11-Step Guide to Writing a Scene by John August's
One of the thing I admire most about Jane Espenson’s blog is that she talks very directly about the words on the page, giving names to techniques I use but never really think about. The two-percenter, for example.
So one of my goals for 2007 is to get a little more granular in my advice-giving, and talk less about Screenwriting and more about screenwriting — in particular, scene writing.
Spend a few years as a screenwriter, and writing a scene becomes an almost unconscious process. It’s like driving a car. Most of us don’t think about the ignition and the pedals and the turn signals — but we used to, back when we were learning. It used to flummox the hell out of us. Every intersection was unbelievably stressful, with worries of stalling the car and/or killing everyone on board.
It’s the same with writing a scene. The first few are brutal and clumsy. But once you’ve written (and rewritten) say, 500 scenes, the individual steps sort of vanish. But they’re still there, under the surface. It’s just that your instinct is making a lot of the decisions your conscious brain used to handle.
So here’s my attempt to introspect and describe what I’m doing that I’m not even aware I’m doing. Here’s How to Write a Scene.
1. Ask: What needs to happen in this scene?
Many screenwriting books will tell you to focus on what the characters want. This is wrong. The characters are not responsible for the story. You are. If characters were allowed to control their scenes, most characters would chose to avoid conflict, and movies would be crushingly boring.
The question is not, “What could happen?” or “What should happen?” It is only, “What needs to happen?” If you wrote an outline, this is the time to look at it. If you didn’t, just come up one or two sentences that explain what absolutely must happen in the scene.
2. Ask: What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?
Imagine the projectionist screwed up and accidentally lopped off this scene. Would the movie still make sense? If the answer is “yes,” then you don’t really need the scene, and shouldn’t bother writing it.
But it’s so dramatic! you say. But it’s so funny!
Tough. Put that drama or that comedy into scenes that are crucial to the movie. One thing you learn after a few produced movies is that anything that can be cut will be cut, so put your best material into moments that will absolutely be there when it’s done.
3. Ask: Who needs to be in the scene?
Scripts are often clogged with characters who have no business being there. But because words are small, it’s easy to overlook that “Haversmith” hasn’t said or done anything for five pages. And sadly, sometimes that’s not realized until after filming.Read the full article on JohnAugust.com
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