(Or, Anne watches Firefly really strategically.)
A writing mentor of mine, Seattle writer of fiction and drama Jack Remick, wrote an article (which you can and should read on his blog) about the power of an intruder in a scene. Watch TV, he suggested, and track the interruptions. Look for a scene between two people that’s interrupted by a third, either because a third person walks in, a phone rings, or some other interruption by people. There will be one of three reactions to the intruder:
1. They’ll be accepted by the group: Hail fellow, well met!
2. They’ll be repelled by the group: Friend or foe? What is your quest?
3. They’ll be expelled by the group: Get outta here! And the horse you rode in on!
I decided to try it out with Firefly, Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western. Specifically, I watched Episode Three: Bushwhacked.
If you’re not familiar with the show, you can take a crash course in characters here, but honestly, this summary doesn’t require you to know about the ongoing plot or characters.
Simon and Inara are watching the rest of the crew play a game in the cargo hold below. They talking about River, what happened to her, how she’s doing.
Interruption: The ship’s proximity alarm, which prompts the game crew to interrupt Simon and Inara’s conversation. Kaylee invites Simon to join them (accepts him).
Inciting incident of episode: They discover an abandoned “ghost ship.”
Expository group conversation. Mal is being swayed by Jayne and Book—Jayne wants to leave and/or loot, Book wants to look for survivors. Decision is made to check out the ship.
Jayne and Simon argue over whether Simon should go with the away team. Simon talks about his fear of space suits. No interruption, Jayne’s just a snarky asshole and leaves. Nevertheless, it’s a de facto repelling of Simon from the away team.
Mal and Zoe are looking at the spaceship. Some things are a little sketchy, suspense-building. No interruption, just:
Smash cut to River freaking out. She is comforted by Simon. Interruption: Jayne, who tells Simon he’s needed on the other ship (“Hey, grab your med kid; let’s hoof it”) and he better suit up. Simon accepts Jayne, and that interaction breaks off the conversation and prompts Simon to put on a spacesuit and go to the other ship.
Simon interrupts the operation in progress. Mal repels Simon (“Hi. Um, what are you doing here and what’s with the suit?”), then accepts him into the group. (“As long as you’re here, might as well lend a hand.”)
Various bits of plot-moving group dialogue between crew members; River goes to the ship.
Simon and Kaylee are talking in the ship. Kaylee realizes it’s not a mechanical failure that offed the ship. Builds suspense. No interruption.
Jayne in kitchen establishing shot. Builds suspense further.
Mal and Zoe bust open a locked compartment (cargo hold). They find valuable goods. Zoe is troubled that the settlers didn’t take it with them. Interruption: River, standing in the doorway, looking up at the corpses of the settlers. River: repelled/expelled. (“Get her outa here.”)
Mal and Jayne talking on radio; Mal giving instructions. Interruption: the survivor, who attacks Jayne. Mal and the other crew come to Jayne’s aid and find the survivor. Survivor: repelled, then sort of accepted(?), as Mal punches him out and they take him to sick bay.
Simon and Mal are caring for the survivor. Mal suspects the guy’s a danger. (“Dope him. Just do it.”) Group conversation about the survivor. (“That ship was hit by Reavers.”) Sort of another conversational triangle between Mal/Jayne/Book: Book says that the slaughter was done by men, Jayne thinks it can’t be Reavers because Reavers don’t leave survivors.
Simon and Book volunteer to go to the ship; this time Jayne, rather than Simon, is afraid to go. (“I ain’t goin’ over there with those bodies, no ruttin’ way. Not if Reavers messed with ‘em.”) Nice symmetry!
Group expository convo re: the booby trap attached to the ship.
Various action sequences of folks doing their tasks, cutting back and forth between Kaylee disarming the trap, the survivor going nutso (and River totally distance-grokking that), and Jayne/Simon/Book getting the cargo. Everyone returns at the same time. It seems like everything’s wrapped up, but…
An alarm goes off, mirroring the one in the beginning of the episode. (This is the midpoint of the episode.) This time, it’s an alliance ship. So, whole crew is interrupted by Alliance, who repel them.
Alliance commander and officer are interrupted by another officer who reports that there’s a Firefly class ship with two fugitives.
Mal prepares the crew for the Alliance to board the ship. Simon and Mal argue; Simon thinks Mal is going to turn him and River over to the alliance. They are interrupted by Book: “Don’t be a fool, son. Do as the man says.”
Alliance Commander is grilling Mal about the fugitives. They are interrupted by an officer with news of the crazed survivor (presumably, he whispers to the Commander).
Cut to a bunch of interviews with Commander and various crew members, which intercuts with and ramps up into soldiers searching Serenity for River and Simon, who are in spacesuits, hiding outside. All of these actions show character-building: how River stares delighted into the stars; how Simon turns away.
Mal and Commander in final interview. Arguing over what to do with the ship, talking about Mal’s Independents connection. No giving ground either way. Commander tries to accuse Mal of attacking the ghost ship. Mal realizes that the survivor is Reaver-izing.
Cut to the survivor going nuts, hurting the doctors.
Back to the interview. Mal and Commander talk about Reavers, Mal trying to convince him that he needs to be worried about the survivor. Commander calls in a guard to “Escort Sergeant Reynolds to the brig.”
River and Simon are back in the ship. River is nervous; Simon is assured.
Mal being taken away. Interruption: call for guards/lockdown because of Reaver.
River and Simon, cont. Interruption: Reaver guy, who’s messing around in the kitchen. Even though they don’t cross paths, in effect, River freaks out ‘cause she senses the Reaver.
Mal and Alliance Commander on Serenity. Lots of intercutting between these two group as the alliance folk search out the Reaver and Simon/River trying to sense danger and hide. On the cusp of the two groups finding each other, BIG interruption by the Reaver, whom Mal firmly expels, i.e. strangles with his handcuffs, saving the Commander’s life.
Cut to denouement (“You saved his gorram life and he still takes the cargo”), which lasts less than 30 seconds.
It’s not every single scene, but I can definitely see how the intruder is at play in these scenes. It seems to me that a lot of the intercutting in this episode helped ramp up the tension as well. A few times in the episode (once when they’re disarming the trap, one when they’re searching the ghost ship, and once when the Alliance is searching the ship with Mal and River/Simon are there) a bunch of stuff is all happening at the same time and we need intercutting both for clarity and for suspense building.
What did you think? How does an intruder in the scene work? Have you used that trick in your NaNo? (If not, try having the awkwardest possible person intrude in on a scene where two characters are sort of spinning their wheels at each other and the plot doesn’t seem to be moving.)
Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
PS: Screen caps from www.whedon.grande-caps.net. Thanks!