Clarification on point one

In my previous post on How to write a scene, I wrote that the first question a screenwriter should ask is, “What needs to happen in this scene?” Not only that…

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.

As I typed this, I anticipated a sea of hands shooting into the air, a chorus of But! But! Buts! So I added a lengthy disclaimer in which I wrote about terms like “character driven” and “character motivation.” But then I decided to cut it, just to get the reaction:

John, are you fucking retarded? A character must act his character not what’s most convenient for you. — Chris

Now that Chris has lectured the professional screenwriter on the craft, we can take a look at why I stand by my point.

We’ve all seen dull, mechanical movies where the characters are pretty much spectators. The story is driven by external events, without any real engagement or decision-making by the so-called hero. Sure, at times they may discover information or get in a gunfight, but they’re basically zombies. Plot-bots.

This is a fundamental structural issue, not a scene problem. From the conceptual stage, the characters were placed in the wrong seat of the car. They’re in the passenger seat, staring out the window, when they should be behind the wheel. The best scene-work in the world isn’t going to solve this problem.

Remember: This is a tutorial about how to write one scene. The first question is, “What needs to happen in this scene?” Or, to rephrase it, “What do I need to show the audience?” Yes, the character should be responsible for his or her actions and decisions inside the movie, but you, the writer, are responsible for deciding which moments the audience gets to see.

Think of yourself as a documentary editor. You have hundreds of hours of footage. Which bits are you going to use to tell your story?

In your movie–an inspiring drama set against the majestic backdrop of Alaska–the hero may want to win the igloo-building championship to prove his dead architect father’s theories correct and reconnect with his Inuit half-brother. But in this particular scene, what needs to happen is that the judges rule that ice blocks must be quadrilateral, thus thwarting the hero’s geodesic ambitions.

Clear? Great. Now let’s talk about situations when “what a character wants” does become scene-specific.

Actors and directors often talk of “character motivation,” using phrases like, “What’s the character’s motivation in this scene?” That’s a valid if somewhat dispiriting question, particularly on the set; either they’ve shown up without doing their homework, or the script really is that confusing. You may find yourself explaining that the hero is trying to rescue his son from the avalanche because he loves him.

If you re-read my how-to, at no point was I advising forcing your characters to act against their natures. But I was telling you to take control. My post was about writing a single scene, and a single meandering scene can derail a script. The argument that, “But my hero really wanted to watch TV for a couple of hours!” won’t win you accolades for your dedication to the craft.


MTV News on The Nines

As we get closer to Sundance, I promise not to besiege you with blurbs about The Movie–that’s what the other site is for. But here’s one. From MTV’s “Ten Most Anticipated” list:

6. “The Nines”
Ryan Reynolds and Hope Davis star in this “Magnolia”-like drama, praised by some Hollywood insiders as the best script to make the rounds in years. All indications are that the less an audience knows, the better, so all we’ll say is the plot revolves around a video-game designer, a down-and-out actor and a TV maven whose lives become eerily intertwined.

Why we’re intrigued: Reynolds could be up for a big year, with “Smokin’ Aces” establishing him as a leading man and “Nines” arriving to display his dramatic chops. After memorable work in so many comedies, it’ll be interesting to see if he can pull off a Bill Murray-like transformation.

Why we’re afraid: The title is instantly forgettable, and way too easily confused with “The Ten.”

Your opinions? Rather than double up comments, discuss away in the Forum1.

  1. Forum no longer active

How to write a scene

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.1 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.2 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.3

4. Ask: Where could the scene take place?

The most obvious setting for a scene is generally the least interesting, so don’t be too quick to set your scene in the police bullpen, a living room, or a parking garage. Always consider what the characters could be doing, even if it’s not directly related to the focus of the scene. A father-and-son bonding moment at a slaughter house will play differently than the same dialogue at a lawn bowling tournament.

5. Ask: What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in the scene?

Give yourself permission to step away from your outline and consider some wild possibilities. What if a car smashed through the wall? What if your hero choked and died? What if a young boy vomited up a finger?

