Sunday, November 10, 2013

Screenwriting Down to the Atoms excerpt: The Structure of a Scene

"Enough of your borax, Poindexter! We need action!"
- Police Chief Wiggum

Two weeks ago, I posted an excerpt from Chapter 3 of my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, asking the misleadingly simple question "How does one TELL a Story?" But lest Atoms be thought of as a work of pure theory and no practice, I follow it up this week with some boots-on-the-ground, pencil-to-paper craft, excerpted from Chapter 9, "Scene Construction." To be specific, the selection explains the structure of scenes. Not so much the structure of a scene in relation to its sequence, but the structure within the scene.


Remember how cinematic stories are best served when executed in a three-part structure. Great scenes share this trait. A well-structured scene also follows a three-part form with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Here is how it works. Characters enter a scene with certain scene goals in mind. These goals inevitably collide with those of others, inciting the scene’s conflict (providing the scene’s “inciting moment,” if you will). This begins the scene’s “first act” in which the characters pursue their respective goals in the face of this conflict. But, before long, something occurs to alter the situation. This moment is called a SCENE BEAT. Like a tiny turning point, scene beats turn the course of the scene’s conflict in a new direction. However, unlike a regular turning point, each characters’ scene goal remains the same. Instead, the scene beat merely provides an event that alters how those goals are pursued. While the context of the conflict remains the same, the characters’ method of approach to the conflict has changed.

This begins the scene’s “second act.” The characters continue to chase their individual goals, but now do so in reaction to the development caused by the first scene beat. Eventually, the conflict reaches a head, leading to a second scene beat. This second beat is more influential than the first. While the first beat merely alters the manner of the conflict, the second beat provides a moment that finally tips the scales in favor of one side or the other. This decisive event leads into the scene’s “third act,” in which the scene conflict is carried to a resolution, and the scene reaches its moment of change. 

When it comes to three-part scene structure, there are few better films for study than Joel & Ethan Cohen’s Fargo. Rarely a scene goes by in this Academy Award-winning screenplay that does not turn on two strong, identifiable beats. Let us take a look at its opening scene to demonstrate.

Jerry Lundegaard, the story’s morally bankrupt anti-hero, arrives at a bar to meet two hired goons, Carl and Gaear. Jerry’s scene goal is to finalize a scheme where Carl and Gaear will kidnap Jerry’s wife Jean in order to scam ransom money from his father-in-law. However, there is a hiccup in the plan. The scene hits its first beat when Carl announces that he and Gaear are not yet on board. They do not yet understand the plan. In fact, they do not think it makes any sense at all. Jerry must now alter his actions in order to reach his scene goal. He sits down and tries to convince the pair that the plan will work. Eventually, Carl grows tired of arguing and gives in. This action provides a second scene beat that tips the scales in Jerry’s favor. Carl and Gaear accept the job, creating the moment of change.

You may notice that the “third act” of this scene (everything after Carl gives in) last for only a few seconds. This is not unusual. Unlike the three acts of the main story structure, scene acts have no predetermined length or ratio of time that must pass between beats. A scene act can last for any amount of time, from a few seconds to several minutes. The only requirement is that there must be at least some time separating the scene’s major structural moments. The first scene beat cannot be immediately followed by the second, nor should the second scene beat be immediately followed by the scene’s end. Without time separating these events, the scene will not appear to have all three acts. The absolute minimum is to follow each beat with a pause lasting a few seconds so the characters (and the audience) can momentarily digest how the situation has changed. Though slight, this pause will constitute one of the scene’s acts.

Scene beats typically occur by one, or a combination of, the following events:

1. A Change in Strategy
A change in strategy brings variety to a scene’s conflict. Scenes become monotonous when characters stick to the same behavior from beginning to end. If a certain approach meets difficulty, it is only natural for a character to try something new. This is something we all do in real life. If we have a problem with a person, our first impulse might be to yell. However, this strategy may not work. So, we try something else. We stop yelling and try to reason with the person, or beg, or appeal to emotion. If that does not work either, we may change strategy yet again. 

A change in strategy is most useful whenever the scene conflict reaches a stalemate – that is, the conflict becomes locked into a situation where neither side can make any more progress through their current methods. Jerry and Carl reach a stalemate at the end of their second scene act. Both can continue to argue, but it would do neither of them any more good. So, Carl changes strategy. Rather than continue to question Jerry’s plan, he shrugs his shoulders and accepts him for his word.

2. A Shift in Power
Every conflict is a battle, and in battle one side is always winning and the other losing. If the tug-of-war is not moving one way or the other, the conflict seems to stand still.

A shift in power occurs when an action reverses which side holds the upper hand. This keeps the outcome unpredictable, and thus more dramatic. Though useful in any conflict, shifts in power become especially important in chases or fights. First the hero is winning the battle, then favor suddenly switches to the villain’s side. Another shift may then occur, once again giving the hero the upper hand. This back and forth keeps the audience on the edge of their seats since they have no idea how the conflict will turn out.

3. A Revelation of New Information
New information can create a scene beat when that information forces characters to reconsider how they must pursue their scene goal. The reveal could be something previously unknown to the character, something unknown to the audience, or most commonly, both. The characters must then pause, reevaluate the situation, and then choose the best way to continue.

