As I said in previous articles, I suggest approaching a second draft screenplay as a number of mini-drafts, each focusing on a different aspect.
After revising structure and character, we're now ready to turn to the individual scenes. The advantage of this approach is that you don't have to worry about details when you're still working on the larger picture.
It would be pointless, for example, to spend time polishing a scene that may disappear if you later changed the overall structure or revised a key character.
The Scene Draft
For this draft, you work through the script scene by scene, starting with the first.
Read each through a number of times. Look for where the scene works best and where it falters. Is it too long - or too short? Does it work dramatically or is it flat?
Good scenes are the powerhouse of your script - but poor scenes will suck out the energy!
Watch out especially for scenes that are "setting things up". These are very off-putting, both to a reader and to the ultimate audience.
If you find a Setting-Up scene - and you'll doubtless find many - ask yourself if you can give it a dramatic point. Can you bring out some element of conflict or put at least obstacles in the protagonist's way?
Can you build the emotion - whether comedy, tragedy or thriller? If not, then you'll probably need to axe the scene entirely and leave the information till later - or cut it out entirely.
Writers often become over-anxious about telling the audience things.
Questions are more important than answers. Build up questions in the viewers' minds and they will be drawn into the story - and want to find out what happens next.
Short and sweet
Most early draft scenes will need to to be shortened, often dramatically. A good movie scene is usually short and contains a single dramatic beat - that is to say: one dramatic change.
For example, at the start of the scene, the heroine may be desperately trying to find a lost key, by the end she's succeeded or failed. There may be a few major scenes that contain more beats, but keep them to a minimum.
TV scenes may contain more than one beat, as there is generally less money for sets and locations, but even so the beats will be limited. Otherwise your script risks turning into a stage play.
Be ruthless. Find the heart of the scene and get to it quickly, cutting out any preamble. The best scenes dive straight to the heat of the action. And end rapidly - so eradicate any winding down. All those "hellos" and "goodbyes" should go into the trash bin.
You'll be surprised how much tighter and more energised your script becomes.
Who's in charge?
Now, decide who the protagonist of the scene is. It's usually the protagonist of the story as a whole, but not always.
Make sure that she pushes the scene forwards, taking action to overcome obstacles.
This may mean giving her a goal in the scene (which will normally involve planting this in a previous scene). Or it could mean adding new obstacles. Or ensuring that she takes action and doesn't leave it to someone else.
Variety is the spice of life
Next look at variety and pacing. Ideally each scene should be different from the scenes before and after - either faster or slower or funnier or more tense, etc.
As with characters, in the last article, look to see if you have two or more scenes performing the same function. You'll often find that you've written a number of quite different scenes that essentially do the same thing.
Three scenes which show the protagonist saving a dog, defending a work colleague and giving money to a Big Issue saleswoman may all be there to show his positive side. Decide which is the most interesting and delete the rest.
And just as some characters work better when combined into one, the same can apply to half-decent scenes. Often, one really strong scene can emerge from elements from a number of scenes that weren't working on their own.
Many layers make scenes work
Once a scene has been trimmed down and possibly combined with others, look finally at layering in some more elements to make it even better.
Good scenes are generally multi-layered. While pushing the story forwards, they surreptitiously slip in other material that can, for example, set up future issues, deepen character or enrich the theme.
Early in the film Nightcrawler, petty thief Lou comes across a burning car on a freeway. Cops are trying to pull the driver out. As Lou watches, intrigued, a TV news crew arrives to film the incident and he asks a few questions.
It's a simple scene, but does everything we've seen above. It starts the moment he pulls his car over and gets out. Immediately we are plunged into the action of the attempted rescue.
He wants to know how the TV crew work but the script provides obstacles, making the cameramen preoccupied and brusque in their answers. It is faster paced than the scene before and after.
And despite the simplicity of the action, it provides many deeper layers - developing Lou's character, setting up the idea of filming death and injury for TV, his future competitors and the mechanisms and the ethics involved. (You can read the screenplay here - the freeway scene starts on page 4).
Whereas I suggested writing the first draft quickly, jumping over any gaps, this fourth mini-draft should be painstaking and focused, ensuring that each scene is structured in the best possible way.
Once you've done that for every scene in the script, you can move on to the dialogue and description, which we'll be dealing with in mini-drafts five and six...
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Charles Harris new book Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV was published last month by Creative Essentials and is already recommended reading on MA courses. You can buy it here and get the e-book version included for free.
Scenes are the powerhouse of a screenplay - but too often they fail to grip their audience.
This is due to a fundamental mistake that many writers make without realising.
Conflict or dilemma?
Everyone knows that a good scene needs external conflict - what most writers don't realise is that the external conflict is only half the story.
At the heart of every good scene is a dilemma.
A dilemma is essentially a situation in which your protagonist must make a choice between two equally bad alternatives. Without it your external conflict will remain superficial and uninvolving.
Say, for example, your heroine is afraid of heights. She must save a child from falling to its death but can only do it by crawling onto a high ledge.
Her inner dilemma draws us in. Either she stays safe, but loses the child, or she takes a risk and faces her worst fear.
We want her to make the right decision - but at the same time we're afraid for her.
Once she has made her choice, she is then plunged back into external conflict - lets say the ledge is slippery, the child difficult to grasp - which takes us to the next step in the story... and a new dilemma.
This cycle of conflict and dilemma is by no means confined to high-tension action scenes, it comes into all kinds of scenes and genres.
Take a recent episode of the legal drama series The Good Wife. Alicia Florrick's fledgling law firm has no money to pay for an assistant and so she's been relying increasingly on her teenage daughter, Grace.
Grace willingly takes on a fight with their landlords but that leads to a dilemma when Alicia realises that her daughter is spending too much time on the company and sacrificing her own life.
Alicia is faced with two bad options: jeopardise the firm or jeopardise her daughter's future.
But she can't avoid the issue. She must make a decision and she must make it now. The choice she makes leads to her a fresh conflict - she has to confront Grace. Which in turn leads to a new dilemma. And so the cycle of dilemma and conflict continues...
Your own scripts
If written with energy and truth, alternating dilemma and conflict will always grip us.
Now look at your own scripts. Whether planning, writing or editing, where could you bring out the dilemmas more clearly - or create them if they don't yet exist?
Can you see how you could use the cycle of conflict/dilemma/conflict to strengthen your scenes?
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You can spend a day learning more scene-writing skills and turbo-boosting your scene-writing confidence at my workshop Creating Great Scenes in London on Saturday May 21st.
THE ONLY PLACE TO TALK ABOUT THE CRAFT OF SCRIPTWRITING.