MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

SCENES THAT DO IT ALL!


How can anyone expect one scene to advance the story, give us character information, be entertaining... I mean, can't a scene just exist because it's cool? Because it’s funny? Because things blow up real good?

Nope. Even in a comedy a scene has to pull its own weight. It has to advance the story and give us character information. I thought of the silliest scene from the silliest movie I could think of and came up with this one from AIRPLANE!:

The Autopilot (a blow up pilot played by Otto) is flying the plane after the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator have fallen ill. When the Autopilot begins to deflate and the plane goes out of control, the panicked Flight Attendant Elaine (Julie Hagerty) radios the tower and they tell her to re-inflate the Autopilot by blowing into a valve on the Autopilot's belt. As she's doing this, Doctor Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) walks in - thinks she's having oral sex with the Autopilot - and leaves. Once the Autopilot is re-inflated, the plane stabilizes and the Flight Attendant and Autopilot are shown having a post-sex cigarette.

Okay - that's pretty silly. Does it advance the story and give us character information?

YES!

This scene tells us that the Autopilot is unreliable - they need an actual PILOT in the cockpit. Our hero, Ted Stryker (Robert Hays), is a pilot with a drinking problem who is afraid to fly. This is the scene that makes him *have* to fly the plane. We know that the Autopilot *isn’t* the answer after this scene - it may deflate again! If you removed this scene the plot portion of the story would suffer - the audience would wonder why they needed Stryker to fly the plane when they have the perfectly good Autopilot? The Autopilot doesn't have a drinking problem and was *designed* to fly a 747.

From a character standpoint you also need this scene. Because Stryker and the Elaine break up in the first scene, we need to show that she is getting on with her life and he is still stuck on her. How are we going to show her going on a date when the whole film takes place in the plane? You know that post-sex cigarette gag? That's a character bit, too! That shows that she has moved on. That Stryker is going to have to win her back. Without that scene the audience might think she's still possibly in love with him - that he may have a chance to win her back. But this scene gives us the character information that tells us otherwise.

So that silly scene has *critical* character and plot information. It's also funny. It's a scene that does it all! Every scene in your script should be critical to the story. If you can remove the scene and it doesn't change the story - get rid of it! Or find the way to make it work by combining it with other scenes or by finding ways to include important information in the scene. That information doesn’t need to be obvious, and it *shouldn’t* be obvious. The key to a good scene is that it gives the audience all kinds of information in a way that doesn’t make them think they are getting information. They think it’s a silly comedy scene, but we know it’s a character and story scene.

In the Scenes Blue Book we look at that scene from FARGO where she meets with her friend from High School - and how that scene is *critical* to the story. There isn’t enough time in a movie for a scene that has no purpose - which is why we always want to find scenes that “do it all”. How do we create scenes like that?


COMBINING SCENES

Let's say you have a scene where we introduce our hero and his family. A loving wife and his kids (including a teenaged daughter who is a real heart breaker). He's a real family man, still passionate about his wife after years of marriage.

You have another scene where our hero's family surprises him with a 50th birthday party. Singing "Happy Birthday To You". They have a cake with so many candles on top it looks like a fire hazard. He tries to blow them all out, but it takes a couple of tries.

A third scene has own hero in the bathtub, noticing all of the gray in his beard. Does the beard make him look old? Does it make him look all of those 50 years? He decides to shave it off.

Three scenes that show us aspects of our hero - but all are scenes we've seen before. So why not combine all three into a single scene? Our hero is in the bathtub noticing all of the gray in his beard when his family bursts through the door with a birthday cake, singing "Happy Birthday To You". It takes him a couple of tries to blow out all of the candles... man, he really *is* old! His wife gives him a big kiss - he tries to pull her into the tub. The kids are all over the place. His heart breaker daughter is obviously his favorite. When they leave he realizes how old 50 really is... and shaves off his beard.

By combining the scenes we create a brand new scene - one we've never seen before. Okay... maybe you have seen it... it's Danny Glover's introduction scene in LETHAL WEAPON. Another scene that does it all. You may not have realized how much information was in that scene when you saw the movie, but it’s packed with things we need to know about this character. By combining scenes, we save valuable screen time for more important scenes and we are able to create scenes that have more *weight*, even though they may seem light as a feather. Our scenes are like suitcases packed for a vacation, we want to get as many things into those suitcases as we can, so that we aren’t lugging around a half dozen suitcases. We want one suitcase that has been carefully packed so that it contains everything we need, and has wheels of entertainment so that it glides through the airport and doesn’t seem heavy. The audience only sees the "glide" - they don't realize how much you have packed into that suitcase!

