Monday, September 24, 2007

When is a scene not a scene?

At present I’m working on a screenplay which uses a structure variously referred to as multi-plot, or multi-protagonist or ensemble structure. It’s similar to the storytelling paradigm used in films like Happiness, Crash, Magnolia and so on. Apart from it being immeasurably more stimulating for the brain than anything Dr. Kawashima can throw at you, it also poses an interesting challenge in terms of writing scenes.

Because each of the main characters has a relatively limited amount of screen time, only ten scenes altogether for some of them, I have to force myself to be absolutely unequivocal about the function of every scene. I have very little time to establish characterization and conflict, so my choices become that much more critical.

So the question “when is a scene not a scene?” isn’t an academic one. It’s a practical query concerning how to keep the audience engaged with the story even though they’re following more characters and plotlines than they’re used to.

The answer is: A scene isn’t a scene when it’s merely a situation, a series of actions or images which depict a set of circumstances without raising a dramatic question.

A situation can certainly be as interesting as a scene in terms of imagery, acting, dialogue, and so on. And I’m not an Aristotelian fundamentalist who demands that every element in a screenplay must develop character and move the plot forward, as the manuals say. But in the screenplay I’m writing at the moment, if I don’t leave the audience wondering what’s going to happen next, then my multi-whatever structure is going to confuse rather than intrigue.

My way of making sure each scene earns its place in the screenplay, is to ask myself these basic questions at the outline or treatment stage (i.e., before I start writing the scene itself):

1. What action dominates the scene? That becomes my scene title in a scene list. Not necessarily anything dramatic, but a title which I will recognize immediately.
2. What’s the main conflict in the scene? This becomes my “scene subtitle” in a scene list.
3. What are the main beats in the scene? This becomes the kind of simple, one paragraph prose description I use in a treatment.
4. What further action does the scene cause? This becomes the hook at the end of the scene which makes you want to know what happens next.

Of course these are not the only questions I ask myself whilst planning the scene, but if I’ve got these items covered, at least I know the basics are sound. And being an anal, analytic type, I’ve created separate headings in Word which remind me to articulate these four items whenever I plan a scene. So when I type the scene title and press enter, the heading for Main Conflict appears, after which there’s a heading for a slugline, then a scene description and finally a turning point.

Each item looks different and is immediately recognizable. Here’s what it looks like:

The format is also collapsible, so I can see a list of only the scene titles, or the scene titles with the main conflict, etc.

This way of thinking about scenes forces me to remain focused on the essentials of each character’s story and to present them visually.

I’ll post the date of the premiere well in advance …

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