In my previous posts, I’ve covered the strategic aspects of developing a screenplay: concepts, themes, characters, plot, structure, and so on. Now we can turn to the actual writing. First stop… The scenes.
Scenes are the sub-units that make up a screenplay.
Think of a necklace consisting of colored beads. The scenes in your screenplay are the beads. The plot is the chord connecting those beads.
But let’s take it one step further. The beads can’t just be thrown together in any old way, otherwise the whole thing will be a mess.
Instead, the beads need to be organized in such a way as to be pleasing to the eye. In other words, they create a pattern. Colors and shapes are used to either merge or contrast with one another, depending on your aesthetic tastes.
The same goes for a screenplay. If you churn out random scenes, the story won’t make sense. Rather, the scenes need to be ordered so as to service the plot. They need to propel the plot forward with maximum efficiency and clarity.
A few words on scene length
A 100-page script will typically consist of 150+ scenes. The length of those scenes can vary. Some may be a single line, while others may be several pages in length.
Some screenwriting experts claim that no scene should ever run for more than three pages. This is complete crap. A scene should be as long as it needs to be.
For instance, it’s perfectly fine to have a seven-page dialogue scene – so long as it is justified. I mean, if you’re going to have a bunch of characters chatting for seven pages, they had better be saying something worthwhile!
The focal point
Most scenes will be plot-focused. Others may deal with themes or characterization. The important thing is that each scene should be as clean as possible.
What I mean is that a scene should always have a clear aim. That aim could involve revealing an important plot point, developing a character, or playing upon a theme. But you can’t do all of these at once – not without confusing the reader. Far better to lock onto the purpose of a scene and then stick with it.
Of course, it is possible for a scene to have multiple aspects. Your protagonist, for instance, may uncover a plot twist. However, their reaction to that twist could color our opinion of him or her. Perhaps it shows us a side of the protagonist that we were unaware of. In other words, there is also an element of characterization here. So before you write this scene, you need to decide what is more important – the plot twist or the character’s reaction. And having made this decision, that is where your main focus should be.
Major and minor scenes
Ultimately, there are two kinds of scenes: major ones and minor ones.
Major scenes reveal important plot points and are vital to supporting your themes and characters. Generally, these scenes tend to be lengthier – though not always. Often, they are the scenes we remember after reading a script or watching a movie.
Minor scenes fill the gaps between the major scenes and help link them. Because they are usually shorter, they can also make the script feel pacier, which is a good thing.
In the end, however, it all comes down to balance. Too many of these filler scenes will result in your script coming across as superficial and convoluted. Too few, and the script will feel ponderous and stagy.
When it comes to the major scenes, it’s best to think of them as mini-screenplays in their own right. They will tell their own miniature story, complete with beginning, middle, and end.
For instance, at the beginning of the scene, a certain character might be in a position of power. However, as the scene plays out, he or she may lose that power and end up in a state of weakness.
Time for an example. Here’s a scene that I’ve cobbled together (it’s not part of an existing script)…
First, a little context. Let’s say this scene comes from a gangland thriller in which two mob leaders are at war. The older one is called BAKER. He has ruled the streets for as long as he can remember, but now he’s an old man and is loosing his grip. His rival is TAYLOR, a young upstart. He’s one of those cunning types with a gift for bending others to his will.
