I’ve been working my way through a GIGANTIC pile of Bang2writers’ screenplays of late and noticed a common theme between most of them: their individual scenes needed work (as well as overarching story & characterisation).
Since screenplays are the sum of ALL their parts, I thought I would compose a complete rundown of all the potential issues scenes can have individually, in orderto shed some light on the matter for interested parties. So, ready?? It’s a LOOOOOOONG list! Let’s go …
1) Starting too early
The classic. Every time you write scenes – and I mean every single time – ask yourself: *should* it start here? What if … it started five minutes later in this character’s timeline? Five hours? FIVE DAYS LATER? And so on. Never just write a scene simply because it feels like it “ought” to start at that point. Chop, chop!
2) Letting scenes go on too long
This happens when a writer has not set him/herself a PERIMETER for how long their scenes “should” be. Now, this will depend on the story being told (such as genre, tone, pace, etc – ie. a weepy psychological drama will have longer scenes than say, a Bourne-style Thriller) but a general rule of thumb is:
upto 1 page = “ordinary” scenes
up to 3 pages = “extraordinary” scenes
Yes, yes obviously you may well end up writing longer scenes … but try not to. Seriously. Why? Because EVERY SPEC SCREENWRITER writes long scenes!
Again, we’re back to this notion of differentiating from the crowd. How? Well, note use of the word “up to”. Yes, you CAN write scenes shorter than a page!!! Yet I hardly ever see them in spec screenplays. In professional screenplays via prodcos? All the time. I rest my case.
3) Cutting scenes off
This is an affliction that often happens to more seasoned writers, who’ve perhaps got what I call “Rewriting Fatigue”. They’ll take out TOO MUCH, so scenes end abruptly or no longer push the story forward; or maybe these writers will remove a great scene altogether! Eeeek! In other words, the writers can’t see the woods for the trees any more, because they’ve spent far too long on a project.
SOLUTION: You MUST rest your brain and yes, get away from the keyboard! As I always say: most of your best writing will be done by THINKING, honest guvnor! So leave your spec, live your life … and return to it with FRESH EYES.
4) Too much black on the page
Another classic. Obviously, we don’t want TOO MUCH scene description, but we also want your writer’s voice to shine through … REALLY. So it’s not a case of chucking out every little thing, we want those elements that show only YOU can write this story! But you also work out what’s necessary and what’s not. As ever, it’s a question of BALANCE. Never forget this.
5) Too much white on the page
This frequently happens when a writer swings from too MUCH description to too LITTLE … As a result, we may lose that writer’s sense of “unique-ness”, especially as the script itself will end up as a number 10 (see that section).
6) Utilitarian or “static” scene description
Sometimes writers get hung up on the fact we’re supposed to “see” everything in a screenplay, so they end up writing what I call “False Movement” into a scene. You will have all read screenplays like this: we’re talking a raised eyebrow here; a walk over to the window there; a smile (and all its synonyms); sitting down and so on. Yes, yes all of those are FINE when used sparingly, but not at the expense of everything else. Don’t make your scenes “static” like this!
7) Novelistic Scene Description
Just recently, I’ve been working with a lot of novel writers adapting their own work. Some really obvious things came to the fore, such as them writing stuff that was too psychological, OR too reliant on clothes, but the one thing they ALL did? Very detailed, extraneous scene description. Always remember: your screenplay is NOT a novel!
8) Relying on technology
Writers commonly make the mistake of relying far too much on technology to “fill in gaps” for the audience. Whilst exposition can be delivered via, say, a well-timed internet search or text message (or so on), it is unwise to use them as information dumps. What’s more, if you have characters sitting in front of computers or answering phones too much, this is not VISUAL.
9) “Leading” dialogue
Leading dialogue happens when a writer places the emphasis in the scene ON what is said, rather than what is SEEN. The writer has to instead invest in his or her VISUALS and tell the story that way instead.
10) Chains of dialogue
Chains of dialogue happen when writers get carried away (this happens a lot in drama screenplays, but also comedies); or the writer may believe erroneously that there is conflict within the dialogue, so that in itself is “enough” to carry the story.
For example, arguments in spec screenplays will typically run for anything between 4-7 pages, yet just think of the last time YOU saw something on television or in film where two characters stand more or less stock still (as this one is often combined with point 6, as well!) and they proceed to yell at each other for between four and seven MINUTES … Can’t think of one? Me either.
11) Chit chat
Chit chat happens when writers believe what their characters are SAYING reveals more about them than their ACTIONS. REMEMBER: characters are not what they say, but what they DO.
Monologue-ing is frequently employed by writers for their antagonists, who must reveal the goal of their EVIL PLAN, though this can also happen as various characters (especially women!) tell others (usually men!) how terrible they are *for some reason*. This frequently happens in the resolution of screenplays, making the story rather Scooby Doo as everything gets “backended” (snarf). Yet the exposition should be paid off visually at the end, NOT with talk; this is only possible if you mete the exposition out across the ENTIRE narrative.
