Reader Question: Does one character “own” each scene?

Question via email from Nick Whittle:

I just wanted to gain some clarity here — within a scene, am I right to think that one particular character “owns” the scene, or drives it? Not necessarily the protagonist but certainly only one character at a time in contained within the scene…and in doing so speaks the driving lines?
Addendum: If one character does own the scene is it entirely plausible that the ownership can pass to another actor within the scene or should rule of thumb be — “This is X’s scene. X is going to take this scene to where he/she/it wants and Y and Z will follow.”

Nick, I like the way you think. Nothing worse than a scene where characters have no goals… and therefore there is no drama due to the lack of conflicting goals… and the scene just lies there flat as a proverbial pancake. Like what was the point of that?

So my short response to your question is it’s a good way to think about a scene: Which character has the strongest sense of purpose in that very moment? What is their goal? What do they want, both in terms of the overall narrative and right here, right now? If one character is heavily motivated and has a clear purpose in mind as compared to other characters, then it’s likely the first character will, as you say, drive the scene.

And that’s fine, sometimes you need scenes like that. However per my first comment, generally speaking it’s beneficial for each character in a scene to have their own goal. This is one of the easiest, most direct ways to achieve conflict — when goals collide. In theory at least, you’ve got a scene in which different characters take the steering wheel (to carry your metaphor further) and try to maneuver events to fit their goal. Now you’ve got a vibrant scene, some good back and forth, and a central question: Who will win out?

Take the scene in The Shawshank Redemption in which Andy, having just heard about a prisoner who has in effect confessed to the murder of his wife and her lover, goes to the warden’s office (it starts at 2:37 of the clip below):

Andy’s goal: Use this information to obtain his release from prison.
Norton’s goal: To keep Andy in prison.

Track the trajectory of the scene.

Beginning: We enter the scene late after Andy has conveyed the information to Norton. So the backstory of the scene would have had Andy driving it. Now Norton attempts to regain control by undercutting the validity of the prisoner’s confession.

Pivot: “How can you be so obtuse?”

Middle: With this comment by Andy, the dynamics of the scene switch with Andy pushing back against Norton, leading to a tonal shift in the warden’s attitude, declaring “This meeting is over.” In other words, he tries to gain control over the moment.

Pivot: “Sir, if I were ever to get out, I would never mentioned what goes on in here.”

End: Andy attempts to regain control by appealing to Norton’s sense of logic, but this declaration only incites Norton who quite demonstrably takes over the rest of the scene, calling in the guards, and telling them, “Solitary, a month.”

It’s a dynamic scene with both characters attempting to wrest the ‘steering wheel’ from each other.

So in answer to your second question, yes, a character may enter a scene ‘driving’ the action, then other characters may seize control, and indeed, who is in charge can shift back and forth.

But how to best shape the scene is to ground it in the characters and their respective goals, their sense of purpose, their personalities, their strategies.

By the way, this is another reason why using character archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — is a great lens through which to look at scenes. Any character, no matter their primary archetype, can don the ‘mask’ of any archetype in any scene.

For instance in the scene above, Norton wears a Mentor mask in the beginning, using his cold logic to try to convince Andy this news he’s discovered is really meaningless. In the middle, Norton switches to a Trickster mask, turning away from Mentor mode — and presumed ally — toward enemy. In the end of the scene, Norton reveals his true colors by revealing his Nemesis face through his harsh treatment of Andy. Yet another way to look at how to craft scenes.

One final thought in the form of an observation by Elaine May and Mike Nichols, deriving from their days as a comedy duo and their sketch work: “Every scene is either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation.” In all three cases, we can see how what we’ve talked about here comes into play: What are the character’s goals? Who drives the scene? What masks do they wear to achieve their aims?

Great stuff and thanks for the question, Nick!

Readers, if you have any thoughts on the subject, please head to comments and opine away! How about this: What other movie scenes are examples of characters ‘driving’ the action?

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