Theoretical and practical tips
The greatest trick a screenwriter can ever pull is convincing the audience he doesn’t exist.
The main reason why writing for film and TV or theater is difficult is because while writing, you have to have both your creative and analytical mind working at the same time and for the majority of us, that is not always easy. Practically that means that you have to think about your structure while also creating scenes within that structure at the same time. You have to know where all of your scenes stand in the whole kaleidoscope of scenes while diving deep into just one scene at the time as if nothing else exists.
You have to have a simultaneous outside overview of your story, while also being inside the story as if you don’t know what will happen next – because your characters don’t know. And ‘inside’ means not just as an observer, but as an emotional participant – you have to feel what your characters feel, to think what your characters think, to love or fear what they love or fear… You have to have in mind what they are about to say and even feel the impulse in your body about what they are about to do.
This technique or approach of being close to a character whose journey is bigger and longer than just in one scene, Robert McKee calls ‘writing it from the inside out.’
We have spoken a lot about the structure, but let’s speak now about the architecture of the single scene. What do you have to know while creating it?
The list of 15 things you have to know in order to create a scene:
1. What is the scene all about, the subject?
Theme… (if you can give it a title, that can help a lot). When you know the theme of your film, scenes can explore different aspects of that theme. If the main theme is forgiveness vs. standing up for oneself, for example: then your scenes might be about accusation or acceptance, or anything that can shed some light on the main theme.
2. Who are the characters that play out the main conflict?
THE FIRST MOST IMPORTANT THING TO KNOW:
3. What is the main conflict of the scene?
What do your characters want and why can’t they have it?
What can they have instead? (Insights, truths – emotional frustration or understanding).
Also, the conflict doesn’t have to be a literal fight; it is even more interesting if a scene deals with two opposing energies or two worlds that don’t go well together, like in the train scene in Some like it hot. Those two men who are highly interested in women (Joe and Jerry) and pretend to be women (Josephine and Daphne) enter the night train full of women who are not pretending at all. The comedy is suggesting that for them, the situation is pure heaven because everything they’ve always wanted is there: women behaving freely, but at the same time it is hell because they are not free and while they are pretending, they can’t have any of them.
4. What is the EVENT that causes a change in the scene?
What is the emotional standpoint at the beginning of the scene (what characters enter the scene with and expect to get – ‘an opening value’) vs. what actually happens, the final emotional standpoint that we leave the scene with (‘closing value’). McKee says this is the difference between objective and subjective truth at any moment of the story. And this difference, or change in reversal, creates an idea of an event in the perception of the main character but also in the perception of the audience.
This represents a moment when you can say, ‘After that – nothing was the same anymore.’
It could be a meeting with someone that changes a person from hopeless to hopeful, or the hero can learn something he didn’t know before. In dramaturgy, to build a scene, you can also use events that are not so fateful: the character can come to a train station with the intention of catching a train, but when he misses it, his emotional standpoint is suddenly transformed into disappointment. A telephone call can change everything, a look or a kiss, but even a single word can change a lot.
THE SECOND MOST IMPORTANT DRAMATURGICAL ELEMENT OF A SCENE IS THE CHANGE OF THIS EMOTIONAL STANDPOINT for better or for worse.
The opening value should never be the same as the closing value of the scene. This is exactly what is emotionally marking the CHANGE that is essential for the scene to be a scene.
To paraphrase Robert McKee, *Emotional standpoints are the universal qualities of human experience that shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive from one moment to the next.
Why is this important?
Because even though we are talking about a single scene, scenes exist only in the context of the larger organism that we call a film. And for a film to be an emotional experience, we have to create an emotional wave within it, a roller-coaster that changes values all the time, because the audience is pulled into the story precisely by being pulled into this vulnerable space in between two values.
This space is the space of uncertainty, where everything is possible and where the audience plant their emotions. One moment they are hopeful, the next they are fearful – and before they know it, they are invested and care for the hero and his wellbeing. We call this “identification,” which is the main reason we watch films. That’s why it is very important to create a scene that moves in between positive and negative emotional standpoints. A scene should essentially move between hope or love (+) and fear (-), which are two basic human emotions and once you’ve created the scene you should link it to a differentially charged scene. You must create a huge two-hour wave, that is your film. Have in mind that scenes are batteries that charge off each other.
