Forget structure. Forget character. Forget concept.
Your screenplay is nothing but scenes. So, if your scenes don’t stand out as original or memorable, no one will remember your story, your characters, your concept or your script, long enough to read it.
So, if your protagonist is fired after being called into his boss´s office; or if he discovers his wife´s infidelity from reading her cell phone messages; or if he spots a long, black limousine stalking him from a distance, then it doesn’t matter if your story is great – your scenes are too predictable.
Here are 5 principles of innovative scene design:
1. HOW TO FIGHT TRITE. THE LOCATION vs THE DRAMATIC CONTEXT OF A SCENE
Think about the most iconic, memorable scenes you can remember. Scenes like the shower scene in Psycho, or the very different shower scene in Singing in the Rain. Or the scene in The Godfather, in which a gangster finds a severed horse head in his bed. What do these scenes have in common? What makes them so special?
The answer is that the content of those scenes are all in opposition to their situation or location. Confused? Then read on:
If you think about it, most locations we encounter in our lives are designed for specific social purposes. A bus stop is designed for waiting for a bus; a street for driving; a bar for drinking, hanging out, and meeting new people, and so on. Each location you can think of has an implied purpose built into it.
All these things become important when we set out to write a movie scene. For instance, let us assume that we are going to write a “love at first sight” scene, in a love story – a scene where the soon-to-be lovers meet for the first time.
Because of our cultural familiarity with locations and their functions, the first ideas that would come to mind would be locations or situations that are designed with that intention. Ideas that come to mind could be a bar, a disco, or a party.
These ideas are not bad per se. They are totally acceptable. The problem is that they’re not very original. When you write a whole movie like this, you end up with one predictable scene after the other.
Why not shift things around a bit? Why can´t the lovers-to-be, meet and fall in love at a location that is designated for a completely different social activity?
Why not have them fall in love at a funeral, Like Harold and Maude? Or how about having the hero be chased, not in a dark alley, but in an open field, as in North by Northwest? Or what if the hero learns he has cancer, not from his doctor, but by a hypochondriac stranger he meets randomly? as in Kurosawa’s Ikiru.
2. GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Imagine a seduction scene being played out as a hostile fight, a tense action- showdown written as a comedic scene, or a threatening scene being written as though it were an erotic flirtation.
The principle of “going against the grain” is very simple and yet, every time you apply it – it makes your scene seem fresh and original.
The basic idea is to purposely write the scene against its own intention. If a scene is meant to cause fear, you can write it as a comedy. If a scene is supposed to arouse laughter, you can write it dead-pan serious. This is, in fact, a technique that actors use all the time. They take the text of the scene (the story) and play it out with a different subtext than the intention of the scene. Great screenwriters do the same thing,
In The Commuter, there´s a great example of how this works. If you have seen it, you will remember the scene where Liam Neeson’s character is approached by an attractive woman with a dangerous proposition. This offer, as it turns out, is actually a threat in disguise. If he doesn´t do what she proposes, he will probably be killed. This is also underlined by the fact that the woman who gives him the offer seems to know everything about him although they never met.
When the scene begins, we find Neeson on the train, sitting quietly by himself, reading a book. Then she, a young, smart looking woman, walks up to him. At first, he only notices her shoes. Then she leans close to him and says:
Steinbeck, huh? Some say his greatest work
was a letter he wrote to his son.
This is not the opening line of someone whose intention it is to threaten a man’s life. This is, quite simply, a conversation opener that someone might use if they’re looking to flirt. And it is with this intention that the scene develops. The flirtation even progresses to a level where Neeson´s character has to bring it to the surface by nervously saying to her: “… I’m married,” to which she casually replies; “… Me, too” – continuing to flirt. Eventually, she proposes the dangerous offer that is to become the main thrust of the story, but she does it in a way that is still consistent with someone whose intention is seduction.
As you can hopefully see, this technique not only makes a scene that is more real and more convincing because of its subtext, but it also creates a far scarier threat than they would have achieved by simply going with the grain of the scene. For what is more threatening than dangerous people who, on the surface, act as though they have friendly intentions?
Lastly, this “going against the grain principle” also makes for much more original scenes. Who could ever forget the opening scene of Pulp Fiction? – a robbery scene that is played out as innocent banter between two lovers. Or how about the suspenseful sword duel in Raiders of the Lost Ark, played out as a comedic scene instead (by virtue of Harrison Ford’s very real stomach flu).
3. TAKING A SCENE TO ITS OUTER LIMITS
There´s a wonderful scene in Fellini’s Amarcord where a family goes to visit their uncle who is locked up in a mental hospital. Every summer they are allowed to take him out for a one-day-picnic in the country. And so, they pick up what seems to be a well behaved, shy old man, and head out to the country on a bright, sunny day. Everything seems to be going fine. They make it through their lunch and the kids are running around playing tag when all of a sudden, they discover that the uncle is missing. After a brief, frantic search they find him sitting, of all places, in the crown of a tall tree. They shout and plead with him to come down but much to their dismay, his only response is to shout at the top of his lungs, for everyone to hear; “I need a woman!!!”
It would seem that writing such an iconic scene, imbued with such imagination, cannot be taught. But while that may be true, this scene and others like it, do have a certain method to their madness.
It all comes down to two major principles. First, there´s the setup and payoff. Then there is taking it over the top.
The setup /payoff: First you introduce, what I would call, a “ticking bomb” into a scene. It can be an actual ticking bomb or as is the case of the Amarcord scene; a guy with a mental health problem. When you do that, you stoke the audience´s expectation. From this point on, they know something is going to happen, it’s just a question of when and how.
