Last summer I took a class in screenwriting taught by Corey Mandell, who makes his living teaching folks how to write movies. As I’ve written, I had mixed feelings about the class, but one of the things I liked about it was Mandell’s approach to story structure.
Mandell says that the main problem with most unproduced screenplays is a lack of conflict. We spent a good amount of class time talking about how to set up a good conflict. And how, once the conflict was established, to escalate that conflict. Because if the conflict doesn’t escalate, it just sits there: the conflict is needed for the story, but the escalation is the story.
Around the time I was taking the class, I competed in Richmond’s 48 Hour Film Project. I made “Flowers for Daniel,” which you can see here. I was happy with “Flowers” and pleased with the audience response. And in a lot of ways, it followed Mandell’s model: there’s an overall conflict throughout the movie, there are specific conflicts in each scene, and the conflicts escalate nicely throughout the film. I’m happy with how it’s structured.
However, I learned an important lesson as I sat in the theater watching the film with an audience. The film got a lot of laughs, which pleased me to no end. (There’s few feelings so grand as hearing an audience laugh when you want them to laugh.) But the laughs died down, and there were no laughs at all in the last scene. (Well, none until the closing credits, when I got a good laugh out of a joke I put in at the very end.)
In thinking about it, I realized that “Flowers” has the wrong ending. The hook of the film is seeing me play all those parts, and the humor of the movie comes from seeing me in the roles, plus the dialog that plays off having me in those roles. But the last scene gets serious: at some point I lost track of the fact that I was making a comic film noir and started making a serious film noir, and while there was steadily escalating conflict, that wasn’t enough.
And that leads me to Joe’s rule of escalations. It’s not enough to escalate conflict: you have to figure out what is special about the movie, and that’s what needs to escalate. I had done that to some extent: you can see that by looking at the number of roles I play in each scene.
Scene 1: I play two roles, Pete and Sandra.
Scene 2: I play four roles: Pete, the driver, the kid, and the blonde.
Scene 3: I play five roles: Pete, the crime boss, the two goons, and the bartender.
Scene 4: I play two roles, Pete and Sandra.
You can see where I’m going with this. For the first four scenes, I took the hook and escalated it. But the last scene, I stepped back from the escalation. Even though the conflict escalated in that final scene, the hook did not. To make things worse, the last scene didn’t have any lines playing off the hook.
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a new ending for Flowers and filming it. I’m still not sure if I’ll do that, and while I have some ideas, I don’t love any of them. But clearly, the new ending would require me to play even more parts, and to have more comedy built around that.
But most important of all is this: I need to remember in making future movies to figure out from the beginning what movie I’m making, and to escalate in that line. If I make a comedy, the ending needs to have more laughs. If I’m making an action film, the last set piece needs to be the biggest. If I’m making a horror, the final scares need to be the scariest.
That’s in addition to escalating conflict. But perhaps, even more important.