You have your idea for the scene, you know what you want to write; these rules are simply to steer you towards scenes that are written for the screen, small or large. They may seem simplistic, and most rules are there to be broken, but these are pretty critical and based on my own experience over the years writing for film, TV and games.
The theory is only there to serve your needs and help you write a stronger script or, in this case, more powerful and effective visual scenes. Don’t let them hold you back or challenge your confidence. It may be that you have to start by writing the scenes and getting the script down, as far as is possible, but then you can look at your scenes, with these rules in mind and make them stronger. Or, knowing the rules, you can place them in the back of your mind and let the scene percolate before you write it. Both ways work and it depends hugely on the writer you are.
The really important task is to get something down on paper or the screen; that’s how you learn the craft.
But I do know how hard it can be to cut out material you have painstakingly (or joyously) written, even to judge what bits merit cutting or tweaking or replacing, or if the whole scene needs to go – but that’s for a later stage.
I would recommend that you keep a file for the parts you cut – clearly labelled. You never know when a scrap of dialogue or character might ignite a different scene or form the germ of a whole new story. Nothing is wasted.
Three Golden Rules
1. Show don’t tell
Only write what we will see on the screen, large or small. If it isn’t on the screen, we can’t know it. Therefore, if a character feels something, we need to see how it affects her within the scene you’ve written. You need to find a way to make it visible, through their behaviour.
This doesn’t mean it has to be a huge gesture or action; it can be as subtle as taking time to answer, as scratching a chin, changing the subject, opening a window or deflecting. It might be a raised eyebrow that makes us fear for the other person’s safety or a coat being fastened up wrongly on a child’s coat that lets us know the character is worrying about something.
2. Less is more
Audiences are intelligent. It may be more powerful to show an understated reaction or to cut out that speech that explains everything. Readers will get it, without you spelling out what a character feels or thinks and/ or without giving us her whole speech.
Nobody should ‘tell’ us anything on screen. It has to be revealed, either with action, through an argument, through a misunderstanding, with a gesture or a lie, with silence and more. When you do reveal something we need to know, you only do it when we, as an audience, really need to know.
3. Begin late, leave early
How much of the argument do we really need to hear? What if all we see is your central character’s reaction as she climbs into her car or walks straight into a stranger outside the gym because she’s so angry/ upset/ scared? Of course, to end a scene once the point is made, you need to know why you are writing that scene and how you want your readers and eventual audience to feel at the end of it.
Often, you will need to write an argument out in detail before you work out what parts of it you need to include or to find lines that resonate powerfully. It’s a way of stepping into a situation, experiencing the moment with your characters as it happens. Whatever you cut then remains under the surface like subtext, making the scene stronger.
So where to begin?
Every character enters a scene with history. They have an opinion or attitude towards the other person or people in the scene, towards themselves, towards the reason for this meeting or encounter if there is on, expectation of how the day/ evening/ meeting will pan out, etc.
For drama you need conflict
Once you know what your characters want from a scene, part of the joy as a screenwriter is making it as difficult for your character as possible so that you get the outcome you want from the scene. Something, however small, has changed.
Scenes that have no real predicament do not work. These are scenes in which nothing changes. Even if the dialogue is bouncing off the page, if there is nothing at stake, it can usually be cut without altering the story.
This isn’t to say that that something major has to happen in each scene. It doesn’t. But the story has to move on, relationships have to develop, things have to be revealed about character or story, even if they seem unimportant at the time.
(I’ll be back with articles on dialogue and description, the core elements of the scene, but meanwhile, if you’d like to go into more depth on the individual scene, my book, Write That Script is available from Amazon, select bookstores and Irish Library Suppliers. I’m also available to run workshops and masterclasses. )
(c) Lindsay J Sedgwick
Lindsay is an award-winning screenwriter who published Ireland’s first comprehensive guide to screenwriting, Write That Script in 2018. She is the creator of the ground-breaking series series Punky, which has been recognized as the first mainstream animation series in the world in which the central character has special needs (Down’s syndrome). Two series later, it is available in over 100 countries with circa 5 million hits on YouTube.
Crossing genre, searching out the best stories to tell, Lindsay has worked in live action and animation, written for kids and adult, film and TV, games and apps and had 14 plays staged in Ireland and the UK. As well as delivering masterclasses and courses throughout Ireland for two decades, she has worked with a wide range of production companies in Ireland and the UK as screenwriter, creator and creative consultant and is currently developing a children’s series.
Order your copy of Write That Script here.