Monday Motivation: One scene, many objectives
Every step in a ladder has a clear purpose – to enable Michaelangelo, say, to ascend to the next rung and ultimately to the scaffolding just below the ceiling. Every scene in a story has the same purpose – to enable the reader to move to the next scene.
We call this the dramatic imperative of each scene: its purpose in inching the story along its path to completion.
Sometimes, often, that dramatic purpose is complex. There is not simply one objective that must be met in the scene – there are many.
This was brought home to me with renewed force when I watched a scene from the new film of Dune, with accompanying commentary by the director, Denis Villeneuve.
It’s not a long scene, but it’s an important one. The hero, Paul Atreides, is preparing to go to the desert planet of Arrakis. He is sharp as one of the blades his mentor and teacher, Gurney Halleck, is teaching him to master.
“The scene,” Villeneuve said, “served four purposes…”
These are the dramatic imperatives he had in mind when he designed and directed the scene:
Firstly, it established the nature of the relationship between Paul Atreides and Gurney Halleck.
Second, it had to give more insight about the context in which the Atreides family moved to their new home on Arrakis – a world without water, a world in which giant worms crisscrossed the planet’s dunescape and left in their wake the heady spice called melange, which derived its value and its power from the fact that it tripled the life expectancy of users.
Thirdly, it establishes the fact that, while Paul Atreides has been well trained in the martial arts, he has never experienced real violence.
And finally, it introduces the concept of the Holtzman shield – a technology that has changed the essence of combat and warfare. It has rendered bullets and rockets obsolete – and so reintroduced swordplay as an essential skill of battle.
All of this has to be accomplished in just one minute and some seconds.
In almost any given scene in fiction or non-fiction, in stories written for the page, the screen or the stage, writers are faced with the same complex demand: show this, advance that, register this other detail, point to this little contradiction that tells you so much about the character and sets up a later surprise.
Just one rung at a time, it’s true, but so much can be accomplished in the course of the page or two of its unfolding.
The question I’ll leave you with is: are you up to the challenge?