Do you really know how to structure scenes?
Strangely, screenwriters are bombarded with information on how to structure the overall screenplay, but little is said about how to structure each individual building block in that structure — the scene.
Here’s a list of some of the rather cliched things you may have been told to include in a scene:
Every scene must…
“A protagonist and antagonist.”
“A goal that relates to the overall goal of the protagonist.”
“A beginning, a middle and an end.”
etc. etc. etc.
While all of these points are valid and true, they also a little vague and don’t say much about how you actually structure scenes.
So, you’ve probably been told to include conflict between one character who wants something and another who wants the opposite.
But many, many scenes we see in films up on screen are a little more nuanced than this.
Take the scene near the beginning of Bridesmaids in which Annie and Lillian chat in a coffee shop about their love lives. Annie asks Lillian how things are going with her fiancé. Lillian asks Annie how things are going with Ted and then tells her off for still sleeping with him.
Would you say Annie or Lillian have definite goals, and one wants to stop the other from achieving it?
No. The scene is more about exposition and revealing their characters, but this perfectly sums up how “talky” scenes like this in movies lead to a lot of flat scenes in spec screenplays.
We read countless scenes in the screenplays we receive in which it’s evident that the writer has no real idea how scenes are really constructed.
Action based and dialogue driven scenes alike, often just unravel with no clear turning points or direction.
This is because the truth about how to structure scenes seems to be rarely discussed by screenwriting tutors for some reason; but in this post I want to start to address this problem.
OK, so you know every scene should have a “purpose,” “move the story forward,” etc. etc. but how do you go about writing a scene so it “feels” like a scene out of a movie, and not just a load of dialogue thrown onto the page?
This is especially pertinent when considering writing scenes like in the Bridesmaids example above, in which you have two characters just talking and revealing information.
The fact is, just like the overall screenplay, scenes are built on a solid structure.
I’ve already written about the three act structure of scenes in an earlier post, but in this post I want to break down an actual scene to show you exactly how it works.
Rather than just throwing conflict, tension and character revelations at a scene and hoping for the best, it’s important to realize that all good scenes flow through a series of turning points that lead the viewer from beginning, to middle to end.
These turning points outline the different “acts” that make up the scene.
Let’s break down the Bridesmaids scene to illustrate what I mean.
The scene starts, like all scenes with the Inciting Incident — the couple of beats that establish where we are and set up the characters involved. This is often characterized by general chat, or a few words about what’s just happened in the previous scene.
In the case of the Bridesmaids scene it lasts for four lines, until Annie asks “How’s it going with him anyway?”
Then, comes the first major turning point — the Call to Action. Here, just like in the screenplay’s overall structure — something happens that signals the start of the conflict / adventure; but this time just of the scene, rather than the whole movie.
In this scene it’s when Annie turns the conversation onto Lillian’s fiancé — the issue of love and relationships that leads to the main conflict of the scene.
(CALL TO ACTION)
And here’s where the scene takes another major turning point. Annie admitting that she spent the night with Ted is the scene’s end of Act One, because she finds herself in a “new world” having to defend herself from Lillian quizzing her on Ted and self respect.
Note: we know we’re definitely in Act Two of the scene now because the dialogue has switched to a win or lose argument between Annie and Lillian. One girl attacks and the other counters in a blow-for-blow battle.
(ACT ONE BREAK)
This being a comedy, the following eight lines break momentarily from the argument and were probably improvised.
Up next is the final turning point in the scene: Lillian wins the battle by reminding Annie how much of an asshole Ted is and Annie has no real comeback. In terms of three act structure this is the Midpoint, but in a scene this is often the final turning point before we exit with a Denouement.
Finally, the scene signs off on a Denouement that reaffirms the themes of the movie — love, marriage and friendship.
So, overall, the scene can be broken down like this:
Inciting Incident — Annie and Lillian are chatting in a coffee shop.
Call to Action — Annie shifts the conversation onto relationships.
Act One Break — Lillian realizes Annie is still sleeping with Ted.
Midpoint — Lillian wins the argument.
Denouement — Annie and Lillian confirm their friendship.
I would recommend when writing a scene to just get everything down on paper for the first draft; then, during the rewrite, sculpt the scene to follow these turning points.
Following these guidelines will greatly improve your scene structure and readability of your screenplay as a whole.