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Do you write active scene descriptions? Nov 16

Make your objects move!

There’s a reason that scene description is also known as “action lines.” It’s important that your descriptions contain the feeling of movement, even when none actually exists.

Here’s an example of a weak way to describe objects at a location (i.e. bad writing):

INT. CABIN – DAY

Stacks of dusty boxes are everywhere.  There’s a deer head on the wall.

Blech. How can we make that better? Let’s make the objects come alive with a couple of simple changes.

INT. CABIN – DAY

Stacks of dusty boxes pack the room.  A deer head stares from the wall.

Not fantastic writing, but you get the idea. Giving your objects an action (even though they’re not moving) brings your scene description to life.

There was no character in this scene. But if there was, one of the active ways to introduce objects in a scene is to have your character(s) interact with them.

For example:

INT. CABIN- DAY

Steve pushes through stacks of dusty boxes. A deer head stares at him from the wall.

And don’t forget to use the active forms of your verbs whenever possible.

Active Scene Description


Category: Scenes, Writing  | 2 Comments
4 mnemonics to make your scenes memorable May 27

Mnemonic devices for screenwriting

Mnemonics for Screenwriting

Isn’t it mnemonic?

I was surfing researching stuff on the web the other day, and found an article reminding me about mnemonic devices.

Mnemonic devices are used to help you remember things, like coming up with rhymes for names of people. Or coming up with powerful associated images for grocery items you have to recall.

The books I’ve read talk about using violent, obscene or absurd images to associate with things you’re trying to remember, because they tend to create the most vivid memories.

So I was thinking — if those mnemonic devices allow you to remember things more readily, could they also make your scenes more memorable?

1. Rhyming

We’ve all probably used this rhyming mnemonic, at one time or another, to help us remember how to spell a word:

I before E, except after C…

In screenwriting we have rhyming scenes. Rhyming scenes are those that echo a previous moment, but with a new context, twist or development. Tags, payoffs, callbacks — these are all types of rhyming scenes.

In Rocky, there’s a scene where the out-of-shape boxer can’t make it up a set of steps. But later in the movie, he jubilantly flies up those same steps. It’s one of the most memorable moments in the film because it was set up with a rhyming scene.

Rocky Steps

Rhyming scenes often utilize dialogue. A classic example is when a hero throws his enemy’s own line back at him in the climax. I’ll never forget Malcolm McDowell’s irritating line from Blue Thunder: “Catch ya later.” It was sweet justice when Roy Scheider’s character says it back to him after blowing him out of the sky.

Sequels often use the same lines to reinforce a connection between films, and then become catchphrases that are synonymous with the series. For example, anyone recognize this line?

I have a bad feeling about this?

2. Violence

Suppose you need to remember that you have to pick up pickles and toilet paper from the store? Picture someone being tortured by shoving pickles in their nostrils and mouth, and then being smothered with toilet paper. Violent images are extremely memorable.

Is there even a single movie out there that doesn’t have violence, or threatened violence, it it?

Quick, when you think of Reservoir Dogs, what scene pops into your head? I bet there’s a razor blade and part of an ear in it.

Raging Bull? I bet Robert De Niro is kicking someone’s ass or getting his ass kicked.

Reservoir Dogs

Even movies that aren’t usually associated with violence have memorably violent scenes.

Toy Story 3? That scene towards the end, with the characters at the incinerator? Yeah.

Never underestimate the power of violence, or the threat of violence, to make a scene more memorable.

3. Obscenity

The term “obscene” can mean many different things to different people. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it:

1: disgusting to the senses : repulsive
2 a : abhorrent to morality or virtue; specifically : designed to incite to lust or depravity
b : containing or being language regarded as taboo in polite usage <obscene lyrics>
c : repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles <an obscene misuse of power>
d : so excessive as to be offensive <obscene wealth><obscene waste>

That’s great. Gives us a lot of variety to play around with for mnemonic devices, and for memorable scenes.

From Sharon Stone crossing and uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, to Steve Martin dropping the F-bomb a dozen times to the car rental lady in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, there are many different ways to make scenes “obscene” and highly memorable within the context of your movie.

4. Absurdity

Ah, my favorite one. If we go back to the toilet paper and pickles grocery list example, you could just as easily have pictured something absurd like roasting toilet paper rolls on a stick (like marshmallows), then storing them in a gigantic pickle jar.

Scenes with absurd elements can be extremely memorable too. Look at Being John Malcovich. The premise, and nearly every scene is absurd. But it’s also brilliant.

Sometimes an absurd moment placed inside an otherwise even-keeled movie, can make the scene pop. In The King’s Speech, the Geoffrey Rush character had some extremely absurd and unorthodox training methods. They all made for some of the most memorable and entertaining moments in the movie.

