When I'm talking about scene design, I'm not referring to the furniture in a room or what's hanging on the wall. I'm talking about how a writer structures each scene in a screenplay. In particular, I'm talking about the length of those scenes, which is determined by when a scene begins and when a scene ends.
Typically, a beginning screenwriter will write scenes that are too long, that are too inefficient. This error is pandemic because screenwriting is the most efficient narrative form we have. Every word, every moment, has to matter in a screenplay. Beginners almost always begin their scenes earlier than they should and then carry them on longer than they should.
When Should a Scene Begin?
A screenplay is built in modules, scene by scene. For this reason, it is difficult to talk about any single scene out of the context of the whole. All the same, basic principles of efficient scene design are part of the screenwriting craft.
A scene in a screenplay should begin as late as possible. What does this mean? Let's take an example.
A husband and wife have been separated. The husband is the protagonist in the story. He and his wife are meeting for lunch to talk about their future. The wife is going to tell him she wants a divorce.
Most beginners would spend a lot of time getting the husband to this lunch meeting. He might take some time deciding what he is going to wear. He might dawdle on the way, so as not to be early and appear to be anxious. He might fortify himself with a drink or two. Finally he'll be met at the restaurant by a hostess and led to the booth where his wife waits. They'll be small talk. A waiter will take an order for drinks. More small talk. A waiter will take their lunch orders. More small talk. Eventually they'll get around to talking about their marriage, at which time the wife will say she wants a divorce.
Although there are dramatic contexts in which this slow development can work (see below), in most cases this scene will be too slow. It has too much fat. What is the point of the scene? The news of divorce. A more skilled screenwriter, therefore, would open the scene just before this moment. The couple is already seated at lunch. They are eating silently. Suddenly the wife pops the news.
But there is a context in which the slow version is stronger than the more efficient version. Let's say that while getting ready, the husband fetches a handgun, loads it, and hides it on his person. Now where there was slow development and fat before, there is tension because we are on the edge of our seats, wondering what he is going to do with the gun. And the longer we have to wait, the more tense the story becomes.
In other words, for slowly developing scenes to work, there must be an element to justify their pacing. In general, the crisper the scene, the better.
When Should a Scene End?
What about getting out of this scene?
In the first version, without the gun, beginners would have the wife pop the news and have this lead into an argument, probably the kind of argument we've heard many times before. This argument may take several pages, even though we learn nothing new from it.
A more skilled screenwriter might have the wife's news be the last line in the scene. A quick look at the husband's reaction and cut: maybe to the husband having a drink in a bar, or talking with a friend, or sleeping with his mistress.
Once again, the gun changes everything because it adds a dynamic new element to the dramatic mix. The wife gives the news. A beginning writer might have the husband take out the gun and shoot her. Chaos results. The husband is wrestled to the ground by customers. He barely gets away.
A more skilled screenwriter would surprise us. The husband takes out the gun and points it at his temple. Would he really? The wife looks like she's about to have a heart attack. He pulls the trigger. Nothing. "I was going to shoot you but I chickened out," he says. "I took out the bullets. Have a nice life." He leaves.
(to be continued)