The power of a visual over verbal character revelation

If you are going to write a script and stick to the so called ‘classic structure’ then your character will have an arc, they will change, they will have a revelation, and use this new found knowledge about themselves in Act 3.

John Truby takes an example from Mamet’s ‘The Verdict’ to illustrate the character revelation and how critical the placement of it is to your story.

Paul Newman is Frank Galvin, a washed up alcoholic lawyer, who has lowered himself to funeral chasing to make his living. He’s at the end of the line when a colleague offers him a case, a sure thing, all he has to do is complete the paperwork, then he can collect the pay check. Frank goes to the hospital to take pictures as evidence for the case, but when he stands in front of a young girl, turned into a vegetable from medical malpractice, he decides he can’t settle and must take it to court.

This scene is so powerful because it is all done with images, no dialogue, just the sound of the young girls ventilator breathing in the background. We know what is going through Frank’s mind when he looks from the Polaroid to the young girl in the bed, we don’t need to be told.

The scene also works at a deeper level as Frank is really seeing himself paralyzed in the bed. Frank has also had an injustice done to him, and just like the helpless girl, he was unable to fight the power of the church, legal or medical profession. Frank has had his life taken away from him and he is trapped in a coma of alcohol and misery. This is his chance to change things, win justice for the young girl, and in the process reclaim his life and dignity.

Truby correctly argues that this is the most powerful revelation in the script but it comes to early rendering each subsequent revelation inferior. You only have to watch the scene in the courtroom where Frank delivers another revelation through dialogue to know he’s right. It just doesn’t have the same impact.

So what’s the moral of the story here? Your character can’t have any kind of revelation early in your script through dialogue and especially not with images?

Well yes and no….

Micheal Clayton is summoned from his card game to a wealthy mansion to ‘fix’ a hit a run accident. The wealthy client thinks he is there to make it go away but Michael explains to him what his limitations are and who he really is.

This is a really well written scene. We have Michael Clayton’s character delivering exposition about himself through dialogue but it doesn’t feel ‘on the nose’. The main reason for this, besides the quality of the writing, is that it’s delivered through conflict. We retain the information given to us, but the fact that we are absorbed in the characters conflict, means we are not so conscious of it being fed to us.

It’s only when I watched the film again did this scene feel like Michael was having a revelation about himself. We get the feeling that Michael has acknowledged who he is for the first time.

So how does Gilroy give us this scene early in the film but still save the best for last?

He does the reverse of what Mamet did in the Verdict. He gives us the visually unforgettable scene with Michael in the meadow at the end of the 2nd Act. The images in this scene are so powerful and not a word of dialogue had been spoken. We know what Michael is feeling, he has been given a second chance to understand the beauty of life, and we are there with him.

There is always talk of rising conflict in script-writing and how it must build incrementally but this must also apply to your characters understanding of him/herself. a.k.a the character arc.

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The power of a visual over verbal character revelation

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