I recently had the opportunity to do an interview with Bo Bennett, co-host of the Toastmasters Podcast. Click the image to access the free audio.
The premise of this book is that big films are made up of little films called sequences, each lasting 8 to 15 minutes. Each sequence consists of three parts: setup/beginning/situation, development/rising action/complication, and partial resolution. Each partial resolution creates anticipation as it “opens up new issues, which in turn become the subject of subsequent sequences.”
The book explores the following four tools used to build anticipation and or tension:
- Telegraphing/Pointing/Advertising: Common examples are appointments and deadlines as well as preparations (ex: packing a suitcase). This also serves the important function of helping orient the audience as to where they are in the journey.
- Dangling cause: Expressions of intent in which the effect is not felt until later. Common examples include warnings, treats, statements of hopes or fears, and predictions.
- Dramatic irony: Occurs when the audience knows more than one (or more) of the characters and is waiting to see what happens when the truth is revealed. Can create suspense or comedy.
- Dramatic tension: Occurs when neither the audience nor the characters know how a problem will be resolved.
A typical film has 8 sequences (2 in Act I, 4 in Act II, and 2 in Act III) serving the following function:
- Act I
- Sequence A
- Open with an exterior long shot or interior close up to orient the audience.
- Hook the audience immediately by rousing curiosity with a puzzle
- Give a sense of what the protagonist’s life would be like if the events that led to the story had not interfered. This includes the “rules of the world” so that the audience knows what is possible, what to hope for, and what to be afraid of.
- End with an instability that forces the protagonist to respond to an inciting incident
- Sequence B
- Whatever solution the protagonist tries to solve the inciting incident from Sequence A should lead to an even bigger problem that frames the dramatic question that shapes the rest of the film
- Sequence A
- Act II
- Sequence C
- First attempt to solve the problem that arose at the end of Sequence B
- Note that you can either (a) solve the problem but in the process create a new, bigger problem, or (b) make the old problem even worse
- Here, the protagonist often switches from reluctant hero to driven hero (or vice-versa)
- Sequence D
- Offer a glimpse of the actual resolution of the dramatic question or its mirror opposite. The protagonist may be able to choose freedom, but does not do so for an important reason.
- Sequence E
- Opportunity to introduce new characters and/or subplots
- Sequence F
- Often a low point, but could also be a significant reframing of the main tension
- Sequence C
- Act III
- Sequence G
- Increasingly high stakes, often at a frenzied pace leading to an all hope is lost moment
- Sequence H
- Final resolution often triggered by a major twist
- All instability must be conclusively settled and all subplots must be closed. This is the “and they lived happily ever after” part. (Or, unhappily ever after).
- Sequence G
Other useful tips:
- “Coincidences that hurt a protagonist tend to work in drama, and are viewed suspiciously if they help.”
- “… it must seem as though what the movie is what happens despite what the characters want or expect.”
- “Human nature being what it is, chances are the man will do the easiest thing first, and only if that fails will he try a more difficult course of action.” Often characters have no other choice, or a choice between the lesser of two evils.
- Try to “smuggle” exposition (background information the audience needs to know) as a subtext of underlying action (arguments where people attack and defend, persuasion, seduction, reassurance) and NOT as an explanation
- Create believability through foreshadowing (which the author refers to as the use of motifs that are later paid-off)
- Audiences occasionally need “recapitulation scenes” to review important information they may have missed that sets up future action
- Character arc = In the face of major challenge, the protagonist must give up her (known) want to obtain her (unknown) true need. Only then will she realize the fundamental truth that is the theme of the story.
- Subplots have three main functions: (a) plot function – to help or hinder the protagonist, (b) thematic function – to show variations on the theme by presenting alternative ways of solving problems, and (c) structural function – to retard/delay the main plot and thereby intensify it
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