Extreme Screenplay Scenes

Over the weekend, I had the chance to watch the illustrious documentary filmmaker Alexandre Philippe (THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS) deconstruct a scene from a classic must-see film THE PUMPKIN EATER. In the beauty parlor scene, Anne Bancroft’s character is accosted by the woman sitting under the dryer next to her in a riveting and revealing liturgy of worship and loathing.

The scene, which is more of a monologue actually, is a prime example of the power of extremes within scenes. Robert McKee in Story discusses this in his approach to Story Values. He says, “binary qualities of experience that can reverse their charge at any moment are Story Values.” For example, love/hate, justice/injustice, life/death are all story values. Similarly, Aristotle in his Poetics asserts that “the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.

Simply put, a well-crafted story takes us to emotional extremes, and most often from one extreme end of an emotional spectrum to the other.

When we are developing our own story into a screenplay, we need to take it to extremes. We need to keep asking, how far can I go with this action? How deeply can my character sink into this emotion? Of course, we have to be mindful of melodrama, (avoiding it at all costs), but that’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about justified drama, “according to the law of probability or necessity” that presents realistic reactions to pressures that are extraordinary.

One way to work on this in your development process is to graph the emotions, conflicts and plot points out on an Opposite Chart. Take each emotion your characters are going through and ask yourself what the opposite of that would be – this will help you find the arc your character needs to ride throughout their story.

For instance, if the aspiring rock band feels full of hope and promise at one point in the story, and the opposite of hope is a sense of defeat and despair, you’ll need to ask yourself how, in the plot, you can take your characters there, to the extremes of those emotional states.

Why is any of this important? Because it’s the highs and lows of a story that produce catharsis, and which, in the end make your story worth seeing.

Want more ideas on how to write a great screenplay based on a true story? Grab a copy of my book Shaping True Story Into Screenplay from Amazon.com.

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