“Scheherazade” — A Guest Post from Art Holcomb

by Art Holcomb

Two pieces of paper hang above my desk.  

One is a quote (more about that next time) and the other is the picture below. It is from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

As the tale goes, the Persian King Shahryar would marry a new virgin each night only to slay them the following day. He had gone through a thousand virgins before he got around to Scheherazade, the daughter of the King’s vizier; a woman who was witty, wise and – most importantly – well-read.

So as to avoid being slain, Scheherazade spun for the king a fabulous story but stopped in the middle.  So enthralled by the story was the king that he broke his rule for the first time and spared her life for a day so she might finish the story the next night.  

But the following night, Scheherazade finished that story and then started another – only to stop halfway through once more as dawn approached.  

The King spared her again.

This pattern continued for a thousand and one nights.  By the time Scheherazade ran out of stories, the king had fallen deeply in love with her.

I look at that picture and think about Scheherazade each time I work on a script.  She was THE consummate storyteller and understood that how you tell the tale is at least as important as the tale itself.  I try to always edit my own work with the image of a swordsman’s blade waiting for me if I should ever lose my readers’ or viewers’ interest.

If the greatest duty of the writer is to the truth, then the greatest obligation has to be to not bore his audience.  And since the majority of my work is scriptwriting – with its tight time limits and page counts – I ask the same question of all my efforts:  

Is it dramatic enough?  

I have long subscribed to the famed screenwriter and playwright David Mamet’s definition of the dramatic scene:  

The quest of the Hero to overcome whatever ever obstacles there are that prevent him from achieving his goal. Each scene must culminate with the Hero finding him/herself either thwarted in his attempt or educated that another way to achieve his goal exists.”

This is the crucible in which all scenes must be tested. Pass this test and survive or fail the test and be cut out.
The three filters Mamet uses for every scene are:

  1. Who wants what?
  2. What happens if s/he doesn’t get it?
  3. What HAS to happen next?

Answer these three questions truthfully and you’ll be able to tell very quickly whether your scene works as drama or not.

For me, I work from outline, not long but broke into beats.  And, invariably, someplace between the outline and first draft sprout all manner of talking head scenes, extraneous material and false starts.  It’s natural and I let it happen because sometimes I learn things about the characters here that I didn’t know before.  

But they never survive the later drafts because here is where I have to be ruthless.  Any scene where two people are talking about a third has to go unless by taking it out I lose my audience’s focus. Applying the filters above, I know that each scene builds – unfold – upon the last.  Each character must have a pressing need that impels him from the last scene into this one and then from this scene into the next.  There must be a real reason for him/her to show up each time.  If there isn’t, the scene will be boring and that violates my First Rule.  

From Mamet again:

This need (compelling reason) is why they came.  It is what the scene is all about.  His/her inability to get their need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to FAILURE – this is how you know the scene is over.  This failure will then, of necessity, propel us all into the next scene.”

. . . and so on until the final resolution.

These attempts and failures, taken together, constitute your plot.  Note here this is your plot, NOT your story.

Think of it this way: your job here is to make the audience/reader NEED TO know what happens next.

Questions:

Ask yourself these questions about your current piece:

  1. How much of the time are you TELLING the readers what’s happening versus SHOWING them through your character’s actions?
  2. Be honest with yourself: are there passages in your current work that can’t hold your own attention?  If so, why should they then hold your readers’?
  3. Do your scenes flow necessarily from one to another?  Look at the juncture at the end of any given scene.  Is this where your characters should be heading?  Are you still interested in seeing what they do next?

Practice Exercises:

Choose a scene you’re having trouble with:

  1. If it’s dialogue heavy, try rewriting the scene without dialogue – just description and action.  See how much of the content you can give non-verbally.
  2. Try staging the scene in a different location of the story.  See if the location adds better continuity and drama.
  3. If it still doesn’t work, consider eliminating the scene altogether.  Can you move the main element of the scene to another that works better?

Next time: Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock . . .

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter whose work has appeared on the SHOWTIME Channel and a comic book author of such comics as Marvel’s X-MEN and Acclaim’s ETERNAL WARRIORS. He is a regular guest blogger to STORYFIX.COM.  A number of his recent posts appear in the Larry Brooks’ collection: Warm Hugs for Writers: Comfort and Commiseration of The Writing Life.  He appears and teaches at San Diego Comic-Con and other writing and media conventions.  His most recent screenplay is 4EVER (a techno-thriller set in the Afterlife) and is completing a work book for writers entitled,  The Pass:  A Proven System for Getting from Notion to Finished Manuscript.  He lives in Southern California.

