August 3, 2016

Up Your Scene Game With This Hands-On Script Exercise

Sideways
This practical exercise will help strengthen your scene writing.

One of the best strategies you can use to strengthen your scenes is to work out their structure by breaking them down into a series of turning points. This practical exercise involves simply choosing a scene from a movie, watching it, and then jotting down the structural turning points. This is a great way of really digging into the nuts and bolts of how a well-crafted scene is put together and illuminating why it works as well as it does. 

By noting the structure, you’ll also see not only how scenes establish what’s at stake, but how they increase the stakes and conflict of the film as they progress through each turning point. Remember that scenes are units of action that move the story along, and without any structure, they run the risk of containing excess fat, slowing down the story and ultimately losing the reader. 

This more hands-on approach works so well because it’s an extension of the purely theoretical approach found in screenwriting books

Where do we begin?

Overall, rather than just thinking of scenes as an unstructured two or three minutes of “conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist”, it’s best to think of them in terms of a “mini-movie.” This is because a scene is its own self-contained story with its own structure, major reversals and a change in fortunes from a positive at the beginning of a scene to a negative (+/ -) or a negative to a positive (- / +).

Let’s start by taking a look at the turning points within a well-crafted scene:

  1. Set Up
  2. Call to Action
  3. Act One Turning Point
  4. Midpoint
  5. Climax
  6. Denouement

Note how a scene can be broken down into most of the same plot points as a sequence, an act, and the overall movie. The only one missing is the Act Two Turning Point, as most scenes have a major reversal at the Midpoint and then end. But I’ll talk more about this in a moment. 

The structure described above gives a scene’s conflict shape and enables it to be fully expressed on the page as a single narrative unit that pushes the story forward. 

Case Study: Sideways

In order to illustrate how to approach this exercise, let’s take a look at a scene from Sideways, written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. In this scene from the end of Act One, Miles and Jack meet Maya at a bar. (You can review it below.) 

Firstly, here are the plot points, and then we’ll look at each in more detail.

  1. Set Up: Miles and Jack are having a drink at the bar
  2. Call to Action: Maya enters and Miles calls her over
  3. Act One Turning Point: Maya asks Jack if he’s an actor and they begin flirting
  4. Midpoint: Maya asks them what they're up to tonight, and Miles says they're probably going to go “crash”
  5. Climax: Maya leaves
  6. Denouement: Walking home, Jack berates Miles for screwing it up 

Note how this scene doesn’t rely on a heap of action or things happening, but illustrates perfectly the fact that even dialogue scenes have structure. So let’s take a look at each element that you need to note in more detail. 

If the Call to Action is a positive moment for the protagonist, it will generally end on a negative one, and vice versa.

1. Set Up

This first beat sets up the action that’s about to unfold. To use a three act structure analogy, these initial moments represent the scene’s “ordinary world,” in which things seem momentarily normal. In this beat, the protagonist often muses on, or talks about, what just happened in the previous scene. Even if they’re in a thriller or a horror, they’ve still got things under control at this point. We may be on edge, the characters aren’t. Yet. 

In Sideways, we find Miles and Jack quietly enjoying a glass of wine at the bar. The scene is set, ready for something to shake it up. 

Sideways
Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen as Miles and Maya in 'Sideways'

2. Call to Action

The scene gets moving with the arrival of the Call to Action. In this moment, something happens—another character asks a question, a picture is noticed in a newspaper, a noise is heard down the corridor—and the scene sparks into life. Although the stakes haven’t been raised yet, and there’s no real conflict, it’s time for the characters to stop chilling and get their wits together.

The other important thing to note about the Call to Action is that it plays a large part in determining whether the scene turns from a positive to a negative (+/ -) or a negative to positive (- / +). The Call to Action in a scene serves the exact same function as the Call to Action in a sequence, an act and the overall movie. If it’s a positive moment for the protagonist, it will generally end on a negative, and vice versa. 

In Sideways, the stakes suddenly go up a notch when Maya unexpectedly enters the bar, as we realize that this is Miles’s chance to make a move. The scene, therefore, officially kicks off on a positive beat (+). This is rammed home even more by the writers’ choice make it Miles who asks Maya if she’d like to join them, not Jack. Things are definitely looking up! 