Combining scenes is also a great way to manage our script length - if we create one scene that does three things that means we won’t end up with a 300 page screenplay!


IS THIS SCENE NECESSARY?

A novel has an unlimited number of pages to tell its story, a screenplay has no more than 120. That means there's no room for meandering, no room for any sequence, scene, page or even *word* that doesn't move the story forward. The average finished film is going to cost about a million dollars per page by the time it gets to the screen - so you don't want to waste any pages on unimportant scenes.

Is every scene in your script required to tell the story, or are you wasting the audience's time? There isn't enough room for a scene that has nothing to do with the story. There are no scenes in a screenplay that are *only* about character - not enough room for that. A scene about character must also move the story forward as well as being entertaining in some way- it must do three things at once. Is that difficult? Of course! Nobody ever said screenwriting was going to be easy! We have to tell a story with one tenth the words of a novelist! That requires concise writing. Every scene matters.

Take a hard look at each of your scenes. Does the story *require* this scene? If you can remove the scene with no damage to the story, get rid of it. Even if it is an action scene or a comedy scene. It may be the greatest scene in your script... but you are wasting the audience's time with it. The audience isn't there to watch a collection of great scenes, they are there for the story - they want to know what happens next. Here are a couple of ways to test your scenes...

House Of Cards:

Make sure each individual scene is focused on the objectives of the script. The small objectives have to lead to the big objectives. Think of your script as a house of cards. Each scene is a card. If you can remove any scene, and the house remains standing, that scene shouldn't have been in your script.

Not only should each scene move the story forward, each scene should also be a microcosm of the story. Every scene should contain the DNA necessary to clone the entire script. You should be able to read any scene from your script and have some idea of what the whole script is about. What is the central conflict of your screenplay? How does *this* scene explore that conflict? Does this scene explore the theme? If you were to read *only* this scene, could you tell me what the entire script is about? This is part of what I call Organic Screenwriting - Each scene has to be integral to the story, not just filler material. Each scene should expose character, move the story forward, and deal with the central conflict of the screenplay... the script's DNA.

The MEMENTO Challenge:

A script should like a shark - always moving forward. Each scene "creates" the next scene. Think of it as cause and effect. Scene 1 causes Scene 2, Scene 2 causes Scene 3, etc. A great way to find dead-wood scenes in your script is to work backwards - start with the very last scene and make sure it was cause by the scene right before it. Work your way backwards through the script - if you come to a scene that didn't create the scene that comes right after it, you should probably cut that scene. Any scene that doesn't have anything to do with the *central conflict* of the story should be removed - it's not part of the story you are telling. A script that isn't moving forward - a script that gets stalled by a scene or series of scenes that don't move the story - is a dead shark!

Subplot scenes often end up major offenders and need to be cut, because your subplot may not have anything to do with your main plot - and that’s a problem. Notice how in AIRPLANE! Elaine’s silly sex scene with Otto the Autopilot *seems* like it has nothing to do with our main story about Ted Stryker the pilot with the drinking problem, except it actually does. Just because a scene doesn’t *seem* to have any bearing on the main story at first glance doesn’t mean that it isn’t critical to the story. LOOK CLOSER! This subplot scene is required for the main plot to work in a couple of different ways.

You want scenes that are filled with information, but aren’t banging the audience over the head with that information. Scenes that do it all... but may just seem silly or suspenseful or exciting or scary or whatever *juice* required for whatever genre you are working in. Stealth scenes... that do it all!

More of creating complex scenes in the SCENES Blue Book!


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ARE YOUR SCENES IN THE RIGHT ORDER?
AND ARE THEY THE RIGHT SCENES?

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Most screenplays are about a 50/50 split between dialogue and description - which means your description is just as important as your dialogue. It just gets less press because the audience never sees it, the same reason why screenwriters get less press than movie stars. But your story will never get to the audience until readers and development executives read your script... so it is a very important factor. Until the movie is made the screenplay is the movie and must be just as exciting as the movie. So how do you make your screenplay exciting to read? Description is important in a novel as well, and the “audience” does read it... how do we write riveting description?

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