Beginning, Middles and Ends
In a screenplay, just like your plot, a well-structured scene will have a beginning, middle and end.
You must establish who the protagonist of the scene is and what they want. Except for the first time we meet a character, this is done BEFORE the scene starts. This is what we know about the character from the previous scenes, and specifically the very last scene that character was in.
There needs to be a complication. Otherwise, there is no scene. The protagonist wants something. And there is someone or something that won’t let him/her obtain it. That’s the complication, which is the scene equivalent of the end of Act I.
The protagonist then begins to execute different approaches to getting what s/he wants. They will try to appeal to their antagonist with logic, emotion, seduction, threats – whatever is available to them.
In a good scene, the antagonist will have an equally strong reason for not wanting the protagonist to obtain his/her goal. The antagonist will reject, deny, avoid, manipulate – do whatever is possible – to deny the protagonist.
When the protagonist of the scene has run out of options, s/he will be desperate. This is the equivalent of the lowest moment.
This seeming defeat forces the protagonist of the scene to change tactics. This change of tactics leads to the climax and resolution of the scene.
In all great drama, nothing changes without sacrifice. This can be someone’s life, a prized possession, a shameful secret, a deeply held emotion or anything else of profound value to a character.
In a good scene, the protagonist of the scene resorts to something unexpected or beyond his/her limits. Does the character resort to violence beyond their sense of propriety? Does the character expose themselves emotionally? Do they reveal a shameful secret? Do they confront a truth about themselves they would rather not admit?
The choices are endless. Whichever the protagonist chooses in order to triumph and how that character reacts to their choice – surprise, regret, horror, resignation — will reveal something about his/her character to the audience.
Conflict is what makes a dramatic story compelling. So does surprise.
In a well-written script, each scene builds upon the previous to increase our understanding of a character’s needs and sharpen the expectations of what the reader wants to see happen. The more that you can upend that understanding and expectation, the more compelling your scene will be.
In other words, if the reader understands a character’s state of mind and what that character wants, the more the reader will root for a specific end to a scene. If you can create the opposite result, you will surprise and engage the reader.
The main reason for this is that the way we learn about characters is about watching what happens when they don’t get what they want. When are expectations for a scene are upended, when the emotions shift and when the protagonist of the scene is aware of this, something new about that character is revealed to the reader.
This coming to terms with an unexpected situation and the character’s understanding of his/her predicament allow you to express your theme by showing the reader how your character reacts to this new challenge.
Seen but not heard
The essential emotional information of a scene is communicated through dialogue. But not exclusively. The narrative directions that you include at the top of the scene and in between the dialogue matter.
The narrative description should be sparse and economical. It should only communicate what is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL. How you choose to reveal this information will be dictated by the genre, tone and style of your writing.
Narrative description allows you, the writer, to insert pauses in the flow of a scene. It allows you to use momentary break up ideas expressed in the dialogue and group them into discrete sections.
If you want the opposite effect, if you want a scene to fly by with a sense of rapid dialogue, then simply omit any stage directions once the characters start talking. Look at any script by Joe Ezsterhas for examples.
Making it all work
If the plot is the bones of your script and the story is the heart, the scene is the muscle of your script. A scene is tasked with carrying the plot forward, revealing the characters and keeping the readers engaged.
Like your own muscles, scenes need to put to work in order to become strong and efficient. In real life, we exercise. The way to make your scenes strong is to outline. Take the time to figure out your characters’ wants, complications, plans of attacks and surprise choices that get them what they want.
If you’re having trouble spotting the beats inside a scene, or if you’re having trouble writing a scene for your script, find a similar scene in a movie. Transcribe a scene from a movie you like.
Literally, type out the scene word for word. Make up the stage direction as you see fit. Then examine the scene. Where does it feel like the characters shifted? Where do events turn? How long is the scene? How long is the dialogue?
Do enough of these, and you’ll develop an intrinsic sense of how scenes should flow.
Remember that a movie is visual
One other thing about writing a scene to remember is that you are using your words to paint a picture in a reader’s imagination. You must always – ALWAYS – provide a visual context for a scene BEFORE a character starts talking.
If a character starts speaking before being mentioned, the reader will instinctively assume the character is off-screen. If you don’t note that, the reader will become confused. If that’s not what you intend, then make sure that you mention that character in the narrative description at the top of the scene before that character starts speaking.
What other elements of a script cause you grief? What are your tricks for solving problems in your scenes?