With only a few days left before the advent of ScriptFrenzy 2012, it’s probably best to start thinking about all those wonderful scenes that are going to tell your story visually. The most important thing to remember is that someone is actually going to be reading it, so it’s best not to be boring. More than any other type of fiction, the screenplay is written in the author’s voice not a character’s voice. It’s time to show off your style, your sense of humor, your play on words, and your love of the English language. Don’t be fooled into thinking the narrative pieces (anything other than dialogue) should be static or factual. You don’t want it to read like an encyclopedia. The producer or agent who loved your premise and pitch enough to take a chance on reading the whole draft should not be disappointed. And like with any other form of fiction, if the first page is boring, they’re going to chuck it into the slush pile. Or worse, the rejection pile. So have fun with it!
Basically, a scene is one event in your character’s life in more or less continuous time and space. The value of the event (whether it be positive or negative) should be changed in some way with each scene. What might start out as a pleasant trip to the ice cream parlor (positive value) may turn into a robbery/bloodbath killing (negative value). Of course it doesn’t have to be this extreme. Your protagonist could be walking down a New York City street in the wind and rain and drops her briefcase. Important papers spill out, start to blow away or get stuck to the wet pavement, smearing the ink (negative value). A kind, and handsome, stranger helps her retrieve them. When he’s done, he tips his hat and continues down the street (positive value). She has no idea who he is, but she’s thankful nonetheless. Then lo and behold, that kind and handsome stranger turns up a few scenes later. Remember, nothing is random. Everything has a purpose.
So a good scene will accomplish a number of objectives:
Advance the story toward the climax. Provide information to the audience needed to follow the story. Set up the action of the next scene or imply the action to follow. Reveal character by introducing an ability that will be useful to the protagonist in achieving the external goal (humor, a good shot, etc.). Explore a theme or expand upon an idea through direct dialogue, subtext, or actions/reactions of characters. Build images that can expand upon a theme visually. Establish location or the relationship of one element to another.
The first way you can establish the location and time of each scene is in the form of a slug line. The slug line should immediately tell the reader whether the scene is taking place inside or outdoors, the exact location, and what time of day it is. It should look something like this:
Don’t get bogged down with exact time–if it’s important that the scene is taking place at sunrise, sunset, twilight, midnight, etc, you can always add that to your narrative with some great descriptions. But if it’s really not that important, leave the exact time out of it. It’s best to keep it simple when just starting.
After your slug line is a simple action description written in narrative form to set up the scene in more detail and introduce the characters in it..
“It is a millionaire’s house, big, sprawling, California style, with clipped lawns and gardens, on a hill along a now abandoned oil field which was the family’s wealth. A small coupe drives up to the door and stops, and Phillip Marlowe gets out. We just have time to establish him as he approaches the door — a husky, self-confident man, well-dressed but not flashy.” (The Big Sleep written by William Faulkner)
As you can see, the above narration has a definite hard-boiled detective, noir style, which goes perfectly with the genre of the story. If you’re writing a children’s fantasy, you’ll probably want to write in a whimsical style. It’s all up to you.
If you’re having trouble coming up with the right time to begin a scene (at the beginning, en medias res, etc), ask yourself some questions:
What is the point of the scene? What information is presented to the audience? What is the focus of the scene? Where is it heading (what will be the next scene and how will you get there)? What does the audience need to know to understand the scene? Does it need a set-up? What is the development of the scene? What events will be developed in later scenes?
A quick guideline on stats: a typical screenplay will have 40 to 60 scenes. One written page is roughly one minute of screen time. Script lengths will vary between 90 and 120 pages.
So once you’ve established your slug line and written your action description, you’ll probably have some dialogue.
Now when it comes to dialogue, every character has a reason or motive for saying what they say, and quite often it’s in opposition to what they really want to say. This is called subtext. It’s what lies beneath the words, and it’s an action. For instance, think about how many times you’ve asked someone how they are doing but could care less what the answer is. You ask out of politeness, and it’s often in passing when you don’t even stop long enough to hear the answer. The action here is “to be polite” or “to be courteous.” Now think of how many times someone has asked you how you are doing and what your answer was. Even if you’re having a bad day, you’re probably going to answer “Good,” or “Fine, thanks,” and keep walking. The action here would be “to ignore.”
So think what each scene is about, what kind of information each character is trying to obtain, and what kind of information each character is trying to hide. Think about action and reaction. Consider this bit of dialogue from Alan Ball’s American Beauty:
CAROLYN: Lester, could you make me a little later please? Because I’m not quite late enough.
Her action is “to belittle” her husband. What’s his reaction? Lester smiles sheepishly to lighten the moment and gets in the car. He is trying “to appease” his wife. How would your character act if his wife was trying to belittle him?
But really, the art of scriptwriting is trial and error. You might find you’ve written 100 scenes or maybe only 20.
Once you finished your first draft, you might want to ask yourself these questions:
Do all of my scenes have a purpose for being in the story? Do the majority of the scenes move the story forward to the climax? Are any scenes static? What can I add to give them a sense of direction? Does my scene begin at the latest point possible? Does my scene end after it’s made its point? Do my scenes have images, conflicts, emotions? Will the audience be entertained by each scene? Are they repetitive or dramatic?
You don’t have to have fancy, expensive screenwriting software like Final Draft, but it does cut back on time like figuring out when to bold, how much to indent, what needs to be capitalized. But before you go shelling out tons of money, you might want to try looking at free software like Celtx or Scrivener.
And if you find at any time you’re in need of a little more information, here’s a list of a few good screenwriting books:
Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger. Henry Holt and Company.
Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger. Samuel French Trade.
Screenwriting 101 by Neill D. Hicks. Michael Wise Productions.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. Regan Books.
The Elements of Screenwriting by Irwin R. Blacker. Longman Publishers.
The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script by David Trottier. Silman-James Press.
Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed these past four weeks and feel comfortable enough to tackle that script come April 1. Please let me know how you liked these mini lessons/exercises, and come find me at ScriptFrenzy.