Saturday, April 28, 2012

Writing By Scenes

They say you want to construct a story starting with the characters. Each character has their own agenda, and the inherent conflict between these competing agendas drives the story. Hence, each scene is a vehicle for expressing the unfolding conflict between these characters.
But what if you invert that dynamic? Instead of crafting scenes around the characters, what if you craft the characters around the scenes? Let’s say you’re dying to write a scene around some really, really emotionally charged moment – love at first sight, a death in the family, a chest bursting with pride, a crushing disappointment – but you can’t put it in context. Do you wing it? Do you hope you can put the characters together as you go along?
Of course not! You create characters around the scene. Does that sound odd to you? Maybe. On the other hand, consider that almost all your interactions with people ITRW (In The Real World) consist of scenes. 99% of the time, these interactions go off as expected. But the last 1% -- that’s where you need to focus. That’s where a person’s life hits its turning point, where its ship comes in, or where it goes off the rails. Think about a romantic advance accepted or spurned, a violent confrontation with long-term consequences, or a pitch for salvation taken to the next level. Like Bud Fox said, life comes down to a few moments. Why not make the best of them?
If a character’s life is really created from only a small subset of scenes, why bother with the character backstory at all? Just start with the scenes, and work from there.
Those old Quentin Tarentino movies were great for channel surfing because of their non-linear scene sequencing. Remember how Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction jumped all over the place? It was a little disorienting at first, but you got used to it. It wasn’t until later, when you saw them on late night cable T.V. that you realized how brilliant they were. Every single scene stood on its own. Since your attention span was so short by then, you were happy to see one before you moved on.
I loved the first Harry Potter novel for the same reason. It was sooooo structured. Every single chapter told its own story, even as it drove the overall plot of the book. That’s what was so great about it. Every chapter could be consumed in the amount of time it took to get the little one ready for bed. The next night, you would have a new one ready to go.
Back in the day, serialized comic books gave you that feeling. Then that self-contained episodic movement morphed into T.V. shows, like those serials that let you miss an episode or two without completely losing track of the main story.