Anatomy of a Scene

King KongOne of the least discussed, least understood components of a screenplay is also, ironically, one of its main units of story measurement, character development, and plot information: the scene.

Too many beginning writers unfortunately seem to think that most scenes are throwaway moments, and that somehow the overall story structure is more important than its individual pieces, or that most scenes are simply stepping stones to act climaxes. This is a huge, and fatal, mistake. Until a writer begins to see a script’s every moment as indispensable and intimately interconnected to every other moment, many of their middle-of-the-act scenes will continue to fall flat, and their climaxes will be unsupported by all that has come before them.

The Structure of Scenes and Scene Sequences

A scene is a like a miniature model of the story itself, in that it also has an act structure. More importantly, a scene is like an act in itself, in that it is part of a larger three-act structure composed of scenes.

The way that this works is that roughly every ten pages of a screenplay has its own three-act structure, which is built from scenes or scene sequences (a series of interconnected incidents that function like a single scene) that function as individual acts. So, a scene itself can be looked at as an act. And, a scene can also be thought of having its own tiny “acts,” which I refer to as “beats.”

To reiterate:

Screenplay = 4 acts of 30 pages each
One act = 30 pages, or three ten-page subacts
Ten pages = three scenes or scene sequences
One scene or scene sequence = three beats
Beat = the smallest unit of a scene

An easier way to look at this is that all stories have a beginning, middle, and end–three parts. Acts and scenes are simply smaller stories, and like building blocks, stack together to make an entire story. So, each part can be broken into three smaller parts, the smallest unit of all being the beat. Beats, scenes, acts, and stories are to screenplays what seconds, minutes, hours and days are to telling time.

Note that if your script is shorter, then the timing of these units must naturally be shorter. For a 100-page script, for example, an act becomes “25 pages” instead of “30,” and “Ten pages” becomes “eight or nine pages.” But, another caveat is that third acts are often shorter than other acts, so this also may not quite always fit. And first acts have their own unique structure that serves to jump-start the story, and so these measurements will also not always exactly conform when looking at a first act.

Like all such “rules” of script construction, these scene structures are not written in stone. But if you observe their use in the works of others, maintain awareness of them in your own work, and use them when appropriate or useful, they can often help you give your story the tightest, most dramatically effective structure possible.

The Function of a Scene

Scenes are not just a way to get your characters from point A to point B, but an integral part of act structure and character development. While this statement may seem obvious on the surface, its actual execution is often completely mishandled by many writers, whether novice or advanced. What these writers fail to grasp is that all good scenes should have both macrocosmic (“big picture”) and microcosmic (“in-the-moment”) dimensions. In other words, they should create a vivid and immediate impact, and they should also relate to the overall telling of the main story at large.

Scenes typically have four possible functions:

  • Forward either a story’s plot, one of its subplots, or both.
  • Reveal or explore a character’s personality or behavior through their actions.
  • Introduce or deepen thematic ideas.
  • Give expository information.

Good scenes do at least one or more of the above–great scenes do all of them! This does not mean that every scene should do all of these things, only that you should be keenly aware of when a scene should or should not have these elements. But scenes that pull “double-duty” and contribute to the story in more than one of these areas are highly desirable additions to your script. The overall benefit of such information-packed scenes is that your story will feel much more dense and layered, and such scenes will conserve ever-so-valuable script time.

It is important to note that the emotional effect of a scene, such as to make the audience laugh or cry, is entirely related to its function (especially as it relates to character).

Scene Study: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This script, the Revised Final Draft dated May 24, 1982, contains many textbook examples of structure, so it perfectly serves our purpose as a subject for dissection.
Our analysis begins in the midst of this story, on page 30, which is the first page of Act II. Between page 30 and page 40 is a perfect ten-page segment composed of three scenes of scene sequences of three or four pages each. (Note that some pages overlap, as scenes often start or end in the middle of a page.)

