30, 1942.

“Let us then follow after the things that make peace.” Romans
14:19.

END INSERT

Wow. This is a LOT of text to put on screen. Probably the last time an audience had to read this much at once was the opening scroll of Star Wars. By giving the audience all of this information here and in this manner the writer has brought his scene to a screeching halt.

This is for a number of reasons. First, audiences do not like to read. Half of the moviegoing public still refuses to go to a movie with subtitles. The writer asking a lot of his audience by forcing them to read all of this. Most will probably read the first couple lines, then skip to the end. Some may not bother to read it at all.
Second, in order for the audience to read this entire message, the image on the screen will be stuck on a flat, boring insert shot for more than thirty whole seconds. That is an eternity in screen time. And for an audience that does not like to read in the first place, this is the easiest way to make them bored and restless.
Third, just like the building's sign mentioned previously, this whole section is nothing but bald exposition. Inactive, nondramatic, unemotionally charged info shoved in front of the audience's nose, presented in a manner no more interesting than a school textbook.

On top of this, when one reads further into the script, they find that none of these names or backstories have any direct relevance to the events of the story. These people and these events are not mentioned again. The only thing the writer is trying to communicate is that John comes from a family with a well-respected legacy in this town.

The writer must come up with a far better way to communicate this point. One that allows the audience to grasp its significance in seconds. It has to be done with a strong visual. My suggestion is change the long-winded plaque with a statue of John's grandfather -or some other forefather- who bears a distinctive similarity to John. Include with this an inscription of this honored man's name a short quote that suggests why this man is important.

John touches the plague in a familiar worn spot as he walks
by.

JOHN
(to himself)
Yes, b’y. We’ll go on. What else?

This is a nice piece of information, again communicated subtly through emotion. It implies to the audience that John has some sort of emotional connection to those honored by the plaque. Please, realize that the audience may have missed John's last name when it was given in the dialogue. So, simply seeing “O'Brien Park” does not create much significance to the audience since they may not have enough info to make the connection.

He continues climbing the street, assisted by the occasional
cracked concrete step and rusty iron railing, the ship-like
colors of the houses changing kaleidoscopically beside him.


Thoughts on this section in general: Looking back, it seems to me that the audience will not be as hooked into the action as the writer would like it to be. This is simply because the source of the conflict is left very vague. The only information we are given is that John is angry with the government office over keeping some “fish” Well? What does that mean to the audience? Next to nothing. Why are these fish important? Why is John upset over the issue? What even IS the issue? These fish we're talking about, is it a million-dollar catch of commercial seafood? Two goldfish for his niece? An army of robot fish with “freak-in lay-zers” he'll use to take over the world? This problem is aggravated by the fact that this opening conflict is never explained further in following scenes. The issue ends up being dropped entirely after a dozen more pages.

The audience needs to be given just a little more information. Just enough so they understand why this conflict is important to John and important to the story. One must give the audience just enough information in order to UNDERSTAND, if one wishes for them to CARE.

FURTHER ON

John crests the hill and comes upon a picturesque little

CITY PARK

No more than a small grassy clearing sandwiched between more
walk-ups, home to a small bandstand trimmed with lacy
woodwork and sitting comfortably beneath two large leafy
trees.

John goes to the bandstand, sits on its steps, crosses his
arms tight across his chest, closes his eyes and breathes
deeply of the clean, salty air.

A COUPLE OF KIDS carrying baseball gloves, bat and ball, stop
in front of him. They appear not to be bothered by the
chilly temperature.

John opens his eyes.

KID #1
Hit a few flies, mister?

JOHN
Fly balls?

KID #2
Sure, b’y. What else?

John smiles, takes the bat and ball, walks to the far end of
the field, waits for the kids to position themselves opposite
him, then pops a high fly in the air.