Most of your scenes won’t have one of these out-of-nowhere aspects. But your movie needs to have a few moments that are completely unexpected, so always ask yourself, could this be one of them?

6. Ask: Is this a long scene or a short scene?

There’s nothing so dispiriting as writing a great three-page mega-scene and realizing that you could have accomplished just as much in two-eighths of a page.4 So ask yourself up front: How much screen time am I willing to give to this scene?

7. Brainstorm three different ways it could begin.

The classic advice is to come into a scene as late as you possibly can. Of course, to do that, you really need to know how the previous scene ended. There’s often a natural momentum that suggests what first image or line of dialogue would be perfect to open the scene. But don’t stop at the first option. Find a couple, then…

8. Play it on the screen in your head.

At least 50% of screenwriting is simply sitting there with your eyes closed, watching the unwritten scene loop in your head. The first couple of times through, it’s really rough: a blocking rehearsal. But eventually, you start to hear the characters talk to each other, and the vague motions become distinct actions. Don’t worry if you can’t always get the scene to play through to the end — you’re more likely to find the exit in the writing than in the imagining.

Don’t rush this step. Let the scene percolate. Mumble the dialogue. Immerse yourself as fully into the moment as you can.

9. Write a scribble version.

A “scribble version” is essentially a cheat sheet so you’ll remember the great scene you just saw in your head. Don’t write sentences; don’t write full dialogue. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes. Just get the bare minimum down so that you won’t forget the scene in the next hour as you’re writing it.

I generally hand-write a scribble version in tiny print — sometimes literally on the back of an envelope — but you can also type. This is what a scribble version consists of for me:

  • DUNCAN waiting edge of seat
  • ITO
  • I was one of the doctors who worked on your wife
  • accident
  • injuries severe, trauma team, sorry, couldn’t save her
  • (sits, reflex)
  • nature of injuries, concern fetus wouldn’t survive in utero. paramedic able deliver caesarian boy healthy
  • (nodding not hearing)
  • nurse can take you to see him, know a lot to handle
  • what
  • a lot to handle
  • take me to see him?
  • yes
  • see who?
  • your son. paramedic was able to
  • (grabs clipboard)
  • I know this may seem
  • My wife wasn’t pregnant
  • Your wife didn’t tell you…
  • My wife has never been pregnant. been trying three years. fertility clinic last week
  • I examined the baby myself. nearly at term.
  • I don’t know whose baby, not hers.

It’s kind of a mess, and really wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me — and only shortly after I wrote it. But that doesn’t matter. The scribble version is only there so you don’t get lost or confused while writing the full version of the scene. Yes, it’s finally time to…

10. Write the full scene.

If you typed up the scribble version, don’t just try to fatten it out. Start clean. The scribble version is deliberately crappy, and rewritten crap is still crap.

The scribble version is your outline for the scene. Yes, allow yourself the chance to detour from your scribble version if a truly better idea comes along. But if you’ve really spent the time to play it through in your head (#8), it’s probably on the right track already.

Depending on the nature of the scene, getting the dialogue right may be most of the work. Regardless, focus on choosing the best words to describe the characters, the action and tone, so your readers will see the same scene in their heads.

11. Repeat 200 times.

  1. I’m neither pro nor anti-outline. They can be a useful way of figuring out how the pieces might fit together. They’re nearly essential in television, where many minds need to coordinate. But sticking too closely to an outline is dangerous. It’s like following Google Maps when it tells you to take Wilshire.
  2. Do my own scripts hold up to this (admittedly harsh) standard? Yes, largely, but feel free to correct me where you disagree. Big Fish has quite a few meanders and detours, but that’s very much on-topic — it’s the reason the son is so frustrated.
  3. As an example: Kal Penn in Superman Returns. He’s basically an extra.
  4. Scenes are measured in eighths. You really do say two-eighths, not one-quarter.