Scene 1 (pages 30 to 32)
Beat 1: In her lab at Space Station Regula I, Doctor Carol Marcus and her son, David, are discussing their work, when the Starship Reliant contacts them.
Beat 2: Captain Chekov, whose mind is now controlled by Khan, informs Marcus that the planet upon which the Genesis device was to be potentially tested checks out, and that the scientific team should get ready for the Starship Reliant‘s arrival, which will move all of the project’s materials to the planet for testing.
Beat 3: Marcus is furious, as the device was not supposed to be tested for another three months. Chekov tells her that the orders came from Admiral James T. Kirk himself.
Scene Functions
This is one long scene with three beats, and works like the first subact of the ten-page unit.
Plot/subplot: Pure plot information. This scene sets up the events for the rest of Act II.
Scene Sequence 2 (pages 32 to 37)
Beat 1: On the Enterprise, Lieutenant Saavik catches Kirk at a turbolift. As they ride together, there is an uneasy tension and attraction between them, and Kirk comments that she changed her hair. She stops the lift, and talks to him about her performance during the Kobayashi Maru test (in Act I, the film’s opening sequence). She asks him how he passed the test, and he gives a coy non-answer. Kirk resumes the lift; it stops, Bones get on, Saavik exits.
Beat 2: On the lift, after brief dialogue with Bones, Kirk is contacted by Uhura via the comm system, and she tells them that Carol Marcus is urgently trying to contact him. He tells her he’ll take the message in his quarters, and he stops the lift and gets out. Bones makes a joke about Kirk’s facility with women (“It never rains but it pours,” referring to both Saavik and Marcus) and Kirk lightly chastises him.
Beat 3: Marcus’s transmission is garbled, unstable. She demands to know why he’s taking Genesis away from her, but she can’t hear his response. She insists he do something, then her transmission is cut off. Kirk tells Uhura to alert Starfleet Headquarters.
Scene Functions
Note that this is composed of three moments that function like a complete second subact of the ten-page unit–thus it’s a scene sequence.
Plot/subplot: The main characters must react to unfolding events. Introduction of Kirk/Marcus subplot and hints about their past association.
Character: Development for Saavik, Kirk, and Bones.
Themes: Saavik’s discussion with Kirk brings up one of the script’s main character themes, which is that of Kirk’s propensity to never play by the rules in order to beat impossible odds.
Scene Sequence 3 (pages 37 to 40)
Beat 1: Back on Regula I, Marcus and her son David argue about Starfleet’s intentions, which David suggests are militaristic.
Beat 2: On the Enterprise, Kirk tells Spock that Starfleet has ordered them to investigate, even though the ship is on a training mission and filled with cadets. Spock, the Enterprise’s current captain, urges Kirk to take command of the ship, and reminds him that “…the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” and Kirk responds, “Or the one.”
Beat 3: Kirk takes command, and orders a course set for Regula I.
Scene Functions
Another scene sequence which ends in the climax of the ten-page unit.
Plot/subplot: The main characters make the commitment to act upon the events, and set out on their journey.
Character: Shows David’s suspicion of Starfleet (which later translates as immediate distrust of Kirk, secretly his father). Develops Spock’s character, and the relationship between Kirk and Spock.
Themes: Spock’s dialogue with Kirk introduces a major theme, which is that of personal sacrifice to save others.

As you can see, each scene or scene sequence not only acts as a step up to the following scene, but within each scene/scene sequence, there are smaller steps (beats) that gradually ramp up the tension within each scene.

Once you become aware of the tiny moments within each scene or scene sequence, as well as their function, then you’ll be able to consciously tighten your structure at the smallest level. You can also use this knowledge like a diagnostic tool for existing drafts. Perhaps you will find moments in your script where a scene does not properly function as a subact of a ten-page unit, or you will notice that you have a twelve-page unit that should be stripped down to ten pages.

Whether you decide to rigorously follow such a structural ideal or not, by being aware of structural interrelationships at the smallest level of your script, you will be certain to improve your screenwriting skills.

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