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Screenwriting 102: Workshop - Building the Perfect Scene


Screenwriting 101 established the basics of the little-known art of screenwriting, from its history to format and prevalent theories. The screenplay does not belong to literature or film but is an art form of its own with unique language, technique, and storytelling devices. Screenwriting 102 is an advanced course that dives into the finer details and kinks of the script. Having a screenwriting foundation is essential to understanding advanced notions as theories come under the scrutiny of practice. Previous lessons aimed to show a clear path and solid base for the beginner, taking them by the hand and carefully guiding them, avoiding complex ideas. Now is the time to explore difficult terrain. Screenwriting 102 presents practical conceptions that, at first glance, are quite ambiguous. From the true form of a story to critical analysis and character creation, this course focuses on the practical application of screenplay components. Screenplay writing is far from being as simple as respecting a prescribed structure. It is an extremely malleable medium that offers countless possibilities once the writer understands the cogs of story and screenwriting.

Screenwriting 102 is divided into six chapters:

  1. Screenwriting 102: Workshop - Building the Perfect Scene

Screenwriting 102: Workshop - Building the Perfect Scene

Today, the default screenplay format is known as the spec script (Trottier, 2014, p.170). The spec script uses the master scene style of writing (Price, 2013, p.8). In short, the master scene style is composed of scenes rather than shots (Price, 2013, p. 144). In fact, the only shots present in the master scene script are those absolutely necessary to the story (McKee, 1997, pp.383-384). Since screenplays are constructed for films, they use a visual medium despite its uniquely written form: “[film] is primarily a visual medium that requires visual writing” (Trottier, 2014, p. 2). Therefore, a screenplay must be told in pictures. This concept is one of few that is almost universally agreed upon in the screenwriting community (Cole & Haag, 1980, p. ii; King, 1988, p. 17; McKee, 1997, p. 381; Field, 2005, p. 107; Snyder, 2005, p. 147; Akers, 2008, p. 141; Trottier, 2014, p. 2). Naturally, a screenplay’s form will vary from one movie to another in order to create its own visual style, tone, and genre. For instance, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright, 2010) heavily relies on comedy and video game codes to tell its story. Consequently, dialogues and scenes follow each other with lighting fast speed in order to mimic the intensity found in video games, especially fighting games. Scott Pilgrim (Wright, 2010) is a rather extreme example. Many scenes in a film may not require the implementation of a certain visual style. Additionally, scenes must turn the story to ensure progression and entertainment (McKee, 1997, p. 225).

Visual writing is not synonymous with long descriptions. Considering that a screenplay should be accurate and precise when describing the scene, lengthy descriptions explaining the whole set are heavily frowned upon. A writer should simply “create an image in our mind and press on” (Akers, 2008, p.144). Therefore, unless a specific object is important to the story, it should not be mentioned. For example, the color of the walls should not be included unless it is crucial to the story. Using any means necessary to paint a mental picture in the mind of the reader is essential. This includes profanity. A simple descriptor like “a shitty room” (Akers, 2008, p. 145) works wonders. Different readers may picture a different room, but the atmosphere of the scene and the information provided is the same. A messy room translates to a messy character. Precisely describing how the bedsheets are undone, clothes litter the ground, and junk food containers fester in the corner is unnecessary. Examining the opening of It (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2017) reveals just how visual writing works in a screenplay.

Figure 1: From "It" (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016, p. 1).

