THE ART OF PROBLEM SOLVING
A few weeks ago, during one of my screenwriting workshops, a student turned in pages from her screenplay with a worried and concerned expression on her face. I didn’t say anything. I simply took the pages and read them.
The scene she had written took place at the beginning of the second act, as the main character, a lawyer, is investigating the mysterious and unexpected death of her mother who had died while recovering from a simple surgical procedure in the hospital.
Stunned and grieving, she is trying to find out why her mother had suddenly died, but no one has any answers, and no one is talking. The doctors placate her, the nurses know nothing, and the hospital administrator is concerned and suggests that she join a grieving group. Her grief turns to anger, and she’s determined to find out what happened. Pursuing one lead after another, she manages to locate one of the nurses who had taken care of her mother right before she died. The nurse had mysteriously quit the hospital a few days after the mother’s death and had changed her address and literally disappeared. But through persistence, and her lawyer friends, she manages to track the nurse down. And now, she’s going to talk to her.
This was the scene my student had written. As I read her pages, I began to get some insight into why she was concerned about it. She wrote the scene like an interrogation; the main character questions the nurse, who is reluctant to say anything about her mother’s death.
Now, this is an important scene and has to be handled in such a way that it moves the story forward and reveals information about the main character. She’s tough and feisty, and she’s not going to just accept what happened. This scene is the first real clue the main character has that confirms her suspicion that some kind of cover-up has been going on. Somebody made a mistake here and, because of it, her mother is dead.
“What do you think?” I asked my student. She was quick to answer. “I think something’s wrong,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
She was right. She had a Problem.
Problems are common in screenwriting. In my experience, there are two ways you can look at a problem: the first way is to say that a problem is something that doesn’t work. Very simple.
The second way to look at it is to say that every problem becomes an opportunity, a challenge that ultimately allows you to improve your own craft of screenwriting.
I think what scares most screenwriters, or anyone for that matter, is that while they know there’s a problem, they just don’t know what it is. They can’t define or describe it.
My student knew she had a problem in these pages, she just didn’t know what it was. And the art of problem solving means being aware of those hazy and undefined feelings, and using them as some kind of a guide to lead you into an examination of the cause or source of the problem. The art of problem solving is really the art of recognition.
In my student’s case, the main character, the lawyer and the nurse have a dialogue scene. As written, the scene was smooth and well-written, but the overall effect was that it was dull and boring. Basically, talking heads. There was no threat of anything, no tension, the stakes weren’t high enough. When I read pages that are slow and boring, the first thing I do is look for the source of conflict. And in these pages there was hardly any conflict.
All my student could say is that “I think something’s wrong, something’s just not working. It feels soft, fuzzy.”
Soft and fuzzy. That’s a pretty accurate description. It lets you know that something’s not working as well as you think it should be. And if you don’t pay attention to that little “itch,” that little “soft and fuzzy” feeling, the chances are it could evolve into a much bigger problem later on.
When you get down to it, the art of problem solving is the art of recognition. You can’t fix something if you don’t know what’s wrong with it. How do you go about fixing “soft and fuzzy?”
First, you’ve got to define the problem. The first step generally requires the rethinking the material. Go back into the material; analyze your intentions. What is the purpose of the scene? Why is it there? What is the character’s dramatic need – what does your main character want to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the screenplay?
In screenwriting, the scene is the living cell, the hub of all dramatic action, and serves two basic functions in the screenplay. One, a scene either moves the story forward or, two, reveals information about the main character. These two elements of story and character must be served in each and every scene. Visually, if possible. Look at any scene in a screenplay, study any movie, and see whether this is true.
The scene my student wrote, which she could only describe as being “soft and fuzzy,” is really a key scene that is essential in moving the story forward. But the way she wrote it was not sharp enough; the dialogue was too nice, too direct; there was no tension, no subtext working, and it all washed out; there was not enough definition or conflict in it.
So what I had her do was redefine her character’s dramatic need. In this particular scene, the character’s dramatic need is to find out information about her mother’s sudden and mysterious death. Was there any wrong-doing? A mistake of some kind? Why did the nurse suddenly quit and leave the hospital? Is there a cover-up going on? What’s going on here?
I knew my student had to make the scene sharper, more defined, with more tension and the only way to do that is by generating more conflict. So I made some suggestions: maybe the nurse is not at home when the main character arrives. Maybe the first thing she has to do is wait. Maybe in her car. Maybe a couple of hours. This provides a backstory to the scene. It lets the character enter the scene with some built-in tension.
So let’s add some more conflict. The main character’s had to wait a couple of hours. What else can we do to create conflict in the scene? What if the nurse has a boyfriend, and maybe he lets the main character, the lawyer, into the apartment before the nurse arrives home? He assumes they’re friends. So she could already be in the house, when the nurse arrives home.
What does that do to the scene? Obviously, it sharpens the dramatic forces that are in the scene. “Soft” now has more potential for tension and conflict; there’s an edge to it.
What if we sketch in the nurse’s life? What did she see in the hospital? How much does she know? What actually happened? You can create a step-by-step series of events from the nurse’s point of view that lead up to the death of the lawyer’s mother. Write a short, free-association essay about what happened in the hospital. Simply to sharpen the elements of the scene. The answers to these questions allow you to expand the dynamic forces working from within and without of the scene.
These are steps that need to be taken so that the dramatic elements which are necessary to drive the story forward can be heightened and defined.
The art of problem solving is the art of recognition.
Either you look at a problem as something that doesn’t work, or you look at a problem as being the opportunity of expanding your screenwriting skills.
It’s up to you.