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 minds 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 really grinds my gears. The most common difference I notice between good writers and bad writers is the ability to write scenes that move the story, character development, and overall theme forward.

Emotion Equals Entertainment

If there’s 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 its message; 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 in the form of happiness, amusement, fascination, excitement, anger, fear, and sadness.

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 In fact, this outdated concept of writing most likely does us more harm than good as we become distracted by the superficial when we should really be concerned with the foundations. We are writers, not typists.

Bullet point everything you have and move on. If you’re using a story structure then just bullet point the key sections (Year, Learn, Turn, Burn, Earn) and add more bullet points under those sections until your page become pages. Let beats become sequences, let sequences become scenes, let scenes become story. 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 to capture your ideas electronically and easily copy and paste them into your bullet points. Then, when you’re finally 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.

Writing blind can too often be writing in fear. Imagine trying to perfectly paint a blank canvas by starting in the top corner and having no idea what the final image will be. No sketching out. No thought about proportions. No consideration of colour. That would be considered madness, or at best, a poor way to execute craft.

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 shame since this is where the rubber really hits the road. We’re advised to come in late and leave early,  have some sort of turnaround, use conflict, and that’s about it. It’s really weak. We’re also told that every line in a scene should move the story forward, but we know there’s a rich cinematic tapestry of great movie scenes that can standalone and would be redundant within a story if it wasn’t for the fact they are entertaining to watch.

For me PASTO was a revelation. It was something I learned from another working screenwriter. PASTO stands for; Preparation, Attack, Struggle, Turnaround, Outcome. It’s all about how a scene flows in terms of what characters want to happen, how they try to make it happen, and how they have to deal with the results.

Preparation – The characters go into the scene wanting something and 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.

Struggle – The conflict becomes more dramatic as character’s actions heighten the conflict.

Turnaround – Something significant and surprising 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 crap! 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. 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 looks like more work but it actually makes writing scenes easier as it encourages us to focus on the mechanics and reasoning at play. PASTO helps you get from point-A to point-B in the most entertaining way possible.

Example: In Silence of the Lambs (1991) Clarice Starling visits Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the Tennessee courthouse with the goal to try and identify the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill so she can save Catherine Martin. Hannibal however has fallen for Clarice and wants to form an intimate relationship with her. Clarice enters the scene knowing she has already betrayed Hannibal with a fake prison transfer offer and tries to win him over by claiming she’s visiting to return his precious drawings back to him. Hannibal himself has read her case-file and prepared annotations to help her but neither we nor Clarice know this. Hannibal opens by accusing Clarice of visiting to wheedle him into giving up information once again, quickly creating strong conflict between them. She counters by claiming she wants to be there for personal reasons, knowing full well that will appeal to him. Hannibal engages in discussion about Buffalo Bill’s motivations but, rather than give clear guidance, talks in riddles to drive down the clock and further frustrate her, eventually stating she has nothing to barter for help other than sharing her most intimate secrets from her childhood. Clarice, in a moment of complete fragility, submits and reveals that she is haunted by the child-like screams of lambs she heard being slaughtered on the ranch she was sent to as an orphan. Hannibal concludes this forms her entire motivation to save Catherine and, satisfied by knowing Clarice’s deepest wound, hands over the case-file she needs, stealing his first physical touch of her in the process of the exchange, and thus gives her the leads she desperately needs to pursue in her investigation. 

Using PASTO and scene writing advice from a variety of sources, I have developed a little further to 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: