As an amateur scriptwriter, you might face a lot of problems while writing a scene. Even after hours of writing and revising, the scene, or even the entire script, can just seem flat. In a previous article, we explained how to construct your script and how to write a better ending. In this article, we’ll demonstrate some screenwriting tips to drastically improve your scene.
Before introducing the tips, it would be useful to define what a scene is. Depending on the plot, a scene might be as simple as one short shot, or it could be 20 pages of dialogue. Instead of measuring by length, you should consider a scene to be a short story that, theoretically, can be shown separately from the rest of the script.
One example of a scene being a complete story can be taken from the short film Whiplash (2013), which was turned into an Oscar-winning feature film in 2014. The short film is essentially a single scene from the film. In the scene, a talented drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) comes to the first practice of Terrence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) band. Right before his first song, Fletcher talks to Neiman ensuring him that the practice will go smoothly. Meanwhile, he learns personal details about Neiman. Then Neiman starts playing out of tempo. As a reaction, Fletcher vigorously throws a chair at Neiman barely injuring him. Fletcher doesn’t stop there. He starts shouting at Neiman making fun of him and his family that Fletcher learned about during their conversation. After making Neiman cry, Fletcher calls another drummer to take the set. The short film ends.
As the audience, we don’t know the background the feature film gives to us, but we can assume it based on the pieces of information the scene shows us. Whiplash starts with a sense of tension coming from Neiman during the first practice. Although we clearly see the conflict, we don’t know how it will progress. The scene continues with the band playing the first song and Fletcher noticing a trombonist playing out of tune. He then questions the player’s skills to the point that causes the trombonist to run away from the classroom. Fletcher adds to his performance saying that the trombonist actually played in tune but lacked the confidence to confront Fletcher. From that moment, we realize that Neiman could face the same issue in the future. In an analogy with the three-act-structure, this would be the first turning point.
Later, the story calms us down by showing that Fletcher isn’t as tough as some people claim. He talks to Neiman as a friend, making sure that Neiman won’t stress out. The scene continues with the band playing the same song but with Neiman as the drummer. In the middle of the song, Fletcher stops the band and states that Neiman isn’t playing at the right tempo. This is the second inciting incident. Everything that happens in the following part of the scene creates tension until the scene reaches its climax of Fletcher shouting at a crying Nieman. The scene reaches its resolution when Fletcher calls another drummer to take the set.
As explained in a previous article, we’ve just witnessed a hero’s journey where the protagonist experienced a major change. In contrast, the rest of the world remained unchanged from the beginning of the scene. Based on this example, we can say that virtually any scene is essentially a short film. Therefore, if you become better at writing a scene, you’ll also improve your overall script.
Tip 1: Use the And + But + Therefore formula
You can break any story into three basic elements, known as and + but + therefore. The formula suggests that your character has a goal represented by “and”. The conflict of a movie is shown through “but”, and “therefore”, which expresses the character’s action(s) to overcome the conflict. If we take Whiplash, you can describe it as a story of a young drummer and he wants to play in the band, but the conductor doesn’t take average players, therefore, the young drummer has to prove to the conductor that he’s worthy to be in the band. This logic applies to this scene, and all others in the film. Moreover, the same formula applies to the entire movie. While writing your script, you need to ensure that the formula is present in every scene and in the general plot. While the formula doesn’t guarantee a perfect script, it helps focus your thoughts on the important aspects of screenwriting.
Tip 2: Every scene should turn a story.
While writing a scene, you need to ensure that you turn a story in a certain direction that is impossible without the scene. To do so, you need to ask two questions: “What do characters want and what does the scene do to them?” If, in your scene, you can’t answer both of these questions, then the scene doesn’t work. Similarly, if you have two scenes that answer these questions with the same answers, you need to rewrite one of the scenes.
If we take the scene from Whiplash once again, you’ll see that it answers these two questions. In the scene, we see through Neiman’s eyes that he wants to become the next Charlie Parker, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists. In response to this desire, the scene starts Neiman’s journey of becoming the next Charlie Parker. It happens because of Fletcher’s actions. He mentions to Neiman that Parker’s conductor once threw a cymbal at Parker because of his performance. Yet, Parker didn’t give up. Later, the same thing happens to Neiman.
Tip 3: Enter a scene late, leave it early.
Constantly keep in mind that a film script isn’t everyday life. You don’t need to show unnecessary details. Instead, you need to tell a concise story. Get rid of long explanations and go to the important part.
Once again, if we look at the scene from Whiplash, Neiman comes to practice earlier than the band and Fletcher. This beginning familiarizes the audience with the set. At the same time, the scene shows us a private, almost intimate, and silent dialogue between Neiman and the drums. This silence breaks when the band enters. We feel the chaos of instruments playing out of tune, people discussing everyday problems, and so on. The set is no longer intimate, and the attention isn’t focused on Neiman anymore.
Fletcher’s entrance once again interrupts the chaos from the band. Everybody stops rehearsing or mumbling. Band members, almost like soldiers, stand up and wait for the conductor to give them a signal. Now, the focus of the scene is on Fletcher. We can see from these three major changes in the focus that the scene started exactly when it needed to begin. It couldn’t start earlier because there was no one in the room. And it couldn’t start later either, because we wouldn’t be able to understand the relationship between the characters. Similar logic applies to the moment you need to leave the scene. You shouldn’t exit the scene until all important elements are shown, but as soon as you do, move on to the next scene.
These three main tips will help you focus your scene on a conflict and make it more structured. If you know when to start and finish a scene, what characters want, what a scene does to characters, and you keep in mind the and + but + therefore formula, then you’ll be able to write a stronger and a more concise script. Follow Best Edit to learn more about screenwriting techniques from our articles or request an edit of your script.