Sunday, July 13, 2008

How To Outrage Your Characters

A recent posting from the charming and inspiring, contained a quote from a book by Robert Wright called The Moral Animal. Here, Wright discusses the work of evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, and mentions two aspects of the way human beings approach arguments which are interesting for screenwriters. Here’s the first:

The reason the generic human arguing style feels so effortless is that, by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done. Robert Trivers has written about the periodic disputes ... that are often part of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a marriage. The argument, he notes, 'may appear to burst forth spontaneously, with little or no preview, yet as it rolls along, two whole landscapes of information appear to lie already organized, waiting only for the lightning of anger to show themselves.'

Does this sound familiar? It should! Your characters should all have this sense of being a coiled spring, ready to jump. An emotional jack-in-the-box. They should be, “… living in a powder keg and giving off sparks,” to quote a famous old hit song. There’s nothing like a fierce, emotional altercation, apparently about something entirely trivial, to illustrate the meaning of the word subtext.

Remember that phrase, “landscapes of information.” It’s a wonderful way to describe the inner world of your characters. The invisible source of their motivation and their emotional reactions to events around them. It’s the unique accumulation of upbringing, class, education, and so on, mixed with the specific backstory to the relationship or situation we’re seeing the character in.

Just to drive the point home for yourself, imagine the opposite: Your character is involved in a dispute which is about nothing other than the specific issue at hand, say, a speeding ticket.

.............You drove too fast.

.............Are you sure about that?


.............Shucks, I’m awful sorry.

.............Here’s the fine.

.............Thank you, Officer.

Not dramatically very interesting, right? But what if the dispute about the speeding ticket triggers the driver’s broader frustration with the government, with himself, with his wife (how’s he going to explain yet another ticket?) and so on. Not to mention the police officer’s sudden shift in attitude when the offender, driving an expensive car, turns out to be “one of those rich, arrogant douchebags.”

Hey presto, you have two strangers with an entire repertoire of preconceived ideas about each other, with intensely emotional opinions about the situation they’re in, outraged, going head to head within a beat or two. All because of this landscape of information which lies dormant all the time, ready to be activated by the slightest stimulus.

Coming soon to this blog: the second aspect Robert Wright discusses in the excerpt …


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,
Does my characters have any sense of outrage in these scenes --
Some say yes, others say no. I thought I ask the expert -- Dave.

Early morning. Fog. The Brooklyn Bridge is barely visible.
No one in sight along the riverbank.

Forgotten bench. Telephone booth.
A woman, motionless, in silhouette, now sitting on that bench, overlooking the bridge.

She wanted a baby. I was waiting, not for a baby. But for my dance studio, to own it, my own space. I wasn't lost, that's not my style, I don't get lost. We were lost together. She was more important than my father. She was our teacher. An angel. A beautiful dancer. She would of been a great mother. Her name was Serena Bianchi...

The fog moves away revealing the towering Brooklyn Bridge. It starts to rain heavily. Lightning. The lady gets up, standing in the rain, staring out into the lake.

And that summer, we all had -- dance, desire, violence.

Suddenly, it stops raining. Deafening silence. The lady walks away.

Faint dance music in the background.

SUPER -- New York, 1977

Glimmering purse on top of a metal chair. Next to the purse, an opened transparent pill bottle, half full.

At the back, dance steps on an overworked wooden dance floor. Her shoes -- overused but strong. His shoes -- expensive, spotless.
He dances away from her. A professional dancer type - 40s, Latino, fit, greasy hair. With the eyes and smile of a hard-core pervert.

He returns and slides into her, grabs her by the hip, looks into her eyes -- SERENA BIANCHI -- 30, sexy, gentle, chic summer fashion. She's not going to get the crown for Miss World for her irresistible package, but runner up for sure.

They dance, nice and easy, nothing fancy.

Bright lights, big city. Hot summer night.

Pilot, looking over downtown.

At the back -- TONI -- early 30s, black suit, unshaven, scruffy hair, unkempt fashion, massaging his fingers. VINCENT -- late 30s, black suit, jelled hair, good looking and neat to a terrifying perfection. Next to Toni's feet is black gym bag. In it, a sledge-hammer and a power saw.

Vincent takes out a high-priced camera and zooms in on one the windows of a building -- CLICK, CLICK -- Serena and the Latino Guy, dancing, intimate.
The helicopter circles and then ascends.

(looking down at the rooftop)
Are you sure you wanna land? I don’t think this roof is designed for this.

Land it!

I can't do this, I need to get clearance.

Land it or else I’m gonna land your fuckin' head on that roof.

I seen it happen before, it could cave.

Pilot hurries.

Helicopter lands. Vincent and Toni exit.

Serena and the Latino, deep into a steamy/dirty dance. He hugs her from the back and gently grinds into her and smells her neck,hair. She starts to moan. In control, he feels and squeezes her breast, ass, hip.

Suddenly, the front door is kicked open.

They stop dancing.

Toni enters, carrying the black gym bag. Followed by Vincent holding a gun with an attached silencer.

The Latino dancer slowly moves away from Serena as if he knows he’s not suppose to be this intimate.

Toni shoots the cassette player -- smoke, spark. He then shoots the Latino dancer in the chest, dropping him.

Serena, closes her eyes, seconds from crying. Toni walks over and shoots the almost dead body a few more times in the chest -- blood-splattering-sculpturing mess.

As she opens her eyes, she sees Vincent putting his gun away and Toni staring at her coldly.
She moves to the metal chair, grabs the pill container, puts the lid on and throws it into her purse. She digs around, finds a cigarette pack. Hand trembling, she lights up, avoiding eye contact with them.