I'll take on this section all at once. As everyone should well know, the first 10-20 pages before the inciting incident in a typical screenplay is known as the “setup.” The writer's goal is to literally “set things up.” He/she must creatively establish every important story element (from characters to locations to backstory, and so on) that the audience needs to know beforehand in order to follow the story once the inciting incident engages the conflict and pushes the story past the point of no return. The setup is just like a chess player setting the board, piece by piece, everything in its proper place from the king to the pawns, before the match can begin. But what if a player starting setting up other pieces on the board, pieces that did not belong in the game? He puts a Monopoly top hat next to the Queen. And a red Corvette Matchbox car in front of the pawns. Not only would this be silly, but it would be pointless because these pieces have nothing to do with the game at hand. It may look cute or interesting to have those outside pieces there, but they end up doing nothing but cluttering up the board.

I bring this up because all the elements introduced in the preceding section are never returned to later in the writer's full script. We never see this park again, nor do we see these kids, nor do we ever see John again engage in anything to do with baseball. These things have no real use in the rest of the story. The writer has chosen to follow his opening scene with a lot of new information whose usefulness begins and ends within this scene.

Audience members have become innately savvy from years of watching expertly-crafted screen stories. They know that if something is shown to them on the screen, especially during the setup, it has some sort of importance. They file whatever information they are given away in their minds and hold onto it with the expectation that it will become necessary to know later on.

Look back at Part II of this article (April '09) at the two study scenes from Die Hard. The writer lets no moment go to waste. Every little moment communicates something of story importance. But, if the writer instead fills a scene with information that does not turn out to have any real importance, it will only work to dilute the story with needless details and slow down the scene's pace. If the writer makes this mistake enough times, the audience will eventually become confused and lost over what information they need to remember and what is just fluff.

First off, the writer should ask himself whether his story really needs this scene. If the writer does feel the need to see John's emotional reaction and to have his spirits lifted at the scene's end, he should consider changing things in a way that communicates important information that the audience will needs later, while simultaneously carrying out the intentions of the original scene.

This might be a good place for John to encounter a supporting character. Contrasting how John interacts with this new character to how he treated the office worker could work to communicate part of John's deeper character. The scene's setting could be one that needs to be established for story's sake, such as John's home or place of work. Or, it could be a place that would help to communicate something about John's character, or the story's theme. John might go and watch his boyhood home be bulldozed, communicating to the audience a feeling of loss. The activity at the end of scene that cheers John up could also be something that allows the audience to peer into John's deep character. When a person feels upset, they usually cheer themselves up with the one thing they really enjoy in life. Showing the audience what that one thing is could reveal a lot about his character.


In summary, the writer has generally done a good job expressing ideas and revealing character with his dialogue -there is no unnecessary dialogue, no information is repeated, there is subtext communicated beneath the words, and information is presented through drama and conflict. But, the writer is missing many opportunities to express his story through action and visuals. Now, this might be acceptable if this were a stage play, but actions and visuals are the bread and butter of the cinema.

I put so much stress on “information” in my method because it is the process of receiving information that engages the minds of the audience. The more they are engaged, the more interested and excited they become about the story they are watching. By neglecting cinema's two most powerful methods of communication, the writer has kept the audience from being as fully involved in the scene as it could be.

CONCLUSION

Every moment in your screenplay is important. Piece by piece, atom by atom, your story should create an unbroken string of communication that continuously pulls the minds of the audience along its path from the first moment to fade out.


When analyzing your scenes, look at every moment. Ask yourself,

1.What is this moment communicating to the audience? What NEW knowledge is the audience learning by including it in the scene? Is it related to something with story importance? Or is it just attractive filler?

2. Am I communicating this information in a way that will intellectually engage the audience in the best way possible? Am I simply telling things to the audience in a direct, literal way, or can I find a way to suggest the information and let the audience learn on its own?

3. Does the audience need this information at this moment? Could I create curiosity or suspense in the audience by withholding it until a later time?

4. Am I communicating multiple levels of meaning with the same action, image, or piece of speech? Is it possible to invent an image, action, line that works to DO more without being more? Can I transmit the information using drama or emotion?

This process may seem tedious at first, but once a writer starts to train his or her brain to think in this manner it will start to become second nature to write scenes that communicate efficiently with the audience, engage them mentally, and give them a powerfully dramatic experience right from the first draft.

1 comment:

RJM said...

As the writer of the piece analyzed, I commend you on a job very well done indeed. The approach revitalizes my understanding of the scene and I appreciate having your suggestions brought to my attention this way. Thank you. RJ Maher