“I love writing, but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, ‘You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over, Giftless. I’m not your agent and I’m not your mommy: I’m a white piece of paper. You wanna dance with me?’ and I really, really don’t. I’ll go peaceable-like.”
– Aaron Sorkin
I love that quote. It captures the desire to write something amazing and the terror of starting. But it doesn’t mention the visceral thrill that you feel when a scene or a sequence or even a scrap of dialogue works. I mean, really works. It pulls you into the story, the characters come alive, the location hums and your story moves forward.
The individual scene is the basic unit of your screenplay. It might be one line long or run for several pages. It may be mostly dialogue, mostly action or a mixture of both. Some will flow easily as you write; others will feel like dredging mud.
The important thing when you’re starting out is to get it written and finish your story. And not to be afraid of writing terrible scenes – it’s one way to empty your mind of the bad writing so the gold can emerge! Writing is a muscle, as we all know, and unless you exercise it, it won’t get stronger.
Let’s look at the role of the scene:
Every scene can tell us something about character.
It may introduce a new character or reveal something interesting about a relationship or a character trait. A reaction, even understated or ignored, can be very revealing. For example, something a character does could reveal her attitude to another character, make us more curious or suspicious about her, or more understanding.
Maybe in the course of a scene we witness behaviour of which she’s totally unaware but which gives us a clue to her backstory. It might not even be noticed by anyone in the scene.
You know your characters. This does not mean they know themselves. If you were to ask five people to describe a mutual acquaintance, each will most likely use different words or focus on different traits.
Through behaviour (description and action) and dialogue, you bring your characters to life. Don’t waste the opportunity to allow us to discover more about them by how they act in a given situation, however subliminally.
Every scene has a duty to move your story forward.
This could be by revealing some crucial information or planting a clue, the value of which will only be understood later. It could be by introducing a critical new character. It may be that something happens in the scene that forces your central character to act and changes what happens next. It might be the revelation of a tiny bit of information that leads to the next scene happening in a certain way or in a particular place and having a different outcome to the one your characters expect.
To entertain your readers and eventual viewers.
You are in control of how your readers feel. Every scene has the capacity to make us cry, laugh, turn the page greedily or be glued to the screen when your script is filmed. You decide how you want us to feel at the start and end of every scene. Once you have achieved this, you move on.
Every single scene should manage to incorporate at least two of these functions. Why? Because if a scene addresses two or more, it will be a stronger, richer scene, working harder to tell your story.
Having worked out what you need to achieve through your step outline, you may find yourself merging scenes so that they are stronger or deleting them because they can be cut without affecting the story or because their role in the story is too similar to other scenes.
Layers of story
Most scenes can be said to have two layers: what the scene is obviously about and what it is about beneath the surface.
The surface layer
The most obvious in terms of structure, this layer describes the main purpose of the scene. It tends to be action or conflict-oriented, most obviously driving the story forward but it can also be more superficial or sensational.
Essentially, this layer reveals information we need. What this information is depends on the position of the scene within your story. It could be about a relationship, about the antagonist, a revelation that changes everything, if only slightly, or you may be planting a clue that will make sense further on.
The sub-surface layer
This is at least as important as the surface layer. Generally to do with character and relationships, it tends to be less overt because it is the layer that reveals something we need to know emotionally.
As such, it tends to be directed at helping us bond with character or add depth to the emotional or relationship aspect of the scene and your story. It can be interior action, quite subtle or subliminal. For example, in the sub-surface layer of a scene we might realise one character feels uncomfortable in another person’s company, in this particular setting or talking about a certain subject. We can see that she is distracted or frustrated or angry but we don’t know why yet.
(You can find examples of how these elements work and exercises to help you to work through the theory to the script in my book, Write That Script available from Amazon, select bookstores and Irish Library Suppliers. I’m also available to run workshops and masterclasses; see www.lindsayjsedgwick.com.)
(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.