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Specs & The City: Building a Scene and 'The Social Network'

Let’s start with a quick exercise. I want you to think about your favorite movie. Now pick your favorite scene from that movie. Got it? Good. Keep it in mind while you read this week’s column, and we’ll touch base on this again a little further down. For now, let’s jump right into the deep end of the pool shall we?

Simply put, effective and evocative scenes are the building blocks of a good script. If your individual scenes don’t work, it’s impossible for your script to be anything than mediocre at best. It’s a harsh truth, but one worth learning as early in your career as possible. Most of the time, when I hear beginning writers talk about scenes in their script it’s in relation to whether they should keep it, or cut it. This generally ends up being an abstract discussion of “does the scene work?”


Later, once that writer has some experience under their belt, that discussion shifts slightly and the purpose of a scene gets brought into the mix. Does every scene in the script move the plot forward, offer exposition, or offer character development (and ideally you’re looking to do at least two of these, if not all three)? If the answer is, “No”, the right response is usually to cut the scene. It’s bloat. This is a pretty good exercise to go through once you’ve done a few rewrites and it allows you to trim your page count (or devote those pages to another part of your script that needs development).

Then we reach the final stage of a writer’s understanding of a scene. That elusive moment when they realize that each scene is a mini-movie and needs to have its own dramatic arc. That’s right, every scene in your script needs to have its own beginning, middle, and end.

There’s a great script written by this up-and-coming screenwriter named Aaron Sorkin that illustrates this point perfectly. Let’s take a look at…

Building a Scene and ‘The Social Network’


By this point, love it or hate it, everyone is fully aware of the film affectionately known as “the Facebook movie”. The scene we’re going to look at is the very first one. Mark and his girlfriend, Erica, are sitting in a bar having a chat. Almost immediately, we’re introduced to Mark’s self-centered personality and his obsession with belonging.

What we’ve got, is a beginning

How do you distinguish yourself in a population
Of people who all got 1600 on their SAT’s?

With that line, Mark kicks off a conversation that will change the direction of his relationship with Erica, though neither of them realize it at the time. As the scene progresses, Erica grows more and more confused by Mark’s rapid-fire, tangential conversation. She’s trying to engage him, and then accidentally hits Mark in one of his most vulnerable areas - no, not there. Get your mind out of the gutter – his ego.

And we’ve got our middle…

You can see why it’s so important to get in.
Okay, well, which is the easiest to get into?
Mark is visibly hit by that…

Why would you ask me that?

I’m just asking.

This marks a change in tone and direction for the scene. It’s no longer about Mark’s need to belong, it’s about Mark’s inability to really understand how to connect with other people. And about the anger that lay just under the surface of this harmless looking young man. He perceives that he’s been insulted by Erica, and responds in kind.

All of which bring us to the end…

Erica takes Mark’s hand and looks at him tenderly…
You are probably going to be a very successful
Computer person. But you’re going to go through
Life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re
A nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom 
Of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because
You’re an asshole.
And with that stinger, Erica walks off. We slowly push in on Mark. A fuse has just been lit.

As the scene closes, Sorkin not only included exposition - Mark got 1600 on his SAT’s, he wants to get into a finals club, etc. – offered up character development – Mark’s driving need to be accepted. To prove he belongs. – and moved the plot forward – Erica’s break-up with Mark sets the events in motion which will ultimately lead to the creation of Facebook, but also adhered to this concept of structuring a scene.

This scene has the perfect dramatic arc, passing through a beginning, middle, and end on its way to the next scene which, surprise, then repeats the process. It’s the very definition of an efficient and evocative scene.

Just for fun, go back to the scene from your favorite film that you picked back at the beginning. Go over it in your head or, even better, go find the script and read the scene. Does it accomplish all of these things? I’m willing to bet it does.

And that leads to an even better question; do your own scenes accomplish them? Go back and think about this during your next rewrite. Every scene you improve is another solid brick you’ve added to the building that is your screenplay.

Now hit that “Like” button and keep writing!

Meet Brad Johnson in person at Screenwriters World Conference in NYC April 5-7!


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