Have you ever watched a movie without audio -- say, in a bar or on an airplane? If you're paying any attention at all, you usually know exactly what's going on. Screenwriting is, after all, visual storytelling. Our job is to pull together combinations of images and characters as expressively as possible. Usually this is a matter of setting two elements against each other, in a power relationship, or to express a contrast, or simply to create dramatic potential. What does this mean?
In Lolita, Humbert Humbert (James Mason) checks into a hotel with the 16-year-old Lolita (Sue Lyon) unaware that it's almost completely booked with a convention of state troopers. Now, the contrasts and power relationships are painfully clear. But the screenwriter, Vladimir Nabokov, doesn't stop there. To preface the set up we see the inimitable Claire Quilty, a dissolute TV writer who apparently made note of the precocious Lolita while bedding her mother in the backstory, wanders in just in time to watch the whole thing.
Note something important here: the entire import of the scene is in the set up. James Mason could discuss fuzzy bunnies with the front desk clerk. It wouldn't matter. We'd know why the scene was there, and the scene need only prolong itself until old Humbert's committed himself to a night in a hotel full of cops with his 16-year-old paramour, daughter of his recently deceased wife. You come up with a set up like that and you're done. You did your job.
All well and good, you say, but I'm not Vladimir Nabokov. How do I come up with a set up like that? They don't just pop into my head.
No, they don't. As a matter of fact, I'm writing in my blog precisely because I'm stuck trying to think up a strong set up for a scene right now.
Actually, everybody encounters the immovable and intractably dull set up issue on a pretty regular basis. Good writers are just better about working through them.
Let me make a hypothetical here in pursuit of a point. How did Nabokov come up with this set up? Out of necessity.
The second act is largely built on the tension of Lolita not knowing that her mother has committed suicide upon realizing that Humbert's after not her but her daughter. At this stage in the movie Humbert has nowhere to go. He has to stop somewhere, and this hotel is the proper place for the urbane literature professor that he is.
How often do you run into that 'necessary' scene that just lays there? It would be easy enough to write through a little booking-the-room scene then off for some sexual tension that evening in the bedroom. It's necessary, but you don't learn much.
That's not how screenwriting works. Each scene has to build the drama and not just move through the have-to-be-there moments. So, you look at the scene and start to add in the elements you need. To wit: fear of law enforcement? Check. Obsessed and unshakable drunk with an infatuation with the young girl and a fishy story? Check. Desk clerk a little to hep to the jive to not pick up on the sexual energy between Lolita and her supposed father? Check.
Then you subtract all the stuff you thought you needed but has nothing to do with the set up. The exposition. The boilerplate dialogue between desk clerk and guest. That weird thematic stuff that never reads anyway. The clever line that will never sound half as good outside your head (and you know it).
You come up with a strong set up and you're done. Stay out of your own way. Don't overcrowd the scene with dialogue. And whatever you do, don't drive the scene with dialogue. How on earth are people in bars and airplanes supposed to watch the movie if you do?
On a separate note...
Go watch Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Right now. I'll come to your house if you don't. It's about as good as a movie can be with Charleton Heston and Marlene Dietrich playing Mexicans. And the set ups ain't too shabby either.