SCENE ONE: from – to +
SCENE TWO: from + to -
SCENE THREE: from - to +
‘I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in a continuous sequence.’ Ingmar Bergman
5. FRACTAL – one type of emotional exchange between characters or between a character and the world.
A scene may consist of several fractals. What are all needed fractals, all different emotional exchanges between characters, and how do they change from one to another – so that they can, ultimately bring the main change? Read about fractals here.
6. Which point of view are you following?
Are you putting yourself in the shoes of your main character and experiencing everything as he or she would experience in real-time? Or is your scene being observed from an objective point of view?
7. Is the scene more dynamic or more atmospheric?
8. Is it long or short?
Rhythmically, this is very important again in comparison with other scenes. After a couple of fast scenes, where a lot of things happen, you may want to slow down and give an audience a break, but more importantly, maybe your character needs some time to reflect upon what has just happened, or decide what his/her next move is.
9. Is the scene more built on visual experience and action or more on dialogue?
How can you use emotional action whenever possible, and leave the audience to make their own conclusions about why the characters do or say what they do or say, without letting the characters explaining themselves – because in life, we don’t explain ourselves in the middle of an experience, only after we can have had time to reflect on what happened.
Decide when the scene needs action and when it needs dialogue. If something can be shown without dialogue, then don’t use dialogue. Use emotional situations, character’s expressions, and their behavior to show what they think or feel. Visual storytelling speaks on many different layers to the audience and can be much stronger than dialogue.
Also, don’t be afraid of dialogue. Some emotional truths just can’t be revealed differently.
Think of dialogue as action as well. What do the characters want to achieve with what they say? Understand the feeling behind their words. Don’t let them speak just because.
If someone is angry, it might be better if the character does something with that feeling rather than telling someone about it. Give emotion time to unfold in front of us. If the character says: “I am angry,” you just missed a great opportunity to reveal how he is angry and what he is going to do with it. Or, when we know that someone is sad and the situation requires him to be happy, that can be interesting as well.
It is important to build some layers with the elements you have as a storyteller. Always create space between those layers where the audience can project themselves.
10. What information does a scene have to deliver, both emotionally and plot-wise?
11. What are the characters actually doing and saying – and what are they actually feeling and meaning?
What does the scene bring in terms of the subtext? And how can you build the meaning of the subtext in the previous scenes?
12. Where to start and where to end your scene?
Enter close to conflict and once you made your point exit the scene.
Also, decide where to start it having in mind the end of the previous scene and where to end it having in mind the start of the next one.
What do you plan to remain unseen between two scenes can sometimes say even more than your actual scene.
13. Is the scene a turning point or not?
If it is a turning point, what is it that you promised you will explain or deliver in it? (How do you link your pay-offs with your set-ups?) In Fishtank, Mia first sees a tattoo on Connor’s hand (his daughter’s name), then she hears him speaking on the phone with someone, he says it was his mom, then when he moves in with them, he presents it like he had a fight with his mom… and then finally after three or four little riddles, Mia discovers that Connor actually has a wife and daughter – not a mom.
14. Surprise vs. suspense
What is the secret, who knows it and who doesn’t (including the audience) and when is the right timing to reveal it?
One of the most demanding dramaturgical rules is precisely this one because it is once again directly linked with an engaged audience. Why? If the hero is in danger, for example, it is vital that he doesn’t know about it – while the audience does. Hitchcock said that a ticking bomb under a table is only interesting if we are afraid for the hero and want to somehow inform him of it. Even if we have two people talking about something totally uninteresting, because they don’t know what is coming, and we do, their dialogue under the pressure becomes emotionally very interesting for the audience. Usually, suspense works much better in films than surprise.
