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For Screenwriters - Power Your Plot With These Essential Structural Elements
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With 2009 just ending and a New Year beginning, I thought it would be a good time to talk about completions.
Not just the kind of completions you make in your life. The kinds of completions you make in your scenes.
Completions are the single most important element in distinguishing a successful scene from an unsuccessful one.
No matter how creative you are as a writer, no matter how compelling your characters, no matter how well observed your dialogue may be, if your scenes don't have completions, they're not going to drive your story forward.
Completions are the key to making the leap from scene to structure-- making your scenes actually DO what you need them to do in order to serve your story.
Get them right, and you can screw up a lot of other stuff and still tell a great story.
Get them wrong, and all you've got is a bunch of smoke and mirrors, no matter how brilliant you may be.
So what is a completion? And how can you use completions in your own work?
Every Scene Begins With A Character
Before you can fully understand what a completion is and how to use it in your movie, it's important to begin by understanding what a character is.
Now, this may seem like an elementary question. We see characters every day. Your girlfriend, your brother, your boss, your best friend, they're all characters. But as writers, we must understand character on an even deeper level, so that we can begin to discover a structure for a movie that tests your character and forces her to expand or change in a profound way.
Doing this does not require an intricate road map of every psychological nuance of your character. And it certainly doesn't require a "paint by numbers" outline of the plot of your movie.
All it actually requires is a simple want: what the great acting teacher Stanislavski would describe as an "objective" for the character to pursue in the scene.
Objectives can be as big as saving the world, and as small as a drink of water. But to serve you structurally, a couple of things should be clear about the objective.
1) The Character Had Better Want It BADLY.
2) It Better Be Hard To Get
When objectives are easily achieved, they don't mean much structurally. But when they're hard to get, and deeply desired, they become the guideposts to understanding a character's journey.
Remember the scene in Trainspotting in which Ewan McGregor climbs into the "worst toilet in Britain" to retrieve his opium suppositories? Of course you do. If he'd simply been able to get high in a normal way, you might have been grossed out, but you'd have forgotten the scene long ago. And more importantly, you'd never really understand the profundity of his addiction.
Every Scene Ends With A Completion
Scenes happen when a character, in his or her own unique way, battles against an obstacle to get what he or she wants. But no matter how big your obstacles and how strong with your objectives, without completions the structure of your movie can't take shape.
Completions occur when one phase of your character's journey ends, and another begins. When a want is either achieved or abandoned, leading to a new objective and a new obstacle.
Because film is a visual medium, these completions should be visual as well: a series of images, either literal or metaphorical, which if you laid them side by side would capture the entire journey of your character in relation to her most deeply held desires.
This string of objectives and completions will ultimately become the fundamental underpinning not only of your character's journey, but of the organic structure that will lead you there.
Four Kinds Of Completions
I used to classify completions into three categories, however at the recent suggestion of one of my students, I've begun to include a fourth more nuanced variation as well. (Thank you, Jonathan!)
To illustrate each of these ideas, we're going to riff on the Trainspotting "worst toilet in Britain" scene. In simple terms, Ewan McGregor's character Renton has sworn off heroin, and desperately wants his last fix. Unable to get any real heroin, he has procured some opium suppositories, but after an unfortunate series of scatological events, has lost them down the most disgusting toilet in Britain (and possibly the world).
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