I watched the 2020 SAG Awards for the specific purpose of studying what the actors had to say about their job. My intention was to collect concepts that could improve my creation of richer character stories, scenes, and speeches. Because the presenters and recipients were so forthcoming, I was not disappointed.
Outsiders looking in the window of movie creation can become cynical about the acting profession. I have heard comments about how narcissistic actors are and how condescending the successful ones seem to be, how vain and vicious some are portrayed. Humility, gratitude, and vulnerability are not often depicted as Hollywood attributes. Yet, I repeatedly saw these qualities demonstrated at the 2020 SAG Awards.
That awareness reminded me that the creation of the original stories, scenes, and speeches rests with the writer who then entrusts interpretation to the actor in a movie and the reader of a novel.
Like most people, I have read shallow stories or watched shallow movies and regretted spending the time. That regret motivated me to take care with my own story planning. I realized that early on, the budding writer strives to simply get a story told, as if it were a school assignment. The more I practiced I realized the principles and structure of beginning-middle-ending evolved into an unconscious and logical flow. Readers gathered around to be entertained. As my language skills matured, I was told those readers found they moved beyond mental pleasure to the imaginary transportation of vicarious experience.
However, vicarious experience can also be shallow if one writes merely to entertain and not with purpose.
Now, I carefully plan plot events that CHANGE characters. I look for pivotal experiences that challenge the very survival of the essence of the character’s humanity. The story events do not have to be world-changing; they merely have to be experiences that demand the character step out of a comfortable existence to do and feel beyond what they expect of themselves. They have to LIVE an intense story . . . and drag the actor of my screenplay or the reader of my novel with them.
Stories are built in blocks of scenes. Some scenes prepare and explain while others foreshadow and intrigue and yet others erupt with emotional purging of agony or joy. Each scene has to be absolutely necessary or it is a waste of everyone’s time. That means the excess scene is boring and is the bane of any writer’s existence.
Not one scene in a screenplay or novel can be either melodramatic over-the-top or inundated with irrelevant detail. A scene’s action and delivery relies on its build, its movement from selfish intention to unexpected puzzle to struggling for survival. Every. Single. Scene.
When a writer focuses on the action and motivations of the characters in each scene to succinctly intensify the forward movement of the story’s purpose, magic happens. The actor or the reader can then become the characters. They can live that exquisite moment in time aware and appreciative of what it means to be human.
Humans think and translate thought into words as tools of communication. When learning a second language, that moment of thinking in the second language is pivotal to communicating in that language. We celebrate the infant connecting word sounds with their world or the student’s vocabulary expands. We recognize the soul’s frustration when the power of speech is lost due to accident, disease, or age.
A writer learns how to portray emotion and vividly paint character through what is said. The key in both screenplays and novels is based on the “less is more” theory. Actors and readers identify the power of characters resides in both their observations and the attacks of verbal delivery, what is said as well as what isn’t, words warn or warm with human significance.
Just as writers must learn to intensify their stories and their scenes, each and every speech delivered must make a difference. If it is deleted the scene will not make sense, the story’s purpose will not be proven. I NEED intensity on every page.
For more information about Sally Walker, visit her website.
Sally J. Walker
Adjunct Professor, Screenwriting, Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College
Workshop Facilitator, www.nebraskawritersworkshop.
The second edition of her novel DESERT TIME has been nominated for the 2020 Western Heritage Award in Literature.
In 1857 naïve Matilda Beaumont marries a virtual stranger, a braggart always involved in questionable activities. He abandons her in St. Louis and heads for nefarious anonymity in the New Mexico Territory. When finally recovering from influenza, the pregnant Tildy stubbornly decides to find him and joins freighters headed to Santa Fe.
Attorney and Virginia gentleman Nat Carruthers rescues Tildy from a near-drowning on her wedding day only to be haunted by the young woman’s spirit. Though distancing himself, he keeps track of the Beaumont fortunes, including their departure for Santa Fe. After his partner-brother is shot down, he heads west, too. Now a Comanchero, Ike Beaumont tells Nat that Tildy died back in St. Louis. Nat turns to drinking, card-playing, and gunfights. A wealthy client drags him south to a respectable life despite his dangerous reputation. Nat encounters a very much alive and newly widowed Tildy struggling to survive with a toddler daughter on a desert homestead.
Insisting he is duty-bound because of business with her late husband, a powerful Spanish Don takes Tildy into his household and becomes her overbearing nemesis. As Spanish-American tensions and Apache fears turn the valley into a tinder box, Nat must figure out why the independent-minded Tildy has become the match likely to light a political explosion.