Turn Left

Robert McKee is the author of "Story", a tome on storytelling principles which I consider essential reading.

“No scene that doesn’t turn.”

Such is the motto of Robert McKee’s bible for storytellers, Story. Until I read his book a number of years ago and began hearing more and more of my peers refer to “turns” and “reversals” and “turning left when they think you’ll turn right,” I had no idea how important a concept this was for screenwriting.

If William Goldman is right and “screenplays are structure,” then scenes are turns.

The next time you watch a film, really pay close attention to the structure of the individual scenes (It’s best to do this with a film you are very familiar with — your brain won’t distract you while attempting to follow an unfamiliar plot). Nearly every movie that follows classic Hollywood storytelling conventions will construct every scene around at least one turn. The beginning of the scene will present one situation, and by the end of the scene, that situation will turn to something else. The character will start happy and turn sad. The hero will be losing the battle and suddenly summon the strength to win. The girl will be making a fool of herself in front of the boy, but the boy will actually find this cute instead of foolish.

An extreme type of turn is called a reversal. These are 180-degree turns from one extreme to its polar opposite. Alive to dead. Attraction to repulsion. Submission to domination.

One of the more hilarious reversals I’ve seen comes in Shane Black’s noir-comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In the scene, Robert Downey, Jr. is about to play Russian roulette on a captive in an effort to extract information. We’ve seen this scenario play out a thousand times, and Black knows it. Downey puts a single bullet in the chamber of a .38 revolver and takes aim at his cowering prisoner. He cries out, “Where is the girl?” and pulls the trigger. Since we’ve seen this scenario play out before, we expect it to go the exact same way as it always has: click, click, and finally the prisoner can’t bear it anymore and gives up everything. But in Black’s film, before the prisoner can even deny knowing anything, the first pull of the trigger sends the only bullet in the revolver into his head, killing him. This always gets a rousing response of uproarious laughter from the audience, because not only were we not expecting it, but our common sense tells us that in the real world indeed this would happen from time to time when employing such a reckless interrogation method (Uta Hagen says comedy comes from us seeing ourselves).

Another example comes in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. Brendon Gleeson enters the scene wanting to kill the character portrayed by Colin Farrell. But when he approaches Farrell with his weapon drawn, Farrell (who doesn’t detect Gleeson’s approach) pull his own gun on himself in attempted suicide. Gleeson’s altruistic instincts kick in and his motivation goes from wanting to kill Farrell to wanting to save Farrell.

While you don’t need a reversal in every scene, it’s good to have as many as you can come up with. It keeps us on the edge of our seat. It’s the quality that makes us all say, “I had no idea what was going to happen in that movie.” It’s even better if you can play on previous cinematic convention like Black does in Bang Bang, making us expect something we’ve seen a trillion times only to deliver the exact opposite.

One of my mentors, Ben Taylor, recently wrote a terrific double-turn scene which takes place in a gay strip club. It shows a drunk, middle-aged man stumbling around, seemingly infatuated with one of the boy dancers on stage. When one of the bouncers at the bar tries to escort the man out, he exclaims, “I’m his father!” Everyone freezes. Shock. The situation appears to be a father has come in to a gay strip club and discovered his own son as a performer. This is the scene’s first turn. But then the boy dancer shouts from the stage, “You’re not my father!” The drunk man replies, “Okay, I’m not his father.” This is a reversal of the initial turn, and got tons of laughs.

You can fold this on itself as much as the logic in your narrative allows. But there is a danger in placing too many turns and reversals in your scenes. It can start to come across as absurd coincidence. I just made this mistake in a scene I wrote for a workshop:

In my scene (loosely based on a scene from Bukowski’s Post Office), a man returns home to his apartment, drunk, to find that all the furniture has been changed (turn #1). He also finds a woman he doesn’t know lying on his bed, beckoning him to stay with her (turn #2). When he starts to give in to her, thinking it’s just his lucky day, she mentions her husband (turn #3). Our hero asks her what apartment number this is. She says 304. Our hero freaks and proclaims, “I’m on the wrong floor! My key opened your door!” (turn #4). When he tries to leave, there’s a knock at the door. It’s the woman’s husband (turn #5). When the husband enters and sees our hero, it turns out they are old college buddies! (turn #6). Instead of kicking him out, the husband invites our hero to stay for dinner (turn #7). While I got decent notes on this scene in class, under no circumstances can I argue it is anything other than a cautionary example of the risk of implementing too many turns in a single narrative (for an example of a movie that does this, look no further than 2005’s inexplicable Best Picture winner, Crash, in which a select number of characters continue to conveniently bump into each other multiple times in a single day in a city of nearly ten million people).

The opposite extreme, of course, is writing a scene with no turns. If you are the audience of a narrative with no turns, you will quickly get bored and wonder why you’re watching it. It will feel like it isn’t going anywhere. Think of a scene where a character starts happy and ends happy. Or a narrative where a family is living a nice, quiet life in the suburbs and in the end still lives a nice, quiet life in the suburbs. Stories are change — otherwise, what’s the point? To quote McKee’s fictional depiction in Adaptation., “Your characters must change, and the change must come from them.”

Amen.

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