“Need” in Screenwriting

A device I find useful when facing screenwriter’s block is to focus on what each character needs in a scene.

There is a school of screenwriting that would have us believe that all scenes are defined by what the characters want, but I disagree. I’ve spent many enjoyable moments with friends not particularly needing or wanting anything, and that’s what screenwriting basically is — voyeurism. Overemphasis on need-driven scenemaking destroys spontaneity and overloads the script with tension.

Compare the following problem scene from the first and second draft of “Windy City.”

First draft:

EXT. ESTER'S FLAT - NIGHT

DAN

Why didn't you stop?

NINEVE

Well it's not that I didn't like

dance, it was just the girls there.

But, being a senator's daughter,

you've got to have a certain amount

of...

She pauses at the doorknob, folds her arm formally behind her.

NINEVE

(cont.)

Poise. Charm. And most

importantly --

They enter.

INT. ESTER'S FLAT, CONT.

PAUL

...There's just NO WAY!

Nineve and Dan are startled. The adults stands around the kitchen table. Sherrib and Tigres look bitter, Ester and Gyllian defiant. Paul is angry. We've never seen Paul angry.

SAUL

(from the corner)

I can stay, whatever good THAT'LL

do...

TIGRES

Saul...

PAUL

(to Dan and Nineve)

They cut off our funding this

afternoon, the senate. We can't

afford to stay.

DAN

They can... just... do that?

SHERRIB

(to Nineve)

They cut room and board stipends.

Most of us don't use them, but the

valley delegates need them.

NINEVE

...Because they live at the hotel?

SHERRIB

Right.

PAUL

They called a special session this

afternoon. While we were out

watching the airship with everyone

else.

GYLLIAN

Little sneaks.

SAUL

All this money, you'd think I could

buy some brains...

TIGRES

(quietly)

Stop it.

PAUL

Mrs. Hadden has agreed to let us

stay here. Saul's staying on

at the hotel. Hana, Hale and

Tudaya have already made plans to

go back.

ESTER

You'll have to sweep up the dust

and flower petals, but it'll be

nice to have someone living in

the spare rooms again.

DAN

We don't have to go home?

PAUL

(surprised)

No, not yet. Not us anyway.

Second draft:

INT. SENATE - HIGH HALLWAY, CONT.

DAN

Then why didn't you stop?

NINEVE

Well it's not that I didn't like

dance, it was just the girls there.

But, being a senator's daughter,

you've got to have a certain amount

of . . .

Nineve stops at the end of the hallway, folding her arm formally behind her.

NINEVE

(cont.)

Poise. Charm. And most

importantly --

INT. SENATE - LIGHT TOWER, CONT.

PAUL

(angrily)

Well I DIDN'T!

Nineve and Dan start. Paul looks ANGRY -- we've never seen Paul angry. Sherrib, Saul and Tigres are with him, along with the other three valley delegates -- HANA, HALE and TUDIYA -- surrounded by telegraphs and windows.

TUDIYA

You're taking this far too

personally, Assurbani. No one was

expecting us to succeed.

SAUL

I'm sorry, Paul. I ran down there

as soon as I heard about it, but

there wasn't much I could do.

PAUL

You could've done something! Talk,

waste time. . . ANYTHING!

SAUL

When pop's money doesn't solve the

problem, I'm pretty useless. You

know that.

TIGRES

Stop it.

PAUL

Why didn't you at least -- ?

TIGRES

Stop it both of you! Ester?

ESTER

Paul and Dan can stay as long as

they need to with me. I have more

than enough room. We need to put

this in the proper frame of mind.

It's a setback, surely, but only

that.

ASSURBANI

Ester's right. Ester's always

right. We're still operative.

We've got to look for a way ahead.

HALE

You're wasting your time! Honestly,

I appreciate all that you've done

for us, Senator Sherrib. . .

PAUL

We still have funds for the hotel

through Friday. You can at least

help out until then.

HANA

Paul, let it go. It's done.

TUDIYA

No one was expecting us to succeed.

PAUL

Well I was! Dan, Nineve, come in.

They are still standing in the doorway.

PAUL

(cont.)

They voted to cut off our funding,

the Senate. The money they give us

for the hotel. Saul can afford to

stay. Dan, you and I are invited to

stay with Ester. Hana and Hale want

to go back tomorrow. Tudiya, you

can stay for a couple weeks, can't

you?

TUDIYA

I'm afraid I'll be going back as

well.

PAUL

(to Dan)

So our party is somewhat diminished.

DAN

But we don't have to go back?

PAUL

No. Not yet.

SHERRIB

They very quietly called a special

session this afternoon to vote on it.

NINEVE

How did they get enough people?

SHERRIB

Don't know. Everyone who's a

reliable vote for Chairman Khorsa

was there. I think they've been

planning this for a while.

PAUL

We were out watching the airship

with everyone else.

Is the scene better? Who knows, but I’m happier with it. It satisfies my need.

(In case you’re interested, I’m of the Jim Cameron school of screenwriting: “Just describe the movie.”)

 “Need” in Screenwriting

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