The Triumverate of No-Nos: Telegraphing

morse_telegraph_keyTelegraphing is when we know what you’re doing or feeling before it is appropriate for us to know.  We know what’s coming next, it’s because you’ve sent out a signal ahead of time.  It’s a form of anticipation, but rather than anticipating your scene partner’s next line, you’re anticipating the play itself.  You’ve jumped into the next beat or one even further down the line.   You aren’t building toward anything naturally, because you’ve already arrived.

It’s when you and your boyfriend are having an argument, and you know that the scene is going to end with the two of you breaking up.  Instead of fighting to save the relationship, which is the action of the scene, you let the climax – when he storms out of the apartment – inform everything that comes before.  You’ve either stopped fighting for the relationship long before the end actually comes or else the nature of your fight is colored by the fact that you know the relationship is doomed to failure.

Not only does this eliminate the dramatic interest of the scene, but you’re cheating your character.  Your character doesn’t know the break-up is coming until the moment it actually happens.  Even if it seems to her that it’s moving in that direction, that the argument is escalating in a way that it hasn’t before, that things are being said that are hard to take back, the moment he says he’s leaving and not coming back should still hit you like a ton of bricks.  Reality, no matter how predictable, is nonetheless shocking in its event.

Spending a week at the bedside of someone who is dying doesn’t take away from the impact of the moment of his death.

When we say that we need to play the scene “moment by moment”, this is what we’re talking about.  It’s all about “staying in the moment”, but the phrase “moment by moment” reminds us to not get ahead of ourselves, to let the story unfold in a way that surprises not just the audience, but the characters we play as well.

If you’re human, you know just how unpredictable life is.  “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”  How many times have you rehearsed a difficult moment in your life – confronting someone who has been creating a problem for you – only to find that all the things you planned to say get thrown out when the person you’re talking to throws you a curve?

Perhaps what you should do is give some consideration to how your character thinks the scene is going to play out, and compare that expectation with the reality.  Where do differences exist?  If you can spot the differences, you can discover when your character is surprised or has to take another approach to get what she wants (new beat, new tactic, new verb).


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