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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Movie Scene Structure

There’s something directors (and actors) know that most beginning writer’s don’t; how to structure a scene. It’s bizarre but you will never find (at least I haven’t yet) anything in the screenwriting books and about this very vital part to the moviemaking process. Most of them are concerned with the structure of the overall screenplay but none that I found talk about the very simple yet incredibly important process of structuring an individual scene. I know in the top screenwriting MFA programs, USC, UCLA and NYU, directing courses are offered. I don’t know if they are required however.

It’s a very simple process I first learned when I took a stage directing course in college. It was reinforced when I picked up a film DIRECTING book a few years ago. Basically you structure a scene backwards. That is you take the very line that is spoken, or the very last action that is taken in a scene, called a beat, and then look at what immediately preceded it. That last beat was caused by the beat that preceded it.

The character said that final line because of what was said or done immediately prior to it.

For Example: Villain yells “See you in Hell!”

What happened just before he said that? He pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and hugged it to his body.

And that action was came about because of what happened immediately prior it.

Why did the villain pull a pin out of the hand grenade? The hero beat him up. The hero, having just kicked his butt tells him he’s going to rot in jail.

And so on and so forth until you have an unbroken chain of cause and effect going all the way back to the beginning of the scene.

A comes from B which comes from C which comes from D.

That is how you structure a scene. That is what actors talk about when they discuss the “spine” of a scene. You ever wonder how a director comes up with a shot list? He goes to the scene structure and makes sure every beat has its own shot. It is absolutely vital to having a coherent and shoot-able movie script yet it’s almost never covered in screenwriting seminars, books, or anything that floundering beginners cling to. This is why dialogue in real but not really real. Real dialogue has tangents that go no where. There are delayed reactions. You can’t have any of that in dramatic writing. It’s all an unbroken chain. Any tangents have to weave back to the central point. People just don’t suddenly remember, something has to happen or be said to jog their memory. It’s probably the reason why so first time writers get replaced soon after making a sale. Once a director gets attached the first thing he does is start breaking down scenes to get his shot list. If the writer hasn’t got a clear line of cause and effect in his scenes, they have to be rewritten.

I shouldn’t say that Nobody in the screenwriting world talks about this. Robert McKee makes it central to his seminars and book. But I think goes a little overboard. According to McKee the secret is constant outlining and that no scene can be saved by “rearranging dialogue.” That’s obviously wrong. And his instance that every new beat be the total opposite of what came before it tends towards histrionics instead of drama. It is possible to fix a scene that is loose and all over the place. Just decide what element is really vital for the story and make that the point of the scene. Then go back and make sure you’ve got a good cause and effect chain stretching from the beginning of the scene to the end.

Every scene is like a chess game. You know where you want to be at the end, it’s just a question of how you’re going to get there.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post.

    As you mentioned, writing scenes is an aspect of screenwriting that is often neglected in screenwriting books and courses - or reduced to a simplistic extension of an overall abstract plot structure.

    Working backwards from a scene-ending story beat is simple, easy to remember and something that I think many new screenwriters would find useful for focusing scenes on a progression toward a main story beat in each scene.

    I agree that books on directing can be very useful for screenwriters. I think Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares is also a good book for screenwriters.


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