4. A Situation-Changing Action
This beat works the same as a revelation of information, only it is the result of physical action. If Character A pulls a gun on Character B, this action changes the landscape of the conflict. Both sides must reevaluate the best way to continue the pursuit of their goals. Likewise, if a character bursts into tears, if someone trips and falls, if a gust of wind blows a note from a character’s hand, these actions can all turn a scene by forcing characters to alter their behavior.

5. An Addition or Subtraction
A beat can also occur when someone or something enters or exits the scene, as long as it significantly alters the situation. The hero’s ally may come to the rescue, or conversely, leave the hero to fend for him or herself. A character may discover an important object, or throw a key item out the window. Such changes, be they large or small, can dramatically impact the conflict and turn the tide of battle.

6. An Outside Interruption
Sometimes a conflict can turn on something as simple as a momentary distraction. Someone enters the room, the phone rings, a gunshot is heard... An interruption gives characters an opportunity to pause, rethink their strategy, and restart the conflict anew. This can be useful to break a stalemate. It is even more useful should a storyteller wish to leave a conflict unresolved so it may be continued at a later time. Early in Die Hard, John and Holly’s marital argument gets shelved when a coworker interrupts at the second beat with news from outside. This forces the scene to an end with its conflict up in the air so it may linger for the rest of the film.

To see these scene beats in action, let us return to Fargo with a selection of scenes from the late first act. (If you have not yet viewed Fargo, I suggest you become familiar with it before reading on.)

 Scenes 1 & 2
  1. Jerry meets with his father-in-law Wade, planning to trick him out of a large loan under the guise of a phony investment deal. The scene meets its first beat when Wade asks Jerry what kind of finder’s fee he wants for bringing him this deal (a reveal of information). It turns out Wade misunderstands Jerry’s intentions, and wants to invest in the deal himself. Jerry then tries to persuade Wade to loan him the money directly. Wade refuses. The argument reaches a stalemate, causing Wade to put his foot down (a change in strategy). This seals the conflict. Jerry has no choice but to back down. Winner of the conflict: Wade.

  2. A frustrated Jerry returns to his car to find the windshield covered in ice (the inciting moment). The scene’s conflict is Jerry vs. the ice. Though short, this scene still contains three acts. In the first, Jerry attempts to clear his windshield with an icescraper. However, frustration builds and Jerry throws the scraper in a fit of anger (a change in strategy). This new strategy, of course, does not help. So, Jerry must pick up the scraper and start again (another change in strategy). Winner: the ice.

     Scenes 3, 4 & 5

  3. Jerry’s wife Jean watches television at home. She then sees Carl approach her back door wearing a ski mask (the inciting moment). At first, Jean’s only reaction is curiosity. Then, Carl smashes the glass (a situation-changing action). Jean runs. Gaear grabs her. Jean bites Gaear’s hand (a shift in power), allowing her to flee upstairs. Winner: Jean.

  4. Jean locks herself in the bathroom and tries to use the phone. But, the phone is yanked from her grasp (a shift in power). Because of this, Jean must search for a new plan. Carl and Gaear bust open the door, only to find what seems to be an empty room (reveal of information). Assuming Jean escaped through the window, Carl takes off after her. Winner: Jean (for the moment).

  5. Gaear stays in the bathroom. He hears a noise (inciting moment). Jean jumps from her hiding place behind the shower curtain (a combination of action/revelation of information). She runs and falls down the stairs (another situation-changing action). Jean is knocked unconscious, allowing the goons to capture her. Winners: Carl & Gaear. (Though there is no break in time or location between this scene and the previous, there is a slight pause in action to indicate a new scene action has begun. More on this will be explained in the following section.) 
  6. Carl & Gaear drive down a deserted highway with Jean tied up in the back. Suddenly, a state trooper appears in their rearview and signals for them to pull over (inciting moment). Carl & Gaear’s goal: get rid of the trooper. Carl’s first strategy is to bribe the trooper. However, this does not work. The trooper then hears Jean whimper (an action), forcing Gaear to shoot him in the head, (a change in strategy). In doing so, Gaear resolves the scene’s conflict. Winner: Carl & Gaear.

  7. With the trooper dead, Carl and Gaear have a new goal: hide the body before it can be seen. However, a pair of headlights appear in the distance (the inciting moment). As the car passes, its occupants see the dead trooper (a shift in power) and speed away (an action). This beat forces Gaear to chase after them. Winner: the witnesses.

  8. The chase. Gaear’s goal: catch the witnesses. However, the taillights of the witnesses’ car suddenly disappear (a subtraction). Gaear fears he has lost them, until he sees the car overturned in a ditch (reveal of new information). Gaear stops the car. Winner: Gaear.

  9. Gaear exits his car. His goal: kill the witnesses. The male witness climbs from the overturned car and runs (an action). Gaear takes aim and shoots him (another action). With no more conflict opposing Gaear, he kills the helpless second witness and ends the scene. Winner: Gaear.
You may notice some scenes contain a short setup before an inciting moment, while others begin with the conflict already engaged. Some scenes do not require their inciting moment to be shown since the conflict has already been set up by the preceding moment of change. Storytellers should opt for this approach whenever possible, since it provides more momentum and begins the scene with dramatic tension already underway.

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