I recently watched Doubt (Shanley, 2008) over the Christmas period, having not seen the film for many years. The film always stayed with me because of the brilliant acting from all involved but on this viewing, I also came to appreciate the incredible screenwriting, specifically, the visual storytelling techniques employed in each scene. I felt that this would be a great case study for exploring the idea of visual storytelling in a screenplay and how combined with dialogue, you can elevate your storytelling to true cinematic levels without ever leaving the page.
Doubt tells the story of an old school nun, Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep as she tries to confront a progressive priest, Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, about her suspicions that he is behaving inappropriately around a vulnerable student in her school. At the centre of this conflict is a young Sister James, played by Amy Adams, who inadvertently instigates Aloysius' suspicions and finds herself trying to find the innocent explanation in all of this.
So, let's examine a scene from the film. I've embedded a YouTube clip below so you can see these visual storytelling techniques in action, however, the clip starts a little late in the scene and so some additional information is needed.
The scene in question is the first time that Streep's Sister Aloysius tries to confront Hoffman's Flynn about her suspicions. What unfolds is a brilliant power struggle, each character expertly reclaiming the high ground and control from the other.
The scene begins with Father Flynn coming to Sister Aloysius' office for a seemingly innocent conversation about an upcoming school event. Almost immediately, Flynn steals the momentum of the scene by sitting in Aloysius' chair. He removes a bag of sweets, uses a ballpoint pen to take notes (much to the disgust of Sister Aloysius) and shocks everyone by asking for three lumps of sugar in his tea.
Flynn starts by suggesting the Christmas event could incorporate more secular Christmas music to appeal to the wider community. Again, Aloysius is displeased by this. In an attempt to reclaim the power of the meeting, she stands up and opens the window blinds, causing considerable discomfort to Flynn who is now blinded by the incoming sunlight.
The intercom rings and Aloysius gets up to answer. Meanwhile, Flynn goes to the window and closes the blinds again.
The rest of the scene unfolds as follows:
There are four elements in play here:
Control of power
Control of the moral high ground
Using objects in the room to escalate tension
Let's unpack these in relation to the scene.
1. Control of Power
An argument or a fight is always built around control of power. The person who dominates the situation is likely to win the fight or the argument. In this scene, the control of power is very evident, not just because of the inherent hierarchy that exists in the room (a Priest outranks a Nun), but also because of where they are positioned.
Flynn enters and takes advantage of the empty seat at the desk. Aloysius' seat. This sends a clear message to everyone in the room that Flynn thinks he's in charge.
Aloysius takes some semblance of control later when she opens the blinds and causes discomfort to Flynn.
Flynn takes advantage of Aloysius' distraction at the intercom later by getting up and closing the blinds again.
Aloysius takes control by sitting at her rightful seat and confronting Flynn with the real reason for the meeting.
Put out by the conversation, Flynn goes to leave, insisting that this is a sensitive situation, Aloysius is not in possession of all the facts and that she is wrong to pursue this line of inquiry. This is Flynn's desperate attempt to reclaim control of the situation before he leaves.
As you can see, there is a quiet dignity to Flynn's behaviour at the beginning which slowly unravels and turns to pleading and desperation by the end. Aloysius also grows more erratic as the meeting continues.
2. Control of the Moral High Ground
This is quite a simple area to explore. In order to hold the drama of the overall film, the writer needs to create a scenario where both people come out of this confrontation on equal footing. If Aloysius is proven right there and then, the drama is over.
The writer achieves this by giving both characters a relatable point of view. We believe early on that it is possible that Sister Aloysius is correct in her suspicions, even if we don't like her approach or rationale. There is an urgency to her quest and it is important, if she is right, that she proves it for the welfare of the children. She has the moral high ground, whether we like her approach or not.
By the end of the scene, Father Flynn reveals that the reason the boy smelled of alcohol was that he wrongfully drank from the church wine. Discovery of this would have meant that the child would be expelled as an altar boy. Flynn explains that he was protecting the boy and because of Aloysius' pressing of the subject, the boy can no longer be protected. If what Father Flynn says is true, then he now holds the moral high ground.
The audience is given a compelling case for both points of view but we are no closer to drawing a conclusion. The story can continue and we get a great confrontation in the meantime.
3. Using Objects in the Room to Escalate Tension
Objects in Sister Aloysius' office play an important role in the escalation of tension in this scene.
Flynn's use of a ball-point pen irritates Sister Aloysius.
Flynn's use of Aloysius' seat is another cause of irritation.
Aloysius's opening of the blinds causes frustration for Flynn.
Flynn's consumption of sugar and sweets is cause for further disapproval.
The ringing of the intercom disrupts Aloysius' speech.
The constant ringing of the telephone later causes great tension, particularly when Sister James wants to answer it and is prevented from doing so by Aloysius. She won't be disrupted again.
Sister James spills the tea when pouring it a second time for Flynn, showing how unnerved she is by the conversation.
As Flynn leaves, Aloysius takes Flynn's bag of sweets from the table and throws them in the bin in a fit of anger.
Each of these beats of action demonstrates great use of the location and the props. Nothing is just for show. Everything from the chairs to the cups of tea plays a role in showcasing the underlying conflict that drives the scene.
4 Conflict Triangle
Conflict triangles are great for cramming your scenes with drama. An example of a great conflict triangle in cinema might be Rocky, Paulie and Adrian in the Rocky films.
Rocky and Paulie are best friends but Paulie is envious of Rocky.
Adrian and Paulie are brother and sister but Paulie doesn't treat his sister well.
Rocky and Adrian are a couple but she disapproves of his constant returns to the sport.
In each of these relationships, the third character creates further conflict.
Paulie is envious of Rocky, but Rocky's relationship with Adrian brings out the worst in Paulie.
Rocky's relationship with Adrian is affected by Paulie's poor treatment of his sister.
In this scene from Doubt, the conflict triangle exists throughout the film between Sister Aloysius, Father Flynn and Sister James.
James is loyal to Aloysius but she grows frustrated by her old school approach.
James's doubts towards Flynn get the better of her.
Aloysius is frustrated by James' naivety towards life.
Aloysius doesn't trust Father Flynn.
Father Flynn is annoyed that James brought the case to Aloysius in the first place.
Flynn is angry with Aloysius for bringing the accusations against him.
There is an unspoken tension between each character in the room by the time we hit the middle of the scene, and by the end of the scene, the battlefield lines have been redrawn entirely.
Each of these elements might seem like a complicated unpacking of the film scene but there's nothing in here that a screenwriter couldn't embed into the script of their own work.
All it requires is a thoughtful exploration of where the characters are at the start of the scene and where they will be by the end. It requires a considered approach to how the props of the scene are used to convey what the characters are feeling inside. Finally, it requires one to think about the power play between these characters and how that can be used for dramatic (and sometimes comedic) effect throughout.
Not every scene needs to be as detailed as this. It is arguable that overplaying your hand will wear down the audience too. But having even one the elements in your scenes will elevate it to a much greater cinematic level than just relying on dialogue.
(Image copyright: Miramax)