American-Beauty-dinner

Hey guys. Today is going to be a short post as I’m super busy. But basically I wanted to talk about scenes. So much of what we discuss revolves around concept, structure, and character. But the reality is, we have to write 60 scenes in a screenplay. And if you don’t know what to do inside of a scene, it doesn’t matter how good your concept is, or your structure is, or how your characters are.

Now I will put a disclaimer on here that there’s no such thing as a rule that applies to everything. Obviously, there will be exceptions. But this rule should be utilized a ton. You see, as I’ve opened up a couple of early entries for the Scriptshadow 250, I’m seeing a scary trend. The scenes are boring. They sit there. There’s not a lot going on. It’s the dreaded case of “nothing happens.”

Luckily, today, I’m going to teach you a trick where you can make sure this doesn’t happen to you. All it entails is that in each scene, you add a problem. That problem will lead to conflict, which will result in drama. And as you all know, drama is entertainment.

To see this in action, go back and study your favorite films. I guarantee you that in 95% of the scenes, there will be a problem.

The best script to see this in action with is the greatest spec ever written, American Beauty. Nearly every scene in that script introduces a problem. Lester is on a sales call at work but the person doesn’t want to buy anything. PROBLEM. Lester is called in to see his boss, who tells Lester that he’s firing him. PROBLEM. The family tries to have dinner together until the daughter complains about the music they have to listen to all the time, which leads to an argument. PROBLEM. Even tiny scenes, like Lester going to the car in the morning introduce a problem (Lester dropping his briefcase, spilling the contents everywhere, making everyone late).

In a more recent film, American Sniper, the opening scene has Chris Kyle trying to decide whether to shoot a child. PROBLEM. When he gets home, his wife is in bed with another man. PROBLEM.

If you go back further in film lore to Star Wars, the opening scene has the Empire capturing and boarding the Rebel ship. PROBLEM. When R2-D2 and C3PO land on Tantooine, they have no idea where to go. PROBLEM.

One thing to remember is that the problem doesn’t always have to happen to the hero. The problem can happen to anyone in the scene. So, again, in Star Wars, when we finally meet our hero, Luke, he’s buying droids from the Jawas. But the problem occurs from the side of C3PO. He’s been purchased but it looks like he’s going to be separated from his friend, R2-D2. PROBLEM.

Once a problem is introduced into a scene, so is uncertainty. And uncertainty creates curiosity in the reader/audience. People have a natural inclination to keep reading to see how the problem gets resolved.

Let’s say I have a scene between Joseph and Cara, who are on a first date. Let’s say it happens at a diner. In it, the two talk about their likes and dislikes – a typical “get to know each other” scene. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this scene, especially if there’s some interesting revelations about the characters’ pasts, or if the dialogue is witty and clever.

But you can do all of that AND engage the reader by adding a problem. Maybe, for example, Cara’s crazy ex-boyfriend shows up unexpectedly. He asks her where she’s been and why she hasn’t been answering his phone calls. He then turns to Joseph and demands to know who he is. PROBLEM.

Now there are situations where you want to hold back on the problems. For example, let’s say you’re going to kill a character off in scene 4 of your script. You might want to use the first three scenes to build up an idyllic life between that character and our hero. In this case, there’s a deliberate strategy to creating a problem-free sequence – so that the death impacts the audience that much more when it happens.

But I’d recommend adding problems into even those scenes. They won’t be as big as, say, the Empire boarding a Rebel ship. But even the smallest problem leads to conflict and conflict is always going to liven a scene up.

So the first thing I want you to do with your Scriptshadow 250 script is to go through each and every scene. Is there a problem in each of those scenes? I’ll repeat what I said before. There doesn’t HAVE to be a problem in every scene. But if a lot of your scenes are lacking a problem, I can almost guarantee that your script is boring.

Problem-free scenes tend to happen most when the writer is setting up his characters or writing a lot of exposition. They believe they have a right, since screenwriting is hard, to dribble out boring scenes during these moments. I’m here to tell you that that is a BAD IDEA. You don’t get to take scenes off, no matter how hard they are to write. Go into those character intro and exposition scenes and find a problem to add. I guarantee you the scenes will be better.

Also remember that each problem should vary in intensity. Don’t try to write some earth-shattering problem into each and every scene or you’ll exhaust the reader. A problem could be as simple as your character goes to get coffee and someone cuts in front of him. PROBLEM.

Or maybe the barista gives your character the wrong coffee and he has to go back in line. He, then, could be the person who has to cut others. But everyone tells him to get back in line. PROBLEM. Add a time constraint (he has to be in a big meeting in 5 minutes) and now you have yourself a scene. It really is that simple.

The reason this trick works is because characters become the most interesting when they’re forced to act. That’s when we learn the most about them. By introducing a problem, you force your character to act. And however they choose to react tells us loads about them, in addition to creating conflict in the scene, in addition to making the audience curious about what’s going to happen next . To that end, this might be considered a super-tool. Go ahead and use it in your scenes and report back in the comments on how it went.  Good luck.  And keep working on those Scriptshadow 250 scripts!

