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Screenwriting Maxim #4 – Make Someone Disagree

I watched “Citizen Kane” for the umpteenth time recently. It is the only pure classic film that I feel compelled to review over and over again. There are many reasons why this film deserves “greatest film ever made” label. But bravado cinematography and sound aside, it’s a really good screenplay, despite how unconventional this picture is.

I was trying to figure out who the bad guy was and realized it was Charles Foster Kane. The “good guy” was whoever happened to be dealing with him in that scene. The dramatic tension this dynamic creates is a screenwriter’s wet dream. But Welles went even further, always forcing a character, even an extra disagree with the scene. This is a big reason why “Citizen Kane” is a great film. The story, the story, the story.

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I’ve read tons of amateur screenplays, and the most common pet peeve I have is that people agree too much. They want to go to the store. Someone says, “okay let’s go!”

If Orson Welles wrote that scene, they would disagree on which store, on what car to take, they would run a red light on the way to the store. And if neither characters disagreed, an extra would stare at their car (prejudice, jealousy of the car perhaps, or they don’t like how loud they’re playing their music). Every little disagreement counts.

Somehow, I’ve only read one screenplay book that emphasized this, the ahead of its time “How To Write: A Screenplay.” Make someone, anyone, anywhere disagree.

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Although Larry David professes that “Seinfeld” is about nothing, its actually about “disagreements.” Constant, endless, interminable, eternal, ad-infintum disagreements. Larry David carried this concept into “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and built his entire career around it. He is the iconic master of disagreements.

But I’m going to stick with “Citizen Kane” because it’s considered a masterpiece and the disagreements are not always obvious.

MY FAVORITE DISAGREEMENTS IN CITIZEN KANE

1. WHEN FRIENDS DISAGREE

My favorite scene in “Citizen Kane” is the mid point of the movie, when Kane lured the staff from the rival paper to his gazette, a party is being thrown, a song has been written about the great man and everything is going great, right? Wrong.

While Kane dances with a bunch of girls, his two sidekicks privately discuss what will happen to Kane. They do so with hope but also with foreboding…. and foreshadowing. They’re afraid of his ego. I love this scene because you only have to see this scene to understand this entire story.

2. WHEN THE BODY DISAGREES

When Orson Welles meets Suzanne Alexander, a woman he falls in love and has an affair with, the scene’s tone is very innocent and seemingly without tension. Except for one thing, Suzanne has a “toothache” that not only adds the necessary tension, but gives Welles the goal of distracting her from her pain. This is how he seduces her.

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3. WHEN PETS DISAGREE

Just before Orson Welles gets dumped, the scene begins with a shrieking bird. That bird disagrees with a scene that is already boiling with tension. It ends with Welles destroying his room like King Kong, a coincidence?

4. WHEN HABITS DISAGREE

The way Joseph Cotton’s character evolves is one of my favorite parts of “Citizen Kane.” He goes from being a silent-type to being a diarrhea-of-the-mouth grumpy old man. I ALMOST NEVER see this in movies. Is this realistic? Look at George Foreman, once the stealthy guy who rarely said a word, he became a motor mouth who invented one of the greatest tools of our times (“The Foreman Grill”).

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When you see Joseph Cotton as an old man, he can’t shut up, because he desires cigars. He’s in a retirement home and the doctor has “this crazy idea he wants to keep him alive.” The journalist interviewing Cotton has to struggle with this “cigar” issue. This is wonderful tension. Especially when everyone in the movie is smoking like chimneys except for this poor old guy.

5. WHEN YOUR CLOTHES DISAGREE

I don’t remember if this is in the screenplay, but Kane is constantly trying to shove something in his pocket. In multiple scenes I saw the guy fiddle with object he’s trying to plunge into his pocket. And he can never shove said object the first time, so he’s always struggling to fit like a sno-glo in his pants. This is frustrating as hell to watch. A great dramatic nuance. Such a small detail that adds a huge layer to the “drama” you’re creating.

I’m not talking necessarily about conflict here. I’m talking about a very small thing you can do to amplify the drama in the story you’re creating. Either make a person, pet, habit, object, shirt, car, shoe, plane, weather disagree with your characters and watch the scene come to life… because that is life, isn’t it? Everyday there’s something you didn’t anticipate that throws your day in disorder. Total agreement is not only rare, it’s boooooooring.

Written by: Norith Soth

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