Yves Lavandier’s book Writing Drama currently rates as the absolute favorite of our book reviewer Jack Brislee. To give you the chance to delve into Lavandier’s amazing knowledge and insight, we publish a weekly excerpt from the book.
In some cases, forms of conflict drawn from life prove ineffective in dramatic terms. This occurs when they are not properly exploited, but also when of their nature they are unlikely to cause us to feel any emotion.
In the earlier examples the scenes work on our emotions because the conflicts (shame, embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, humiliation) have been properly dramatised. Indeed, it is not enough for the conflict to be powerful in itself: it must be correctly established.
In some cases, forms of conflict drawn from life
prove ineffective in dramatic terms.
Sophie’s Choice offers what is in my view a good example of conflict that does not work because of the way it is presented. This is a great pity because the conflict in question—the humiliation resulting from a negation of human dignity—is one of the harshest that anyone can be forced to undergo.
On arriving in a concentration camp, Sophie (Meryl Streep) is obliged by an SS officer to choose which of her two children will survive. Not only is this scene more spoken about than shown—thus making the conflict more conceptual than emotional—but, above all, it is presented at the end of the film as an explanation for Sophie’s bizarre behaviour, the delay preventing the spectator from understanding her, and thus sharing her grief, for most of the film.
In other words—and this is a key point—the writer must ensure that the emotion arising from a conflict is felt not only by the characters involved but also by the spectator.
There is little prospect of the spectator experiencing a dramatic conflict if it is hidden from him. The same applies if the writer allows the character involved in the conflict to appear indifferent to it. A slap in the face, for example, will not appear conflictual if the writer omits to show that the character who has received it is affected by it.
There is little prospect of the spectator
experiencing a dramatic conflict if it is hidden from him.
If the family in To Our Loves paid no attention to the father’s wounding comments and continued calmly to talk among themselves instead of grimacing, the spectator would not feel that there was anything untoward.
If Jeff, in Rear Window, was not particularly bothered whether or not Lisa was risking her life searching the killer’s apartment, the spectator’s own sense of involvement would be considerably reduced.
It is for this reason that a film like Le Bal des Casse-Pieds fails to grip. The main character (Jean Rochefort) is harassed by a succession of bores but appears to find it all amusing rather than problematic. If anyone should be amused it is the spectator, not the victim of the conflict.
The same shortcoming is on view in Ed Wood, whose protagonist (Johnny Depp), a very low-budget filmmaker, experiences an interminable series of frustrations but appears to be unaffected. As a result, the spectator has no sense of participating and is reduced to observing the action without involvement.