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Writing scenes

What is a scene? A scene starts and ends in one place at one time (the Aris­totelian unities of time and place).  A scene starts in one place emotion­ally and ends in another place emotion­ally. Starts angry, ends embar­rassed. Starts love­struck, ends disgusted.  Some­thing happens in a scene, whereby the char­acter cannot go back to the way things were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the next. Make some­thing happen”.

Jane Fitch, 10 Rules for Writers

If a script is a meta­phor­ical journey between two moments in time, it is left to the writer to select the route. There are plenty of ways to get from A to B so the scenes you include in your script need to be chosen with care and fulfil certain criteria.

There are two primary ques­tions you need to ask about any scene:

Does the scene move the story forward without trying the patience of the audi­ence? If an audi­ence is engaged in your story, they will always want to know what happens next. If you delay satis­fying their curi­osity for too long or if you go off on an irrel­evant digres­sion, then you run the risk of losing them.

Does the scene turn the story in a new and inter­esting direc­tion? Every scene is a poten­tial ‘cross­roads’, a chance to surprise and intrigue the audi­ence by confounding their expect­a­tions. This isn’t always possible with every scene in your script but you should look for the oppor­tunity wherever you find it.

Scene Analysis

The key ques­tions to ask about scenes are the same ones that apply to the larger units of struc­ture (see “Intro­du­cing Struc­ture“), the Act and The Story:

What is the scene about? There is usually an answer which can be stated in simple phys­ical terms.

Who drives the scene? What do they want? (to do -) This iden­ti­fies the scene’s objective. Once iden­ti­fied, we know where the scene “offi­cially” begins. The last essen­tial beat will be the success or failure in achieving this objective. We can change these “goal-posts” as long as we realise that, by doing so, we re-define what the scene is about

What are the sources of antag­onism? What do they want? (to do -) Are their object­ives opposed? If there is active oppos­i­tion to the Prot­ag­onist or Person Driving the Scene, the conflict will inev­it­ably be stronger. Ideally, oppos­i­tion should be coming from more than one source (see “Levels of Conflict”).

What else is the scene about? Assuming that the drama is happening at more than one level, what is going on at other levels? This is the writer’s main oppor­tunity to illu­minate and surprise. If your scenes are only plot driven, then you are prob­ably missing a trick or two.

What has changed between the begin­ning and end of the scene? Ideally, the “prevailing values” at the begin­ning of the scene should have altered in at least one respect by its conclu­sion. (ie. A shift in the balance of power). Identi­fying the arc of a scene will also help to make you aware of the turning point, the moment where this crucial shift happens.

Does the scene justify its exist­ence? Is everything in it neces­sary to the story? This is, in a sense, re-stating our first two criteria: does the scene carry the story forward and has it changed it in any new or inter­esting fashion?

© David Clough 1995

Scene struc­ture

Struc­tur­ally a scene is the second smal­lest unit of struc­ture within a film and it is made of beats, the smal­lest unit. (If you don’t know what they are, read the section on Intro­du­cing Struc­ture). Choosing when to begin a scene and where it ends are crucial decisions when it comes to framing the scene itself.

For example, if you had a scene in a film in which a wife tells her husband that she is having an affair then the most important beat in the scene is the moment when she gives him the news. This is the beat that’s needed to move the story forward but it doesn’t even have to be in the scene!

You could begin the scene the moment after she’s told him, or end it just as she opens her mouth while he looks at her, lovingly and unsus­pect­ingly. In certain circum­stances, both of those might be inter­esting edit­orial choices and less predict­able than more conven­tional ones.

Too many scripts progress plod­dingly from A to B to C building up to a supposedly dramatic climax when they don’t always need to. Simil­arly, many linger after the event when it’s equally unne­ces­sary. From this has come the classic advice regarding scene struc­ture: to start late and get out early, meaning that you should try to trim the super­fluous beats from a scene to give it more dramatic impact.

Starting a scene ‘late’

Look at this extract from David Lean’s feature-length version of Dr Zhivago made in 1965 with a script by Robert Bolt. At this point in the story, the prot­ag­onist Dr Zhivago (Omar Sharif) decides to break up with his mistress Lara (Julie Christie).

We see him making the decision, then riding off to tell her, but we do not see the actual moment he does it. There are several other adapt­a­tions of this Russian novel (see my page on Dr Zhivago) and at least two of them contain quite long scenes where he does tell her but they are tele­vi­sion series.

Lean was making a feature film, and trying to cram into it a long and complic­ated story, so his decision to shorten the scene was, to a certain extent, dictated by expedi­ency; but his version certainly does not lack impact and I prefer it to at least one of the tv adaptations.

David Clough 2017

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