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Excerpt #1: Marion Hargrove’s Ability to Impact Characterization through Nonverbal Action

by R Heil last modified Feb 23, 2017 08:10 AM


        If “Ghost Rider” was not the first Maverick script to use humor, it was the first to use detailed nonverbal character beats.  This became a hallmark of Hargrove’s work and may well have been why [James] Garner linked the show’s evolution to his scripts.  In contrast, Huggins and many of the other writers — such as Douglas Heyes and Russell Hughes — wrote sparser scripts with less nonverbal description.

        Before illustrating this, perhaps it would be useful to clarify what is meant by the term “beats.”  In scriptwriting, there are no less than three distinct meanings for this word.  Ronald Dyas defines a “dramatic beat” as “any event in the story that significantly moves the plot.”  In a murder mystery, the murder might constitute the first dramatic beat.  The scene in which the hero is hired constitutes the second dramatic beat.  The hero’s discovery of his or her first clue becomes the third dramatic beat.  According to Dyas, television dramas average four dramatic beats for each of its four acts.  As we will see, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick built their thirtysomething stories with six beats per act.

        The second type of beat used in scriptwriting is the stage direction typed onto a script.  Richard Blum describes this beat as “a filmic version of the dramatic pause, or the Chekhovian pause.”  Its insertion can be used to indicate the impact that one character’s speech has upon another character.

        The third type of beat is a dialogue beat.  Paul Lucey refers to this beat as “a bit” and offers the following definition:  “A bit can reveal character, communicate theme, establish relationships, and/or advance the plot.”  As Hargrove’s scripts prove, dialogue beats can be determined by nonverbal action as well as by dialogue, so Lucey’s term may be more versatile and less confusing.  In his Playwriting: The Structure of Action, Sam Smiley goes furthest in defining this third kind of beat.  He describes it as a unit of thought which centers on a specific topic, and he compares it with a prose paragraph or a poetry verse.  He then inventories specific types of plot beats, character beats, and thought beats.  Beats can be structured with logic, argues Smiley, and a dramatist uses them as building blocks in the construction of his/her drama.

        An example of Hargrove’s skilled use of nonverbal character dialogue beats (or bits) can be seen in an early sequence from “Ghost Rider”:  Bret Maverick has tracked for two weeks a young man in a checkered shirt who has robbed him of three thousand dollars.  Dirty and disheveled, he enters a town and discovers the man playing poker in the New Hope Saloon.  Apparently he has been playing poker for three straight days and is in no danger of leaving the vicinity.



He looks like a cat who’s going to enjoy this mouse.  He turns and walks jauntily away.  CAMERA watches him all the way across the street and into the hotel.  He is humming, happily.



They are piled in a chair.  The CAMERA PANS TO:


- at a mirror, in his full-dress dude uniform:  broadcloth and ruffled shirt.  As he finishes the last minor adjustment on his necktie and smoothes his hair with his hand, he is still humming.  He is clean-shaven and sparkling, and looking forward to a highly enjoyable reunion with The Kid and the three thousand dollars.  He turns out his inside coat pocket, CAMERA MOVING IN CLOSE on the $1000 bill pinned inside.  Maverick, satisfied, pats the pocket and turns to leave.



A man enters, we HOLD a moment, then Maverick comes out and crosses the sidewalk.  As he steps down into the street, he adjusts the weight of his guns.  He starts across the street and is suddenly stopped by the SOUND of a GUNSHOT from the saloon.  He stands there, wondering what could be happening, and counts the OTHER SHOTS as they SOUND: two, three, four, five, six, all measured.  There is already a certain suspicion in his face as he hurries into the saloon.


As Maverick charges in. He stops dead short at what he sees.


This can’t be happening to me.

                                             2ND CITIZEN’S VOICE

                    Hadn’t we ought to take his boots off?

                                             SIDEBURN’S VOICE

                    It’s too late.


A small crowd has gathered in the poker corner.  Men are laying a body out on the poker table.  As one of the men blocking the view steps away, we see the body’s checkered shirt.  Someone covers the face with a clean bar towel.  Maverick comes INTO THE FRAME, real unhappy.