Surprises work well at the turning points where we presume that the hero is going to choose something, but he chooses something else instead. It also works well at the end as a revelation or a twist – a reversal of fate. Usually, it is perceived that to build suspense, we need a series of events, while to build surprise, we just need one event. But that’s not really true, it just appears that way. It is never good if the surprise is a ‘deus ex machina’ – a good surprise is also well prepared, precisely by creating events that draw the audience’s attention somewhere else: like in Seven (the box scene) or in The Usual Suspects (Keyser Soze). The famous sentence from that film can help us understand dramaturgy behind real surprises that work well: “The greatest trick the devil (screenwriter) ever pulled was convincing the world (audience) he doesn’t exist.”
15. Does the scene bring something new in terms of the characters, plot or atmosphere?
If two scenes are basically using the same information, even if they are different scenes, you might need to decide to keep just one.
At the end of the day, great storytelling comes down to the great, memorable scenes – so let’s see what can we say about some of them.
Recently I saw a film Beanpole (2019) by Kantemir Balagov. I liked the film very much, but the more I was thinking about it, the more I had one single scene in mind. The film takes place in Leningrad after the devastation of the Second World War, which affected the city and those who survived quite heavily.
This scene is the inciting incident scene with the main character first playing with her son (at least we think it is her son at that point), and while the audience doesn’t dream in their worst nightmares that she can do him any harm, she suffocates him – and during the scene, we realize that she is actually having a seizure. So, from playfulness and innocence to pure horror, we get the worst possible outcome. A cute little boy is dead.
And now we watch the movie but we can never get rid of that tone of the heavy emotions that the screenwriter/director laid on us. I really couldn’t breathe. And every other scene that we watch after that, we watch through the emotional lenses of this one.
Not long ago I also saw Fire will come (2019) by Oliver Laxe, and there is also one scene that stays with the audience for some time, I guess. The film establishes nature as alive and breathing and in the last act turning point, the whole village catches on fire, everything happens without absolutely any dialogue.
Everyone tries to help. They are exhausted and unsuccessful. People watch in despair as the strong flames engulf their houses. After the whole night, morning comes and rays of sunlight break through the smoke. Humans vs. nature, nature vs. something even bigger. The cycles of life and death are inevitable. An unexpected event brings new insights.
Why do we remember certain scenes like:
When Neo has to pick between the blue or the red pill in Matrix?
Or the scene in the restaurant in When Harry Met Sally.
Or the flying bag in American Beauty?
Or the first fight scene in Fight Club?
Or the levitating scene in Mirror?
Or the Russian roulette scene from Deer hunter?
Or the dialogue between father and son from Call me by your name?
Or the scene from the Dead Poet’s Society when everyone stands up on their desks to salute their professor while he is leaving, better known as the ‘Oh, captain my captain’ scene.
Or the birds who are gathering one by one behind Melanie in front of the school, while kids in the school are singing and we hear the song (music) for the first time in The Birds?
Or the Honey Bunny robbery scene from Pulp Fiction?
Or the shower scene in Psycho?
Or ‘it’s beyond my control’ scene from Dangerous Liaisons.
Or another famous scene with the same actress, Glen Close, the ‘dead and boiled rabbit’ scene from Fatal Attraction?
Or the scene between Clarice and Hannibal about her lambs screaming in The Silence of the Lambs?
Or ‘my sister, my daughter’ scene from Chinatown?
Or the ritual scene from Eyes Wide Shut?
Or the beginning of No Country for Old Men?
Or the last scene in Some Like it Hot?
Great scenes capture the essence of human nature, they explore the human condition and human behavior to the extreme, characters risk so much, emotionally, that they manage to pull the audience into the familiar but still frightening territory. In the presence of truth, the audience ask themselves one of the greatest questions of all: what would I do if I were in the same situation?
Great scenes visually capture archetypes that awaken our imagination and leave the space for us or even invite us to follow the ‘thread’ or ‘white rabbit.’ They awaken Alice in all of us, and we are ready to let ourselves fall into the ‘magic hole.’
They shape our desires and our reality and deliver the most unexpected truths we never really wanted to know.
They inspire, they provoke, they dare us, they frighten us, and ultimately, they remind us that we can be bad, but we are essentially good, that we are not weak, that we are gentle, that we are all human and sometimes even super-human.
Great scenes are greater than life –and that alone tells us that life is always greater than we dare to think.