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Screenwriting - What Each Scene Must Accomplish

By Author: Steve Davis
Total Articles: 38

The scene is the basic building block of a movie. In screenwriting, every scene must move the story forward in some way, that is, show the protagonist taking the next step toward the goal, the antagonist attempting to thwart the protagonist or reveal information. If you write a scene that doesn't do any of these things, cut it.
A scene usually takes place in one location and for a particular time frame, unless the scene dissolves to a later point of time. Then it is usually considered to be another scene, even if it is still the same location.
According to who you ask, the definition of a scene may vary. Robert McKee, one of the gurus of screenwriting and author of the book "Story," says that a scene may take place in several locations if it is the continuation of a particular event. He gives the example of a couple arguing as they get ready for work in the bedroom, eat breakfast and drive to work. By his definition, that would all be one scene.
I believe it's best not to get too hung up on definitions, but focus instead on understanding the concept and using it. A scene is a usually single event happening at one point in time that moves the story forward. But even this idea can get tricky.
Say you're writing a courtroom script. Its' the scene where the prosecutor, who is the protagonist, interrogates a defense witness. He forces her to reveal that she is the girlfriend of the criminal and that she has been lying. That's one event.
She cries. That's a second event. The criminal grabs the bailiff's weapon and shoots the judge, That's a third event. The detective who arrested the criminal shoots the bad guy in the arm. Fourth event. Reporters rush out of the courtroom. Fifth event. And so on.
Still, despite all these things that are going on, this is essentially a single event-the prosecutor questioning a witness. Information is revealed, and the DA has moved closer to his goal of putting the bad guy behind bars.
Just like the screenplay itself, each scene must have a beginning, a middle and an end. It must be a complete unit of the story.
Begin each scene at what is called the last best possible moment. In the kitchen example above, don't waste time with a lot of preliminary action. Don't show the wife or husband, rooting in the fridge, cracking a couple eggs, putting bread in the toaster, dropping the eggs in the skillet if these actions don't move the story forward. Start the scene when the second person enters and continues the argument that started in the bedroom.
Another critical element of constructing a powerful scene is to consider, and reveal to the audience, what each character's attitude is at this moment in time. Are they sad or happy? Depressed or confident?
What does each character want? And what is his or her attitude about getting it?
Finally, who gets what they want and who doesn't? What is each character's attitude about this situation?

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