The Screenwriting Process – Step 6. Scenes

If you’ve made it this far through the process then – good news! We are finally going to start writing a script. Fire up Final Draft (or the scriptwriting application of your choice), put on a pot of coffee and get ready.

Trust me, because of all the work you put in beforehand, this is going to be easy.

Maybe too easy. The one trap it’s worth being aware of at this stage is that you don’t want to punch out those scenes too quickly — you don’t want to rely on your preparation too much. You don’t want to go on scriptwriting autopilot.

Because the point of doing all that work up front is to ensure that you can really focus on how you are going to write your screenplay. What’s the best way of putting together a particular scene, what’s the quickest and most effective way of laying out this particular piece of action, what is the supreme, most subtle way of allowing your characters to get their points across?

I’m not going to tell you about the mechanics of how a script should read or look (boring!!), but there’s a good guide here.

The key components that I want to focus on at this stage of the process is getting your scenes right are:

Action / Conflict / Flow / Dialogue

action

The whole point of writing out your scriptment is that a large proportion of your action should already be there. But be wary of copying and pasting too much of your previous document directly into your scenes. At the previous stage, you got down what you wanted to happen. Now you need to think about what is the best way of conveying that “what” to a reader.

And remember who your readers are. Primarily, they are going to be filmmakers: producers, execs and most importantly, directors. Your script needs to give them an idea of how the film is going to look on the screen.

Here are a few DOs and DON’Ts:

  • DON’T: add too much extraneous description in there. This will make your scenes too long, and people will get tired of reading anything but the dialogue. Think Hemingway-esque: what’s the purest, simplest way of expressing what’s going on?
  • DO: write in the present tense, and keep it in the present tense. All your action should contain: a) someone doing something, b) something being done, c) not much else.
  • DON’T: direct on the page. By which I mean peppering your script with faux-filmy jargon which can get tired very quickly. Avoid over-use of terms like “mid-shot”, “close-up”, “dolly”, “pan”. The director considers it their job to determine the shot and where the camera’s going to move. However…
  • DO: direct on the page! Your scenes need to give the impression to the reader of everything that is going to be on screen – it’s sometimes better to disguise that’s what you’re doing.  Instead of saying: “Mid-shot of the man and the woman, kissing. Close-up on the man’s eyes that open suddenly.” Write: “The man and women kiss. Then, suddenly, the man’s eyes open.” How else is the director going to do that other than a mid-shot followed by a close-up?
  • DON’T: Bunch up all your action. You should be breaking up any long paragraphs of text into smaller paragraphs. The way I like to work is to give each shot that I’ve got in my head a new paragraph.

conflict

All scenes should be built on conflict. So, whilst in your outline, you may have:

The Detective discovers that the woman he loves has been working against him the whole time.

You need to work out how you are going to get there. The least dramatically interesting way is if the dame who the detective has fallen for opens the conversation with “I’ve something to tell you.” Much better if you base the scene on their conflicting wants: the detective has his suspicions, the dame wants to keep what she’s been doing a secret.

That way the narrative drive of the scene is: how is the detective going to find out what she’s done…

Always stop before you write up every scene and ask yourself, is the conflict in this scene as strong as it could be? Do each of the characters want something different? How are we going to resolve that difference?

dialogue

Dialogue is, of course, incredibly important to how your scenes play out. And there is no sure-way method of getting really good dialogue. The best rule of thumb for me in most situations is to try to avoid artifice. Quentin Tarantino has made a great living for himself putting together clever, stylised dialogue that really sings and everyone loves.

The only problem is that Tarantino has already done that, so if you write like him, you’re going to feel like a cheap knock-off.

Don’t let me stifle your creativity here: all I’m saying is this: if you want to go with elaborate or ornate dialogue, do it well and make it totally and completely your own. Otherwise, don’t overthink it. Try and keep it real, short, simple and think instead about:

Subtext: people very rarely say exactly what they mean. Why? Because most of the time even the whitest of white characters have an agenda: even if that agenda is that they don’t want to hurt the other person they’re talking to. Try to understand what your character means. Then understand what they want the other characters in the scene to hear.

Speed: a big mistake is that they want their characters to talk too much. If your dialogue is going longer than four lines (in screenplay format) you really need to have a good reason why.

Exposition: is when we need to get information out to the reader, and sometimes the only way to do it is for a character to say something about it. This can really clang. Here are a few rules:

  1. Don’t have anyone ever say anything to anyone else that the character should already know. “As you are aware, Sergeant, our mission is to knock out the enemy base.”
  2. Questions are a good way to hide intent. Let another character try and get the information out of someone. This is especially good if the other person doesn’t want to give information away. Conflict is your friend here.

RAT-A-TAT-TAT: The reason that there is a di- in dialogue is that it involves more than one person. Your characters shouldn’t be soliloquizing. Granted, we don’t all have the insane screwball talent of an Aaron Sorkin, but your characters should be talking to each other, not just to the audience.

flow

This is a little bit more difficult to explain than the other two points, but what you’ll notice when you read professional screenplays is that they have a certain flow to them.

Part of this is the different lengths of scenes (your scenes at the beginning and end of a screenplay should be shorter and move quicker). Part of it is at what point in the story you decide to “enter” a scene, and what point you decide to “leave”. And part of it is how you handle transitions from one scene to another.

TIP 1

Keep your scenes snappy and to the point. If you’re writing action, particularly, your scenes should be short, snappy and to the point. If you have a particularly long scene — your mentor is telling your hero all about the secret organisation that is after him, for example — then break the conversation up into different locations and have your characters walk it out. This will make your screenplay feel more cinematic, and let your reader know you care about taking up their time.

TIP 2

Get in and out of a scene as quickly as possible. William Goldman said, “You always attack a movie scene as late as you possibly can. You always come into the scene at the last possible moment.” Don’t have your hero say hello to the receptionist — cut to him getting his key. Don’t have your heroine walk into the restaurant, sit down, and get her menu — go straight to her ordering the poisoned linguine! There’s another associated tip which is: don’t have anything in your scene that isn’t necessary. If what your character says or does isn’t a) moving the plot along, b) adding to their character, c) setting up something for later – then get rid. Preferably any one thing should be doing one or two of these things.

TIP 3

Think about how your scenes fit together. Most scenes should end with what is called a “button”. Now, in some circles (particularly TV comedy), a button is always a witty line or throwaway joke to end a scene. That’s not necessarily what I mean. What I mean is something that draws you on inevitably to the next scene.

It might be a line, but it might also be an image (like this famous scene transition from 2001, A Space Odyssey). Think about what’s coming next when you end a scene, and then make sure that you close with something that will drag the reader into the next scene.

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