What is a scene…?
In screenwriting, there are many different ways to define a scene. Some will say that it is an event, something that happens or a “unit of story” that takes place in a specific location. As soon as the scene changes location, it becomes a new scene. I would disagree with that definition. Take a car chase or a foot chase, for example. It moves through many different locations. Is each one of those locations a separate scene? No.
Others will say that it must reveal character. But once we know who are character, beyond the midpoint of the movie, we often learn seldom new about our character. Instead, we are watching him or her use the skills we’ve come to learn they have. So a scene doesn’t necessarily have to reveal character.
So what does a scene have to do? And how do we know when a set of events is a completed scene?
What needs to happen a scene?
Many screenwriting books will tell you to focus on what the characters want. This is not wrong. You need to know what your character want at every moment in your movie. But the question that defines a scene is not “What do my characters want?;” not “What could happen?” or “What should happen?” The question a scene needs to address is: “What needs to happen?”
How is a scene realized?
This is where a character’s want matters. Just like your movie, every scene has a protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist of your scene may or may not be the main character of your movie.
The protagonist of your scene is the person in that scene who has the greatest want. It can be the main character, the villain or even a supporting character fulfilling the steps or a subplot. Regardless of whom, it is the person who is willing to fight the hardest to achieve whatever s/he thinks she needs.
That doesn’t mean that the protagonist of the scene necessarily gets what she or he wants. It merely means that scene starts when your protagonist has a specific and immediate want that s/he is trying to fulfill. That can be anything that is specific to that moment.
The scene ends when that person either fulfills the objective they were trying to achieve or fails at it because someone else in the scene — the antagonist of that scene — is smarter, tougher or in some other way stronger in the moment.
What must happen for a scene to work is, just like in your over-arching plot, there is a real change of some kind. If the protagonist of the scene gets what s/he wants, that must influence his/her cause and change what s/he is going to do next. If the protagonist fails, they must change their attitude or plan and find a new way to obtain that goal.
The need for these elements of want, conflict and change exists for every scene, regardless of whether it is part of the main plot or a subplot.
Every scene should pose one question at the beginning of the scene: “How is this character going to get what s/he wants?” That means that you the writer need to know what that character wants and that the audience must understands what the character wants before the scene starts.
Every scene should conclude with a question as well: “What is going to happen next?” If the audience isn’t left asking what is going to happen as a result of what has just transpired, then the scene has not done its job.
Activity vs. Dramatic Action
Every scene in any dramatic piece of work — film, tv show, play or webseries — must have characters with clear wants who are in opposition to each other. In other words, every scene must have wants and conflicts.
The great director Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Silkwood” and “The Birdcage”) once said: “There are only three kinds of scenes: Negotiations, Seductions and Fights.” I would add that when you really break it down mostly all scenes are fights, actually.
What that means is that every scene must have a winner and a loser. That outcome needs to affect the story in some material way by inching the main character closer to his/her goal or further from it. This movement is why I call dramatic action.
Dramatic Action is a unit of story that advances the articulation of the plot’s primary dramatic question: Will the main character realize his or her goal?
Everything else that happens in a scene is activity. It’s the things that characters do to each other that affect the results of the scene but in and of themselves don’t change the dramatic question in any material way.
Let’s go back to our car chase example. In “The French Connection,” our hero is Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) a cop chasing the antagonist who’s a drug dealer. Doyle spots the guy at a crime scene. He chases him to his car then races after him through the streets of The Bronx until they both crash their cars and the dealer hops on a subway. Doyle chases after the dealer in a cat-and-mouse hunt on the subway until the dealer loses Doyle at Penn Station and escapes.
There are at least three distinct locations: crime scene, streets and subway. There is tons of activity: car crashes, gunshots and lots of pushing and shoving on the subway.
What makes this 10-minute sequence one scene in the movie is that each character has one specific want: Doyle wants to catch the Dealer, and the Dealer wants to escape. What happens is that the Dealer is more nimble and clever than Doyle, so Doyle doesn’t achieve his goal. Still, the dramatic question of the movie, “Will Doyle get his man?” is advanced because now Doyle knows what the guy looks like and how he thinks; Doyle is that much closer to finding him.
So What Makes a Scene a Scene…?
For me, a scene is a unit of story in which a character has a clear want that is challenged by another character who has an equal want in opposition that first character. The resolution of that conflict should result in advancing of the dramatic question of the plot which is whether or not the main character is going to achieve his or her goal.
In simpler terms, a scene is when a character either does or doesn’t get what s/he wants and as a result something changes for that character in a material way.
How Do We Make That Happen…?
In my next blog, we’ll look at what needs to happen in a scene and how to make sure you’ve accomplished your goal. Want to learn how do that…? Stick around! (See? That is the story question that I want you leave with when you finish this article.)