I drove along the Great Ocean Road along the West Coast of Victoria to the Twelve Apostles Rock formations. It was a spectacular and slightly harrowing journey with a friend. Lots of fog and high twisty mountain roads on the very dark way back.
Along the way we got to talking about the emotional status quo of characters. Too often characters seem to have emotional amnesia, especially when off stage for a couple of scenes. What’s a character’s emotional status quo?
It’s the emotional temperature of the character when he or she enters a scene. What has happened to the character in the previous scene? How does that event drive the character into the next scene? If, for example, the character’s internal Fear is activated how is that made external in action in the next scene?
Where on the Character Map does the character move? Does the Fear drive the character to act against his or her self-interest by lashing out with a Trouble Trait? Or does the Fear drive the character to retreat into his or her Mask? Perhaps the character tries to cope with the Fear by pushing forward with the Strongest Trait.
Each scene must build on the emotion of the previous scene. Each scene must be propelled by cause and effect. In other words, your character does something, which causes something else to happen or forces the character to try a different tactic. This has an effect on the character’s emotions which causes your character to do something else, etc.
Each and every scene must have conflict, conflict, conflict. Without conflict there is no way to struggle toward a character’s inner truth. Without conflict, the audience has no edge-of-the-seat eagerness and excitement to see what will happen next.
Your principle character must drive the action in each individual scene and in the cumulative sequences. His or her actions must set off the chain of events that propel the story forward. If all your main character is doing is reacting to the actions of others, rethink the scene or sequence. What can your character do to set events in motion?
Here are some examples from Erin Brockovich: Erin’s vulnerability and Fear is activated by the disapproval of the office staff. That leads her to lash out with her confrontational and defensive Trouble Traits. When she needs help the staff rejects her. That activates her Strongest Traits. She takes on the problem alone and her determination and moral concern leads her to investigate the toxic spill.
INT. MASRY & VITITOE – RECEPTION AREA – DAY
Morning. Erin walks in, wearing her usual garb. She passes
the coffee area, where Jane, Brenda, and Anna are milling.
Brenda sees her, gives Anna a nudge. They both check out her
short hem. Anna nudges Jane, who looks as well. Erin
glances over just in time to see all three of them staring at
her judgmentally. She stops in her tracks and stares back.
Y’all got something you wanna discuss?
The women go back to stirring their coffees. Erin walks on.
INT. MASRY & VITITOE – ED’S OFFICE – DAY
Ed is walking into his office with a coffee cup in his hand
when he trips over the same box of files again.
INT. MASRY & VITITOE – FILE ROOM – DAY
Erin is alone, filing as she talks on the phone.
Out to lunch with the girls.
Well, look, I have to open a file. Real
estate thing. Pro-bono.
He plunks the box of papers & files on her desk. She stares
at it, with no idea of how to go about that.
He sees her staring at the box.
You do know how to do that, don’t you?
Yeah. I got it. No problem.
Ed heads out, but pauses before leaving.
You’re a girl.
How come you’re not at lunch with the
girls? You’re a girl.
I guess I’m not the right kind.
Erin goes back to work. Ed starts out then stops.
Look, you may want to – I mean, now that
you’re working here – you may want to
rethink your..wardrobe a little.
Why is that?
Well…I think maybe..some of the girls
are a little uncomfortable because of
what you wear.
Is that so? Well, it just so happens, I
think I look nice. And as long as I have
one ass instead of two, like most of the
“girls” you have working here, I’m gonna
wear what I like if that’s alright with
Ed hides a smile. He nods. As he exits, Erin returns to work
and remarks, without looking up….
You may want to re-think those ties you
Suddenly self-conscious, Ed looks down to his chest…
INT. MASRY & VITITOE – FILE ROOM – NIGHT
Erin is at her desk, staring bewildered at the files from the
box Ed gave her, which are now spread across her desktop.
She sees Anna packing up her things to leave.
Anna? With this real-estate stuff —
could you remind me, cause I’m a little
confused about how exactly we do that.
Why are there medical records and blood
samples in real estate files?
Erin, you’ve been here long enough. If
you don’t know how to do your job by now,
I am not about to do it for you.