You’ve already determined there’s no way to collapse it; the conflict and plot-moving content are crucial to your story. But it just doesn’t quite grab you. There’s something missing between the scene’s opening shot and its final climax. The hero seems to march along too easily toward his/her goal.
What can you do to mess things up?
In moments like these, a mini-drama might be just what the script (or novel!) doctor ordered. What is a mini-drama, you ask? Don’t worry—I didn’t know about them for a long time, either until I read Larry Brooks‘s wonderful article series deconstructing Avatar. In them, Brooks explores how James Cameron injected “extra” conflict in many of the film’s scenes, to make the hero’s journey more complicated and increase viewer interest. These “mini-dramas,” as he called them, give the audience plenty more to worry and wonder about inside a particular scene.
Why worry at all about extra conflict at the scene level? Isn’t it good enough to have one main obstacle per scene?
No. Every scene in your story is a mini-story of its own. Each scene should have a hero (which, in subplot scenes, might be a secondary character) and a goal of its own, as well as a mounting series of obstacles (even small ones!). Mini-dramas multiple the obstacles throughout the course of a particular scene, strengthening its performance as a “mini-story” within your script or novel.
Does this mean writers should just throw in more car chases, or sprinkles in extra fist fights and arguments?
Not necessarily. Like any other element of a story, mini-dramas should be used judiciously to enhance plot and character development. The best mini-dramas typically fall into four simple categories. Here they are, and here’s how they can help you make those crucial scenes rock:
Can the scene’s hero really be trusted? Is he or she fit to receive the boon or fulfill the mini-quest they’ve come for? Tests allow a scene’s secondary characters to mess up the hero’s plan, forcing the hero to respond with some ingenious solution—which keeps your audience hooked.
The recent Arrow episode “Vertigo” does this beautifully. In this episode, Oliver (Stephen Amell) infiltrates the Russian mob in order to locate a powerful drug dealer. He is just about to clinch his acceptance among them (thanks to fake documents and his flawless language skills), when his mob contact pulls a fast one: as one last test of his loyalty, he announces, Oliver must kill one of their prisoners before their eyes. The next instant, a prisoner is dragged before him.
This unexpected test powerfully amplifies the (otherwise easily-conquered) scene obstacles. We’ve been lulled to sleep by fake documents and Russian subtitles; Oliver’s got this one in the bag, right? His unexpected test becomes a kind of wake-up call. Will Oliver kill someone he doesn’t even know? What will happen if he doesn’t? Suddenly, the scene is about so much more than a free pass to the underworld.
Everybody loves a good secret. And my, how they can complicate our lives, not to mention our pursuit of our goals! So why not reveal one in the middle of an otherwise ho-hum, necessary scene: and watch the fireworks fly?
I recently tried this technique in an upcoming chapter of Rise of the Tiger. In this episode, Jude has been sentenced by the Council for his “crimes” and is dealing with the first hours in his dramatically-altered life. His scene goal is simple and physical. But in the course of seeking it, he encounters a gatekeeper (more on them below!) who reveals a secret about another character.
Suddenly, what might have been a simple scene about a physical need takes on powerful new meaning. (Well, at least I hope so! You’ll have to tell me how I did after the episode releases on February 14, 2013.) At the very least, interjecting the secret helped me greatly as a writer, because suddenly I had multiple new levels of conflict (internal and external) to work with. Plus, I set up more conflict in one of my subplots, for later in the story.
Not everyone wants the hero of the scene to get what s/he wants. Gatekeepers—sometimes called Threshold Guardians—are characters who “protect” places, things, or people that the hero wants. Typically they will use tests (see #1) to ensure the hero is worthy of receiving his/her goal. Often gatekeepers are stationed at the entrance of caves or enchanted forests. But they are just as likely to show up in the company boardroom, the back hallway, or wherever your scene takes place.
The recent film Bourne Legacy uses this technique well near the middle of an otherwise-unremarkable film. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) has gone to the home of a research physician who once cared for him, in order to find the medicine he needs to maintain his super spy powers. The writers then cut to a scene of the physician (who is this scene’s hero) preparing to leave the country to visit her sister. Her goal is to get to the airport on time (and thus, to escape the country!). But as she gathers her belongings, several CIA agents—the scene’s gatekeepers—roll up.
Obstacles mount as the agents interrogate the physician. Her simple pursuit of a flight out of town escalates instead into a game of cognitive cat-and-mouse, with her freedom at stake. This mini-drama provides a dramatic context for Cross’s first encounter with the physician, and sets up a series of new conflicts that pay off later in the story. And all of that . . . because some gatekeepers showed up to test the scene hero’s determination to achieve her goal.
Mini-dramas breathe new life into otherwise standard scenes. And the three simple techniques above are just a start. Tests, Secrets, and Gatekeepers can be interpreted, mixed, and matched endlessly to increase in-scene obstacles for your characters, giving your audience even more to worry and wonder about, moment by moment.
Used well, mini-dramas can help make every scene a scene to be proud of.
Your turn! Have you used mini-dramas before? How did it work out, and why? Share your own tips and experiences below!