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.