Of all the things I read in Robert McKee’s Story, this is the one that sticks out the most: that story happens in the gap between expectation and result. I get inspiration from this in all kinds of weird ways, and it doesn’t always make sense, but I’ll try to explain.
I finished the first act of Charisma two weeks ago and immediately ran into a wall. How the hell do I start the second act? Something needed to go in there, after she “embraces her ability” but before she is arrested. This was a huge gap in my outline, and though I knew it needed to be the B-plot – her attempt to graduate from college – I had no idea how to execute it.
I wrote this fun little scene where she goes to her Academic Dean and tries to use a Jedi mind trick on her, but the tone of the scene was off – when she’s arrested, a few minutes later (in screen time), she still needs to be scared and confused, and I can’t see taking two huge swings in such a short time frame. So I cut the scene and looked again. She needs to be arrested, but what does the arrest scene look like? I keep going back to McKee’s Closing the Gap example in Chinatown (which I just watched for the first time last week), where the butler doesn’t open the door … then she’s happy to see him … then she won’t reveal her secret … then she does. Do I need to have my hero try to run away from the police, when they come to arrest her? That would certainly bring about a change of pace and a gap between what she expects of herself and the action that instinctively comes to her. Although I’m not crazy about the idea of writing a chase scene for her arrest, I think it’s the right move.
Still, I needed something to set it up. The arrest needs to happen at night, but what does she do in the day up until then? The segment has so many requirements: It needs to set up the B plot and demonstrate her attempted development of her skill, while maintaining the tone that keeps her arrestable.
Once I figured it out in those terms, it was quite easy. I started by re-inserting the cut scene, and instead cutting the last three or four lines of the previous scene. They were lines I liked, but they shifted the tone from scared and confused to giggly and convivial. By making that change, the entire tone of the next scene became much more sombre, and rather than being “fun” it became a desperate attempt for our hero to understand the world around her. Amazing how cutting these few lines gave the “Fun & Games” scene a rich layer of subtext that wasn’t there before. (Sidenote: I’m reminded of a famous story of an Orson Welles theatrical production of Julius Caesar, which went from mediocre to excellent in audience’s eyes, simply by adding back in – and using expressionistic lighting to accent – the lynching of Cinna the Poet.)
Then, she goes to her mentor for help … and he helps her. She spends the rest of the day in the library reading and absorbing knowledge, and then she checks out some books that will help to incriminate her later on. Problem solved. And at every step, the gap occurs in what the characters expect of themselves.
Now we get to move on to the chase, followed by the accusal, followed by the rescue and the Ordeal, and hopefully the next 30 pages will be a breeze for me to write.