Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Scenes of Preparation and Aftermath

(SPOILERS: Silence of the Lambs, Aliens, The Godfather)

The big set piece* scenes in a movie are the ones we remember. But those scenes don’t always stand up on their own. Two critical types of less noticed scenes are scenes of preparation and aftermath. These are the scenes that surround those set pieces and give them context.

One of the most important purposes of scenes of preparation and aftermath is to allow us to check in with the characters’ emotional states. During the big scenes we’re often caught up in the major plot developments. It’s before and after those scenes that we see how those developments affect our characters.

Consider the movie Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron).

We get a scene of preparation on the space ship before Ripley and the marines land on the planet. Ripley is briefing the marines on what she knows about the alien life forms. Ripley is clearly anxious and scared of the aliens. The marines are unconcerned, however. One of them says she only needs to know one thing: “where they are” and them makes a shooting motion with her finger. At that point Ripley tries without success to convince the marines of the impending danger.

About halfway through the movie we get a scene of aftermath following the marines’ first, mostly unsuccessful encounter with the aliens. The characters’ attitudes are reversed. The surviving marines are freaked out, not sure what to do next. But Ripley’s been in this situation before. She begins to take charge.

These scenes set up the characters’ expectations leading into the action and then show us the impact the action had on their lives. That in turn helps the audience stay emotionally involved in the story.

Another example of this can be found in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) after Clarice first visits Hannibal Lechter in jail. During the visit she’s careful to keep her emotions hidden. But when she comes out she weeps as she heads to her car. In this aftermath scene we see that despite her careful control, Lechter has indeed gotten to her.

Another important use of scenes of preparation is to provide the audience with the information we need to appreciate the bigger set piece. Scenes of preparation allow us to plant things that can be paid off in the later scene. They show us the characters’ plans so we understand when those plans go awry. (This last is particularly important for capers such as robberies, escapes, spy infiltrations, etc.)

Often scenes of aftermath become scenes of preparation for the next event. This happens in the scene from Aliens after the marines are decimated. Once they come to terms with their failure they start to make new plans: to take off and bomb the site from orbit. Of course if you’ve seen the movie you know those plans don’t work out so well either.

Let’s look at another example from The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola). There are a couple scenes of preparation before the big set piece where Michael kills the rival Mafioso in retaliation for the attempt on his father’s life. First, we see one of the Corleone hit men giving Michael a gun and explaining how the hit will go down. He makes a particular point of describing how to drop the gun after the killing.

That’s followed by a second scene of preparation where the family waits for a call that will give them the location of the meeting between Michael and the rival Mafioso. After they get it, they decide where the gun will be planted for Michael – behind a toilet. Again, Michael is given careful instructions on how to behave to avoid suspicion until he can retrieve the gun.

These two scenes serve several purposes. First, they tell us that Michael is not an expert hit man. This is going to be a dangerous mission and he is inexperienced. Second, they tell us the plan so we can judge how well Michael’s doing as it unfolds. The point about dropping the gun is paid off when Michael forgets to do it until he’s halfway out of the restaurant. Finally, the scenes of preparation give us basic information we need to understand the set piece such as the fact the gun will be hidden behind the toilet. Then when we get to the tense set piece there is no need to try to wedge in exposition on the fly.

It isn’t always obvious in a script when you need scenes of preparation and aftermath. As I’m outlining I identify the major set pieces in my story and ask myself if I’m going to need to set up any information and if I’m giving the audience an opportunity to adequately track the character’s emotions. That helps me find the places I need scenes of preparation or aftermath.


*A “set piece” is a big scene that pays of the genre of the movie – the scary scenes in a horror movie, the big action scenes in an action movie, the funniest comedic pieces in a comedy.

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