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07/13/2002 - No Pushing

In case you haven't already done so, it's an excellent idea for an aspiring writer (or director) to take a few acting classes. Perhaps your deep affection for films has already led you a few steps down the acting path, until you realized that your true calling lay elsewhere. Or, maybe you're a hyphenate, auditioning by day and writing by night.

Regardless, acting classes can help you write with greater understanding of scene structure, micro-scene structure, and the building blocks of the micro-scene, the beats. Actors study to move from beat to beat, staying in the moment, relying on their scripts to crescendo toward the crux of the scene. Without a realistic sequential pattern, the actor is forced to implant the necessary pauses and speech inflictions to make a scene lifelike.

Likewise, the reader has to judge a screenplay by how skillfully the pace of both the scenes and the overall story is handled. Like a metronome, the action-reaction-reaction-reaction movement of a scene is so important that when the rhythm is off-pace in a script, a reader is jarred as though they were listening to a skipping CD.

It takes a moment to be taken aback by someone's words, to be stung by insensitivity, or angered by a veiled threat. There's a pace to human reaction, to the shifting of tactics, to hurt tears or an approving laugh. Actors have to follow the rules of pacing, or else they look silly. Ever seen an actor throw an angry tantrum that you didn't believe? Heard an I-love-you and scoffed to yourself "No, you don't!"

In the movie MISTRESS, Sheryl Lee Ralph's actress character performs a classic dramatic monologue as Robert Wuhl's screenwriter character observes. He's blown away by her acting chops and compliments her on the performance, but she drops character and curtly states, "I was pushing".

In music they call it rushing, as in rushing the tempo. When a movie pushes the audience to accept a beat that hasn't been earned with dramatic build, it feels dishonest. It feels false. It's a moment that tears you out of the illusion, a reminder that everybody up there on the screen is pretending and that this world you're seeing doesn't exist. There are crew members standing off to the side with lights and booms and bottled water, waiting for the lunch break.

A screenwriter who pushes is no better than an actor exploding in a big, fake rage, or a couple that falls into each others' arms long before the audience believes they're in love. Perhaps a good actor can layer in the necessary progression to convince an audience that they've arrived at the emotional destination, but you can't just toss this work into the actor's lap.

Scenes have to earn their twists and turns. I can't tell you how often scripts have the hero swearing premature revenge just so the second act can get swinging. Or how often a rogue cop has defied his superiors without his motivations being even remotely fleshed out in this direction.

The answer to why this happens is easy: Writers are looking at the big picture. You the screenwriter are typing away under deadline, that ominous "120 pages maximum!" mantra echoing through your percolating mind. How can you possibly include everything necessary and still bring this puppy in under 120? How, how, how? You know that your scenes can't build forever. X has to confront Y and Z has to burst in with the court order! That's the scene! It has a structural purpose! It's not organic - you have an outline; you know what the outcome is and you have to GET THERE.

Getting There in a timely fashion is the hallmark of a good writer. Characters in good scripts Get There without either wasting time or pushing. When script readers claim that they can tell on the first few pages whether or not a writer knows what they're doing, one thing that clues them in is the pace. They're watching to see if the writer has wasted action lines on unnecessary elaboration, or if the characters' actions are moving with the progressive ticks that make their behavior understandable, or at least from the characters' perspective, sympathetically believable.

While some writers drag their feet, most push, forcing us to accept emotional or structural changes that aren't allowed to breathe. Unbelievably rat-a-tat dialogue, forced sexual attraction, oddball characters that oversell their eccentricities to the point of appearing psychotic; these mistakes regularly appear in the screenplay pile.

Many writers choose to have their screenplays read out loud by actors to magnify problems like this. Reading the work aloud can help even if it's just you talking to yourself in front of the computer. There's also the antidote to most writing problems: Put it down for a few days (or longer) and then come back.

Don't be afraid to admit that your scenes don't ring true even if you don't know what to fix or how to fix it. Sometimes you have to wait to pinpoint awkward plot structure. Let it simmer. Look at the work from the characters' point of view. Would a person really behave the way you're asking them to? At the speed you're making it happen? Forget about the 120 for a minute. Are you pushing the characters around so that the story unfolds the way you planned? If so, don't be surprised if your characters seem as lifeless as pawns.

Readers have to buy what they read. They have to believe the events, the betrayals, the victories; the beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene maturation of the characters. Pushing readers too fast through your scenes or your story is just as bad as a salesperson zeroing in you at a store, upselling merchandise and making unsolicited suggestions. When you push in your script, you only make the reader want to push it away.


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