A couple of weeks ago I noticed that A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE was playing on Turner Classic Movies and stopped my channel surfing. I’d seen the film many times before, but it had been awhile, and I automatically clicked “record.” Later, abandoned by my family who took off to see the new James Bond film, I settled in to watch.
For two hours, I was riveted. I couldn’t move or speak as I watched the sad saga of Blanche Dubois play out in that cramped and ratty New Orleans apartment. Vivian Leigh as Blanche, Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, and Kim Stanley as his wife Stella, were amazing.
The play is revolutionary on lots of levels, but it’s rare that filmed versions of classic theater pieces satisfy. STREETCAR is an exception. Brando prowls, and yells, and throws chicken bones all over the joint, and when he and Blanche face off in the climax, we are filled with dread.
What I noticed most clearly during this viewing was how each scene slowly built this dread and lead us precisely to the inevitable explosive climax. How sparingly and yet elaborately Tennessee Williams builds his characters. Their wants and needs are so clear, and so diametrically opposed that there is nowhere to go but into the fire.
Williams creates relentless rising conflict, and he does it by writing killer scenes. And the craft elements he employs apply to writers of film, fiction and memoir.
Let’s pull apart one of my favorite scenes from this film and see how Tennessee Williams does it.
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, here’s the set up. Blanch Dubois, a mentally unstable former southern belle, has been forced to come and live with her sister Stella and Stella’s crude husband Stanley. Blanche has just been stood up by her date Mitch, the one man who is her only hope to escape her situation. Stanley is mad that Blanche is living with them, and Stella is furious at Stanley’s lack of sympathy toward her fragile sister. They sit down to dinner.
I’m a huge fan of Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat!, and in his book he identifies the 4 elements necessary for a great scene. Let’s see how Tennessee Williams masterfully uses all of them….
Conflict-– This scene has lots of conflict. While Blanche tries to pretend she hasn’t been stood up by telling funny stories, Stanley eats chicken, unresponsive to her attempts to amuse him. Stella is infuriated by his lack of compassion and confronts him. Everyone has a goal in the scene, these objectives are in direct opposition, and wow, what an explosion.
An emotional shift for all the characters. At the beginning of the scene, Stanley calmly eats his chicken; at the end he’s throwing dishes and threatening his wife. Blanche is vivacious and flirty at the top of the scene, and we leave her cowering into her coffee cup. Stella tries to smile and be supportive of Blanche, but then, furious, she confronts Stanley, and ends up cowed as well. Each character in the scene starts out in one emotional state and ends in another. Each has a strong emotional shift.
The scene has a beginning, middle and end. It’s structured almost like a mini movie. The beginning is Blanche attempting to amuse Stanley and deny she’s upset. The middle is Blanche attempting to tell the parrot story and failing. The climax is Stella confronting Stanley and him exploding. The end is Stanley leaving.
The scene moves the story forward. After this confrontation, it’s clear the status quo will not hold in the Kowalski household. This scene triggers Blanche truly sliding off the deep end and Stanley’s intentions toward her becoming very dark.
For those of you who don’t know the ending, its brutality is planted firmly in this scene. And holy mother, what a climax.
Take Action! In order to write a killer scene, make sure you’ve included all of Blake Snyder’s dramatic elements. Is there conflict (characters with opposing goals?) Is there an emotional shift for ALL of the characters? Does the scene have a strong structure– beginning, middle and end? Does it move the story forward?
STREETCAR is really a master class in scene writing. Watch the whole movie and pay attention to how Williams creates complex characters driven by strong opposing needs, which forces the conflict to rise to a terrific climax.
Happy Killer Scene Writing!
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