13) Not making characters pull their weight
Characters are often borne into being for NO reason by writers. We all do it. We like the idea of someone, so create them … and then find they end up literally standing around in most of the scenes! If you find a character is consistently doing this in your screenplay? I don’t care if s/he is based on your spouse or your dead dog, GET RID and/or merge with another. Pronto.
14) No discernible character role function
It comes down to the following at grass roots level –
- Main characters: Protagonist & Antagonist (2)
- Secondaries: Everyone else who either HELPS or HINDERS the protagonist (usually between 2-5 more)
- Peripherals: walk on parts that usually have some sort of plot device (usually hindering the protagonist in some way)
That’s it. Seriously. Yes, there’s advanced characterisation techniques like dual protagonists; the protagonist/antagonists; the ensemble cast and more, but it’s ALL built on top of the basic model I outline above.
So, in your scene, your secondary character better have a really good STORY reason for taking over from the protagonist or antagonist at this point … otherwise it’ll just seem like you’re going off the beaten track, no?
15) No discernible character motivation
As Joss Whedon puts it, everyone has a reason to live in your story. The protagonist wants something; the antagonist wants the protagonist to not get it (or wants their own thing, which clashes with the protagonist’s goal … however you want to phrase it).
But NO ONE in your storyworld wakes up and thinks, “Hey, I’m going to help/ not help the protagonist!” They ALL think the story is about them. So don’t reduce your characters in your scene to their role function, either! Again – it’s BALANCE!
16) Sudden character “About Face”
Characters need to be consistent, whatever that means … FOR THEM. Their actions have to make sense in the context of the storyworld they are in, too. And before you say it, YES: your characters can be paradoxes, that’s fine, but they gotta be CONSISTENT paradoxes. In other words, when it comes to characterisation, start as you mean to go on; DON’T stick a scene in that has your characters doing something out the left field, just because you want to mix it up a little.
17) Middle Montage
Regardless of story or genre, every good scene has to keep the momentum going. Drop one, you drop them all. But writers are predictable beasts and I always know when a writer feels like s/he is losing the plot – literally – because a montage will rear its ugly head and screw everything up. Usually it’s around the midpoint and often it will be because the writer feels s/he needs to “signify the passage of time”. No. JUST NO! Montages must be used sparingly, if at all; spec screenwriters need them ONLY to push the story forward, hardly ever stylistically (that’s a director’s thing).
18) No Reversals
Reversals relate to surprising things that happen in the plot. That’s it. All stories (should) have them, because otherwise they become dull and pedestrian. Yet many writers have little clue how to use them or where. But a scene with an inspired reversal in is like GOLD DUST. They mark the (wo)men from the boyz. A spec screenwriter who can utilise reversals is destined to be in demand, because again: the industry simply does not see enough of them! So if you’re thinking to yourself now, “I’m not sure how to use them” or even “Oh I don’t need them”, believe me: you NEED to get cracking and working on them right now.
19) Plot “Happenings”
Screenwriting is about plot CONSTRUCTION, but the average spec screenplay is a series of plot “happenings”. This is especially true of Act 2, or the “Conflict” of many of the spec screenplays I read. Individually, scenes might read well and be interesting; holistically, they’re a mess and simply don’t become cohesive. What can writers do about this? Study structure. Please!
And I don’t mean read one or two books and decide which method makes the most sense to you; I mean READ ALL OF THEM. Talk about structure. Attend classes. Think about it in detail. Immerse yourself. Why? It comes down to this:
The best screenwriters don’t have a good idea of structure and how to use it; they have it nailed down so tight they can plot even the most complicated of non linear screenplays in less time than it takes us to write a shopping list.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but get this: every single produced Hollywood screenwriter? Is a structure MASTER (or MISTRESS). Make structure your BITCH – and start with your scenes!
20) No Opener
Most spec screenwriters do not use openers … even to open their screenplay!! Openers are that FIRST IMAGE we see at the beginning of a script that not only GRABS the reader, but tells them what this story *is*, so you need to CHOOSE WISELY. If you start with tears falling onto a mirror, you’re saying this is going to be a SAD story; or with a child’s rocking horse in a playroom? Then this story is probably for kids. With an ominous Halloween carnival? It’s probably going to be a Horror movie … and SO ON.
But equally, here’s another point on openers: EVERY scene in your spec screenplay should start with an image. I never, ever want to read another spec screenplay where someone simply STARTS TALKING RANDOMLY. I want visuals. I want them now.
So does everyone else, ESPECIALLY filmmakers. Remember, there’s an awful lot of directors out there who wouldn’t write their own scripts IF THEY COULD FIND SUITABLE MATERIAL. This means they need to find stuff on budget (in the UK, that’s ultra low budget, £25-150K, typically), but also this means VISUAL. You want a director to take your script over his or her own? You gotta give them the goods!
So, recognise any of these errors in YOUR screenplay’s scenes right now? Then what are you waiting for … CHOP CHOP!!
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