The Queen on a silver platter

[for my consideration]The inflow of screeners has slowed to a trickle, with only The Queen arriving this week. That makes nine screeners so far:

  • The Queen
  • Little Children
  • Babel
  • World Trade Center
  • United 93
  • Notes on a Scandal
  • Flags of Our Fathers
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Thank You for Smoking

The Hollywood Reporter claims its FYC has screenplays for download, but I’ve yet to find one for any of the movies it features. If any readers find links to the screenplay contenders, please pass them along.


Carrie Underwood on Parade

In a controversial new feature, I answer questions submitted to Walter Scott’s Personality Parade®. Today’s column comes from December 24, 2006.

[q]After PARADE’s cover story on Carrie Underwood, she won Female Vocalist of the Year and Best Breakthrough Artist at the Country Music Association awards. Has anyone ever won both before?—Allen Cook, Seattle, Wash.

[a]Not only is Carrie’s award unprecedented, it’s uninteresting. So instead, let’s take the next two or three sentences to ponder why you’re wasting Mr. Scott’s time with a question that can so easily be answered online. Are you in prison, Allen? Lonely? Suicidal? If you’re going to “Let Jesus Take the Wheel,” I hope he doesn’t steer you into oncoming traffic. Walter Scott cares about you, and so do I.

[q]Is Tom Hanks still set to star in a film version of the sci-fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land?—Steve Dimeo, Hillsboro, Ore.

[a]This is a genuinely valid question. Hanks’s name has been associated with this project for years, though he is too old to play the lead character (Valentine Michael Smith). He could conceivably play one of the other key roles. Unfortunately, I have nothing mean or snarky to say about Hanks. That’s why I’m glad that the next question is…

[q]Has dancer Cris Judd, Jennifer Lopez’s second husband, recovered careerwise from being dumped?—Jan Cooper, Denver, Colo.

[a]Jan, Jan. Please keep up. Jennifer Lopez is on husband number three: Marc Anthony, who was (kinda) famous before he married her. Before that, she dated Ben Affleck, who is an actual star. Cris Judd, on the other hand, was a dancer, or choreographer or somesuch. While marrying Lopez might have helped his career, divorcing her certainly didn’t hurt it. Please remember: This is a column about celebrities. Cris Judd no longer counts.

[q]You profiled Indy star Danica Patrick. How about info on drag racer Melanie Troxel?—J. Manning, San Bernardino, Calif.

[a]923 E Westfield Blvd, Indianapolis, IN 46220. She keeps a spare key hidden in the geraniums. Don’t worry about the dog — he’s friendly.

[q]I just rented the animated film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. What does Brian Boitano think of its song “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”—D. Hall, Mexia, Tex.

[a]What Would Walter Scott Do? Perhaps ignore your question about a song featured in a movie that came out ten years ago.

[q]President Bush and Nancy Pelosi, the next Speaker of the House, vowed to get along. What odds do you give them for bipartisan cooperation?—W.P. Dunn, Denver, Colo.

[a]See, this is the kind of question that readers should be sending to Walter Scott: short, open-ended, and completely unrelated to celebrity chatter. Oh, and the answer? 4:3.

[q]Have Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance taken a hiatus from acting since having twins?—J. Graham, Buffalo, N.Y.

[a]They live in my neighborhood, so I’ll ask them next time I see them pushing the tandem stroller or beating their fists on the ground wailing, “Why!? Why are we not getting roles worthy of our talent!?”

[q]A question about my favorite film, Casablanca: Did Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman continue their onscreen affair off-camera?—Mary Taylor, Sioux City, Iowa

[a]Actors will deny it, but what you see in the movies — that’s all real. If it looks like they love each other, they really do. And the sex scenes are never simulated.

[q]In your opinion, why has Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip not been a bigger hit?—Charlotte T., Atlanta, Ga.

[a]Again, great question because you’re asking for an opinion as opposed to a fact or interesting anecdote. So here’s my opinion: Viewers avoid shows with numbers in the title, because they’re afraid they’ll have to do math.