Friday, May 15, 2009

How I Do It: Spicing Up Scenes

Finally in the throes of writing a TV comedy script again, I immediately came up against the following... well, problem is a bit of an overstatement. Challenge, shall we say.

The first scene of the screenplay was all exposition in the synopsis. It's a short set-up scene of one of the two plotlines in the episode: a woman drops her infant off at her mother for babysitting purposes, because she's got to go in to work unexpectedly. The company has a new CEO and his reputation is that he's an indiscriminate firer of employees every time he changes company. Our woman protagonist is doubly worried because she hasn't got a diploma, so she fears her days are numbered. The scene then ends with a mild mother-daughter gag.

So. Necessary info. But very dry. And I thought I'd spruce it up with sufficient zingers and one-liners once I started writing the dialogue.

Except that I didn't. The one-liners refused to show up. The scene was functional but, well, dull as hell.

On the other hand, I didn't want to make it into a bigger deal than it was - it's just a set-up scene which needs to get the ball rolling, and then make room for bigger and better things.

After thinking about it for a little while, I decided to have the mother still be sleepy when her daughter arrives with the little kid. A little better (there's some conflict involved as well as some potential for humour and interesting little bits of business), but it didn't really do much. Still, it was a start.

So in the next pass, I decided to make the mother REALLY sleepy. And she wasn't expecting company. And then her daughter bursts in like a tornado, almost gives her a heart attack and causes her to spill her coffee all over the breakfast table.

Which immediately gives me a physical gag to open with, an attitude for both characters (tired and then disgruntled because of the disturbance for the mother, nervous and edgy for the daughter), and some more opportunities for movement and business (the mother cleans up the mess during the following dialogue).

A better start, but not enough to fill the entire scene, naturally.

So I took the nervousness of the daughter and upped it - she's no longer reasonably nervous, she's panicky and because of her insecurity, she gets into a typical (and rationally pointless) family argument with her mother about her lack of higher education. The argument allows me to reveal some character information which helps to illuminate the characters in more depth.

I still got all the necessary information in the scene, but by now it's come alive, has several comedic things going on, and it's no longer as static as it originally was. It won't be a classic, but now the exposition is hidden much better and there are several opportunities for solid laughs.

So, to recapitulate - if you need to spice up a scene in a comedy script, be sure to:

- give all characters in the scene a clear (and preferably conflicting) attitude
- look for possibilities for physical humour which arise naturally from your setting
- put the characters into some sort of conflict (a conflict which may be unrelated to the information the scene needs to deliver, by the way)
- think about giving the actors possibilities for bits of business by having the characters do things, be active throughout the scene. This can inspire the actors and the director during the rehearsal period - they may even come up with several physical gags themselves which you as a writer couldn't have foreseen due to you not being on the set and interacting directly with it physically.

Do be sure not to let these 'extras' obscure the purpose of the scene and the information the audience needs to capture in order to follow the rest of the episode, though. I'm not turning this scene into a big set-piece - but I'm turning an ordinary expository scene into something entertaining and (hopefully) amusing.

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