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Friday, July 10, 2009

Peaks and Valleys

My last post about monologue and speeches I touched on the idea that there were areas in a screenplay that were stronger than others, areas where you should put your best dialogue, monologue or action scenes. Here they can do the most damage so to speak. Here they have the advantage. These are the peaks.

Forget Syd Field for a moment. Just think of the narrative as a series of peaks and valleys. The hero sets out to do one thing, he starts doing it, looks like smooth sailing, then bang something happens and it’s no longer that smooth. After that the hero changes plans and then starts moving again. Again things are going along nicely until WAM, something else happens. Then the hero has to change plans again. You keep doing this as many times as it takes to get your hero from the beginning to the end.

What beginners sometimes forget is that the valleys are just important as the peaks. They don’t realize that we need those quiet moments where everything is going along nicely. Otherwise it’s going to be like Michael Bay film, all noise and now space to breath. Those kinds of movies are more exhausting than they are exciting.

An excellent example of placing your best scenes at the peaks of your story is True Romance. I used True Romance earlier as an example of great monologue, but the entire script is exceptional well structured. It’s the oddity in Tarantino’s early work. In the first two movies he wrote and directed, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, he played around with the traditional storytelling structure. True Romance by contrast was classically structured and showed Tarantino didn’t have to break up the timeline to tell a compelling story.

The story starts out with Clarence and Alabama. They meet and fall in love. Everything is just hunky dory but then something happens. Alabama fesses up that she’s really a call girl hired to be with him. It’s the first big dialogue scene in the movie. It starts here around the 3 minute mark.

So after this things can’t go on as normal for Clarence and Alabama. Clarence marries her and tries to get her away from the life as a call girl. But that leads inevitably to confronting her pimp Drexl in this scene, a fine mix of top dialogue and action.

In the aftermath Clarence and Alabama try to get on with their lives. They flee the city with the stolen drugs and head for Los Angeles. For a moment it looks like they’ve nothing to worry about. But then the mob does show up and interrogate Clarence’s father, leading to the infamous “Sicilian” monologue.

But Clarence and Alabama don’t hear about the murder. They have no idea the mob is on their heels. They’re kicking it in LA, making contacts. Things are going better than smooth for them. Clarence has the potential drug buyers eating out of the palm of his hand. But then the mob does show up in a brutal way with an appearance by future Sopranos godfather James Gandolfini.

This serves as foreshadow to the finale when the mob, the cops and some very dumb bodyguards all converge in the same apartment.

Sure there are other memorable lines and scenes (the whole dialogue with Elvis for one) but these are the peaks of the story and they’re the scenes best remembered. They are some of the best scenes in the movie and they occur at its most important junctions.

So when you’re brainstorming scenes and dialogue that you can use in your story and you come up with something really good, save it. Then when you go to plot out your story, look for where the peaks are, where things have to change for your hero and put them there. You’ll be very pleased with the results.


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