OK – so ever smaller we go!
The next unit of story after the sequence is the scene.
Scenes are what we remember from films – and the late-great John Houston once described the difference between a good and great film as “three great scenes, no bad scenes”.
The question of course is how does one go about designing the former and avoiding the latter? The most common mistake I see people make is thinking that a scene is a moment when the plot moves forward, or some action occurs – when new information is released or some spectacle is displayed to the audience.
THIS IS NOT A SCENE!
To write a good scene you need to be very clear about your characters journey and their innermost agenda – because a scene can only be said to exist when the character who is driving that scene either wins or losses something they care about i.e. when their personal agenda suffers setback or enjoys a victory.
Another way of thinking about it is as a positive or negative charge (and I am referring to all the screenwriting guru’s here so claim no credit for this insight).
Imagine your character walks into the scene with either a little cloud or a little sun above their heads. Whichever it was, by the end of the scene – it has to have been reversed – sun for cloud – cloud for sun. If you use scene cards – mark the positive or negative shift on them – and if you can’t identify it – it isn’t a scene yet.
This is the simple core of every good scene. If you are struggling to deliver it, you will be tempted to reach for plot and spectacle and tell yourself “who cares if the character isn’t experiencing a shift in their personal fortune – we just blew up Alcatraz right?!”
No one will care, and you will have just debarred your film from being classed as great because you allowed a bad scene to creep in.
So if the basics of a scene is this change in personal fortunes – what makes a great scene? One definition I heard and liked was that a great scene is one in which character, plot and theme move forwards.
So – at the top level something happens to move the plot of the film forward – a twist, a piece of vital information, and ramping up of the pressure and so on. At the next level down is the character shift discussed above, and at the deepest level, almost certainly not consciously apparent to the audience is the thematic progress.
What does that mean? What is a theme anyway? There are many great treatise on the nature of Theme – I love Lajos Egri on the subject for example. A theme is the underlying meditation that the film discusses. For example, we are in the middle of developing the second film in the Hungerford Trilogy (first film available here on iTunes for pre-order). This film is set in a post-apocalyptic Britain and constantly asks the characters (and the audience) to choose between Humanity vs Brutality and asks us if we survive but have become brutal in the process – can we truly be said to have survived at all?
Like all good themes – there is a tension in it – an implied struggle – and we find that it really helps us orientate sense as we redraft the story. We are interested in scenes which move the plot ahead, which show a character winning or losing – but we are also interested in scenes which present this underlying thematic debate from new angle.
Not every scene does it – but I have a strong belief that it will be the scenes which deliver dynamic shift in plot, character and theme which the audience will remember, and which will put us in the running for a film which even John Huston might call great. That’s the plan anyway!