The King's Speech

In another Oscar contender from the same year — Black Swan — we get to witness Natalie Portman’s character transform into a winged ballet dancer. It’s absurd and utterly unforgettable.

Conclusion

If you’re looking to create scenes that live in the minds of viewers long after the curtain closes, perhaps borrowing a mnemonic tool from the memory experts is the answer you’re looking for.

What movie scenes are the most memorable for you? Did they utilize any of these techniques?


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Category: Scenes, Writing  | 2 Comments
Quick Screenwriting Tip: Trust Your Instincts Jan 07

Quick Screenwriting TipQuick Screenwriting Tip:

If you think there might be something wrong with your scene, then there almost certainly is.

Don’t be lazy. Trust your instincts. Figure out what’s not working and fix it. Never say to yourself, “It’s just one scene.”

That one scene might make the difference between a Pass and a Consider.


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Story, Scene, Moment Dec 19

Story, Scene, MomentI was watching some deleted scenes for Green Zone the other day, when Matt Damon mentioned the principle of “Story, Scene, Moment” — when deciding which scenes to cut.

The comment was in reference to editing theory, but I thought it was equally applicable to screenwriting, and I had never heard it expressed so succinctly.

The theory is simple:

The story, as a whole, is more important than any one scene. And the success of a scene, as a whole, is more important than any one moment. So sometimes even brilliant moments or scenes have to be cut.

For example, one of the deleted scenes in Green Zone features a surprise car bombing that kills some Iraqi officials. It was an expensive and well executed scene, but in the context of the narrative it didn’t work. It muddied the story being told — which was one about the search for WMDs, not civil unrest in Iraq.

It was a great moment and a great scene, but it didn’t support the story, so it had to go.

Story, Scene, Moment — I think it’s a terrific hierarchy to keep in mind, during all phases of writing your script, especially when determining which of your darlings to kill. What do you think?

Trivia: The Director of Green Zone, Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), used actual Iraqi war veterans as supporting actors and background troops, then improvised scenes using their guidance. This casting gave the action sequences an unparalleled level of authenticity.


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Deleted Scenes Aug 20

This really should be kept secret, but you can learn a lot by watching the making-of DVDs. – Bill Murray1

Scene Bloat

Many a screenplay has been scriptwrecked by scene bloat. Either scenes go on too long, or they don’t belong in the script in the first place.

As screenwriters, one of our main goals is to make our scenes as short as possible — maximum impact/minimum words. A great way to learn how to trim your scenes is to watch the deleted scenes of your favorite movies and TV series, especially if they come with a Director’s commentary track.

The ShieldWhy were the scenes cut?

Recently I watched all 7 seasons of The Shield on DVD. It’s one of the grittiest, most innovative and exciting television series ever created. It’s also one of those rare shows that actually gets better with every season.

Fortunately for us, Shawn Ryan, the show’s creator, provides a commentary track for all of the episodes’ deleted scenes. Here are some of the most common reasons the scenes were cut, in no particular order. The lessons can be applied to both television writing and feature films.

  • Same story beats hit
    Every scene must add something new to the story; new character revelations, new plot twists, new information. If a scene or moment feels like it’s repeating itself, it has to go.
  • Impact
    Even with the most well-acted/well-directed scenes, longer does not always mean better. Cutting a scene down to its essence will keep the audience engaged and make it more impactful.
  • Wrong tone
    Comic relief has its place, but occasionally a joke or lighthearted moment can lessen the poignancy of something dramatic that’s just come before it. There are many people who believe the quick jump from the profound ending of the movie Being There, to its comic outtakes, cost Peter Sellers the Academy Award for his brilliant performance.
  • Pacing
    Sometimes a story can lose momentum if you break away from the main driving plot to deal with a subplot — especially if the intensity, interest or importance of the subplot isn’t on par.
  • Setup was unnecessary
    Most times you don’t need the setup. You don’t have to show the cops sitting at the station, receiving an alert, then dashing out to their police cars. Just start with the cops arriving at the scene. The audience will fill in the blanks.
  • Cut for time
    TV episodes have very rigid parameters for length. Even for feature films, there will always be pressure to ensure a movie has an optimal running time. When cuts need to be made, the first scenes (or parts of scenes) snipped will be ones that don’t drive the story forward.

The next time you rent a DVD, make sure to check out the deleted scenes. Watch them first without the commentary track and see if you can recognize why they were cut. Once you have a feel for it, it will help your writing immensely.

Watching and learning from The Shield… Best. Homework assignment. Evar!


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  1. From a fascinating interview with Bill Murray for GQ. H/T to Scott M. for sending me the link.
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