From the outside looking in, a movie is just a collection of scenes that are tied together. So the anatomy of a scene is what separates the great films—the ones that are embedded in our collective consciousness—from the forgettable ones? Several things elevate a movie into being memorable: a great concept, a great cast, and ultimately, a great screenplay. As a writer, you have to be able to look at that collection of scenes objectively, to know how to tie it all together, and to turn what seems like a loose collection of scenes into a story.
As defined in “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier, “A scene is a dramatic unit of a larger work. Screenplays are made up of acts; acts are broken down into sequences, sequences into scenes, and scenes into beats. A scene consists of the camera placement (INTERIOR or EXTERIOR), a location, and a time. If one of these elements changes, it becomes a new scene.”
It’s the knowledge of how to construct the building blocks of a story that will anchor your screenplay.
Moving the Story Forward
Every scene should be, in some way, set up by the previous scene, and should move the story forward for both the plot and the development of the characters. This will in turn set up the next scene, until your screenplay reaches its climax. It’s a cause and effect relationship as you draw your audience in until they become hooked. You should be reviewing as you write. You should know the payoff of a particular scene, whether you need it in your screenplay, the purpose of that scene, and whether it reveals something new about the character and/or the plot. And most importantly, you should ask yourself whether the audience wants to know what will happen next.
Constructing a Scene
Since a scene is a dramatic unit of a larger story, each scene should be built in the same way as your screenplay. Once you have the scene fleshed out, go back and edit it. Is there anything from the beginning that you can trim? One of the main things that Trottier, and most screenwriters or professors try to convey is to make the scene as tight as possible; begin the scene as closely to the end as you can. You probably have a good idea about how you want it to end to increase either the drama or the comedic effect; but you don’t want to tax your audience’s patience by including anything superfluous in the beginning of the scene. If a scene’s length runs more than two pages, go back and see if anything can be edited out. Every scene has its own flow and rhythm. If it feels like it’s the right length– long or short–that is something as a writer that you need to figure out.
Think about how “The Town,” written by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard (based on the novel “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan) begins. After a few quick establishing shots of Charlestown, the narration of Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) quickly sets up the armored car heist. There is no backstory with the robbers, and the audience gets drawn in because they know something will happen to the armored car and its drivers. There is a lean, strong set up and a payoff with the next scene.
Showing vs. Telling
It’s a common dilemma for the beginning or even intermediate screenwriter. Instead of using talking heads to move the story forward, for exposition of the plot, or even backstory, use visuals over straight dialogue. Since filmmaking’s strongest draw is what we can see on screen, using strong visuals will have greater impact.
In “The Getaway,” written by Walter Hill (based on the novel by Jim Thompson), the opening sequence (composed of multiple scenes) is mostly dialogue free. It shows Carter McCoy (Steve McQueen) and the mundane, often soul crushing existence of prison. Instead of him discussing how difficult and numbing prison is with his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw), the audience gets to see and feel the visceral impact.
As you build towards the showdown or climax of your screenplay, the pacing of your scenes should increase or decrease accordingly. Allow your audience the chance to breathe. Contrast action scenes with dialogue heavy scenes, and heavy scenes with light scenes. Remember that pacing doesn’t just lend itself to action heavy movies like “Die Hard.” The more low-key “Nobody’s Fool” has its own pace and flow, and its own dramatic payoff.
What happens in your scene that makes the audience want to keep watching? It could be a revelation, a decision by one of your characters, or even a cliffhanger. Dramatic tension keeps the viewer involved. Plot twists are what keep things interesting; try to keep the audience somewhat off balance, because that’s what will keep them engaged. Your story shouldn’t just start, trundle along, and end exactly the way your audience expects it to. The end of the scene should have a finish that leaves things open to be resolved in the next scene, building towards the climax.
In “The Getaway,” as Carter is released from prison, he is met by a limousine. A man inside rolls down the window, and informs Carter he is to meet Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson) the following day. He gives no other details, but through previous scenes and subtext, it gives the ending dramatic punch.
This also applies for dialogue based scenes as well. The last line of the scene should be the strongest; the conflict between two characters should be resolved for that scene, but should also set something up for the next scene as well.
In “Gran Torino,” written by Nick Schenk (story credit to Schenk and David Johannson) Walt (Clint Eastwood) has rescued Sue (Ahney Her) from a group of thugs. As they drive back to their neighborhood, they share banter back and forth where Walt learns a little about the Hmong people, and how they settled in America. As Sue thanks him for the rescue and the ride, her last line, regarding Hmong men and their ability to fit into society, is, “The girls go to college, and the boys go to jail.” This is Walt’s first extended interaction with any of his new neighbors, and we can tell that this is a set up for more.
Each scene should convey a mood or emotion. This can be tied into the character’s goal, emotional state, and attitude at that particular moment. By tying in what your character thinks and feels and what he or she wants out of this particular part of your story, it will give the scene direction and the dialogue subtext.
In “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, as the crew approaches the jaguar shark in the submarine, almost no dialogue is spoken. But their feelings are quite apparent, especially those of Steve (Bill Murray), as Team Zissou finally are nearing the end of their quest to find the creature that killed his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel), which in turn also lead to the death of his son Ned (Owen Wilson). There is a melancholy, beautiful sadness that exists between everybody in the sub before Steve decides to let the shark swim away rather than kill it.
Some sort of conflict should always exist, even in less dramatic scenes. Even if the characters share the same goal, they will probably disagree about how to reach it. The conflict can be subtle; there should be enough emotional subtext to make it interesting.
In “The Other Guys,” by Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, Terry (Mark Wahlberg) and Allen (Will Farrell) clearly have different styles as cops. Terry is tightly wound and craves action, where Allen is cerebral to the point of spinelessness. They both want to solve the case, but have vastly different approaches, constantly getting under each other’s skin. The conflict is apparent in almost every scene, and it’s where much of the comedy—and tension—is derived.
Being able to construct memorable scenes will basically chart your growth as a writer. Your screenplays will acquire more depth and resonance as you learn how to tie in your characters’ motivations, actions, and mood with your story and its plot. And in the end, it will have a greater payoff for your audience.
Segments of this article can be found in “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier