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Table of contents
About This Book
A professional screenwriter's master class in writing the most critical and challenging script element?the individual scene.
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THE STORY OF A SCENE: BEAT BY BEAT
Scenes are the building blocks of a screenplay. Whether this is your first screenwriting book or your last, you already have a sense of what a scene is. However, I want to bolster your instincts with concrete craft. Let’s look at a concise definition:
A scene is a small unit of story, unified by time and space, which encapsulates a single action and culminates in a change. The change should involve both the story and the character.
In the definition, “small” means “brief,” but it definitely does not mean unimportant or trivial. Yes, you will have some very long scenes, but there is only one unit of storytelling smaller than a scene. That is called, as we will see, a “beat.”
However, a scene is the smallest unit of story that is a story in and of itself.
This is why scene writing is so essential to you as a storyteller. A story for a screenplay is built with several smaller stories, i.e., your scenes. How can you expect to master the 100-page story form without mastering the three-page form?
You probably know a scene when you see one, but let’s jump into the nitty-gritty to augment your intuitive understanding. We will explore each of its aspects individually with the ultimate goal of pulling them all together to create a working definition.
In recent years, some modern movies have had scenes with average duration as short as a minute or so. However, scenes in today’s films average two to three minutes, which is a minute less than forty years ago. An average movie these days is 110 minutes. I’ll do the math for you. Most feature screenplays contain between thirty and fifty scenes, but don’t be surprised if your count is upwards of seventy.
Don’t get caught up in the habits of some of the greatest scene writers in the world and their fun in blasting this convention. I am talking about the eight-page opening of The Social Network, the twenty-minute tavern scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the tense “I drink your milkshake” scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, or even the multi-character talky scenes in several of Woody Allen’s films.
In general, a longer scene needs a stronger punch, a more powerful climactic twist. No one wants to watch a ten-minute scene in which a character waits for a blind date who never shows up and who never even appears in the movie. That scene should be quick and short. Notice, however, that no one complains about the length of the opening of Saving Private Ryan.
Hold tight. Later in the book, we cover principles that help you to successfully write longer scenes.
Short scenes can have subtle surprises, but a short scene can also culminate in the biggest surprise in your story. There is no rule or implicit decree that a powerfully impactful twist must be embedded in a long scene. If so, every surprise strong enough to turn an act would be telegraphed by its long and lingering scene.
How long should your scenes be? Even if there were an exact answer, it would be different for every scene and every movie. A fast-paced action or thriller franchise like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Bourne Identity might favor shorter scenes, whereas character-based dramas such as Moonlight or Network, or talky comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Superbad might favor slightly longer ones. Start with the goal of two to three minutes each, with a scattering of shorter ones and, if called for, longer scenes containing set-piece moments and emotional high points.
Ultimately the story you are telling, its genre, and your decision on how to tell it will dictate the length of a given scene. By the end of the book, you will have a more well-developed and finely tuned ability to answer this question yourself.
Unified by Time and Space
Scenes are where the story happens. The audience and characters always experience the events in real time, unlike in novels, which often summarize events or condense the passage of time. Past tense does not exist in screenwriting. Even in a flashback, scenes are written in the present tense.
A scene occurs in one place. Can characters move from one room to the next? Sure. In the middle of a bank robbery, a scene might incorporate the bank lobby, its offices, the safe deposit box area, and the vault. Compare this to the set-piece action “segment” from Heat in which Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) and his crew pull off the heist. Three separate locations and movements are featured: the bank with its inner sanctum, the car from the loading of the loot to the subsequent car chase and crash, and finally a foot chase, which ends with Hanna (Al Pacino) shooting Cheritto. This is more than an individual scene. This is a sequence of scenes.
A sequence is when a series of scenes string together to create the unit of storytelling that is slightly larger than a scene. In a feature screenplay, you will find nine to twelve of these major changes or twists. On average, the climax of a sequence will be more consequential than that of any given scene, especially for scenes within the sequence.