The first image is “Rain. Lashing a windowpane. A PIANO PLAYS somewhere off screen. Charles Ive’s Sonata No 2 for Piano” (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). Fragmenting the paragraph produces visual effects. The simple one-word sentence, “Rain” creates the image of a rainy day. The first image is only rain. The absence of a scene heading suggests a shot outside (Figure 2). As shown in Figure 2, “Rain” was interpreted with a high shot among trees (Fukunaga, 2017). The script does not say that trees are in the scene because it is not essential to include them in the script. The image conjured with the simple word “Rain” is the same as the one used in the film: gloomy, dark gray weather (Fukunaga, 2017). The director could have chosen to start above the trees or lower, or even in a place without trees at all. The resulting atmosphere remains the same as long as the image “Rain” is shot. “Lashing a windowpane” moves the image to a location, a window (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). These ideas of rain and lashing are divided into two sentences since they are two different images (Figure 1: Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). Simply writing “Rain lashing a windowpane” would only produce one image, that of rain hitting a window. Additionally, the continuous form “lashing” suggests that rain has been hitting the window for some time now. The simple tense “Rain lashes a windowpane” or “Rain. Lashes a windowpane” would indicate that it has just started raining, which goes against the dark and cloudy ambience that the continuous form provides. If the rain had just begun to fall, there may not be the dark and gray visual that accompanies rainy weather, which creates two different images. Thus, an inaccurate image may be summoned in the reader’s mind. The gloomy visual is crucial as George, a seven-year-old boy, will soon be murdered by the main antagonist of the film (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). These first two images already build a horror aesthetic. The next sentence. “A PIANO PLAYS somewhere off screen” (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016) adds another eerie element to the visual. The indication “off screen” tells the reader that the music comes from within the diegesis, not a soundtrack added in post-production (Figure 1: (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). Although, in the filmmaking process, the sound of a piano was likely added during editing, the important element is knowing that the sound can be heard by the characters since it is part of the story. Therefore, someone in the screenplay is actually playing the piano. The term “off screen” is a shot direction (Figure 1: Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). Normally, any direct reference to the process of filmmaking would be avoided unless absolutely necessary (McKee, 1997, pp. 383-384). However, this occurrence of shot direction is required for the reader to understand the sound of a piano coming from the story itself. An alternative sentence such as “Someone plays a PIANO” would avoid directing a shot, but results in inaccuracy. Indeed, “Someone” brings attention to the fact that a person is playing and suggests that they appear on-screen. In turn, a completely different image would be created. That of a person playing the piano in the rain outside. The person playing is not important in this scene. Additionally, omitting to indicate a person creates a sort of ethereal effect in the sound as it comes from nowhere in particular as reinforced by “somewhere off screen” (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). This lack of precision adds to the eerie nature of the scene. Moreover, “PIANO PLAYS” is capitalized due to a screenplay convention that requires sound to be written in capitals. While writing in full capitals can produce certain effects in a screenplay, this specific case is irrelevant to the scene. Finally, “Charles Ive’s Sonata No 2 for Piano” (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016) is used to indicate that the piano plays just long enough to be recognized, which introduces the following scene. In the following scene, George (or Georgie), gazes out the window (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). George knows that music and who is playing it: his mother. Although, this fact is unknown until he walks by his mother playing, thus informing the audience of what George already knows (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). Paragraphs in this new scene are more descriptive yet evoke precise images in the reader’s mind. The writers did not use “BILL (13), his brother, sits up in bed, horribly sick.” Instead, they opted for the longer description: “BILL (13), his brother, sits up in bed, surrounded by tissues and sheets of newspaper” (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). The tissues needed to be mentioned since Bill throws one at George moments later (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). The sheets of newspaper indicate that Bill has been trying to make a paper boat for a while, which gives information on how he feels about his brother (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). Only a loving brother would spend a long time making a paper boat for his sibling. This brotherly love fuels Bill’s quest to find George’s killer, an essential part of the story (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016). Sentence structure guides the reader’s camera eye through the story. As demonstrated with a draft of It (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016), sentences, punctuation, verbs, and word choice create distinct visuals.

Figure 2: Still from "It" (Fukunaga, 2017).

Few screenplays stretch the notion of visual writing like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Bacall & Wright, 2010). In the movie, Scott Pilgrim, an amateur guitarist and singer, must fight Ramona’s seven evil exes if he wants to date her (Bacall & Wright, 2010). The defining feature of video games is their interactivity (Juul, 2001). However, films are not typically interactive as audience members sit and watch the movie (Juul, 2001). Thus, the writers of Scott Pilgrim (Bacall & Wright, 2010) adopt various video game codes and styles to fit the screenplay. Perhaps the most dominant feature borrowed from video games is the sheer rapidity of the scenes. Not only do characters speak in short and quick bursts, but scenes also tend to last no more than a page (Bacall & Wright, 2010). For instance, on page 6 (Figure 3), four different characters speak, yet the longest piece of dialogue comprises only two lines (Bacall & Wright, 2010). This pace mimics the intensity at which video games are played, especially in fighting sequences (Walia et al., 2022). Games are typically fast-paced to increase the intensity of the experience. The speed serves comedy functions in addition to adaptation purposes. Most jokes in the screenplay are setups immediately followed by a punchline. For instance, Scott asks his roommate, Wallace, to avoid telling his sister about the fact that he is dating a 17-year-old (Bacall & Wright, 2010, pp. 7-8). Moments later, Scott receives a call from his sister yelling at him for that very reason (Bacall & Wright, 2010, pp. 7-8). This method consistently repeats during the screenplay. On page 13, Knives, Scott’s 17-year-old girlfriend, informs him that she never kissed a boy before (Bacall & Wright, 2010). Scott answers: “Me neither” (Bacall & Wright, 2010). Immediately after, another joke of this kind occurs. Scott asks Knives if she wants to see his childhood home (Bacall & Wright, 2010). Upon her positive answer, he walks across the street and shows her his childhood home (Bacall & Wright, 2010, pp. 13-14). The screenplay is filled with these short jokes. On page 55, Knives claims that she is in love with Scott (Bacall & Wright, 2010). The word “love” detaches from her mouth and appears on-screen (Bacall & Wright, 2010, 00:39:32; Bacall & Wright, 2010, p. 55). Scott instantly answers that he wants to break up (Bacall & Wright, 2010, p. 55). Many visual cues such as that appear during the film. While often related to a joke, visual cues are often adapted from video games in Scott Pilgrim (Bacall & Wright, 2010). In video games, interface elements such as health bars, stamina bars, and power bars help the player manage their resources (Moments Online, 2021). A similar bar hangs next to Scott as he urinates (Bacall & Wright, 2010, p.30). In this case, the bar is both an interface cue and a joke since it indicates how much urine Scott has left (Bacall & Wright, 2010).

Figure 3: From "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" (Bacall & Wright, 2010, p. 6).

Scenes will use different aesthetics and rhythms to summon the most accurate image possible. That is their visual purpose. Conjointly, scenes fill a narrative role. Indeed, a scene is: “a story in miniature” (McKee, 1997, p. 225). Quickly, Robert McKee (1997), the most sought-after screenwriting lecturer in the world, contradicts himself. Indeed, a story traditionally ends with a resolution (Trottier, 2014, p. 4). The idea of resolution is so prevalent in storytelling that the circular story structure championed by Joseph Campbell, author of the influential Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and Dan Harmon (2003), a successful screenwriter and producer, revolves around the return to the initial act one world. If a scene is a miniature story, then it should end in a familiar situation to the hero, just like the first act was. However, McKee (1997) claims that every scene must have a value charge change from its beginning to its ending (p. 38). As presented in Screenwriting 102: Journey to the Center of a Script, value charges are universal qualities of human experience that may shift between positive and negative (McKee, 1997, p. 37). Such examples are life/death, excitement/boredom, and truth/lie (McKee, 1997, p. 37). Professor of screenwriting at Belmont University, William M. Akers (2008), corroborates McKee’s (1997) idea, claiming that “each scene should end at a different place from where it began, or it serves no purpose” (p.82). Consequently, a scene must begin with a positive or negative value charge and end with the opposite (McKee, 1997, p. 37). A scene that begins with danger (negative) must end with safety (positive). Hollywood films tend to end on a positive note (Field, 2005, p. 86). If a movie starts with a positive charge, then, considering Hollywood’s preference for happy endings, it will likely end with one too. The story starts and ends with the same value charge, yet McKee (1997) and Akers (2008) claim that scenes shouldn’t despite the fact that they are supposed to be miniature stories. In truth, scenes can be either. It is crucial to highlight that even though a scene may start and end with the same value, it should strive to include a change even if it reverts to its original value (Snyder, 2005, p. 111). Journey to the Center of a Script concluded that scenes may have no value charges at all and still be useful in the narrative (Praet, 2023). In Stranger than Fiction (Forster, 2006), the protagonist is shown executing a boring eventless routine that he repeats every morning. This series of eventless scenes are required to inform about the protagonist’s life, a man of habits who likes organization (Forster, 2006). This type of scene cannot support an entire film since there would be no changes, which means no progression. As a result, even if they return to the same value charges, scenes must strive to effect a change in value. McKee (1997) prefers a design from “+” to “-” or “-” to “+.” However, scenes can often include more charges even if they end the same, such as “+/-/+" (McKee, 1997).