Sideways
Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as Miles and Jack in 'Sideways'

3. Act One Turning Point

This Act One Turning Point is the first major reversal of the scene, as the characters enter into the “extraordinary world” of Act Two. After some long or short exploration of the idea raised at the Call to Action, the characters are thrown a curveball as the action veers off in a different direction—opposite to the one they thought it was heading in. From here on in, we’re now officially in the “meat” of the scene. 

The stakes, intrigue, suspense, conflict—or whatever technique the writer chooses—begins to rise, as key bits of information about the characters and/or plot are revealed to the audience.

In Sideways, the Act One Turning Point and first major reversal occurs when Jack launches into his actor schtick. As Maya laps it up and Miles smolders in the background, the stakes begin to rise. Is Miles going to get involved? Are they all going to party the night away as Jack hopes? Or will something unexpected happen which tips the scene on its head? 

The intrigue, suspense, conflict, and stakes continue to rise and rise until…bam! The scene is completely spun off in another direction.

4. Midpoint

With the Midpoint comes the second major reversal in the scene. The intrigue, suspense, conflict, and stakes continue to rise and rise until…bam! The scene is completely spun off in another direction—the opposite one from which it started. This can be anything from a simple line of dialogue, to a gun being laid on a table, to a giant robot breaking through the wall. 

Apart from the shock factor, the main requirement for this beat is that it reveals the primary reason that the scene was written in the first place. Whatever the writer intended to show the audience in the scene—whether that’s a character and/or a plot development—this is where it’s revealed. 

In Sideways, the flirtatious tension between Jack and Maya that has been growing since the Act One Turning Point culminates in her asking the men what they’re doing tonight. Miles shocks everyone—Jack, Maya, and the audience—when he rejects her obvious availability by announcing they’re “probably going back to the hotel and crash.” In this scene, the writers wanted to show the audience just how far Miles is from being ready to meet someone new, and they reveal it in this beat.

Sideways
'Sideways'

5. Climax

Once the purpose of the scene has been revealed at the Midpoint, it’s time to get out. Quickly. This is why there’s no Act Two Turning Point as found in the structure of the overall movie. There’s no more small talk—we’ve learned what we needed to learn and now we just need the Climax to affirm it so we can exit the scene. 

It’s at this point that we can label the scene as having ending on either a positive (+) or a negative beat (-). And, as mentioned above, this will usually be the opposite to whatever was established at the Call to Action. 

In Sideways, after Miles throws a wet blanket on the situation, Maya puts out her cigarette, wishes the boys a good night and exits the bar. The scene has gone from a positive beat to a negative (+ / -). There’s nothing more to say, and the scene is almost done. 

6. Denouement 

The Denouement is the short beat at the end of a scene that gives the characters and the audience a moment to take in what’s just happened. It also forms a bridge from one scene to the next, pushing the action forward as the audience are left wondering just what’s coming next. 

In Sideways, the Denouement takes place in a different location (a common technique to mix things up) as we see Miles and Jack stumbling home alongside the freeway. Jack can’t believe how Miles has just brought the night to a premature end, and this bridges the gap between Maya leaving the bar at the Climax, and the Set Up of the following scene, in which we see that Jack’s still angry the next morning. 

Still not sure? Here are some more examples.

Here are a couple more examples of scene turning points:

The 40 Year Old Virgin: Andy and Trish break up (min 104) 

  1. Set Up: Trish tells Andy he might have enough toys to be able to open a store. 
  2. Call to Action: Trish reminds Andy that it’s their twentieth date—they can finally have sex—and starts kissing him. 
  3. Act One Turning Point: As they kiss on the bed, Andy’s toy boxes get knocked to the floor. An argument ensues, as Andy would rather pick up his boxes than make love. 
  4. Midpoint: The argument over why Andy doesn’t want to have sex continues until Trish tells him to get out. Is it over? 
  5. Climax: Andy angrily leaves. The answer appears to be “yes.”
  6. Denouement: Andy cycles away through a red light, narrowly avoiding a pile up. 

The Bourne Identity: Jason gets attacked in his Paris apartment (min 38) 

  1. Set Up: Jason and Marie enter an empty apartment.
  2. Call to Action: Jason calls a hotel and asks for Jason Bourne. Then John Michael Kane. He becomes suspicious someone is in the apartment and picks up a knife.
  3. Act One Turning Point: An assassin suddenly bursts through the window. Jason and the assassin fight.
  4. Midpoint: After Jason wins, Marie goes through the assassin’s bags and sees he has pictures of them both.
  5. Climax: The assassin gets up and jumps to his death out the window.
  6. Denouement: Jason tells Marie it’s not safe and they have to leave.

