What makes a Scene a Scene…?
In my last blog, I defined a scene as a unit of story in which a character has a clear want that s/he either does or doesn’t get because of a conflict with another character, and the result of that conflict in some way advances the plot of your story toward its inevitable climax.
Let’s take a look at how we do that.
Which scenes matter and which don’t?
Every scene in a movie is absolutely essential. If in any way that scene is unnecessary — we don’t need the information we’re being told, we don’t care about the characters in the scene or what happening, or you don’t really need the scene — you shouldn’t put it in your script.
Trust me, no matter how important you think every scene in your script might be, they are still just words on a page. Once actors, camera work, sets and music are added to convey emotion and meaning, things you thought were essential are going to seem redundant and unnecessary. Guess what? They will be cut — without reservation.
If you’re smart, you’ll try to be as ruthless as possible. If nothing else, err on the side of under-informing your audience. Audiences like a good challenge. To a certain extent, they want to connect the dots on their own. So give them the opportunity.
If it’s not absolutely essential, if it’s not your best possible dialogue and most compelling writing, cut it!
Who needs to be in the scene?
Scripts are often clogged with characters who have no business being there. You want to keep your audience’s attention focused solely on the things that matter. That starts with your main character, what s/he is doing and who is in opposition to them. Any other characters in a scene for any other reason are distractions. If they need to be there, then make them integral to the scene. If they are merely there to provide information to the audience, find a way to put that information in the mouths of the characters who matter or leave it out altogether.
Where should it take place?
Context matters. The most obvious setting for a scene is generally the least interesting. If possible, try to find a place that is unique and creates an interesting visual or tone. A word of caution: don’t sacrifice logic and story for mood or visual. Start with who the character is and what s/he is doing. Find locations and events that might highlight contradictions in your characters. Make the environments do double duty revealing other sides to your character. As the great screenwriter John August points out, “A father-and-son bonding moment at a slaughter house will play differently than the same dialogue at a lawn bowling tournament.”
Add a little surprise.
In every great movie there are moments of suspense and surprise. Not all scenes allow for this kind of opportunity. But sometimes it’s a good idea to step back from your story and ask yourself, “What can I do to blow the reader’s mind right now?”
If you can find a moment that ups the tension in a scene or jolts the audience into paying attention in a way that is completely unexpected, you will have created a magical moment in the reader’s imagination.
For your reader’s sake, make ’em short.
We’re writers, we like words. Readers and movie viewers are civilians who like stories. They want to see things happen. They don’t care about details or authenticity beyond the universe of a story, they want to be enthralled and stimulated. The est way to do that is to get in to every scene as late as possible and get out as early. When evaluating what that dramatic ingress and egress might be, don’t forget to take into account the rhythm and flow of your story. Sometimes you want to have a longer scene to let the audience catch their breath or get caught up to story. Other times, you might want scenes to be short and punchy to give the story some speed and excitement.
Know where your characters were before the scene started.
Unless one scene is continuous from the previous scene, there has been some element of time passing. If that’s the case, it’s your job as the writer to know where your character was when the last scene ended, what that character has been doing since that scene ended and what they are all about when this scene starts. Another important aspect of starting a scene is to find the perfect moment to begin. Just like you want an opening scene in your movie that captures the characters and tone of your story, can you find a great line that does the same thing for your scene? Just like you want an emotionally fulfilling ending for your story, can you find a great line or emotional moment that ends your scene?
See it in your head, then make us see it in ours.
Movies are visual. Before you start writing, make sure that you know what the scene looks like on screen. This is one of the most important parts of screenwriting: writing for the screen. Take your time. Allow your imagination to fill your head with ideas and images. Listen to how your characters sound and what they say. Fight the urge to put your fingers on the keyboard and pound away. Play the scene in your head from different characters’ perspectives. Imagine it from different angles. Once you know that world inside and out; once you can hear the characters speak; once you can smell the scenes in the air; once your imagination is fully engage then start writing with the goal of capturing in words the very same thing you are seeing in your head.
Write, rewrite and rewrite the scene again.
Writing is an iterative process. To get the fullness of detail, nuance and efficiency in a good scene you need to write it over and over again. First you need to get the structure right. Then there’s the characters’ emotional logic and their dialogue and the clever details that fill in the world (mis-en-scene). Never try to do this all in one swoop. Write a scene many times, each time finding something new that improves the experience for your reader so that the reader sees the same scene in his or her head as you do.