Writing A Screenplay: The 3 Objectives of Each and Every Scene

When writing a screenplay, many screenwriters want to hurry and get their first draft on the page without doing a lot of planning because just finishing 100 pages is often the hardest part.  I like to call this a “rough first draft,” because it’s really NOT a first draft.

A screenwriter who goes straight for writing the script instead of a first writing a treatment often knows that some of the scenes will not be right for the final screenplay, but it’s still worth it to them to hit that milestone and complete that rough first draft, even if it’s a bad one.

I have no objection to this — even though I think it’s far smarter to write a treatment first — but the problem is, some of the willy-nilly scenes that were slopped onto the page to get that rough first draft done stay in the screenplay when they no longer serve the story.

I’ve read and analyzed literally thousands of screenplays in depth. I’ve worked with the range of talent from top directors in Hollywood down to writers who didn’t know how to format a screenplay.

Across the  board, the most common problem I see in writing a screenplay is having irrelevant or boring scenes in the script. Sometimes it’s just to fill the pages to get to the magical 85-page minimum. And other times, scenes are still in as vestiges of the original rough first draft and the writer never went back and analyzed their purpose.

This is a huge problem when a scene is plopped in just to add to the page count. A plopped-in scene breaks the tension of the story, it slows down the pace, it shifts focus…It does all kinds of damage if the scene is not organic to the flow of the story.

Every scene in your script needs to appear to arise organically as it it’s naturally the next scene.  Of course it takes a lot of work to make it seem so organic and natural, but that’s the work of spending lots of time in your chair writing.

Developing a plot line so that each scene seems like a fluid outcome of the prior one is a whole other topic. I’m not going to go in depth on the over-arching plot here because this article is about the objectives of individual scenes.  Although at some point, I’m sure I’ll write about plot as a bigger picture, so stay tuned for that.

Now let’s go back to the objectives of the individual scenes in your script.

Every scene in your script needs to be purposeful.

Every single scene needs to meet at least two of the three key objectives. If it doesn’t then it either needs to be cut or re-written so it does do at least two of the following three things.

Actually, there is one other type of scene that doesn’t have to do any of these three things but I’ll tell you what that is later in the article.  For all intents and purposes, you should make sure that each of your scenes meets at least two of the following three objectives.

The three objectives are amplify the theme, move the plot forward, and develop the character arc. Now let’s look at each of these.

1. Amplify the theme.

Your theme is basically what the whole point of your story is. What’s it really about? Your story needs to offer some insight into the human experience.  We become riveted when we see your characters confronting real life situations — and a movie script has to show an amplified version of what we normally deal with.

That topic and the lesson your character learns is the theme of your story. Your scenes and sequences need to always have an eye toward this and have images, dialogue and references to the theme throughout your screenplay.

2. Move the plot forward.

If you have scenes that are only thematic but nothing moves forward, then the story will be boring.  In the film The Wolf of Wall Street, Leondardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, the real-life Wolf, and DiCaprio does an amazing thematic speech about money.  It’s inspiring to the employees and at the end of it, he gives them a call to action, which sets up the next plot point. Having that speech turn into action for the plot is critical. He’s not merely pontificating when he gives this speech, he has a very specific intention.

In fact, all three objectives are met.  We definitely see his character revealed, the theme is greatly amplified, and it definitely moves the story forward. In this scene, the three objectives are so integrally woven together that it’s nearly impossible to imagine what it would look like to have only one of the three met. I see far too many scenes, however, where the characters are just talking away and nothing is really happening with the plot.

And that brings us to the third purpose.

3. Develop the character arc.

The scene from The Wolf of Wall Street mentioned above shows us Jordan Belfort’s character. It intensifies what we’ve already seen and it builds tension around the question of how long he can push things. The way DiCaprio performs the scene, you can feel a very strong personal intention behind what he’s saying. He doesn’t just do it to motivate the people in the office, you can feel he’s on a mission. Because this scene accomplishes all three things, it is one of the most memorable scenes in recent movie history — even if you hate the principle he speaks of.

If a scene doesn’t push up against your character’s limits in some way, it can be flat.  Your scenes ideally should always be revealing character or developing the character arc.  And by doing so, it will make your scenes much more exciting.

Those are your three objectives for each and every scene and you should try to fulfill at least 2 of them in each and every scene.  As you are hopefully beginning to see , all three of these purposes would ideally work together in an intimately interwoven style.

Above I mentioned that there is one other type of scene that doesn’t necessarily fall into this category, and that is a spectacle or production scene.  This is a scene where Hollywood gets to show off its big money, big technology, or creativity with a gigantic dance number, a battle scene, a bunch of stuff blowing up, a food fight… or some other such thing that is just for the audience to enjoy the moment of the awesomeness of Hollywood movies.

These kinds of scenes are for sheer spectacle and entertainment value and are perfectly fine.  These are the scenes that often get talked about when the movie is over.   While they do address what’s going on in the plot, they typically they go on longer than necessary simply for the purpose of proving a cool, spectacle scene with great entertainment value.

Summary

To dramatically improve your script, go scene by scene and see which of the three objectives/purposes above it meets. If it doesn’t meet at least two of them, then rewrite or take it out.

Keep in mind that shooting one page of a film often costs tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  For a truth check, go scene by scene through your script and ask, “Is this scene really worth $10,000 (if it’s a $1M film) or $500,000 if it’s a $50M film?”  If not, you need to take it out or improve it. This will absolutely orient you to what scenes need to go and what ones need to stay.

I hope you have found this helpful. If you would like have to a professional assessment on your screenplay, check out the types of script analysis I offer.  Most screenwriters tell me that two of the most valuable things they get from the script reviews I do with them is that it helps them to clarify what they want to say in their stories and saves them a lot of time on fixing the problems because they are so clear after we speak. Let me know if I can help.  ###