        During this sequence — in which Maverick never says a word — there are no fewer than eight distinct nonverbal character attitude beats:  1) Maverick’s predatory pleasure in finding the young man who robbed him; 2) a flash of caution as he remembers to make sure he has his customary one thousand dollar bill pinned to the inside of his coat; 3) renewed confidence as he pats his pocket and turns to leave; 4) another precautionary impulse as he adjusts his guns; 5) surprise upon hearing the gunshots; 6) suspicion as it occurs to him that the young man may be involved; 7) growing apprehension as he sees a dead body; and 8) unhappiness as he ascertains that it is the young man.  This quick succession of beats establishes Maverick as an alert, intelligent man who does not act on impulse; it also cements audience identification with him.  In addition, the second beat in the sequence — where he checks his coat for the one thousand bill — doubles as a nonverbal preparatory plot beat.  Hargrove reminds the viewer that Maverick carries this money so that he can later use it as dramatic motivation; a young woman — the “ghost rider” — will disappear with Maverick’s coat and money, triggering dynamic action from the hero.

        In the end, what is intriguing about Garner’s memories is not whether Hargrove initiated humor on Maverick (ultimately, this has no relevance for a fledgling writer) but that he feels Hargrove’s writing positively affected his performance.  This is a revelation of considerable interest to writers; as a result, the subject seems worthy of additional study.  Accordingly, the nonverbal beats (or stage directions) to Hargrove’s Maverick script “The Rivals” were analyzed to determine how they might inspire performance.  Five different strategies were discovered.  His favorite one is the use of metaphor (particularly the simile).  Instead of falling back on the tried and true — such as “He was as sly as a fox” — Hargrove consistently reaches for fresh comparisons.  Examples include the following:


      Bart looks up at Bret like a kosher waiter pushing the boiled beef.


      Mrs. Mallaver SOARS INTO THE SCENE, trailing Maverick like a glider.


      Lydia suddenly looks at her hand as if it were being dipped in the cold spaghetti at a Halloween party.


      Bret gives him a strong sideways look, knowing very well that Van is about as sentimental as 

      a bank-examiner.


      A couple of bellboys scurry in through the front door like deer retreating before a forest fire, 

      and head for the desk to spread the alarm.


      Guests inside the door are already backing away from the line of fire.  More bellboys and flunkies back 

      nervously into the lobby before BRIGADIER VANDERGELT himself charges in like a Memorial Day parade.  

      He is surrounded side and rear by his own lackeys and the hotel’s.  The Brigadier is a large, elderly man, 

      forceful and frightening.  He charges straight at the desk as if expecting that too to get out of his way.


      As she starts past Van, who still stands there with his mouth hanging open, she pauses to give 

      him a cool glare as if he were something from the Ed Sullivan show.


      Maverick, like a great noble beast, waits for the axe to fall.


Hargrove also likes to multiply adverbs and adjectives into three part packages:


      The three tag along loosely several feet behind Lydia, who seems neither amused nor worried.

      As they reach a crosswalk, Van springs out, dramatic, grim and virtuous.


      Solemnly, tragically, gallantly Van pats her hand.


Vulgarity might also play a role in his nonverbal beats:


      Maverick’s eye is on Van, trying to figure out what the sneaky bastard is up to.


      Maverick and Van come out onto the virtually empty porch, looking as if they have just finished 

      a hell of a breakfast.


      Both turn to see Lydia approaching them at a fairly militant clip.  Van beams and starts toward her.  

      As they meet, she hauls off, slaps the bejesus out of him and continues on to Maverick.  Both men gape.


Or he might frame a question:


      Maverick looks at her again: why is she picking on me?


      Sometimes he even play with alliteration:


      He turns a limpid look on Lydia.


        Through the expressive use of these strategies in nonverbal beats, one can see how Garner felt inspired by Hargrove.  Interestingly, Roger Moore was cast as Van in “The Rivals.”  A year and a half later, and long after Hargrove had left the series, he was assigned the role of Beau Maverick, which replaced Garner’s character.  When asked by Burl Barer why he abandoned the role before the end of the fourth season, Moore responded: 

"I was not served well with the Maverick scripts when I was on the show.  They were tired scripts by the time I got them.  They blurred in my mind while I was doing them.  . . . They promised me that they would tailor them to the way I felt they should be.  They didn’t, so I left.  If I had had scripts like Marion Hargrove used to write, I would have stuck around."


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by R Heil last modified Feb 23, 2017 08:10 AM