(6 things screenwriters can learn from Anton Chekhov)
Movie-making hadn’t really taken off when Anton Chekhov died (1905) but if his short stories are anything to go by he would have made as brilliant a film director as he was a writer. His short stories contain great lessons for screenwriters and directors.
The golden rule for filmmakers is “show, don’t tell.” Here is the first paragraph of Chekhov’s short story, The Cook’s Wedding, a bravura example of showing:
Aksinya Stepanovna, the old nurse, was sitting on the dirty stool facing him, and she, too, was drinking tea. Her face was grave, though at the same time it beamed with a kind of triumph. Pelageya, the cook, was busy at the stove, and was apparently trying to hide her face. And on her face Grisha saw a regular illumination: it was burning and shifting through every shade of colour, beginning with a crimson purple and ending with a deathly white. She was continually catching hold of knives, forks, bits of wood, and rags with trembling hands, moving, grumbling to herself, making a clatter, but in reality doing nothing. She did not once glance at the table at which they were drinking tea, and to the questions put to her by the nurse she gave jerky, sullen answers without turning her face.
This is almost like a series of shots. Obviously you would need good actors and you’d have to make up the dialogue for the questions coming from the nurse, but it’s almost immaterial what they are because the “showing” is in the manner the cook answers them.
If you’re a writer and you have trouble sometimes figuring out how to show instead of telling, or if you’re a director trying to find the best way to convey visually what’s happening in a scene.
Here are six steps you may find useful:
1: Consider what each character wants at the start of the scene and what they’re feeling and how to get some of that across without words.
In Chekhov’s kitchen scene we get a pretty good idea of how each of the characters is feeling: the boy is amazed at the unusual nature of what’s happening, the peasant is making himself at home, the old nurse is feeling satisfied with herself, and the cook is upset and sullen.
Let’s look at an example that applies to a hypothetical movie. In a romantic comedy, a guy and a girl encounter each other for the first time in a bank where they’re both waiting in line. He’s impatient, he’s on his lunch break and has to be back at work in a few minutes for an important meeting. She’s annoyed because all she wants to do is withdraw some money but the cash machines are out of order. The teller is resentful because she has just been turned down for a raise.
2: Come up with a variety of ways, other than dialogue, that characters might reveal how they’re feeling.
As much as possible make the action also reveal something bigger about them. In Chekhov’s case, the cook is trembling, muttering, and clattering the silverware and she doesn’t look the nurse in the eye. Whatever is bothering her has made a very big impact.
In our romantic comedy, maybe the guy checks his phone every ten seconds. This suggests he’s insecure or obsessed or both.
The young woman makes faces and sighs and when others in the line look at her she puts on a “can you believe this?” expression. This suggests she feels comfortable only when everybody agrees with her.
The teller is working as slowly as possible–if they’re not going to pay her more, she’s doing less.
I’m not suggesting this should all go into the screenplay; after all, much of this kind of thing is up to the actors to provide and it’s not your job to tell them how to act. But having a vivid image of the scene yourself allows you to select one or two of the most revealing actions that help the scene come alive in the mind of your reader.
3: Also consider what else is going on in the scene that might support the tone and impact of the scene.
The fact that the nurse and the peasant are drinking tea so calmly contrasts with the nervous actions of the cook.
If you want to put our characters under some additional pressure and make them even more irritated, we could add to the line a woman with a toddler who starts screaming and running around the bank.
4: Choreograph the essential action of the scene.
What’s supposed to happen and is there a fresh way to show it? In Chekhov’s case, having the boy observe the action is a kind of frame for it.
If we want our couple to dislike each other instantly, which is the usual first beat in a romantic comedy relationship, what could bring that about?
Perhaps it looks like another teller may be about to open her window. The guy and the woman are both tense, ready to bolt over there if that’s the case, but afraid of leaving their current line too soon in case it’s a false alarm. Each is aware that the other wants to get there first. It could almost be played like a scene from a thriller.
5: Think about whether something unexpected (but logical) would help the scene.
This doesn’t apply so much to Chekhov’s scene because it’s not a situation that is familiar to us. However, we’ve seen so many romantic comedies that we expect the couple to start off on the wrong foot. What if we go for the opposite–make them so attracted to each other that they forget about waiting in line and rush to his apartment and have sex? Obviously something would have to go wrong after that or we’d be at the end of the story ten minutes in, but it would be a fresh approach to a meeting.
6: Be clear on what has changed by the end of the scene and brainstorm how best to show it.
In Chekhov’s story, the boy has become aware that something is wrong in the world of the servants.
At the start of our scene the couple had not met. By the end they have. In one version they have a bad impression of each other although there’s a hint of attraction, too, of course. In another they’re rushing out of the bank in full lust mode.
When your writing is going well a lot of this will come to you intuitively. When that’s not happening, remembering Chekhov and these steps might help.
Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of TV, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, two TV movies starring the Olsen Twins, and been a script doctor on films starring Kim Cattrall, Michael Caine, and Eddie Murphy. He is the author of “Your Writing Coach,” and “Your Creative Writing Masterclass,” both published by Nicholas Brealey, and teaches for Raindance several times a year.
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His writing blog is at http://www.TimeToWrite.blogs.com.