Let’s say that just prior to this scene, there was some kind of showdown that ended with Baker’s heavies capturing Taylor. Baker has been informed of this victory and is now coming to put an end to his rival once and for all:
INT. ABANDONED WAREHOUSE - NIGHT A large black limo cruises majestically inside an abandoned warehouse. Its headlights pierce the darkness. The vehicle eases to a halt. The doors open and four gangland heavies climb out. Finally, Baker himself emerges. He grimaces as his old arthritic bones rebel against the movement. The vulnerability, however, is fleeting. As he straightens, he surveys the dimness with an imperious glare. A single light bulb illuminates the far end of the warehouse. Hands bound and face bloodied, Taylor kneels on the ground. He looks like a broken man. Four more of Baker’s heavies surround him on all sides. They wait in grim silence. Baker strides forward, broken glass crunching beneath his $3000 dress shoes. His men follow in his wake. Baker stops in front of Taylor. The younger man struggles to make eye-contact. BAKER You had a good run, boy. Almost pulled it off. (pulling out a pistol) But almost don't cut it in this game. Taylor lowers his face. His body shakes and it sounds like he is crying. Baker watches with amusement. Finally, Taylor raises his face. But there are no tears. He isn’t crying - he is laughing! TAYLOR Who said the game is over? Confusion fills Baker’s expression. The silence is broken by the sound of shotguns being pumped. Baker and his heavies spot two figures emerge from the shadows. These are Taylor’s guys. They point their shotguns at Baker. Stifling his surprise, Baker glances back at Taylor. BAKER What is this? A joke? Your two against my eight? (confidence returning) Should've worked harder at school, learnt your numbers. TAYLOR How about ten against zero? Cold realization shifts over Baker’s face. We can almost see the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. He watches as his own heavies draw their guns... and aim straight at him! Baker's surprise turns to fury. BAKER (looking each of his traitorous men in the eye) I took you off the streets when you were boys! I turned you into soldiers! One of the heavies steps forward, disarms Baker, and punches him to the ground. Taylor rises and removes the rope from his wrists; it’s clear his hands were never really bound. His watches Baker squirming in the dirt. TAYLOR Only one boy around here. Taylor turns and strides towards Baker’s limo. TAYLOR (over his shoulder) School's out. In unison, the heavies open fire on Baker. His body twists and spasms as the bullets rip him apart. Unconcerned, Taylor climbs into the limo and drives off into the night. CUT TO:
So there you have it.
Now if we look at this scene more closely, there are three stages to it: the beginning, the middle, and the end.
In the beginning, Baker is on top of things. He’s the regal gang-lord, riding in his fancy chariot (or limo), surrounded by his minions, crushing the glass and other debris beneath his feet. There’s a hint of fragility – his arthritis – but nothing more than that (and to be honest, this is the sort of micro-point that probably wouldn’t make it into the final draft). Taylor, meanwhile, is the down-and-out. He appears to be a man facing up to his imminent death.
The middle section deals with a shift in power. The process begins with two of Taylor’s men arriving and brandishing their shotguns. The odds, however, remain in Baker’s favor. But then we learn that Taylor has also won over Baker’s own men too. Presumably, Taylor’s ability to influence others is an aspect of his personality that we would have built up earlier in the script (if said script existed in the first place).
Finally, we come to the ending. By now, the positions of the two characters have been reversed. Baker is no longer king. He’s just a broken old man who has been abandoned by his minions. He started the scene by crushing the glass beneath his feet. He ends it by writhing on the floor. Taylor, by comparison, has gone from being a doomed and isolated figure to the one who controls the situation. Rather than receiving judgement, he passes judgement… And gets to drive away in his rival’s ‘chariot’ for good measure.
Families of scenes
Often, scenes have counterparts. They form a ‘family’ of scenes scattered throughout the screenplay. By this, I mean that they might share a common theme, echoing what has come before and what will come after.
Let’s take our example scene above. Perhaps there was an earlier scene in this non-existent script where Baker warned Taylor to never trust those around him. Baker, however, wasn’t listening to his own sermon, because in our example he is betrayed by his bodyguards. Similarly, later in the script, perhaps Taylor himself is betrayed by those closest to him. In the process, maybe he remembers Baker’s original words about not trusting anyone. Although separated by dozens of pages, these three scenes represent an interrelated group. They are all focused on loyalty, trust, and betrayal.
Generally speaking, the scenes within a family will echo one another. Sometimes they will touch upon a specific theme or will deal with a similar plot point (but always from a slightly different angle so as to avoid a ‘double beat’). On other occasions, they may simply rehash the same cinematic imagery or a key line of dialogue.
The importance of these families of scenes should not be underestimated. They can provide a ‘through-line’ that ripples from one end of your script to the other. This ensures that your story doesn’t feel disconnected and episodic. Of course, not every scene has to be part of a family. Some scenes are orphans, and that’s just fine.
The importance of cutting
One final word. Think of it as a cardinal rule.
Whenever you write a major new draft, you’ll find yourself churning out all sorts of new scenes. This is part of the creative process. However, once you have completed a draft, it’s vital to go back through the entire screenplay and question the necessity of each scene. Every one of them should have an important purpose – and if a scene doesn’t have a purpose, cut it out.
By important I don’t necessarily mean profound. A good script can contain many relatively mundane scenes that can still serve an important purpose.
For instance, you might have a short scene in which your protagonist chooses to travel by bus, even though you’ve already established that he or she owns a car. There is nothing profound about this scene, but it could be important in terms of setting up a specific plot point or revealing something about the protagonist’s personality.
Of course, if it doesn’t do any of these things, then lose it!
Anyway, that’s it for now. If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave a comment below.