Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The "SCENE": What it is, What it actually does

Many beginning writers are afflicted with a chronic condition known as “scene-itis.” Years of impassively viewing movies have led them to mistakenly believe that a film is nothing more than a collection on scenes. This misbelief is often compounded once they get their first look at a shooting script, with each of its scenes chopped-up and cut off by INT.'s and EXT.'s and then brought to a close by a CUT TO: at the end. Writers stricken with scene-itis come to believe that the scene is the basic unit of the cinematic story, that scenes are self-contained, and all one has to do to create a great screenplay is to string a collection of great scenes end to end in a somewhat related fashion. The scripts created by these writers often do have great scenes, but the story itself doesn't hold together one bit. This is all because these writers have failed to see the forest because of all of the trees. A cinematic story comes not from a collection of scenes, but rather from a firmly established Story Spine and the actions the characters are willing to take to achieve the goals contains within that Spine. The scenes themselves are just the physical times and places where these actions are performed.

The idea of writing a screenplay in scenes comes far more from pragmatic concerns than creative ones. Scenes originated in their archaic form in the theater, where the opening and closing of the curtain was necessary for the stage crew to change the location and lighting, or to indicate the passage of time. Therefore, the limitations of the stage demanded that the story be separated into clearly defined chunks of action. Modern editing eliminated the curtain as a story device, however the notion of writing in sectioned-off scenes continued for the sake of the complex procedures of film production. For the sake of efficiency, movies are shot out of sequence, and the necessity to keep track of what part of the script should be shot when and where created the use for “sluglines.” The writer him or herself has no real need for the INT/EXT. LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT gobble-de-gook that junks of the top of every scene. The slugline is only there so that production staff can easily break a script down so the production may be scheduled in the most logical and efficient manner. But, if a writer would ignore these artificial barriers that bookend every one of a script's scenes and look at the cinematic story as a whole, the writer will see that the story is not merely a series of self-contained segments laid end-to-end like bricks, but is rather one continuous flowing line of action that starts in the very beginning, and continues its development unbroken all the way to the story's end, moving like a river from its source to the sea with no barriers in between. The “start” and “stop” of a scene is merely an illusion. People use terms such as story “line”, or story “thread” to refer to the fact that the scene itself is just a small section of a constantly developing current that began long before the scene's start and continues long after the scene is over.

To create a story that achieves this constant flow, a writer must always remember this one simple rule: A story must ALWAYS be MOVING FORWARD. By moving forward, I mean it must always be developing, growing, evolving. And in order to do this, every scene which the writer creates must be done so in order to create some sort of CHANGE in the story situation. The situation the characters find themselves in must be somehow different at the end of the scene than it was in the beginning. Their world has been altered, whether this change be big or small, for better or for worse. If a scene does not alter the situation in any significant way, it does not belong in the story. Nothing happens. The scene keeps the story stagnant, damming the flow of the narrative river, and accomplishes nothing but to waste time and slow things down.

The story-altering change that occurs in every scenes is known as the scene's FUNCTION. The function is the reason why the scene exists. It is why the scene is in the story. The function is what the writer needs to get out of their scene in order to advance the story and move the characters on to the next scene. In essence, the function creates the next scene. The change that occurs in one scene sets up the actions that need to be performed by the characters in the following scene, in a cause-and-effect manner. To put it as simply as possible, this is all a scene really does. Its task is to create a moment of change that forces the characters to move forward to the story's next step, pushing the story closer to its eventual completion.

But how does a screenwriter do this? How can he or she make the scene do what it has to do to serve the story without it seeming contriving and artificial? The writer can just “make it happen,” have the characters go straight after what need to get done, or have events conveniently fall into their laps so the scene can move on. But the audience will not accept this.

Here lies a paradox of our artform. The fact is, storytelling is the art of creating dramatic contrivances. Everything in a movie's world is phoney and manipulated. Screenwriting is the theory of Intelligent Design in miniature form. You are a storyteller-god. You created your entire story world and the people within it. The people do what they do because you make them do so. Things happen because you are purposely pulling the strings. You, the story-teller god have every person's fates mapped out before hand, and you create the seemingly random events that get them there. Of course, the audience understands before going into the theater that the story's world will be artificial and contrived, but they do not want to believe this! And they certainly do not want to see it. Movies are meant to create the illusion of reality, and audience wants to hold on to the illusion. And, they will not believe in your Great and Powerful Oz if they can see you hiding behind the curtain.

