How To Write A Script Scene: A Five Point Checklist
A common fault of screenplays written by aspiring screenwriters is that the scenes appear to occur randomly. However, each scene should lead naturally on to the next — falling like a domino from the first to the last as the protagonist traverses the story.
This checklist is designed to help you keep this fundamental principle on track, making sure that each scene has a purpose and leads naturally on to the next. You can use it before writing, to map out a scene, or after writing a draft in order to tighten it up. So let’s dive on in!
Scene Checklist: Five Crucial Things You Need to Ask Yourself About Each Scene You Write
- Does this scene reveal a new piece of information?
Every scene should reveal at least one new piece of information to the audience. If it doesn’t, it should either be cut or reworked.
If a scene includes two new pieces of information, try to reveal each in a different location. For example, if the first piece of information is revealed in a hallway leading to an office, have the second one be revealed in the office.
- Does this scene involve my protagonist’s goal?
If a scene isn’t in some way moving your protagonist either closer or further away from their overall goal, then it can be cut or reworked.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, every single scene (after the Golden Idol opening sequence) contains Indy either talking about how to get the Ark or physically fighting to get the Ark.
- Does this scene include some sort of conflict?
Many spec screenplays are full of scenes in which characters are just sitting around happily chatting. There’s zero conflict in watching two characters shoot the breeze and likewise, zero interest for the audience.
Make sure that each scene you write contains an element of conflict, no matter how subtle. This doesn’t mean just have characters arguing or fighting for the sake of it, but talking about things or doing things that have stakes attached which relate back to the overall stakes of the movie. Whatever’s at stake for your protagonist(s) as a whole — three buddies must find a missing bachelor in Las Vegas, for example — needs to be at stake in each scene.
- Does the scene include a change of some kind?
A scene should never end on the same terms as it started. Either it should start on a positive note for the character involved and end on a negative, or start on a negative and end on a positive.
The protagonist of the scene (not necessarily the protagonist of the movie) should also clearly have an understanding of what’s happened and know that something fundamental has changed.
In Whiplash, for example, there’s a scene near the end in which Andrew sees Fletcher playing piano in a jazz club. This starts the scene on a negative note — especially when Fletcher spots him — as there’s still so much animosity present in Andrew. However, by the end of the scene, he’s been invited by Fletcher to play drums at a jazz festival. Andrew agrees, seeing his former adversary in a whole new light, and the scene ends on a positive note.
- Does the scene include a choice of some kind?
Not every scene, but definitely all the big important ones should include a true choice of some kind. By “true choice” I mean a proper moral choice that relates back to the screenplay’s theme.
We’re able to empathize with a protagonist when we see them put under emotional and/or physical pressure, and seeing them be forced to make a true choice in big moments in the story is partly how this achieved. Backing your protagonist up against a wall as often as possible, and forcing them to make difficult decisions is an important part of a screenwriters’ arsenal.
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