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Perspectives on creating the scene

Watch Michael Lengsfield, Molly Naylor, Tom Been and Christabelle Dilks talk about 'creating the scene'
[Michael] We’re going to look at our process for creating a scene. We sit down, most of us I think, work from an outline. We get down, we have to do a certain step in our story. We have to accomplish a certain thing - how do we set it up?
[Christabelle] I like to write the bit that the bare bones of the scene first, so I make sure I absolutely have that and quite often I’ve conceived it in my mind probably, like a dream or something, like a kind of event, I can see that little sliver and then I will probably put that in and then pack around it what I think - get the character in there if it’s necessary and get them out of it’s necessary. But the dramatic beat is the kernel that I want to make sure I’ve got intact, first. [Michael] Molly?
[Molly] When I’m thinking about scenes I think - I am a poet, as well, so I think I think of them in terms of like a stanza of poem, so I’m - so it has a job but it’s not necessarily a job that you would look at and go, oh - I know exactly what that scene is doing.
Perhaps it’s kind of, it might appear slightly abstract or slightly like it’s not kind of, hitting at the point directly, but when I’m actually writing it, I think I approach it poetically and thematically, just to explore what’s happening in that moment and give myself the kind of artistic freedom within that to allow my voice to be there, rather than just the kind of bare bones of they do this, this, this. [Tom] I usually start with the dialogue, even if it’s not going to end up there, even if the scene itself isn’t going to have any dialogue. Maybe it’s just all dramatic action, just visual storytelling.
I usually figure out, even if I have a beat sheet or an ostensible sort of, outline for what the scene is and what the whole narrative on a macro-level is gearing towards. I let the characters speak and then when I figure out how they’re going to react to the situation, whether it’s going to deviate or conform to this sort of, vague nebulous outline I had in my head or committed to paper, like a fool. Then I will work back from that and then once I’ve got those voices down, it’s sort of, of a process of distillation and then I’ll figure out where the dramatic action is, and just sort of omit everything else that’s not necessary.
[Michael] That’s not so far off … [Molly] Will you have a sense beforehand of what needs to be done? [Tom] Oh yeah, but there’s no strict … it may deviate, and it may deviate for the worse and send me into a cul-de-sac that I need to fight my way out of. But sometimes, you know, there’s a possibility it will take me down somewhere I didn’t expect to and that can be a boon. [Christabelle] So, it sounds to me like your work is very much to do with characters’ interaction with one another, perhaps over and above one character pursuing a goal, so you’re - the quality of interactions is vital then.
[Tom] Yeah, even if it is a sort of, traditional quest narrative, it comes from sort of, the interaction, just letting that conflict play out, whether it’s through dialogue, and it usually is in a first draft - my first, first draft. And then seeing where that can zig instead of zag. [Michael] I do well, a similar way to what both of you do. I start with you know, the dramatic circumstances - that’s what I call it. It’s what’s just happened to the character and it has to come from that and I really want to focus on that in as much specificity as I can and figure what just happened to this character? What are they feeling at this point?
What do they have to do now? What are they afraid is going to happen if they don’t accomplish this? And then they set out to do something very specific. And then, I start to think about what’s keeping them from getting this? Who’s up against them? What does that person need to do? And then, where does it take place? And what I’m hoping is I can set up a kind of, a collision of goals and let the scene kind of, explode out of that. That’s what I’m hoping anyway and it takes me someplace - sometimes it takes me someplace I didn’t expect to go.
I was thinking at this point, it’s more what makes the individual scene really, you know, cook for us - that it has life, that it has believable dialogue, that it’s … engaging .. [Tom] That it’s raising active questions, yeah. [Christabelle] And I think the stakes - the stakes, we need to know what the stakes are [Michael] We want to think about how individual moments in a film come to life - how we create this, the action, you know, that’s going to move us, that’s going to engage us, that’s going to push the story along.
[Molly] Yeah I like - I have to remind myself every time I’m writing a scene that the scene has to work really hard, so as much as I enjoy scenes that, when I’m watching a film, that might look as if they don’t have any place - it’s just two guys having a burger. Of course, that’s there for a reason, often, and so, in my work, I’m having to make sure it’s doing everything that it can do, it’s fulfilling its potential. It’s like, okay, so this is a conversation that needs to be having within the film but also, what else can it be doing? How can we make it work super hard?
So, not just a conversation but also, can we add something else to this to give it that extra bit? [Tom] Working so hard - it’s hard enough that it can disguise its own efforts. [Michael] Right, exactly, that’s the main thing - make it do all these things that make it appear effortless. [Molly] And make it so that if you cut that scene, it wouldn’t make sense. You want to make it very hard … [Tom] It’s got to justify its existence, right.

What is our process for creating a scene?

In this discussion each educator shares his or her process for creating a scene.

This article is from the free online

An Introduction to Screenwriting

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