Monday, August 1, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Running on Empty (1988) - Specificity: Helping Others Read Between the Lines

[Quick Summary: After years on the run with his parents, Danny, a talented pianist, applies to Julliard, which starts a chain of painful and freeing events.]

How do you get an audience to "read between the lines"?

How do you explain things to readers without TELLING them?

Perhaps one clue comes from Rogert Ebert, who gave this film four stars, wrote:
Lumet is one of the best directors at work today, and his skill here is in the way he takes a melodramatic plot and makes it real by making it specific.
Hmmm...specific? What does that mean?

This script is very specific, and I think that is why it's such a great read.

I noticed that the scenes have a specific intention, a specific purpose to accomplish.

Each character also has a specific intention, which often conflicts with others.

The more specific the movement or words, the more unspoken implications are understood.

- The scene intention: To show the family moves often.
- Character intentions: The boys express sadness. Mom comforts, yet is realistic.


The two boys from the earlier scene are lying on the motel bed watching the news. The woman is seated next to them on the bed. She's taking pins out of her hair.

HARRY (seeing the dog): There's Jomo.

WOMAN: You two get out of your jeans and into bed.

No one makes a move.

HARRY (still talking about the dog): What's gonna happen to her?

WOMAN: Someone will take her home.

Harry doesn't appear convinced.

HARRY: We never had to leave her before.

WOMAN: I'm sorry, kid."

- The scene intention: To show Annie/Mom has past feelings for visitor Gus.
- Character intentions: Annie tries to maintain normalcy. Gus drags up romantic feelings.


Gus and Annie sit on the floor with coffee mugs. Annie leans against the foot of the couch. Gus rolls a joint.

GUS: You haven't changed a bit, Annie.

ANNIE: We better keep to discipline. It's Cynthia. (she's silent a moment) I've changed. (but she's not going to tell him about it) Under this Miss Clairol is a grey bush.

GUS (he's not to be so easily deflected): I look at you and I see you standing on the corner of Michigan Avenue in a Mexican blouse and big silver earrings.

ANNIE: That was a long time ago.

GUS: How's Artie?

This question has many levels. She knows it and answers ambiguously.

ANNIE: He's okay. He did some work in Florida on a toxic waste dump. Here he organized a food co-op. And he's trying to get his restaurant to unionize.

He didn't mean this.

GUS: How are you and Artie?

She answers this the same way.

ANNIE: We're okay. It's hard.

GUS: I think about you.

ANNIE: I think about you. (now she qualifies it) I hope you're safe.

GUS (looking around): How do you manage this? Kids. A house. A regular life.

ANNIE: I'm a good liar.

She puts down her cup and stretches out on the floor. He watches her.

ANNIE: God, I'm tired.

GUS: Here. Give me your feet."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I've never really considered how to show the character's specific intent through action.  It makes sense that More Specificity = More Clarity.

Running on Empty (1988)(3rd draft, dated 1/20/87)
by Naomi Foner

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