A screenplay is made up of a lot of different pieces: acts, sequences, scenes, etc. Think of them as multi-sized blocks that you must stack, tear down, rearrange, and throw away until what you have before you looks something like a story. But before you can enjoy the tedious task of formation, you have to create these pieces, or blocks, from scratch. To help with this, screenwriter and frequent Tim Burton collaborator, John August (Big Fish, Corpse Bride), whose blog you should be reading religiously, released a handy infographic/PDF of his popular post "How to Write a Scene" that gives screenwriters an easy checklist of 11 bullet points that helps guide them through the process.
Now, this is one of those resources I've always wanted to refer to when I write -- a simple, easy to follow list that will help me to not only start the process of building individual scenes, but to generate more ideas for the story as a whole. But let me say this; people certainly work and create in different ways -- some might find a checklist confining -- but for those whose ideas are like a billion billowing 19th century locomotives careening thither and yon simultaneously inside our poor, squishy encephalons (*takes a breath*), August's simplified guide on how to write a scene is a helpful tool.
We've shared the first page of the infographic below, which contains the first 6 bullet points -- really questions that you should ask yourself when writing a scene, including basic things like what needs to happen and who needs to be in the scene. As you go down the list, however, namely on the second page, August gives you ideas on how to conceptualize scenes, like brainstorming and writing a "scribble" version.
Granted, this checklist isn't the be-all-end-all on how to write a scene, and I don't think that's what August intended it to be. It's the buoy out in the ocean; it might save you from drowning, but it won't get you back on land. Furthermore, writing, like any art form, can't be put inside a box, unpacked, and assembled according to a set of directions like a piece of IKEA furniture. The process of storytelling is different for everyone and every time. It can be complicated or simple. It can be the result of an overflowing imagination or a logical system of ideas. Whichever way you write your screenplays, we all write them one scene at a time, so it really doesn't matter if you get there in 1 step (write it!) or 11.
I'd highly suggest trying out August's checklist on a few scenes to see if it helps you, especially if you're finding it difficult to even organize your ideas enough to get them down on the page.
You can download John August's checklist in PDF form here, and if you want more, be sure to check out his full blog post.
[ Typewriter image from Flickr user Cody Geary]
Link: How to Write a Scene, now in handy two-page form -- John August
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You should add a link to John's podcast Scriptnotes. It's the best!
July 4, 2014 at 4:52PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
Agreed! Their latest podcast on July 1st 2014 is sooooooooooooo much information
July 4, 2014 at 5:00PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
Yes, they should.
August 28, 2021 at 9:55PM
These rules apply only if you want to write a film for Hollywood. Break the rules, create your own.
July 4, 2014 at 6:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
These aren't rules. John would agree that you don't need to follow rules.
July 4, 2014 at 7:16PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
August is right that a rigidly formatted script will get you to a payday sooner rather than later, provided all the other variables are in place. That said - let's say you're writing a police movie - why is the "police station bullpen" a bad location? Sure, you can set it in a cheesy massage parlor or on a hang gliding trip but it is often variety for the sake of variety for those who are used to reading a lot of police scripts.
Full disclosure - my scripts have been dinged for having the "all too familiar" locations, which is apparently a huge deal in some circles. I didn't feel the same way then and I don't feel the same way now. The location fit the story I wanted to tell. And, of course, if you look at some of the top grossing films, the locations have been usually common spots. "Terminator II" - the first fight is in a bar; the second action action scene is in the mall. Oh, how original.
July 4, 2014 at 8:21PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
Though to be fair Terminator 2 is more than two decades old by now...
July 5, 2014 at 2:12AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
As you know Terminator II was written, produced and directed by James Cameron. That amount of creative control allowed him to do things that screenwriters going the prodco or studio route simply can't get away with. Hollywood is changing so much so quickly. More and more spec scripts tend to act as samples; if you write one that people like you may get a shot at writing some already established property (before another more experienced screenwriter is brought in to re-write you.)
No point in moaning about it. No point in reeling of grosses from decade old films to support what you are putting on the page today if readers/prodcos/studios are disagreeing with you. It's adapt or die for feature screenwriters trying to work in the system today. Even television is doing away with many of the old standards: multicam comedy may be the last bastion of the kind of stock writing of the 80's and 90's.
On the other hand there has never been a better time to Produce, Write and Direct and Distribute/Exhibit your own film. In fact I think YOU MUST do this if you want a career today and haven't already been grandfathered into the system.
July 5, 2014 at 2:27AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
Mark, I made the disclaimer that "the payday shall await those that abide by the formulas". The problem with even that notion is that these screenwriting formulas are musical equivalents of a three-minute pop song. There's nothing wrong with a genuinely crafted hook line by the likes of Carole King or Paul McCartney but it does ignore the 15-minute guitar solos by Jimmy Page or Jimmy Hendrix, which became popular because they were not 3-minute pop songs and because the consumer tastes changed. And the consumer tastes will always keep on changing.
And, btw, it's not about the 20-YO terminator II but more about the 40-YO films by Scorsese, Pacula, Lumet and Coppola. In fact, if you look at Godfather (1972), you will find its structure to be horrible. That twenty five minute opening wedding sequence and a 160 page script should technically be scorned.
July 5, 2014 at 9:02AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
You're preaching to the choir my friend. I think these formulas and guides can help beginner writers craft less bad stories/scripts to some extent, but after a certain point they just hold people back. The quality of a great film story really isn't correlated to any paint by numbers beat sequence. You don't need to watch many films to realize that. The 70's were a golden age for American cinema and many of the masterpieces made during that time frequently digress from the so called rules of screenwriting.