14 Comments

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14 Responses to “Scheherazade” — A Guest Post from Art Holcomb

  1. I often fall into the talking heads syndrome, so I really appreciate your exercises at the end for helping with that — thank you! I am curious where flashbacks fit in your strategies for flow. Or don’t they?

  2. This is very interesting and hopefully will prove very useful in the future. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. spinx

    One name triggered it all , “David Mamet”.(no method for you then ;T)

    This just can´t be mere coinsidence, can it? It almost seems like a sign to me. SO, before I read on any further, I wanted to show you something. Actually, I wanted to show you last week, but loeads of hard work made me forget it!!

    http://acting-blog.com/?s=want+a+reminder

    That guy´s voice reminded me so much of your own- —–very scary on some parts!!

    As you can tell- it is an acting-blog.
    But more than that- I found it very helpful myself, even though I have not acted a day in my life. Ever since I discovered it two weeks ago, I have been reading page after page after page……for full three days on!

    This guy, Mark, talks about struggle, about the overuse of talent, about character, motivation…..and so much more, that has helped me a great deal with my writing.

    If nothing else—–just check out the link I provided. I honestly believe that you would like the page a great deal yourself.

    Peace out ;T

  4. Great stuff Art, thanks for sharing. This is going above my desk:
    Who wants what?
    What happens if s/he doesn’t get it?
    What HAS to happen next?

  5. Great advice per usual, Art.

    I’m most interested in what you said about all of the snippets that spawn out of your outlines. Personally, I like the idea that a story with well-developed characters can write itself to an extent. Do you believe that this is true, or do you find that you get the best results when you stick hard and fast to your outline?

  6. Thanks for this great advice. I have one scene I’ve been trying to fix, and I think the problem is too much dialogue. I see my work is cut out for me. 🙂

  7. Art Holcomb

    Tim:

    I try to remember that I’m not smarter than my skills and talent. I find that if I give my permission to let my imagination go wherever it wants in the “zero” draft (the pure creative / no-holds-barred stage) then I’m on my way. The outline then is meant to make sense of the zero draft and I add or pare as necessary along the way. Often times, the danger can be to always rewrite but not “unwrite”, that is to not make changes that lead me away from my characterizations or my central theme once they are set.

    All the best,

  8. Excellent points to keep in mind. As a Picture Book author I am blessed in the fact that I have to truly be aware of economy of words and can’t fall into many of these pitfalls…but at the same time it just makes it that much for important to ask the questions you pose here. Thank you for this post!

  9. “Can you move the main element of the scene to another that works better?” Those words, imho, should be cast in stone. That would save editors from having to slog through several pages to find one kernel of importance to the story. Great post, Art!

  10. “Each scene must culminate with the Hero finding him/herself either thwarted in his attempt or educated that another way to achieve his goal exists.”

    This is an extremely helpful parameter for both a first draft and a rewrite. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  11. spinx

    Now that I have finally found the time to read it all- I must say one thing—that is some serious material right there.

    It´ll certainly help more than one confused soul (me included!) find the right path to writers oblivion.

    I have been pondering these specific questions for months now….the hard part was, not forgetting to actually put them in THERE, in your scene, when it really counts. Everytime, not just once.
    ————————-

    The only question that has me in a buzz, would the “What NEEDS to happen next?”——————-care to elaborate on that one a little more?

    Now- that would be all from me.

    Peace out ;O

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  14. Art Holcomb

    Spinx:

    While it’s all the rage to to say that “anything’s possible,” the reality is that very few things are. But you have to be guided by the internal logic and the idea that your hero NEEDS to suffer – and suffer BIG TIME – in order to earn the reward you have planned for him/her at the end. You have to know that your guy can take whatever you can throw at him so, when stuck or in doubt, I complicate the story.

    There’s a screenwriting saying that says when your hero’s stuck, “have someone pull a gun on him,” meaning put even more pressure on him – I usually find that some new plan or direction will occur to me when I do so. After all these years, I’ve gotten a bit masocistic about it – and fortunately, the good characters rise to the occasion and make for better reading.

    Go on – give it to him. You know he can handle it!