Simply watching scenes with this structure in mind is a useful exercise, but the real benefit lies in jotting down the turning points in a notepad. That action forces you to get inside the scene and work out exactly what’s happening structurally. This more hands-on approach works so well because it’s an extension of the purely theoretical approach found in screenwriting books, many of which fail to discuss scenes in any depth at all. By breaking down as many scenes as you can, you’ll soon understand how to better structure your own scenes and increase the impact of their conflict and stakes on an audience.      

Alex Bloom founded Script Reader Pro—a script consultancy made up of working Hollywood screenwriters—back in 2010. They have been doing their bit to keep ambiguous “fluff” out of script coverage ever since, as well as creating screenwriting courses and books

Your Comment

4 Comments

Great breakdown.

August 3, 2016 at 4:34PM

0
Reply

This is a fantastic writing exercise! Thank you!

August 3, 2016 at 7:42PM, Edited August 3, 7:42PM

0
Reply

Although I understand what you are trying to illustrate in the sideways bar scene, I think you're missing a key and interesting point. The turning point or pivot is not that jack flirts with maya, by this point the scene has already reversed from its early positive turn irretrievably for miles, the lead character of the film and the central element of its actual story. The key turning point comes earlier when jack lies about miles' book being published to maya, (watch miles face and refusal to toast jacks self serving lie), thereby forcing miles to lie to a woman he respects and wants a genuine connection with. It is at this point that miles first brave leap into the unknown that injects hope into the scene when asking maya to join them, is completely reversed into a negative, for miles, and therefore for the story. This is vital as it not only provides the drama of the scene but also precedes and signals in miniature the entire climax and theme of the film. Jack the actor, wants to have fun but isn't concerned about lying to achieve it, he learns nothing and remains unchanged at the films end. Miles wants to be genuinely loved but is so desperate to be a respected published author that he doesn't correct jacks lie because he wants maya to be impressed with who he thinks she wants him to be. This scene is importantly the first lie to maya that will lead to the mid act climax, where maya discovers jacks been lying to her friend Stephanie and all appears lost for miles. The false defeat that will eventually lead to miles gaining his true goal, self acceptance and then finally a meaningful relationship with maya. What's beautiful in the structure is that jack then illustrates that he is the guy that does the disclaimers for adverts.
"You sound like one of those guys"
"I am one of those guys."
The subtext being that everything he is about to unleash after this scene will be a bending of the truth for his own gain.
What this scene illustrates so well is that a turn in a scene only gets its positive or negative charge based on what the main character truly wants.
Miles negative reaction to jacks lie about him being published reveals not what he thinks he wants, ( to be an impressive writer) but what his true goal is: a sense of genuine self worth. The drama comes out of the characters conflict between these two oppositional goals, to be impressive to others or to be loved and accepted genuinely by yourself. Miles in saying they're going to bed chooses neither, (which if you watch closely isn't a surprise) because he is also enacting his revenge on jack for lying, ( look at his barely contained anger when he agrees with maya that it's a long drive so they must be tired). The scene ends where it began, charge wise, two sad men alone, first in a bar and then walking home on the highway. However the setup to the mid act climax has now been put in motion with jacks lie to maya.

August 3, 2016 at 8:02PM, Edited August 3, 8:22PM

0
Reply
Paul fern
Film maker
152

Sorry, also one more thing that this scene illustrates is how good writing layers many levels into a scene that feed back into one another. Miles is the story. The other characters are there to drive his story. A psychological reading of this scene that's intriguing is that jack represents the side of miles that wants to be outwardly impressive, the actor playing to an audience and maya the soulful more real side of miles that accepts itself and needs no outside audience to complete it. Miles' choice in this respect shows that he is not ready to accept himself yet and is tied to the outward looking false side of his personality.

August 3, 2016 at 10:07PM, Edited August 3, 10:08PM

0
Reply
Paul fern
Film maker
152

sounds good.

August 4, 2016 at 2:12AM

0
Reply
avatar
Mehta Kajal
Delhi Escorts Agency
76