“In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.”Mark Twain, American writer
Urgency, alongside stakes, provides an all-purpose tool to make our actions more intense and theatrical. While elevated stakes influence the consequences of failing or succeeding, urgency fuels the action by considering the question of “why now?” What factors are currently in play that make this particular choice or action critical in this given moment? When urgency is low, there are few, if any, repercussions for an unfavorable scenic result: characters could always just try again later. But when urgency has been dynamically crafted, characters will face a ticking clock that demands immediate action. Whether it is an asteroid just minutes away from making direct impact on a crowded campground, a train full of passengers uncontrollably speeding down the track just miles away from a washed out rail bridge, or a student experiencing a panic attack moments before entering their final exam for the semester, the specter of time running out supplies great power to a scene by adding tension to an otherwise potentially mundane situation.
Player A and B are bomb disposal experts on the scene of a looming disaster.
Player A: “OK, let’s see what we have here…”
Young siblings, Player C and D, are hard at work in the kitchen preparing a Mother’s Day breakfast for their currently sleeping parent.
Player C: “OK, let’s see what we have here…”
Intensifying the Urgency
In order to increase the urgency of your character’s plight, consider implementing one or more of these helpful strategies:
1.) Decrease the time. Even the most dramatic scenario, such as our bomb disposal premise above, will quickly lose steam if the anticipated calamity is placed too far off in the future. There’s a reason bomb counters in movies rarely start counting down in months, opting instead for red flashing minutes or seconds. The wildly popular television series 24 was built on this heightened (perhaps ridiculously so) urgency: if each episode spanned the length of a month or year rather than one hour of a particularly bad day – with the looming disasters adjusting accordingly – the action would suffer greatly. Our simpler breakfast scene can likewise benefit from a tightened timeline. If the siblings know their mother always wakes up at 7:00am. and the kitchen clock currently shows 6:57, then the stage is set for action. Unless you’re looking to start the scene at the moment of crisis or working in a long-form mode with a sizeable arc and subsequently gentler pace, it’s helpful to establish a time frame that is likely to expire just before the scene culminates, or even sooner as the following strategy encourages…
2.) Decrease the preamble. An effective way to further increase the urgency is to actively decrease the scenic preamble or inactive exposition. Frankly, this is sage advice for most scenes as a “starting in the middle” feel propels the story into the rising action and encourages activating any pertinent backstory. There is something safe and predictable about beginning a bomb disposal vignette back at headquarters, carefully assembling the needed equipment and receiving all the important instructions, or starting the breakfast scene discussing how much you love your mother and musing on what you should cook. When you skip these ponderous steps in lieu of jumping into (or at least near) the climactic event, the resulting story benefits enormously from this energy spike. This is not to say that you shouldn’t also add relevant background information – whether you call it CROW, WWW, or context – as it’s an essential component of a well-rounded performance. But now these details accompany the action in progress rather than postpone it.
3.) Decrease your attempts. An advantage of decreasing the amount of time you have available to achieve your goal is that this will necessarily decrease the number of attempts you can make, too. Screenwriters go to great lengths to justify why their protagonists can’t just try and try again without suffering dire consequences. Such efforts may also deploy the “rule of threes,” which generally involves two thwarted efforts or unanticipated complications before the third attempt ultimately proves triumphant or irreversibly disastrous. For our bomb disposal unit, this dramatic approach might be seen in the presence of potential trip switches, decoy panels, or secondary triggers and activation systems. For our cooking siblings, perhaps there are only enough ingredients for one batch of pancakes, the children can only reach one pan in the entire house, or the power company is about to turn off the electricity for late payments any moment now. The more attempts available to achieve your desire, the less dramatic the journey becomes.
4.) Decrease your skillset. You can further ramp up the urgency by carefully considering the skillset of those engaged in the action at hand. You’ll want to be wary of falling into the “I’ve never done this before” trope as, in novice hands, this will quickly translate into tepid choices, inactivity, or devolve the action into a teaching scene complete with a stalling litany of uninteresting questions. However, the urgency can become sapped if there is a sense that the obstacle is really no match at all for the characters. If the bomb expert has diffused this exact model many times before, or our young chefs are child prodigies who have won awards for their culinary prowess, there is now little doubt as to the eventual outcome of the story. Seasoning your scenes with a little strategic uncertainty can go a long way. If our disposal unit has never seen this particular device or are facing an adversary renowned for installing an array of complex and unique traps that could foil the team at any wrong move, the outcome of the scene is no longer secure. Similarly, if our siblings have a reputation for causing kitchen disasters when left unattended, their scene takes on new levels of dynamism. In both cases, with the clock ticking, there’s no time to bring in anyone else, so they have to push forward regardless of their innate abilities or lack thereof.
5.) Decrease the acceptability of failure. This final consideration tilts more firmly into the domain of stakes (discussed here), but urgency declines if the projected outcome doesn’t really matter to anyone. If the test you’re racing to complete is just one of several practice exams that doesn’t actually count towards your final grade, then all our efforts to increase the pressure of vanishing time won’t succeed. Such an anticlimactic move can serve (and often does) as a “rug pull” maneuver whereby the intense stakes and urgency are pushed to the breaking point only to reveal that the bomb squad was actually defusing a dud or performing in a simulation, or our ill-equipped kids were actually playing make-believe in their toy kitchen all along and so the house didn’t really burn down. This exceptional and sudden inversion keeps our characters safe to face the impossible another day, but generally, if the audience knows that failure is acceptable or inconsequential, the magnitude of the scene collapses. Instead, raise the stakes and enhance the urgency by moving the incendiary device from an abandoned building to a bustling metropolis, or make this particular celebratory breakfast the mother’s first homecooked meal since returning home from surgery or time in the penitentiary.
Just as every improv scene won’t have life and death stakes, it also follows that there won’t always be an ominous ticking clock counting down the seconds until imminent disaster. But if you routinely engage in talking heads scenes or find yourself just wandering on and off the stage with little purpose or energy, bringing urgency to your work will unquestionably create more interest. Without any sense of urgency, dialogue tends to become ineffectual, action grinds to a halt, and characters lose their sense of direction and agency.
Urgency and stakes go hand in hand on stage, so check out this prior entry here for more helpful tips.
Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr
Related Entries: Drama, Stakes Antonyms: Postponing Synonyms: Repercussions
Connected Game: Starting in the Middle