The number one failure for most non-pro screenwriters (and for some pro writers) is as fundamental as FADE IN: It’s the scene.
Flabby, flaccid, forgettable, feckless… yeah a lot of F-words – because most screenwriters just deliver either a clichéd presentation or do only one thing in a scene and then move on. Your screenwriting needs a whole lot more to make it good.
WHAT IS A SCREENPLAY SCENE?
A scene is a connector to another scene or group of scenes. A group of scenes then becomes a sequence. A sequence then becomes a tentpole where something big happens in your story. Hopefully, something leading toward an award-winning screenplay.
Scenes are individual parts of a larger picture in your story, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to work hard
Every scene should:
(1) Ask a question or set up a situation.
(2) Deepen a question or situation.
(3) Resolve a question or situation.
(4) Ask another question or set up another situation as it ends.
If any scene doesn’t do this, then question its validity. Your screenplay is a limited medium. There is no room for non-functional scenes.
But beyond that, scenes are moments that people remember or should remember.
HOW CAN SCREENWRITERS MAKE THEIR SCENES MEMORABLE?
There are really no magic formulas for how to write an effective scene, but there are techniques and fundamentals that can be followed to take your work beyond the mundane.
BLAH, BLAH, BLAH:
Let’s start with exposition scenes – the kiss of death for pacing and narrative suspense. What is our natural inclination when trying to deliver information from one character to another (and by extension, the audience?)
Well, places like a restaurant, coffee shop, or some room like a kitchen with a table instantly spring to mind. And these are horrible settings. Cars are just as bad.
Why? Most of the time that we’re engaging in conversation in our lives. We’re static. We sit across from each other and talk about things. Dinner, bed, coffee, commuting. So we naturally put our characters in this situation figuring art reflects life.
We are not writing reality. We are writing the illusion of reality. Most people’s lives are bo-ring when it comes down to it, but we always think those long dialogue scenes are somehow fascinatingly essential to a film script. And yes, some are. But remember that what’s up on the screen (even if it’s television which is much more of a talking heads medium) is supposed to be visual. Two people sitting in front of other, talking, is not visual. Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin and can write dialogue to make the gods weep, two people at a table are, at most time,s deadly dull.
I mean, I get it. Those scenes are simple, easy and seemingly real. But I avoid writing them as if they were an insurance salesman at a neighborhood picnic.
Some interesting examples of how to make exposition really fascinating occur in the wonderful “Truly, Madly, Deeply.” Even though the movie is several decades old, it was written by Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” “Cold Mountain”), a true master of the screenwriting craft.
Called the thinking person’s “Ghost” at the time of its release, a particular scene with Juliet Stevenson near the end of the film has her meeting a man she may be romantically interested in. But it’s very late in the film – just a few minutes from the ending – and there is no real time left to develop that.
Minghella has them meet and get to know each other in record time. No tables, chairs, or car interiors in sight. They hop on one leg while telling each other who they are. This shows they’re compatible (I mean anyone who hops with you on the spur of the moment has got to be a buddy) and that the character is healing. We can leave the movie feeling good about Juliette Stevenson’s character’s future after having a series of shattering moments in her life. It’s a brilliant use of narrative mis-direction to get across necessary information both directly and intuitively.
Another powerful dialogue scene has Juliet and Allen Rickman (who plays her ghostly boyfriend) sitting on the floor of the living room and talking to each while Rickman quotes Pablo Neruda. Not only is it heart wrenching, it’s visually interesting, especially when she begins to crawl across the floor to him, drawn to her lover by a force stronger than death.
REMOVE HOUSEKEEPING SCENES
Housekeeping scenes are the worst! You know, those scenes where you have to transition a character or situation from one place to another.
Just stop writing these scenes. If you need a resolution to something that’s story pertinent, but not story essential, combine it with something else. Better yet – skip it. We don’t need to see Jane come home, check the mail, feed the cat, stretch and yawn, look in the fridge and find some leftovers, etc., etc. It’s garbage screenplay page-filler.
I hear the objections already. But it humanizes her. So does cutting from Jane’s work to her shower with the cat already eating its food, and an empty carton of takeout on the table in the bedroom where Jane (we’re supposing) finished her dinner as she was heading to the shower. We are a highly sophisticated audience these days and we will absorb all that information intuitively. You might not even need the shower scene – maybe she’s already in bed.
Ask yourself: can you live without a scene or parts of a scene or incorporate those moments elsewhere? If so, then cut it. It’s housekeeping and it’s crap.
START LATE, LEAVE EARLY
This is the hoary hip person’s mantra to a party which I’ve modified to scenes. When is the absolute latest you can start a scene and the earliest you can then leave and maintain narrative integrity?
I groan every time I see an alarm clock go off and a hand comes into frame to shut it off. Not only is the scene a cliché, but what in that scene is really so interesting that we not only have to see it, but actually see a person wake up? Now, if the alarm clock suddenly bit the character’s hand or something, then I’d adore it. The point is, where in that scene could you start and get across the same information? Perhaps the shower (lots of shower references in this article it seems) maybe rushing out of the house to their car – anything but the hand shutting off the alarm.
Likewise, showing a person making toast, shaving, dressing, commuting to work, etc. are just deadly dull. How far into any scene can you drop us and make that scene work and tighten up your screenplay?
ELIMINATE CLICHÉ SCENES
I don’t see these much anymore, but you know the scene:
Hello? Meet me at 3:00am at the warehouse –
I know the name of the killer.
Tell me who.
Can’ t talk now. Just meet me.
