Monday, February 29, 2016

Using Scenes of Preparation and Aftermath to Reveal Character

(Spoilers: The Godfather, Silence of the Lambs, The Hangover)

One of the fundamental challenges of writing for film is figuring out ways to show what’s going on in a character’s head. Character is the audience’s way into the story. If we don’t know what the character is thinking and feeling, we won’t have strong emotional reactions to the events on screen. The problem is especially difficult in “set piece” scenes – scenes of spectacular action or humor or horror, where the spectacle of the scene may not allow for much dialogue on the character’s part.

This is where scenes of preparation and aftermath can be helpful. As you might guess, scenes of preparation are where we see the character preparing for an upcoming event. They give us an opportunity to see what the character expects will happen. Are they confident? Nervous? Preparing for trouble?

In The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola), there is a scene of preparation for Michael’s assassination attempt on Sollozzo. The Corleone family and their key men are having dinner, waiting for a call that will reveal the locale of the planned meeting. Tom, the consigliore, worries that there’s too much of a risk and suggest they call the whole thing off. The call comes, and the Corleone’s make a plan to plant a gun for Michael at the location. Sonny makes a big deal about how important it is that the gun is there.

All of this sets up how dangerous the coming event is, and how worried everybody is for Michael’s safety. Because of this, when the scene happens, we feel Michael’s anxiety and fear, even though there is no overt dialogue about it. How could there be? It would give away the plot to Sollozzo.

There are two plants (besides the gun information) in the scene of preparation that also help illustrate how Michael feels. First, the Corleones learn the meeting is in Brooklyn. But when Michael is picked up by Sollozzo, they head over the bridge toward New Jersey. Michael says, “We’re going to Jersey?” raising Sollozzo’s suspicions. We know that Michael is worried the information he got was wrong. When the car pulls a U-turn, we can read the relief on Michael’s face. But we wouldn’t understand this without the set-up in the scene of preparation.

The second plant is the detailed instructions of what Michael is to do after retrieving the gun. He’s to come out of the bathroom and immediately shoot Sollozzo and his police captain accompaniment, then drop the gun. But when Michael comes out of the bathroom, he sits back down at the table. And when he finally does shoot Sollozzo and the cop, he forgets to drop the gun right away. We understand his fear and tension because he doesn’t follow the plan. But we only see this because we know the plan.

Scenes of aftermath allow us to check in on the character after an event to see the impact on the character. When Clarice first visits Hannibal Lechter in prison in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally), she’s careful to keep her emotions hidden. But when she comes out of the prison, she weeps as she heads to her car and has a flashback about her father. In this aftermath scene we see that, despite her careful control, Lechter has indeed gotten to her.

One of the things that I think made The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) so successful is that we really care about the three major characters. That emotional attachment comes in the downtime between the big comedic moments. It’s that downtime where we see the characters react to what just happened.

One of the best examples is the scene where the guys are waiting for their car in the impound lot. Stu is pissed off at the way the cops have just treated them. But Alan is worried. He confides to Phil that he fears something really bad may have happened to Doug (the lost groom). It’s neither a particularly funny nor particularly memorable scene, but it is important because it reminds us that there’s a person they care about in this story who might be in danger. This gives the plot emotional stakes. We care about the outcome because we care about these guys.

Scenes of aftermath often turn into scenes of preparation as the characters digest previous events and make new plans. In the impound lot scene, Phil comforts Alan and then Stu tries to reassure Alan with a new plan: searching the car for clues.

You can use scenes of preparation and aftermath to track character emotion throughout the script. In The Hangover, each time we pause for aftermath scenes, the guys’ fear has escalated. In the breakfast scene, Stu’s a little worried, Phil and Alan less so. But they all assume it’ll be pretty easy to find Doug. In the aftermath of the wedding chapel scene, they’ve started to realize things got more out of control the previous night than they thought. In the impound lot, Alan worries that Doug might be dead. We see that Stu is similarly worried when he ends his improvised piano song with the line, “But if he’s [Doug] been murdered by crystal-meth tweakers, well, then we’re shit out of luck.” Finally, after the guys discover Mr. Chow’s hostage is not their Doug, they give up all hope.

Aftermath scenes are also useful to give us the closure of the happy ending. The Hangover ends with the guys at the wedding, looking at the pictures on the camera together, and reveling in their adventure and friendship. It’s not a plot scene, it’s a scene that gives us a resolution to the emotional journey.

When outlining your script, think about where you will want to touch base with the characters’ emotional progress and put in scenes of aftermath and preparation. When rewriting, if you find that you are losing connection with the characters’ feelings, consider adding a scene of aftermath. Though preparation and aftermath may be the “mortar” more than the “bricks” of your story, without these scenes you will have difficulty achieving emotional impact.


In other news, if you're in Los Angeles, I will be teaching a pitching workshop at The Writers Store on April 9th.


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