From November 2007 (lightly edited):
Let’s say I have to write a scene with corporate suits speaking corporate-speak. I want it to be fluid – a language that’s appropriate to the characters but still accessible to the audience. Minutes and minutes of talking heads yakking at each other – but interesting. Touchstones are Oliver Stone‘s JFK, the ‘law’ halves of Law & Order episodes, and any episode in Aaron Sorkin‘s West Wing.
My first instinct is to just write the scene and get it over with. This can be difficult if I’ve little or no idea how suits talk to each other. In the past it’s become a war of attrition: the objective of narrative-propelling talking heads can be forgotten in a distressing and dispiriting fug of expository dialogue, with an end-result of dropping the scene completely, followed by a period of self-loathsome whimpering in The Lovely Wife‘s compassionate and patient arms.
I know what I want. I can almost taste the scene. The problem is writing what I want even though I have no idea what happens.
The solution is awfully simple: take tiny steps. Write what I know. Then write it again. Repeat until well done.
I’ve noticed a pattern to how some of these scenes take shape. Below are the stages of development that a scene can undergo:
– the nugget,
– the description,
– as good a start as any, and
– a work draft.
INT. CORPORATE BLOCK – DAY
TWO SUITS cook up a plan.
INT. MONOLITHIC CORPORATE BLOCK – AFTERNOON
BOUFFANT and COIFFURE walk and talk about BALDY’s imminent death.
As good a start as any
INT. ROTHERAY & TEMPLAR OFFICES – AFTERNOON
JAMESON RODERICK and TREVOR ALMOND prowl the open-plan offices and corridors.
[PLACE HOLDER: confident growls of world domination]
[PLACE-HOLDER: squeaky noises of dissension]
[PLACE HOLDER: growly grunts of alpha-maleness]
A work draft
INT. OPEN-PLAN OFFICES, ROTHERAY & TEMPLAR BUILDING – EVENING
RODERICK JAMESON and TREVOR ALMOND walk and talk as paralegals, interns and secretaries work into the night.
Did -. Did you –
His more athletic companion glares at him as a BEAVER-LIKE INTERN cuts in:
Sorry to interrupt, Mr Jameson, but Sir Templar asked me to give you this.
Roderick relieves him of an UNMARKED ENVELOPE and the intern disappears.
Is -. Is that –
Roderick steers his cream-doughnut-loving toady towards –
INT. CONFERENCE ROOM – CONTINUOUS
– where Almond slips out of his grip and takes a trembling breath:
I -, I’ve changed my mind.
They stare at each other for a long beat. Almond, of course, looks away first.
It’s too late.
It is done.
OUT ON Almond: there’s no turning back now.
As you can see, each draft gains more depth and colour and tone – I’m building on what’s gone before and with each iteration I’m that much closer to what I want. What I wanted in the first place and what I end up writing may be two very different things but that’s for another post. What matters is that I’ve now got something to really work with.
Another seventy-or-so more scenes to go.