Figure 4: Still from "Stranger than Fiction" (Forster, 2006).

Screenwriting is a visual medium because film is a visual medium. Screenplays must conjure accurate images for the reader (Cole & Haag, 1980, p. ii; King, 1988, p. 17; McKee, 1997, p. 381; Field, 2005, p. 107; Snyder, 2005, p. 147; Akers, 2008, p. 141; Trottier, 2014, p. 2). A reader must be able to see a movie unfolding in their minds as they read the screenplay, which is why descriptions must guide their camera eye. Every sentence, down to the verb tense and punctuation, carries a lot of weight in terms of image creation. In a mere two lines, It (Palmer & Fukunaga, 2016) produces a clear visual and mood of the scene and sequence to come, establishing a scary setting. Additionally, screenplays should showcase a certain style and rhythm to be adopted on camera. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Bacall & Wright, 2010), uses intense and fast-paced scenes that translate to a video game style. The speed also contributes to the comedic nature of the films. On top of visual and aesthetic functions, scenes tend to have a narrative purpose. It may be simple like providing exposition and character information, such as in Stranger than Fiction (Forster, 2006). It may also be more complex, shifting value charges, creating change and conflict within scenes (McKee, 1997, p. 37). Therefore, chaining scenes with varying degrees of value creates a satisfying overarching structure throughout the whole film.

Bibliographical References

Akers, W. M. (2008). Your Screenplay Suck! 100 Ways to Make it Great. Michael Wiese Productions.

Bacall, M. & E. Wright. (Writers). (2010). Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [Script]. Marc Platt Productions.

Bhavneet Walia, Jeeyon Kim, Ignatius Ijere & Shane Sanders. (2022). Video Game Addictive Symptom Level, Use Intensity, and Hedonic Experience: Cross-sectional Questionnaire Study. JMIR Serious Games, 10(2).

Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1949).

Cole, H. R. & Haag, J. H. (1980). The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats: Screenplays. CMC Publishing

Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta.

Forster, M. (Director). (2006). Stranger than Fiction. Columbia Pictures.

Harmon, D. (2003). Story Structure 101. Channel 101.

Juul, J. (2001). Games Telling Stories? The International Journal of Computer Game Research, 1(1).

King, V. (1988). How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method. HarperCollins.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins.

Moments Online. (2021, February 20). HUD - Heads Up Display: Its relevance to a gamer and game developer. Medium.

Muschietti, A. (Director). (2017). It [Film]. New Line Cinema.

Palmer, C. & C. Fukunaga. (Writers). (2016). It [Script]. New Line Cinema.

Price, S. (2013). A History of the Screenplay. Palgrave Macmillan.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

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Yoran Praet

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