Uh, no. You just know that character is dead. The scene is designed to create suspense and keep you watching but it’s lame. Exactly how hard would it have been for the character calling to just say “It’s Jim! He’s the killer!”
Someone wrote that scene originally (and it worked for that one time) and then a thousand bad screenwriters copied it. It became a horrible cliché. Like the naked woman in the shower who is being stalked inside her own home (yes, I know – another shower scene mention) or the spitting police captain dressing down his rebel detective; how about the stupid jumping cat (fake scare) scene, and a hundred others that have become fodder for top ten lists of bad moments in cinema.
Screenwriting is supposed to be hard. Copying what you’ve seen a dozen times is not your job; creating new, interesting material is!
STOP REPEATING THE STORY BEAT
When Jethro Leroy Gibbs (Mark Harmon) brings quirky forensic scientist Abby Sciuto her Caf-Pow at the beginning of every scene between them on the long-running CBS series “NCIS” it’s part of the fabric of the show. We expect, anticipate, and want that moment even though we’ve seen it hundreds of times. (Actually, Pauley Perrette has left the show so no more of that scene under any circumstances.)
Doing something like that in a movie (unless it’s for a point like in “Edge of Tomorrow”) or repeating even one story beat in a TV episode is not a path to Oscar or Emmy fame – or to even becoming a staff writer. When you’re dealing with kisses (or even chocolate kisses) one is good, more is better. Not so with scenes that do similar things.
AMPLIFY YOUR SETTING, SCENARIO, OR CHARACTERS
Pushing your scenes involves moving whatever you’re writing from the mundane to the spectacular. Almost none of the scenes in the cool little sci-fi Brit flick “Attack the Block” are scenes I’ve seen before. First of all, the concept is absolutely brilliant. But the writing just sparkles and entangles you in every moment.
The scenario: An alien invasion is fought off by young gangsters in a housing project (the titular Block) in South London.
One scene, in particular, blew my hair (or what’s left of it) back. Some of the alien thingies come into a small flat and terrorize the young thugs and their girlfriends. The flat itself is tiny and the creatures are not. There is literally nowhere to go. But one of the thugs fights one of the creatures successfully in the main room, and the girls kick the other creature’s – uh, not sure if it even had a rear end – they handle it quite successfully in the bedroom using a floor lamp and plenty of urban girl attitude.
The suspense is amazing – a scene pushed to extremes.
The key to this gem of a film is the screenwriter took “normal” conventions and twisted them into delightful shapes that we’ve never seen before. The young thugs don’t have guns (Britain has strict gun control) so the teen gangsters have to fight on bicycles and with weapons like fireworks, squirt guns filled with petrol, or a decorative samurai sword.
If you start with clichéd conventions, you end up writing conventionally, and your scenes do not snap. How many times can we watch a gunfight? Honestly, they are downright bo-ring. It’s so hard to feel any sort of fright for the main character when you know they probably won’t be killed (“Game of Thrones” excepted.) But if your character has only a cricket bat or hockey stick with which to fight a vicious, rampaging monster, you’re able to suspend disbelief and become worried because you’re distracted by the unusual circumstances.
DRAMATIC, UH, DRAMA
What if you’re not writing something as fantastical as “Attack the Block”?
Understand the purpose of a scene. As mentioned, a scene is a connector.
In the drama “The Fault In Our Stars” the central character, Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster, and her boyfriend Ansel Elgort (as Augustus Waters) head to Copenhagen to meet an author idol of theirs (Willem Dafoe) who has written a book that has highly impacted the chronically sick Hazel Grace. She isn’t specifically terminal but she hasn’t lived a day without a reminder of how fragile her life is. The book Dafoe’s character spoke to her because he was writing about his young daughter who died from a terrible, lingering illness.
Helen Grace wants to meet him to find out what happened at the end of the book. It’s left unresolved but she believes it was the way she imagined it and wants desperately to find out before she dies which could always be soon. She seeks a connection to this author because she feels he understands her ongoing pain.
The actual meeting is a disaster. It’s so painful to watch. But it’s necessary to connect the parts of the film in which Helen Grace has to adopt a more realistic expectation of what her world is. As honest as she’s been with herself and others, she lives in a sort of fantasy world. This scene with the Dafoe character prepares her for what will be a horrible tragedy later on. We’ve been set up to want this scene and when delivered it just upends all our expectations about how cruel people can be to even a chronically ill young woman. Dafoe’s abusive and boorish character delivers pain because he is in pain himself, never having recovered from the death of his daughter. But instead of an affirming and positive moment, he rips open Helen Grace’s psyche and pours even more anguish in.
I’m breathless just writing about it. It had an edge so hard it could have cut a diamond.
This is a scene you’ll remember.
SCENES MUST MULTI-TASK
Too many times we think of scenes as merely conveying information. While that’s certainly part of it, every scene should always serve the plot, theme, and character of your screenplay. This is what makes them strong, unique, powerful – pushed.
The aforementioned Dafoe meeting scene in “The Fault In Our Stars” does this. The plot is most definitely served because it sets up a crucial ending scene that Helen Grace has with Dafoe. It serves character because she is no longer seeing her life the same way she had. It’s a reality check, a heartless slap in the face. Most people are nice to dying young girls – Dafoe is exactly the opposite and it shakes her (and us) to the core. The theme is served because it continues to show us that life is never fair and we can only mitigate the sometimes tragic consequences of it by being open and honest – and by never relying on a higher power or sensibility because there is no such thing. Very thematically existential.
The mechanisms for these powerful scenes are at the core of how every scene should be constructed. Don’t settle. Think outside the box. Take a cliché and twist it until it screams.
Push your scenes and your screenwriting will be that much stronger for it.