The key is to know that the audience is already expecting something to happen. And then when something does happen, when it’s time for the payoff – you let it happen in a way that no one expects. You push the payoff to its outer limits. In the case of Amarcord, we expected the mentally ill uncle to create a problem from the very beginning of the scene. That was not the surprise. But what he ended up doing and how he did it, was.
This technique doesn’t work if you fail to go over the top. If the Uncle would have merely gone crazy and rambled incoherently, that would have been within the scope of what we would have expected and so the scene would not have stood out.
Always give the audience what they want, but never in the way that they expect it – and always much more than they had hoped for.
4. THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
One of the things that spec writers often do not understand when writing scenes are the wonderful, time-honored principle of size vs impact.
When we think about writing a scene in which a major event happens, we naturally gravitate toward writing it in a big, dramatic way. If the intention of a scene is to show us how a big monster attacks the main character – then too many spec writers would simply have written the scene predictably. We would have seen the monster, in all its ferocious glory, lash out at the character. Or, if the spec writer were to write a scene where a woman discovers her husband’s infidelity, we would see it played out, on the nose; She comes home early from work; hears sounds from their bedroom; opens the door and there you have it.
Bad scripts are abundant with such scenes. Professional writers, however, know the art of playing big things out in small ways and vice versa.
This is a principle that, in all its simplicity, is about simplicity. Instead of showing the big, scary monster, we would instead see a tiny but significant sign of it. Think about the screenplay to Jurassic Park. The first time we really get a sense of the Tyrannosaurs Rex is not by seeing it. Instead, we hear it and then this moment plays out;
INT. IN THE FRONT CAR
Tim leans over to the front passenger seat and looks at the two plastic cups of water that sit in the recessed holes on the dashboard. As he watches, the water in the glasses vibrate, making concentric circles
Notice the small concentric circles in the glass of water. That is the essence of what this principle is all about – big dramatic events are played out by showing them through small and insignificant details. Remember also the scene in William Goldman´s screenplay to Stephen King´s Misery? I’m thinking about the scene in which psychopathic nurse, Annie Wilkes, discovers that her captive, Paul Sheldon, has left his room of confinement. Once again, the bad script would have had Annie catching her prisoner in the act of leaving his room or worse, discovering his door left open.
Instead, Goldman and King give us a brilliant example of showing the devil in the details. As Annie Wilkes comes home, she discovers that a tiny nick-knack penguin on her dining room table has been slightly moved in her absence. Only a neurotic mind would have noticed this.
5. FOR EVERY SCENE, AN OMISSION, A SECRET, AND A SURPRISE
We all know that great stories, and great scenes, have to surprise us to be effective. I’m not only thinking about the final twist in a well-crafted horror or mystery story. As screenwriter Jim Thompson once put it:
“There is only one plot – things are not what they seem.”
Imagine this scene: A car comes to a stop in front of a house. A man gets out and takes a disoriented glance around him. He removes a small, handwritten note from his coat pocket and checks the address written on it. After studying it carefully, he proceeds to walk into an apartment building. He walks up a flight of stairs and enters a long hallway of apartment doors. One by one, as he walks past them, he checks his little note. Finally, he arrives at the right door and knocks on it.
What will likely happen next?
If your answer is that someone will open the door, you are wrong.
Movie scripts are not written in real time. They are written in dramatic time.
What that means is this; we only ever get to see moments that change the story dramatically. Everything else is cut out of the narrative. For instance, when M gives James Bond his next mission in a faraway, exotic country, we don´t see him go home and pack his suitcase. We don´t see him eat his dinner that night or travel to the airport the next day. All that is cut because it doesn´t change the story in a dramatic way. What you probably would see, however, is something like this; M gives Bond his mission to go to an exotic island. Cut to: He is on the island.
So, going back to the very tedious scene with the man, the address and the door. This is likely not a scene you would see in a well-written movie because it serves no dramatic purpose unless there is a surprise at the end of it. For that reason, the only way to justify such a tedious scene would be to have no-one open the door.
Surprises in stories work by the well-known pattern of ‘expectation vs result’.
In practical terms that means that whenever you set up a certain expectation in a scene, you have to give us something other than what we expect. That is the nature of how dramatic writing works. Therefore, when you see Harry Dean Stanton search for Ripley´s cat in Alien he will not find the cat, because that’s what the scene sets us up to expect. Instead, he finds the monster, the surprise.
But creating surprise is more than just setting up a certain expectation and then subverting it. It is also about leaving out information. Whenever you purposefully leave out important information, it acts as story secret. This is most commonly done in almost every scene by simply cutting away from the scene before the information can be given.
Now that the information is a secret, it becomes an easy tool for creating surprises. Let us imagine a scene in which our hero is sitting at home, at night, reading a book. His teenage daughter is having her first experience being out at a party, which is why her father now, nervously awaits her safe return. All of sudden the doorbell rings out. He checks his watch and is surprised to learn that it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. He rushes to the hallway, opens the door and then we cut away from the scene. We have now kept the information about the identity of the late-night visitor from the audience to create suspense.
When we later return to the scene, it is so much easier to surprise the audience because they are curious.
Now that we have set the audience up for an expectation; now that we have kept the information secret; all that’s left to do is to turn the scene where you least expect it. Did you expect that it´s the daughter? Then you would be wrong because that would be no surprise, would it? It could be a pizza delivery guy (he didn’t order pizza,) the police, or nobody.
If you write all your scenes like that, I can assure you that every studio reader, will finish your screenplay.