Article by David Freeman
We know that painters have techniques for their craft, such as mixing colors and utilizing perspective. And actors have all sorts of techniques for “getting into character.”
But what about screenwriters? Can they also have a pallet of techniques they can employ?
By a “writing technique” I mean:
- It can be identified in the work of master screenwriters.
- It’s something that can be learned, practiced, and employed in a wide variety of screenwriting situations.
- It creates a specific emotional impact, be it simple or complex.
- It can liberate a writer to bring forward his or her artistry, without boxing a writer into a formula. That is, it’s adaptable to many different writing styles.
Let’s take a look at some writing techniques in action. Since the idea of a technique-based approach to screenwriting is a radical departure from past approaches, I’ve had to invent some terms to describe the techniques. Hopefully, the nomenclature I’ve created a simple one.
A variety of techniques from “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”
(Script by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Peter Jackson, from the book by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Definition: A “Character Deepening Technique”
A “Character Deeping Technique” is a technique which gives the feeling of emotional depth to a character. A “Plot Deepening Technique” gives the feeling of emotional depth to a plot.
In this artful, layered, and uplifting script, there’s a scene where, in the mist, Gollum leads Frodo and Sam through the “Dead Marshes,” where small fires burn amidst bog, Frodo, exhausted (the ring stops him from sleeping well) stares at the dead faces in the water – he feels drawn to them – and he plummets into the swamp. The hands of the dead reach to drag him down to the depths of the water – but Gollum rescues him and brings him back on shore.
It’s a very powerful scene, due to the numerous techniques used:
- Character Deepening Technique: “Symbol of a Character’s Condition or Change in Condition.” The dead faces symbolize what Frodo is feeling: suicidal. That’s why it’s he, not Sam, who plunges into the water.
- Character Deepening Technique: “Ambivalence.” Gollum is ambivalent – torn in between his human side and his monstrous side. We’ve seen him debate with himself before, and here he’s acting out his human side. But we know it’s just part of the ongoing flip-flop.
- Character Deepening Technique: “A Character Struggles to be Better Than He Is.” We saw this in “Schindler’s List,” as Schindler repeatedly was forced to evolve morally. And we see it here with Gollum, struggling to act like the caring human he once was, before he found the ring.
- Plot Deepening Technique: “Symbol of a Concept.” The symbol is fire, and it is a symbol of Sauron and of evil. The other symbols used to represent evil in the trilogy are darkness, metal, and machinery. The symbols of good are water, trees, and light. A symbol of a concept becomes emotionally charged when powerful emotional experiences take place in the presence of the symbol. In the unconscious minds of the audience, the symbol then acquires the feeling of those emotional experiences.
- Plot Deepening Technique: Foreshadowing. The dead here are those who once fought Sauron and perished. They foreshadow the death waiting for those who battle Sauron’s army in the war that is to come.
NOTE: A reminder — the types of techniques I’m talking about here operate unconsciously on an audience, outside the audience’s conscious awareness. The five techniques used in this one short scene combine in what I call “Technique Stacking” to make it a very powerful scene indeed.
Two “Character Deepening Techniques” in “American Beauty,” and two “Rooting Interest Techniques.”
(Script by Alan Ball)
Definition: A “Rooting Interest Technique” is one which causes us to root for (i.e like or identify with) a character.
Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) is the teen with an almost Zen-like view of the beauty behind all things — or so it seems. But real Zen masters don’t sell drugs, they don’t allow themselves to be beaten to a pulp by their fathers, they don’t insist on staying detached from the world (viewing everything though a video camera), and they don’t get fascinated by death and speak about it frequently.
In fact, Ricky’s supposed serenity covers his real emotion: an apathy deeper even than grief (thus his fascination with death).
Ricky’s apathy stems back to when he was wrongly put in a mental institution and drugged.
When a character has a false emotion (in this case, serenity) which covers a real emotion (in this case, apathy), this gives the character depth. It’s a “Character Deepening Technique.” I call this particular technique a “Mask.” Ricky has one of eight types of Masks you’ll learn about in “Beyond Structure.”
Alan Ball uses 15 different “Character Deepening Techniques” in his script. Here’s another one:
Though Ricky’s serenity is false, this doesn’t negate his eloquent insights into the beauty behind all things. When a character is either artistic or has real aesthetic awareness, as Ricky does, that’s another “Character Deepening Technique.”
It’s also a “Rooting Interest Technique.” So is his willingness to define his own world and not slavishly adhere to the world of social conventions. Contrast this to Carolyn Burnham (Annette Benning), who is terrified of stepping outside of social norms.
A “Dialogue Deepening Technique” in “Billy Elliot.“
(Script by Lee Hall)
Billy’s father, a down-on-his-luck coal miner, is incensed to learn that his son is studying ballet – until, finally, Billy shows him how he dances. In front of his angry father, he “cuts loose” and expresses his energy, his artistry, his soul.
His father suddenly and momentously realizes – this is Billy’s destiny.
It’s all done with dance but without words.
In fact, you’ll find in times of great emotion in films, the characters almost always speak less words, not more. I count silence as a form of dialogue, and that’s what’s used here. Words would have diminished the emotional power of the scene.
The name I give this technique utilized in “Billy Elliot” is, “Action Instead of Speech.”
Whether a masterful writer knows it or not, he or she is using techniques to create the complex emotional experiences that make great film or TV.
There exist techniques to enrich scenes, to make dialogue sound natural, to give emotional complexity and layers to the relationship between two characters, and for many other aspects of screenwriting.
Hopefully, this short article has allowed you to glimpse how this might be so.
Even for those who have a wide variety of techniques at their disposal, there’s value in expanding one’s palette. It’s good to know 5 ways to get an audience to emotionally bond with a character; but it’s better to know 42.
One important note: the techniques comprise the craft of writing; it’s up to you, through your artful application, to turn them from craft into art.
Note: If you enjoyed the techniques discussed here, you’ll find many more by clicking on the “articles” navigation bar located in the left column.
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- Why David is willing to create his own competition by sharing these techniques?