The only way to make your scenes achieve their function without seeming contrived is through action that is logical- based on the wants and needs of the characters within the scene, and inevitable- based on what must come from the characters' pursuit of these wants and needs. (Or as Aristotle would put it, the action must be “necessary and probable.”) In short, the scene accomplishes what it needs to do indirectly through the actions of the characters within it.

If the writer has bothered to create characters with well thought-out character spines, this means that every character has an overall Story Goal they wish to achieve. To achieve their large, overall goal they must take a series of smaller actions. This means that in every scene, the character will have his or her own scene goal, a smaller goal they wish to accomplish within the individual scene that is somehow related to their overall goal. If they achieve this smaller scene goal, it will mean that they are one step closer to their main Story Goal.

However, different characters have different goals. This means that characters want contradictory, if not completely opposite things. This creates conflict within the scene. Also at play within a scene can be forces outside of the control of the characters: the pouring rain, the unexpected explosion of a roadside bomb, the intrusion of a third character. It is through these three conflicting elements; the scene goal of Character A, the scene goal of Character B, and any forces outside their control, that the writer creates the action within the scene that will in the end accomplish the scene's function, the change the moves the story forward. Sometimes the change occurs by one character winning the scene's conflict and getting exactly what he or she wants. Character A defeats Character B and moves the story forward by claiming his or her goal. However, more often or not the outcome of the scene is an unforeseen third option that comes as a result of the conflict between these characters. Let's say we have a scene where Character A confronts Character B. Character A's scene goal is to force some sort of vital information out of Character B. Character B's scene goal is to keep the information a secret. The two come into conflict. As a result, a scuffle breaks out. Character B pulls out a pistol and shoots Character A. The shooting is the CHANGE that advances the story (the scene's function). Character A is now dead. The story situation has been irrevocably altered. Now, neither character expected this is happen at the top of the scene. Neither character wanted this to happen. Nevertheless, the moment of change happened as a result of their conflict. The shooting is the scene's function. The character's scene goals and the conflict caused by them were merely the means by which this moment of change became necessary and probable.

Let's look at a few simple scenes from the beginning of Star Wars to illustrate how characters' scenes goals work to bring about the change necessary to move the story forward- not through direct achievement, but through indirect consequence:

C3P0 and R2D2 are two droids owned by the Rebel Alliance who have become stranded on the desert planet of Tatooine. R2 is secretly carrying vital military information. They become captured by Jawas, a band of nomadic merchant creatures. In our first scene, Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen meets with the Jawas to purchase some droids to work on his farm. Owen's scene goal is to get some quality droids at a fair price. He selects C3P0 as one of his purchases. C3P0 does not wish to be separated from his companion R2D2. So, C3P0's scene goal is to convince Luke to get his uncle to buy R2 as well. Although both characters achieve their individual goals in this scene, the important change that advances the story comes about only as an indirect consequence of those goals: both rebel droids are now the property of the Skywalker family. Owen and Luke did not know these are rebel droids, nor are they trying to protect them, however, their actions create this indirect consequence.

In the following scene, Luke is tasked with cleaning the new droids. Luke has other plans, so his scene goal is to finish this job as quick as possible. In his haste, Luke inadvertently triggers R2 to play back part of a message recorded by Princess Leia for an Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke never intended to do this. It was in indirect consequence. However, it achieves the scene's function: to get Luke to want to find Obi-Wan. The scene ends with Luke being called to dinner.

At dinner, Luke tries to convince his uncle and aunt to allow him to leave home and join the rebellion. Uncle Owen flat out refuses. Though Luke fails to reach his scene goal, the scene's function is still achieved through indirect consequence: Luke becomes even more motivated to leave home. Also, as part of Owen's argument against Luke leaving home, he actually helps the scene's function when he mentions that Obi-Wan knew the father Luke never met. This has the indirect result of giving Luke a second reason to seek out Obi-Wan Kenobi.


In a screenplay, the purpose of an individual scene is to serve the Story Spine by creating an event that moves the story forward down its path of action, towards the story's climax and the Spine's resolution.

How this works:

Characters enter a certain time and place with certain desires. They go after these desires using necessary and probably action. This causes them to come into conflict with others who have contradictory desires. Through the heat of this conflict, and CHANGE occurs that alters the story's situation. This is what happens in a scene.

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