Ever get stuck while writing a scene? It worked in your outline, you know what has to happen at this moment in the plot, but you can’t seem to get a handle on how to structure this beat in your story?
One of the most common problems with scenes, whether in film, memoir or fiction, is that they don’t contain all the necessary ingredients to make them full fledged moments that move the story forward.
Blake Snyder, in his terrific book, Save The Cat!, writes about the four things you need to make a scene truly successful.
1. There must be conflict
2. There has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end
3. The scene has to move the story forward
4. There must be an emotional shift for the character.
What’s great about this check list is that you can actually use it on your problem scene to understand why it isn’t working. Today we’re going to analyze two scenes with these criteria in mind, so you can see how these elements function.
Because of copyright issues, I can’t embed film clips in this blog (dang it!) But take a moment, go to YouTube and watch two scenes. One is called “Django Unchained: The Sheriff Scene” and the other, “The Hangover- Taser Scene.”
Here’s the YouTube link.
You back? Both scenes are pretty great, right?
Let’s see how all four ingredients play out in the DJANGO UNCHAINED scene…
1. Conflict. At the opening, the conflict is that Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. Shultz (Christoph Waltz) are being kicked out of town. The conflict then intensifies when Shultz kills the Sheriff.
2. Structure. The beginning of the scene is the two men talking in the office. The middle is when they are forced outside and Shultz takes his first and second shots. The end is where they walk swiftly back into the building. Notice, this scene is structured almost like a mini-movie. Set up, development, climax (the second shot), resolution.
3. Moves the story forward. Yep– Because Shultz shoots the Sheriff, it’s now imperative they get out of town. This action also triggers a lot of people coming after them later in the story.
4. Emotional shift. Django starts the scene slightly nervous, and at the end is totally frightened. There’s no emotional shift for Shultz, because that’s just how his character rolls.
So many great Tarantino touches here. Notice how, after the second shot, one of the townspeople plops down in a dead faint and the rest of the citizens scatter like rats?
Now, let’s turn to the scene from THE HANGOVER…
1. Conflict. Self explanatory. The guys are getting tased by kids!
2. Structure. At the beginning of the scene, the guys are standing around, clueless. The middle of the scene is them getting shot, one by one. The end is the cop asking the kids if they want to go do their fingerprints. This scene too is structured like a mini movie, building to the climax where the chunky kid shoots Alan in the face and he has to be re-tased by the cop.
3. Moves the story forward. Yes. By letting the cops use them for target practice, the guys are allowed to leave the police station and continue their quest to find Doug.
4. Emotional shift. All the characters go from bewildered to unconscious.
Take action! If you have a scene that’s not working, does it have all the above ingredients? Is there conflict? Is the scene structured like a mini movie (beg/mid/end?) Does it actually move the plot forward? (Be hard on yourself with this one. Does it? Really?) And finally, is there an emotional shift for the primary character?
Pick one of your weak scenes and make it stronger. Hint: guns and tasers are helpful.