Why did you kill him, you could of asked him to leave.

Just take your shit and get the fuck out of here, it's not your fuckin' business how we run our business.

Toni, careful how you talk to her.

Vincent walks over to Serena.

Mrs. Bianchi, you know Sydney doesn't like this thing you're doing. You're his wife. He has plans for you. For all of us. He doesn't need a whore as a wife. How many times has he told you, get a new hobby. Rent a musical, it's safer.

We were only dancing.

Serena, just go home.

Before leaving, she glances at the dead body resting on a pool of blood.

And be careful driving home, there's some rumor going around that New York has a serial killer. I would drive you home Mrs. Bianchi,but we got things to do, you know.

She looks out the window into the parking lot, fearful. Sound of distant sirens.

Quickly, she turns, eyes straining, looks around the studio, as if she hears something.

(ghostly, v.o.)
Americans. You pigs.

Another voice echoes...

(raspy, v.o.)
Keep it stupid dummies. You guys don't know how to kill.

She looks up, does not know where the voices are coming from. She touches her sweaty forehead, headache.

Mrs. Bianchi, are you allright.

I'm fine.

City of pigs.

Places to hide, no one will find me.

She'll be fine, just tell her to lock the doors and don't stop for anyone.

Serena, hand crossed waiting, spaced out.


Toni takes out a pair of latex glove from the black gym bag.
Vincent pulls down the blinds.

Serena, in the corner, terrified, she slides down, crying. Intense brooding/breathing as if there is an imaginary monster teasing her. The elevator opens. She gets up and runs in.

Her arms crossed, quivering. Face, crowded with more sweat. Hand shaking, she looks at her watch -- 11:00 PM.

Downtown New York. Neon spectacular. Busy.

Spaced out, she turns on the radio. Dance music comes on. As the dance music ends...

I hope this track lifted your mood folks. One blow after another, it keeps coming, but we are unbreakable, right New Yorkers. First, the worst BLACK-OUT in our history and now we're all afraid to leave our home at night. Our Chief of Police has scheduled a news conference tomorrow morning to confirm that we have a serial killer on our hand.

Serena turns off the radio. She pushes a cassette in -- catchy disco music comes on. More relaxed, swaying to the beat. She reaches a red light, looks at her watch again.

All of a sudden, all the street lights and building lights go off.

My God.

She stares out into the night, frozen.

Drawn-out honking, swearing from frustrated drivers, tire screeching and auto collision resonates into the night.

Then all lights come on.

Benjamin Ray

Raving Dave Herman said...

Wow, Benjamin, what a question!

There's certainly a lot of RAGE in these scenes, as well as plenty of FEAR and pure VIOLENCE. But there seems to be nothing incongruous or surprising about the emotions going on.

I would be terrified too if there were a serial killer on the loose.

I would be traumatized too if my partner were a jealous hoodlum who sends his hitmen to kill someone I'm dancing with.

I would be cool and ruthless too if I were a slick hit man.

So you tell me: What "landscape of information" is activated in Serena by this sequence of events?

In what way does she respond emotionally to these events in a way no one else would (i.e., because of her specific relationship to these people and what they do)?

The suggestion seems to be she's re-living a past trauma (the voices)?

So, outrage, no, I wouldn't say any of these characters show a sense of outrage.

Instead I would pose the question: What emotional unfinished business does Serena carry around with her, which is immediately activated by the confrontation with these hit men?

And how will she go about resolving this unfinished business?

I hope this answers your question!

Take care,


Anonymous said...

The writer poses an interesting question: "does (sic) my characters have any sense of outrage in these scenes --."

My knee-jerk response in "no." Outrage could manifest itself in many ways depending on the individual(s) involved and the circumstances, but given these variables "outrage" is not the sum of these parts.

I'm not sure what I take "emotionally" from this.

The overly-poetic action/description lines do not feel natural so instead of creating a mood, they distort it. Secondly, the all-to-familiar gangster motif is an exhausted playground, and...

When evaluating art, the only real black and white issue is in determining if the artist was able to effectively communicate his/her intention.

In this particular case, it is in part about the writing, but more importantly, it's about the thinking.

Do you really need Helicopter Gangsters and Haiku's to teach the world about your personal vision?

If you answer yes, then it is I who am outraged.

Anonymous said...

Oh Boy!
or should I say oh, Old Boy! (great film from Hong Kong)

Now to this wild but entertaining read.

Mr. Ray's writing is without any doubt steamy and moody and yes at times over-reaching. No big deal here. His style cannot be ignored.
The characters got my undivided attention.

Now that's entertainment! I'll watch, just like I watched the movie "Old Boy". Its in the style! No big deal.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Interesting comments from both "anonymous" contributors.

Talk about activating a landscape of information!

For the one "anonymous," film is art, which makes the screenwriter an artist with all the values and expectations that go with that role.

For the other, film is entertainment, which makes the screenwriter an entertainer.

Personally, I believe a screenwriter should strive to be both. To entertain whilst making a serious point about what it means to be a human being.

Benjamin is certainly striving to say something about the violent, darker side of human nature. As I commented earlier, I believe he needs to articulate more precisely what the Serena character's relatioship is to this darker side of human nature.

Whether you enjoy the gangster genre, is a matter of taste.

Happy writing,


Unknown said...

I thought the story was very interesting and intriguing. I wonder why Serena isn't comfortable with that life style, why is she part of it? why can't she get out? why is she so traumatized and fearful? Yes a normal person would feel that way, but not someone who is involved and living that life style like Vincent and Toni for example. I got pretty curious to know what happened next. This can be a great story!

Raving Dave Herman said...

Hi Juliana,

More credit to Benjamin for piquing your curiosity!