Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro, a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood screenwriters, speakers, and consultants. Through their actionable script coverage and hands-onscreenwriting course, Alex and his team provide a road map to take screenwriters out of the often confusing land of screenwriting advice, and toward a place where they’re confident of what works on the page and what sells. Twitter: @ScriptReaderPro
When it comes to writing a screenplay scene, many spec scripts fall into the same traps again and again. Some of the most popular mistakes aspiring screenwriters make when writing scenes are:
Repetitive action: characters say and do things we already know
Uninteresting action: characters say and do things we expect
Excessive chatting: characters sit around shooting the breeze instead of acting
Excessive length: scenes go on for much longer than they need to
No structure: scenes float along with no turning points or escalation in conflict
In order to combat these problems and more within a screenplay scene, here are my favorite three hacks that you can use to tighten them up.
1. The Silent Movie
One of the biggest problems that plagues scenes in spec scripts is a lack of visuals. The old maxim that screenwriting is a visual medium gets lost along the way somewhere, and we’re left with scenes in which characters talk about things that’d be much better represented through action.
For example, in the screenplay scene below, we meet Amy and Marvin for the first time. She’s an actor and he’s an unemployed, jealous boyfriend.
INT. AMY’S APARTMENT - DAY
Marvin as he paces the room.
As if you being unemployed
helps in covering our debts!
Who do you think you are,
Kristen Stewart?! Put your feet
down to earth, no you won't walk
the red carpet! Stop being so
In this case, we have two characters arguing about each other’s lifestyle, but we haven’t been properly introduced to the characters in a visual, action-based way. We could’ve seen Amy, for example, acting on set, and Marvin lounging around at home watching daytime TV.
A great way to combat this kind of uncinematic “talk over action” writing, is to visualize the script scene as a silent movie.
Take each scene with dialogue in it, and visualize how it would play out if you weren’t able to use dialogue. In the above example, we could see Amy on set, get in a cab, return home and find Marvin lounging around drinking beer and watching TV.
She could stop in the door, amazed at the sight, then turn off the TV. Marvin could stand up to face her, but drunkenly lose his balance and fall back on the couch. Amy could laugh bitterly and storm out the room, etc. etc.
Thinking out a screenplay scene without words in this way will force you write visually. Then once you have characters acting instead of talking, you can go back and add in any dialogue that’s needed afterwards.
2. Work Backwards
Often scenes in spec scripts contain a great deal of talking or action, but nothing has really happened. The protagonist of the scene (not necessarily the film’s protagonist) hasn’t moved closer to or further away from their goal. They haven’t experienced a change in circumstances or understanding in some way that’s moved the story along, and so the scene feels redundant.
This happens when the writer hasn’t really decided what the purpose of the scene is, and what the outcome is. This outcome is relayed to the protagonist, and to us in the audience, at the climax of the scene, so here’s how to fix it:
Work backwards, from the climax to the set up.
Decide why this scene is in the script and what you want it to show the audience. Then decide what the climax to the scene is.
Then work backwards from the climax all the way back to the set up, sketching out how the characters in the scene get from one point to the next. This should ground events in a solid outcome, and help eliminate meaningless filler scenes.
3. Brainstorm Three Different Scenes
Probably the biggest mistakes a writer can make in a scene is being boring. When characters say the obvious and act in a way we expect them to act, all life is sucked out of a story.
If we have a scene in a comedy in which a guy is nervous about asking out a waitress, and we see him acting nervously and talking to his friend about how nervous he is, and then he goes to talk to her but he’s still nervous. And she’s polite but confused, and he ends up walking away without getting her number — then everything’s happened exactly as we expected it to.
Scenes that play out like this give the impression that the writer has just written down the first thing that’s popped into his or her head. Successful screenplays, though, are built on situations that surprise, engage and give us something we’ve never seen before.
So the way to tackle this kind of uninspiring writing, is to write out a scene out in three different ways. Brainstorm three wildly different set-ups, escalations in conflict and outcomes.
Using the above scene as an example, maybe the guy goes up to the girl and realizes she has Tourettes? Maybe as he approaches her, he’s mistaken for a waiter and gets pulled into a dispute over some guy’s dinner? Maybe she's super promiscuous and drags him out back to make out?
Never go with the obvious choice and give your characters the chance to make real choices in a scene too. Once you have the most exciting, interesting, cinematic version of a scene, add it to your script.
Writing Great Scenes