You’ve got your outline all worked out and you’re writing your first draft. You sit down and prepare to write the next scene. What should you be thinking about? Is there any special preparation or planning? Or do you just dive in and start imagining stuff?
I don’t believe in over-planning scenes. That risks creating wooden dialogue or characters acting to fulfill plot points. I like to keep a little spontaneity in the process. But diving right in tends to result in underdeveloped scenes that move too linearly to the story goal. So I spend a little time developing ideas freehand on a piece of paper (I like freehand because the tactile nature of pen and paper seems to spur creativity, and I like to be able to circle things, draw arrows, etc.)
When I’m developing the scene I ask myself several questions:
1. What is the purpose of this scene in the screenplay? Is it a major plot point? The introduction of a character? A story revelation? A character revelation? A scene of preparation? A scene of aftermath? Exposition? Of course it may be more than one of these – should be more than one, most often. If I can’t identify the purpose of the scene, it probably means it doesn't belong in the script.
2. How does the scene change things? In other words, how has the story progressed at the end of the scene? This is closely related to question 1. The obvious reason to identify these things is to make sure you accomplish the goal of the scene. But there’s another reason: if I know how the scene has to end, I’ll often start the scene so that it appears to be heading in another direction. This will give me the opportunity to include a twist and keep the scene from feeling predictable or perfunctory.
3. What do the characters want? The main character of the scene (not necessarily the main character of the movie) should have an urgent want to give the scene drama. But the others characters should also have their own goals for the scene. If you can put some of these goals in opposition to each other, all the better.
4. What is the character doing to get what they want? The character needs to be taking action to achieve their goal. This action could be in the form of dialogue, of course. The character could be seducing or deceiving or threatening the other characters – that’s still active. But the thing the character is doing to achieve their goal is what will drive the scene forward. (They may ultimately try multiple things to get what they want - see question 6.)
5. What stands in the way of the character achieving their goal? Often this is another character’s want (and the other character’s action to achieve that want). But if not, I will make sure there are obstacles in the environment or situation or even internally within the character.
If you know what the characters want, what they are trying to do to achieve those goals, and what stands in their way, then your characters will practically write the scene for you. But there are a couple other things I like to ask myself to get the most out of the scene:
6. When does the character change their approach? Often in good scenes the character will realize their initial approach – the thing they are doing to achieve their goal – is not working, and they will change that approach. They try harder, dig deeper, take bigger risks.
7. What could happen? Finally I just brainstorm a bunch of ideas of things that can happen in the scene. I won’t necessarily use them all. But often I’ll come up with some great idea that I wouldn’t necessarily have had if I simply wrote the scene as it came to me. (See last week's post on brainstorming.)
A note here on what I mean when I say scene: In film, a technical scene is a discrete unit of action in a single location in continuous time. If the location changes – even if the character walks from one room of a house to another – or if there’s a break in time, that’s a different technical scene. It requires a new slug line.
But from a storytelling standpoint it’s useful to think of scenes as a single unit of dramatic action – what I call a “dramatic scene." A dramatic scene may, of course, take place in a single technical scene. But sometimes in film we spread a dramatic scene over several technical scenes (or more rarely set more than one dramatic scene in a single technical scene). That means every technical scene does not have to contain an entire dramatic scene that changes the story and has a twist and so on, as long as it’s part of a dramatic scene that does.
Not every scene is a big dramatic scene, either. Sometimes we just need to drop in a short scene to establish a bit of exposition or plant something for a bigger dramatic scene. But if you go more than ten pages without a good, well-developed dramatic scene, you will lose reader/audience engagement.
So take some planning time to get the most drama from your big scenes.