My point is that big studios aren't really interested in taking feature spec scripts from unknown writers and making them into films anymore. They want to adapt best seller high concept young adult novels, or make sequels to proven properties. If an interesting script is part of an attractive package--proven director + star actor(s) + marketable premise--they can be tempted to take the plunge if the numbers look good to them. Big studios doing anything outside of this is a rarity. Studios like Pixar/Disney are quite good at giving newer writers a shot but they have a very paternal production style from what I hear and any script that makes it to the production phase has had a massive amount of molding and re-touching by the higher ups.
If you have a script that you really believe in and you don't have access to stars or an enthusiastic production company (how many of us really do?) then you have to find a way to make it yourself. If you do a good enough job and find an audience for yourself or impress an industry head honcho by making your own material you may be given the opportunity to work on a huge scale. Regardless of what you think of their work filmmakers like Gareth Edwards, The Duplass Brothers, Lena Dunham etc, are the examples you should be following if you want to break into the system today.
July 5, 2014 at 12:28PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I don't agree with number 1. Not all characters will avoid conflict, and it should obviously make sense with the decisions they make. You're job is too make the audience interested and writing characters who have obstacles and personal problems to overcome will usually put themselves in conflict and create a scenario or "scene". This seems more catered to writing a Micheal Bay movie where scenes just happen and characters are thrown into situations and must react which can work sometimes because there choices can define them but there are no rules to writing and some of the greatest movies and screenplays have been character driven.
July 4, 2014 at 9:30PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
No sane character willing puts them self in a situation outside their comfort zone, but that's also the place where they have the potential to be most interesting. It doesn't matter if it's an action film or a Sam Mendes film...every good film does it.
July 6, 2014 at 2:23PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I use this:
I learned this from reading Bill Froug's screenwriting tips/books. Basically when u write a scene (or create a moment) imagine what the best possible "Location" could be for it to take place. In other words something striking or interesting. The psychology of the location or what Bill refers to as "visual irony" works well here.
For example have two women in church plotting a murder. The irony is apparent based on the setting or location they are in: a church. Then think about each character in the scene. They should each have an "attitude": an opinion or "Take" on what is happening.
Maybe in this scene one lady is feeling compelled to go along with the murder because the other woman has dirty information on her (his usually ties into the conflict or :::dilemma::: you create between characters or the situation in that moment).
Akin to this Bill Froug talks about the "Goal" of each character. Each character has to have a Want or Need. One that opposes someone else' need. In the scene idea I described one woman wants out of the murder plot… That's her GOAL in the scene. To wiggle out of it. The other wants her in. That's her goal. But imagine just having two women talking in a church with no goal or attitude. You'd have just two old ladies sitting in a church pew. Also never add an extra character who merely observes for the sake of just being there or observing. Absolutely NO bystanders! Delete them.
Lastly, I ask myself what the "Subtext" of my scene is. The location I chose sort of helps and set the whole tone for me here.
For example when it comes to Subtext have a character saying one thing but meaning something entirely different . For example the woman goading the other into the murder can say "Your husband (perhaps he's a politician) was such a generous man. Always thinking of the needs of the community. " Meanwhile showing her a photo of the two having an affair which she secretly took and seeks to use as blackmail against her.
I have found that if you know what your THEME is beforehand you can type that above the scene or moment you are writing. Now when your character (hero or villain) does something have him/her fall into that trap either though dialogue or action. In the scene above it would be "You play you pay". But that's sort of figuring it out as you go along. Sometimes you might not know the theme of the scene. Just use the major theme you have thought about for your film then. Like "Crime doesn't Pay (Pick most any Crime/Noir film) " or "The Good/Beautiful Die Young" (Bonnie and Clyde) or "I Am My Brother's Keeper." (Rain Man). Now when you write your characters with that in mind those scenes will in some way reflect that.
Another example is in the opening scene of God Father. One could say the theme was "Friendship Comes with a Price". Simply type that above your scene and work out that details and dilemma.
Remember: ...If you lack Location, Attitude, Goal, or Subtext in your script it : L.A.G.S. !!!
Man...I hate to spill my secrets...haha.
July 5, 2014 at 7:41PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
The Godfather opening sequence should have had Turk Solozzo's pitch Vito Corleone about his "new business" instead of Bonasera. That exchange alone should have provided enough exposition for the characters and the milieu. Then, after an attempt on Don Corleone's life, a mafia war starts. That eventually costs Sony his life. At the end, Mike murders Solozzo at Louie's Restaurant (in the Bronx).
That would have been the standard plot. You keep the main villain until the very end, as it is done in every Bond movie. You can disperse the personal scenes with Michael and Kay throughout the film.
As a side note, the film has a lot of problem with "reasonable assumptions". For example, considering how much mafia/organized crime coverage was in the press in those days - a glimpse is shown with the dead bodies photos in the newspapers following the Solozzo/McCloskey murders - there's no way Kay doesn't know who the Corleone's are when Michael brings her over to Connie's wedding. Moreover, it's a redundant exposition problem because the Bonasera-Corleone scene introduces the viewer to the mob world. After that, you'd need only a couple of sentences to introduce the "black sheep of the family". "Is Michael coming?" - "Yes, bringing in his high society girl too" - "and probably wearing every one of his war medals on his chest" - "Well, Michael has chosen a different path from the rest of us. God bless him". Done.
July 6, 2014 at 12:12AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
Good list but it's missing the golden nugget of screenwriting wisdom that Matt Stone and Trey Parker use:
" 'Buts' and 'Therefores', NEVER(!) 'And then' "
If you can describe your flow of actions as "This happens and therefore that happens which leads to this happening. But it's thwarted because something else that was done before..." then you are probably on the right track.
But if you can describe your flow as "This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens" Then you are in trouble because "and then" are inconsequential
It's deceptively simple but keeps the scenes and actions relevant and motivated.
July 7, 2014 at 2:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM