Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tracking Character Through Preparation and Aftermath

(SPOILERS: Aliens, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Godfather)

One of the hardest things to do in a screenplay is to reveal the progress of the internal journey of the character – their “character arc.” Part of the challenge is that in many of the big scenes with significant plot advances, the character will either want to hide their emotions or won’t have time to have an emotional reaction. This is one area where scenes of preparation and aftermath can be particularly useful.

As you might expect, scenes of preparation are scenes that show the character getting ready for something. They give us an opportunity to see how the character feels about the upcoming event. Are they excited? Confident? Afraid? Determined?

Scenes of aftermath give the character a chance to react after a major event. We can see how they feel about what just happened. How did the event impact them emotionally?

The movie Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) has two scenes that demonstrate this quite well.

First, 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, making jokes and goofing around. One marine confidently 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, arguing about what to do next. But Ripley’s been in this situation before. She begins to take charge, coming up with a plan. Now the marines listen to her.

These scenes set up the characters’ expectations leading into the action and then show us the impact the action had on them psychologically. That in turn helps the audience stay emotionally involved in the story. It also illustrates progress in Ripley’s character arc – tentative and anxious initially, determined later.

This summer’s hit movie Guardians of the Galaxy (written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) demonstrates the power of good aftermath/preparation scenes. After the team’s failure on Knowhere, we get a scene of aftermath where we see Drax’s devastation at being defeated by Ronan. Drax’s sole purpose was to avenge his family’s death, and he has failed. Without this scene, Drax’s storyline would lack emotional punch.

A bit later Drax, Rocket and Groot are reunited with Peter and Gamora. In another aftermath scene, most of the group is depressed, feeling like there’s no hope. They’re ready to give up. But Peter attempts to rally them with a new plan. At first there is skepticism, but eventually everyone comes around and commits. The filmmakers do a particularly good job undercutting the emotion with humor so it doesn't become too cheesy. But we do get the emotion, and we see how these characters, all self-centered loners at the beginning of the film, have become a team. Character arc.

Often scenes of aftermath become scenes of preparation for the next event, as in the second Guardians of the Galaxy scene. This also 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.

Scenes of preparation can reveal character in another way – by establishing the character’s plan for the upcoming event. Then, if the character does not do what was planned, it will tell us something about their emotional state.

There are a couple scenes of preparation in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) 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 telling Michael to drop the gun immediately 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. Everyone’s nervous, snapping at each other. At one point, someone suggests they should call the whole thing off – it’s too dangerous. After they get the call informing them the meet will be in a restaurant, they decide where the gun will be planted for Michael – behind a toilet. Michael is told to use the restroom and shoot his targets as soon as he comes out. He’s also reminded again to immediately drop the gun.

These two scenes serve several purposes. First, they tell us that this is going to be a dangerous mission and that Michael is inexperienced. Second, they tell us the plan so we can judge how well Michael’s doing as it unfolds. When Michael comes out of the bathroom, he doesn’t follow the plan. Instead of immediately shooting his targets he sits back down. We understand that he’s on the verge of chickening out – something we wouldn’t know if we didn’t know what he was supposed to do. Then after he finally does shoot the rival Mafioso, he forgets to drop the gun until he’s halfway out the door, reinforcing his anxiety.

There are additional uses for scenes of preparation. They can provide the audience with the information we need to appreciate the bigger set piece. They allow us to plant things that can be paid off in the later scene. For example, in The Godfather scene, we need to know the gun will be hidden behind the toilet so we understand what's going on when Michael retrieves it.

In both the outlining and the rewriting phases, be sure the character’s emotional journey is being tracked. If you’re losing focus on how the character’s feeling, consider adding a scene of preparation or aftermath.

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