Thursday, December 6, 2012

Not According to Plan

SPOILERS: (Aliens, Little Miss Sunshine)

What are your plans for the weekend? What are your plans for the holidays? What are your plans for the script you’re currently writing?

Chances are you have an answer to those questions. We make plans all the time. It’s the only way we get anything done! Your characters should be making plans as well.

Over the last month I’ve read several scripts that suffered from lethargy and/or a feeling they were too episodic. The underlying cause was that the main characters were failing to make plans. They were reactive to events rather than driving the story. Giving the character plans keeps them active and gives the story forward momentum.

But remember, things should never go according to plan.

That’s one of the key ways to create drama and twists. The character makes a plan but then something goes wrong. In fact, often it can help to work backwards. If you have an idea of something befalling the character to make their situation worse, have them plan on a completely different future. Often this means creating a scene of preparation.

For example, in the middle of Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) Ripley and the soldiers discover all the colonists have been killed by the aliens. After they fight their way out of the alien hive, they stop for a scene of aftermath that becomes a scene of preparation. In this scene, Ripley suggests they just nuke the entire installation from orbit – “It’s the only way to be sure.” After some debate, the soldiers decide to do just that and summon their shuttle to return to the ship.

However an alien has climbed abord that shuttle and it immediately crashes, derailing the characters’ plans before they even begin. Time to make a new plan. They head to safety in the housing complex.

So why devote screen time to a debate over a plan that doesn’t even make it to the first step? Why not just have them move to the housing complex? Besides revealing things about the various characters through debate, the nuke-them-from-orbit plan sets the audience up for the twist of the shuttle crash. We’re pointed in one direction and then blindsided by the turn of events. This is an example of the preparation-in-opposition technique of heightening drama.

If things do go according to plan then it will seem too easy. We want to see our beloved characters struggle to achieve their goals. That’s what makes good drama. Consider Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) – how interesting would the movie be if the family just hopped in the car and drove to California as they planned? What makes that movie dramatic is the car breaking down and grandpa dying and the cop pulling them over with time running out. In fact, it’s when things don’t go according to plan that the character is forced to grow.

If I might humbly suggest an exercise: Consider your current script. What are your character’s plans at the beginning? When do those plans go awry? What are their new plans? When do those go awry? If you find a spot where you can’t identify your character’s plan, maybe you should have them make one. If you find things going according to the character’s plan for more than ten pages, maybe you need to have something go awry to heighten the drama and force character change.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what the character’s plans should be, consider what they want. What’s their goal in this story? If you have trouble identifying that, stop what you’re doing and figure that out immediately!


Sweet Home Alabama 10th Anniversary Blu-Ray makes a great holiday gift!


NuclearSymphony said...
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NuclearSymphony said...

Hi Doug, I found your blog through your post on The Usual Suspects and the non-linear plot post. As an aspiring screenwriter myself, I appreciate the opportunity to follow industry veterans such as yourself, and I will certainly keep tabs on you here to learn as much as possible. Thanks for your insights!

Great post on forward movement and purpose in a screenplay, as that seems to be a major hurdle for many writers out there, myself included.


Doug Eboch said...

Thanks Erik! Hope you enjoy my future posts.