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How To Write A Screenplay – Film Scenes

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.

Film scenes

Scenes are the sub-units that make up a screenplay.

Film ScenesThink 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

Film Scene FocusMost 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

Major Scenes Minor ScenesUltimately, 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.

Mini-screenplays

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

Family Of ScenesOften, 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.

Orphan SceneThe 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. Film Scene EditingThere 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.

Best, al

14 Comments

  1. Hi Al,

    I was just searching for wring books for my brother and came across your awesome website. I’m an Affiliate Marketer and write all day long into the night. I’m not looking to write a screenplay but find your tips and techniques useful for my line of work. I saved your site to my favorites and sent my brother a link to this page. He’s actually trying to write a book and would love your site.

    Thanks for all the great writing tips!

    Jack Taylor

  2. This is really cool. I’ve been writing little youtube skits for almost a year now, but Its always been a dream of mine to write and star in my own screenplays. The only thing is that i don’t know the first place to start. There is so much that goes into it, and it can be overwhelming. I’m glad I came across this article, I just know that i got closer into turning my dream into an reality. Great article, definitely sharing this on facebook.

  3. Very interesting stuff you’ve got here. I never delved into screenwriting, but I’m writing a book at the moment, and I must admit, your article brings me some good advice.

    I agree with you on the fact that a scene should be as long as it needs to be. One good example of that is the movie “12 angry men”, which I found really intense despite being filmed at the courthouse all along.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your article overall. Keep it up!

    • Many thanks, Ben. Glad you enjoyed the article. And yes, Twelve Angry Men is a true classic – I guess I’ve rewatched it every ten years or so during my lifetime and it never seems to age!

  4. Hello there! I’m planning to film a short film with my friends just for fun. I want to write screenplay but I don’t have any experience with it. I read your article and I found it very informative and helpful. This is very well explained and easy to understand especially to a person like me who doesn’t know how to write screenplays. Thank you for sharing this information and I hope we pull this short film.

    • Hi John, I’m glad you enjoyed the article and I hope it helped. Good luck with the short film 😉

      Best, al

  5. Well there you have it, I am gonna write a screenplay and thanks to this article I’ll probably be rich and famous. Seriously though it was a really cool read. It explains the structure and more importantly what makes good structure. I’m probably gonna try it. It’ll probably be a masterpiece.

    • Hey Jeremy – rich, maybe… If you’re incredibly lucky. I haven’t been, which is why I’ve set up this suite 😉 Famous, almost certainly not – unless you also decide to become an actor (or a director at the very least). As for the masterpiece thing, that bit is possible because you’re in control of it. 

      Anyway, thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed it. All the best!

      Best, al

  6. Very informative post on writing scenes. It seems like a daunting task. How can you tell by writing (in pages) how long the scene will last? I guess, the time length doesn’t matter so much as what is happening in the scene. I would think that you wouldn’t want the scene to last too long? In my son’s class, they go over the idea that the scenes should not be super lengthy, yet give no time parameters.

    • Yes, you don’t want the scene to last too long. 

      During the course of developing a script from start to finish, I may end up rewriting a scene up to twenty times. Each time I go through it, I’ll look closely to see where I can make cuts. As a result, what started out as a seven page scene ultimately becomes a three page scene. There’s so often a lot of unnecessary dialogue and description.

      Of course, there is a risk of cutting too close to the bone – I’ve done this a few times, where having lost my objectivity, I ended up editing out important aspects of the scene (because I understood what was happening, I assumed everyone else did). 

      This is why it’s important to have an experienced and objective person reading each draft. In my case, it’s my manager, who has saved me from making many mistakes over the years.

      Best, al

  7. I think you did a great job of going through all the important aspects and elements of a screenplay. I have tried my hand at it and as you know, it’s not an easy thing to structure. I am a writer but was flummoxed by trying to write a screenplay. It’s a whole different world…..especially dialogue.
    I think your point about making sure that every scene has a purpose could be used in some of the too-long films I’ve seen lately. I think Hollywood is starting to understand, but there are some movies out there that could be 30 to 45 minutes shorter.
    thanks for the comprehensive lesson.

    • Hey W, 

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the article.

      Yes, screenwriting can be very challenging. At it’s best, it requires both artistry and craftsmanship. I think one of the trickiest things is that you have to cover a huge amount of ground in a very limited space. In terms of word content, a 120 page script actually only contains about 15 pages of solid text – it’s just very spread out because of the formatting. So yes, every scene, every line of dialogue, and every bit of description has to have a purpose. Speaking of dialogue, feel free to check out my other post, which deals specifically with this area.

      I also know what you mean about too-long films. Some of them these days can really be butt-numbing 😉

      Best, al

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