I often talk in my TV-writing classes about the importance of giving characters TANGIBLE wants, obstacles, conflicts, etc. In other words, we sometimes give our characters internal objectives and obstacles– like the desire to find love, absolve guilt, give forgiveness, be at peace, etc.– but it’s important to find physical, tangible, or visual ways of dramatizing these internal conflicts.
For example, in Almost Famous, William’s external “want” is to publish an article in Rolling Stone, but his deeper “emotional” want is to be seen and validated as an adult.
Sometimes, like in Almost Famous, our characters’ external wants are organic to the very premise of the story; other times, we have to dream something up in order to bring the story to life.
A great example of this was last Monday’s season premiere of Two and a Half Men, where they did a nice job of doing exactly that: taking Charlie‘s internal conflict and finding a fun way of “externalizing” it.
Basically, Charlie is engaged to his fiance, Chelsea, when a long-lost love, the gorgeous Mia, returns and asks his help recording an album. Charlie obliges, but soon finds himself falling for Mia. Although he loves Chelsea, he’s conflicted about his feelings for Mia.
Now, this could’ve easily turned into a hard-to-dramatize internal conflict, with Charlie spending the episode just pulling out his hair and wringing his hands– which wouldn’t be very dramatic or comedic, and wouldn’t speak much to his internal conflict. But writers Chuck Lorre, Mark Roberts, and Lee Aronsohn did something remarkably simple and effective: they gave Charlie a severe case of constipation.
Then, just to connect all the dots, they wrote a scene between Charlie and his therapist, where the therapist points out that Charlie’s constipation began three days ago… just when Mia resurfaced in Charlie’s life.
Now, constipation had practically NOTHING to do with the rest of the story; it wasn’t a medical story, the writers didn’t explore any physiological causes of the constipation, Charlie never went to the doctor. It’s a totally– and almost obviously– artificial device… but it WORKS. By tying Charlie’s constipation directly to his internal struggle, we knew exactly what it meant… and Charlie spent the rest of the episode moaning, waddling, limping, groaning, and struggling to get through his day while battling this constant constipation. What he’s really battling, of course, is his horrible internal decision… but the writers didn’t have to keep pounding that, because they’d found a much funnier, more dramatic, more tangible and visual way of conveying his internal conflict.
Anyway, if you haven’t seen the episode– click HERE to watch it online.
And if you get nothing out of it, you’ll at least get this… THE LATEST TV APPEARANCE BY EDDIE VAN HALEN. If that’s not a reason to watch this episode… or at least this clip… ad nauseum, I don’t know what is. (Seriously, I’ve watched this clip over and over… and it’s probably the only thing that’ll keep me alive till the– supposedly– new Van Halen album/tour comes out next year…)