I caught a video which went online the other day, the first in what promises to be a series called “Lessons from the Screenplay”. It analyzes the script for Gone Girl:
The video makes three points:
* Efficient action lines: Yes, efficiency is important, however the video makes another equally vital point: We have the right as screenwriters to comment on the moment in scene description. Take some of the examples cited from the movie Gone Girl:
Desi doesn’t invite him in. Strange charge in the air.
The last line is not anything an audience member could see or hear, so it is what is sometimes called an ‘unfilmable’. To scripteralists (my name for those writers who believe in screenwriting rules), this is verboten. However that is flat out wrong. For decades, pro screenwriters have used scene description to go inside a character’s thoughts, describe the emotion of the moment, drive home something going on underneath the surface of the scene, and so on.
Another example from the video:
Desi thinks Nick is guilty; Nick thinks Desi is innocent.
Again an ‘unfilmable’ and figuratively going inside each character’s mindset.
The video makes a good point in support of the writer providing some type of commentary at key moments in important scenes:
“You may notice the dialogue in the final film is different from the script. This happens frequently. The director or actor changes something on set. This is why it’s so important for the writer to set the tone of the scene in the script, so anyone making changes understand the context and intention of the original line.”
We have to be judicious in commenting on scenes. After all, we are writing a screenplay, not a novel, and a screenplay tells a story that is fundamentally an externalized reality, what we see (Action) and hear (Dialogue). However as I noted, Hollywood writers have used scene description to drive home atmosphere, tone, and the inner state of character’s emotional states for decades.
* The second point in the video: If the beginning of the scene frames what the scene is about, “The scene should then funnel down to a single point, with the most important word or line of dialogue stated last.”
This sounds an awfully lot like a rule, as if this is something you must do. I disagree with that because I contend there are no screenwriting rules, only conventions, patterns, expectations, etc. However there is some logic to this idea.
In scene-writing workshops I lead, there are six questions I have writers ask about each scene, the first one being this: What is the point of the scene? That helps the writer give focus to what transpires in the scene. As the scene will naturally have a Beginning, Middle, and End, generally speaking the scene will resolve around that point. Sometimes the last action line or line of dialogue can help drive home that point. Here is an example in the video from Gone Girl.
It’s a confrontation scene between Detective Bonney and Nick, the first line of dialogue from Bonney to Nick: Did you know she was pregnant?
The accusatory tone establishes the central conflict in the scene, Bonney pressing Nick as to what he does and does not know about his wife’s disappearance.
The middle of the scene is Bonney laying out one piece of potentially incriminating evidence after another at Nick until he throws his glass, shattering it on the floor.
The end of the scene is Nick saying: I don’t want to talk to you again… ever… without a lawyer.
One of the things we do in my workshops is look at which characters attempt to have control over other characters within a scene. Here Bonney assumes the power position from beginning through the middle of the scene. In the end, however, Nick asserts his control by insisting on having a lawyer present from now on.
In this case, the last line speaks to the point of the scene and is an effective closing line. However as always, best to think of this idea — last line expressing point of the scene — as a tool, not a rule.
* Subplot character.
“The subplot character… provides another opportunity to define the hero through comparison and advance the plot.”
The video goes on to say:
“Basically it’s a character that’s dealing with the same problem as the protagonist, but in a different way.”
The video identifies “two subplot characters” in Gone Girl, one of whom is Tommy, one of Amy’s ex-boyfriends who she accused of raping. The video does a good job in analyzing how the content of the Tommy’s backstory helps Nick understand the depths to which Amy is willing to go to achiever her ends. In my view, Tommy’s function in the story is Mentor precisely because he provides this insight, this ‘wisdom’ to Nick.
However I would argue there is another way to look at the idea of a subplot which is more expansive than the definition above. My principle is this: Subplot = Relationship. In other words, once you have established what the central plot is, every other significant interrelationship, especially those of characters in relation to the Protagonist, is itself a subplot, each with its own Beginning, Middle, and End, whether 2 scenes or 20, each with its own specific relevance to the story’s Plotline and Themeline, each with its own narrative function.
So in Gone Girl, I would argue there are many more subplots than 2:
* Nick and Bonney
* Nick and Desi
* Nick and his sister Margo
* Nick and the press
* Nick and his mistress
* Amy and Desi
* Amy, Greta and Jeff, the couple who rob Amy
And others. Each has its own arc and influence on the overall story.
A further benefit with this approach is that we take this story-crafting tool — subplot — and transform it into something human and personal: relationship. By exploring the relationship of Character A to the Protagonist, Character B to the Protagonist, we engage the story in a personal way, allowing our characters to emerge as distinct individuals, not mere extensions of a story formula to fit some preexisting scheme or paradigm.
The video is helpful and does highlight the importance of a script in the filmmaking process and on the value of quality screenwriting. It also touches on some points worthy of further exploration as noted above.
For the Lessons from the Screenplay YouTube site, go here.