Scene Writing

While story keeps us wanting it’s the scenes that keep us watching. If there’s one area of screenwriting craft discussion that frustrates me it’s the lack of focus on scene mechanics. In fact, while I’ve seen screenwriters lose their shit over incorrectly formatted slug-lines, I’ve seen those same screenwriters discard any conversation about how to structure scenes as overthinking things. This is the sad and all too common side of screenwriting where we obsess over the easy and avoid the difficult. As you can probably tell, this is something that pisses me right off.

Emotion Equals Entertainment

If there is one book I feel every screenwriter should buy or pester their local library to stock it’s Karl Iglesias’ Writing For Emotional Impact, and I know I’m not the only writer who feels this way. There’s really no substitute to reading the book itself but to summarise, we find emotion compelling, be it via poetry, novels, or movies. There is no substitute. As screenwriters it’s our job to work out how to bring the most amount of emotion to a scene, be it in the audience’s face or in their minds.

End the Writer’s Block Stand off with a Bullet Point to the Head

We have to drop the idea that we are creative printers that churn out material from a spool of paper. The typewriter is dead. We do not need to pain ourselves with a blank sheet of paper and curse ourselves when we can’t continue to write near perfect prose. In fact, this outdated concept of writing most likely does us more harm than good as we become distracted by the superficial when we should really be concerned with the foundations.

Bullet point everything and move on. If you’re using a story structure then just bullet point the key beats and add detail until your page become pages. Let beats become sequences, let sequences become scenes, let scenes become moments. Bullet points are easy to go in and change so there’s less to worry about in terms of committing material to the page. Use a note system like Evernote to capture your ideas electronically and easily integrate them into your bullet points. And then, when you’re happy with everything, you can start with the formatting and flowery prose knowing exactly where you are going and being able to focus on what really matters.

Scene Structure and a Nice Big Bowl of PASTO

While there are an endless number of story structure concepts out there, little seems to exist for movie scene structure and I find that a damn shame since this is where the rubber really hits the road. We’re advised to come in late and leave early, we’re taught to have some sort of turnaround, we’re hit over the head continually with the idea of using conflict, and that’s about it, it’s really fucking weak. We’re also told that every line in a scene should move the story forward, but we also know that’s total horse shit based on rich cinematic tapestry of great movie scenes that can completely standalone and would be redundant within a story if it wasn’t for the fact they are really fucking entertaining to watch.

For me PASTO was a revelation. It was something I learned from a working screenwriter. PASTO stands for; preparation, attack, struggle, turnaround, outcome. It’s all about how a scene flows.

Preparation – The characters go into the scene already knowing the obstacles that face them and the likely conflict that will arise and thus have some form of action prepared on their part.

Action – The characters interact and the conflict unfolds as expected.

Struggle – The conflict becomes more dramatic as the character’s actions only worsen the situation.

Turnaround – Something significant and surprising yet logical happens a result of the drama.

Outcome – The characters are now burdened with tackling the new issue that the turnaround has brought about.

Now I think the first reaction screenwriters have when they look at PASTO is “Holly shit! That’s a lot to try and cram in a movie scene!” and it would be, but that’s the wrong way of looking at it. A character’s entire backstory is too much to cram into a movie, as is every detail about their fantasy universe. We cannot afford the page space to log their every thought and we all know movie characters never have time to say goodbye at the end of a phone call. PASTO is no different, it just means we build more behind our scenes and focus on the dynamic that the audience becomes invested in. It actually makes writing scenes easier as it encourages us to focus on the mechanics and reasoning at play. And surely, if there’s any element of our screenwriting that deserves such investment it’s our scenes.

Anyway, long story short, using PASTO and scene writing advice from a variety of sources, I have come up with the following scene pre-writing template. It’s always worth filling one of these in before writing a scene, even if you already have a good idea of what’s going to happen.

TURN & BURN SCENE DEVELOPMENT WORK SHEET
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WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN TO PROGRESS THE STORY?

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WHAT DO THE CHARACTERS WANT?

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WHAT'S IN THEIR WAY?

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HOW DO THE CHARACTERS PREPARE TO GET WHAT THEY WANT?

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HOW DO THE CHARACTERS COME INTO CONFLICT?

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HOW DOES THE CONFLICT BECOME MORE CHALLENGING?

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WHAT IS THE A REVERSAL/REVELATION?

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HOW DO THE CHARACTERS ADAPT AND GET WHAT THEY WANT?

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WHAT PRICE IS PAID?

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WHAT IS THE OUTCOME AND NEW GOAL?

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WHAT CHARACTER EXPOSITION AND DIMENSIONS ARE SHOWN?

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WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN PLANTED?

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CONFLICT ENVIRONMENTAL/INTERNAL:

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HERO CONTRAST PERSONAL/ENVIRONMENTAL:

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THEME:

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HOW CAN THE AUDIENCE EMOTIONALLY RELATE?

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SCORES:
Action:
Humor:
Emotion:
Tension:
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NOTES: