Tuesday 30 March 2010

Dodging the Bullet

Lance and Carl are in a scene in a longform that has a noirish thriller feel. Suddenly Carl pulls a gun, says Lance knows too much and shouts "Bang!" Lance jumps aside comically and retorts "you missed!"

Now an audience will probably laugh at this, but mainly because it's a block: destroying the reality of the scene, throwing the genre, character and truth of the moment out of the window, and trivialising (to the point of mocking) the offer of being shot at.

The thing that does most to destroy everything is not the jumping aside but the glib "you missed!" Jumping aside would have been acceptable had Lance immediately followed it up with a dive behind the furniture and/or going for his own gun. This would have been consistent with the genre and current action. However, from this close range, the most consistent with the genre and reality (assuming Carl has shot a gun before which is likely given the ease with which he pulled it out) is for the bullet to hit home.

I asked Lance about his motivations and after some evasion, found that he didn't think his character should die. He gave some justification, saying his character was important to the plot. He was the main informant to the detective. This doesn't ring true of course as in a detective thriller like this, any secondary character is liable to get shot and killed. Especially those close to the central character who have already served a purpose.

He also used as a justification that the audience wouldn't want his character to die either, which is true as his character was a likeable rogue. However, as an audience, there are always (important) characters in stories we don't want to die who do die. (Obi Wan Kenobi, Sigourney Weaver in Avatar, Bambi's mother.) They die because the story dictates it. If you are in a film noir, crime thriller or similar, it's highly likely a few incidental and even important characters are going to get knocked off on the way. It's what happens in the genre. And if people dance around avoiding bullets with apparent glee, this is not a noirish thriller it's a Ben Stiller musical. And nobody wants to be in that.

So, in a nutshell, Lance threw the story off track because he didn't want his character to die. When you really get down to it, most reasons for refusing to be killed end up being what that actor wants and not what the story needs. The two core reasons boil down to:
• "I didn't want my character to die because I enjoyed playing him and I didn't want to have to sit on the side for most of the show."
• "I thought I was the hero."

It's clear that there is a strong an element of ego is in both of these. Lance didn't use the latter, but I've heard the same justification in similar situations. But again this is no justification for the above action. He should have realised that when Carl pulled the gun, said very little and shot at him, he didn't seem to think Lance was the central character; otherwise he might have said more. Even if Lance was the central character, he should have dived for cover and dispatched Carl after a shootout rather than goofing off like the actor son of famous comedians.

But we should also remember that central characters do get shot as well. Frequently. And being shot doesn't mean death. And also death doesn't mean exclusion from the story. (I'll deal with this at a later date.) However, if an actor is improvising with too much attention paid to the ego and not enough to the scene, I am reluctant to point out that they can be shot and even die and still carry on, because most of the time, if you are shot as a secondary character, you're dead. And if you are dead, 95% of the time your character is not seen or heard again.

So except for those scant few times, that bullet is going to slam straight through you and death will come soon. Otherwise you are destroying the magic, the reality, the truth (whatever word you want to use) of the story you are telling and throwing an egotistical spanner in the works.

[Please note this article refers to longform (which should only be attempted by players with a few courses under their belt) and open scenes. Beginners should avoid dying, leaving and any other excuse to quit the scene, and many shortform structures will fail if one of the players buggers off.]


  1. Of course, the offer could have been accepted as a wounding, fatal or non-fatal, which could have perhaps allowed both some "negotiation" over whether the character would die, or might allow comic value over extended death. Of course, the shooter could have regained control and reality by ramping up the un-reality, that is taking the non-death as an offer.... countering with something like [glancing at watch] "no, I did hit you, but they are special time-release bullets... 3, 2, 1..." Of course, if the other player keeps dodging, refusing to die, another player could enter endowing themselves as the grim reaper and dragging the recalcitrant from the stage.

    I think it's very brave to die on stage. My biggest "what a trooper moment" goes to Katie Walsh, who died in the middle of a genre roller and then lay still in the middle of stage for the rest of the scene whilst the other performers stepped over and occassionally stood on her. The audience rightly saw her as a hero; try instilling that in students.

  2. Another way the shooting player could have snatched victory from the jaws of the blocker: use the genre -- turn to the audience and narrate "I didn't have the heart to tell his disembodied spirit, as I stood over his corpse, that the shot had killed him instantly, as fast as Lola pours coffee at Ned's Diner at 3am on a Saturday night. If I had told him, it would have felt like guilt, and guilt is for suckers...."

    While this is a counterblock if you like, an approach like this has the added value of ending the scene. If the dead player persists, he can be regarded as a manifestation. So even if he's a jerk about it, that can be built on.

    My point is that a huge block usually throws everything out of whack, but that there is a possibility that things can be repaired by using the block as a kind of hostile offer, rather than simply thinking WTF and feeling the sting of what the other player has done, react within the confines of the scene.