Sequences contain the so-called peaks and valleys that culminate in surprises of significant magnitude to drive the story forward. In Heat, the heist sequence begins when the crew enters the bank and ends the moment when Cheritto is shot and the tension that drives the sequence resolves. This action sequence sprawls across nine pages in the script.
How do you determine the difference between a scene and a sequence? Length is a good measure, but also consider the unity of the action or event. Usually, a sequence will have clearly defined subsections. A practical way to determine if a segment of story is a sequence is to try to identify a spot for a TV commercial break within the section. If there is a natural place for an interruption, you’re probably looking at a sequence. Generally, a scene is an indivisible unit, but a sequence is not.
A scene focuses on a single action or event. Essentially, something new happens that pushes the story forward. To illustrate this, here are some examples of memorable scenes from a variety of movies:
• The Hunger Games—Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as tribute to protect her sister.
• When Harry Met Sally—In Katz’s Deli, Sally (Meg Ryan) puts Harry (Billy Crystal) in his place by showing that men can’t always tell when women, ah, fake their pleasure.
• Bicycle Thieves—Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) tries to steal a bike, and his son witnesses the crowd “catching” him.
These moments have a sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each contains a single, complete action. One thing happens that changes the story.
Imagine if a scene were to be about two things simultaneously. The protagonist learns that the villain is hiding out in an uptown warehouse. But he also discovers that his Aunt Myrtle—who raised him as her own—just passed away. As an actor, how do you play both things? As an audience, how do you feel? Which one takes precedence? Additionally, if a scene contains several actions, how do we know when it’s over? A scene usually ends with the character reaching his goal or accepting that it’s a temporary dead end.
Will there be exceptions and gray area here? Yes, but as a storyteller, look for a clear and dominant action that has an uncluttered impact on the progression of the narrative.
A climax, like a peak, is where we stop ascending. When we hit that pinnacle, we want to move on. Stories are ultimately about change. If a scene plateaus, i.e., stays at the same level of tension and doesn’t give the audience anything new, this is the opposite of change. There is a very sophisticated technical term in the industry for a scene that flatlines or overstays its welcome: boring.
The climactic moment should ideally take the form of a surprise or reversal, essentially a change. If the character gets what he wants, then he can head off in a new direction, armed with new information, tools, and purpose. If not, then he must find a new approach to pursuing the same goal.
To see how all-encompassing the climactic twist in a scene can be, let’s go to one of the biggest commercial successes of all time… the moment when Hollywood finally figured out the best way to use the Hulk and his alter ego Bruce Banner.
In the climactic showdown of The Avengers, a huge mechanical monster, the Chitauri Leviathan, seems to be more powerful than any of the Avengers. It’s in the distance and closing in on them. As Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) begins walking toward it, Captain America (Chris Evans) says what’s on the mind of everyone in the movie and in the theater:
Dr. Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry.
That’s my secret, Captain.
Of course, there is a pause in the delivery of the line. The suspense looms. What’s the secret? Can he turn into the Hulk fast enough? Is the approaching monster going to demolish him and his friends? And then the scene turns….
I’m always angry.
Banner’s body starts to swell and stretch and harden. GREEN SHOOTS THROUGH HIS BODY. THE HULK.
The Hulk proceeds to smash the creature.
In addition to its triple duty as a reversal for the scene, the sequence, and the act, the line “turns” the entire legacy of the Hulk character beyond the border of this individual film. This is a reminder that there is no requirement that huge changes must happen only in long scenes.
It would be overkill and its own sort of noisy redundancy if every twist in your story were this big. However, we are going to constantly seek the biggest and sharpest turns appropriate for any given scene.
The biggest, best, and deepest climaxes involve character. A consistent thesis in this book is that a climax that incorporates a change in both story and character has the greatest potential to impact the audience.
In addition to the change in plot—the physical predicament of the protagonist as it relates to his goal—a change in the character’s internal state should also occur. This does not violate the principle of a “single action” because the two are intertwined.
The change, in the form of small-scale or large-scale growth, could lead to the goal’s attainment. For instance, a character’s patience...