  • Steffan

    A similar and simple trick I use when I outline is I never allow myself to use the word “talk” (as in Character X and Character Y talk about Mystery Z).

    Instead, I always force myself to use the word “argue” and then (do my best) to define the terms (as in Character X argues that Mystery Z means A while Character Y argues that Mystery Z means B).

    This way my supporting characters are always creating problems for my protagonist.

  • Magga

    Shows how forgettable Sniper was, as I can’t for the life of me remember his wife in bed with another man.

    • hickeyyy

      It was just his girlfriend at the beginning that he kicks out of his house. That’s her only scene. This is prior to him even joining the military.

      • Midnight Luck

        but, then again, I don’t remember this scene either.

        • hickeyyy

          That’s a very valid point.

          • walker

            I totally forgot the scene where we found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

        • charliesb

          Do you remember the Rodeo?

    • Midnight Luck

      i couldn’t for the life of me remember that scene either. And I would have remembered a scene like that.

  • Somersby

    On the corkboard above my computer I posted a quote from Mike Nichols: Every scene is either a fight, seduction, or negotiation.

    It’s arguable that every scene in your script will be one of those — but if the majority of your scenes lean in that direction, you’re well on your way to creating an interesting script.

    • brenkilco

      Every scene is either a fight, seduction, or negotiation.

      Hm. Unless, its a deception, a demonstration, a revelation, a discovery, an explanation, a soliloquy, an investigation, an encroaching threat, a musical number, or the last fifteen minutes of 2001.

      • Somersby

        a deception – seduction
        a demonstration – fight
        a revelation – seduction and/or negotiation
        a discovery – seduction and/or negotiation
        an explanation – most likely a seduction
        a soliloquy – fight and/or negotiation (“to be or not to be” anyone?)
        an investigation – can be a fight and/or seduction and/or negotiation
        an encroaching threat – fight and/or negotiation
        a musical number – probably a seduction, but hell it could be any or all
        the last fifteen minutes of 2001 – if I remember correctly, it was definitely a seduction!

        • brenkilco

          I’d say you were stretching definitions well past the breaking point. And if you consider the last fifteen minutes of 2001 a seduction I’m not sure I want to hear your definition of a fun date.

          • Somersby

            the last fifteen minutes of 2001
            Oh, you meant the movie!

          • brenkilco

            Buh dum bum!

  • hickeyyy

    OT: By the request of Poe Serling, here is a link to the updated Oakwood for Amateur Friday tomorrow!

    https://www.mediafire.com/?vhd86l4vbi8bd57

    • Somersby

      Like the new opening. Nicely done.

      • hickeyyy

        Thanks! I hope the general consensus is that it is better. I think it works better anyway.

      • klmn

        Yeah. Much better.

        • walker

          I agree with Somersby and Ken, the new opening is more effective and accessible, and looks like the beginning of a Western.

    • Poe_Serling

      Thanks, hickeyyy. It always makes for a more rewarding AF discussion to have the current version available for people to check out.

      I’m planning on reading Oakwood later today.

      • hickeyyy

        Thanks Poe! I appreciate it!

        • Poe_Serling

          Just closed the file to your Oakwood script. I gotta say – that was one dark and gritty trek from San Antonio to the Oakwood Cemetery.

          Was it a trip worth taking? Absolutely!! At first, the seeming randomness of the early scenes kinda threw me for a loop. But —

          As the story continues to build and unfold in unexpected ways, it all pays off in a big way by the final FADE OUT.

          Tomorrow… some more thoughts and a couple of quick suggestions. Thanks again for posting this updated version of your script.

          **I encourage others on the site to check it out and go for the ride. I’m looking forward to see Carson’s take on the project.

          • hickeyyy

            Wow. Thank you so much for the kind words, Poe. Self esteem boost for sure! Can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow!

    • Dan B

      Hey, I read almost the whole draft last weekend, but didn’t get a chance to vote, or chime in with some notes. I’m glad Oakwood won, because it was going to be my pick. I’m out of town all weekend, so I just wanted to leave some notes (I read the new opening, as well as the end today).

      The new opening is good. I personally didn’t have as much of a problem with the card game opening on the first draft, I got the picture that Hearse was going to call out the dealer on cheating, even though it was himself that was cheating. That said, I can see the confusion, and if a lot of commenters were confused, than it’s likely that a script reader could see the same issue. The new opening is quick, and even for a quick second it makes Hearse likable as he’s going to pull off some dick moves later in the script.

      The conversation with Red was great, and it benefits from the inherent conflict the two men have which is just a simple negotiation. I think Somersby made a comment today quoting Mike Nichols which hit on that exact point. Also, the combining the sex scene with the shootout was a smart move, in my opinion, it adds some flavor to what could just be a “shoot out” scene. I think the line when she reveals that she is Red’s wife was great. It brought up a huge question that wanted to me to keep reading, because I wanted to know why the hell she was banging Wally. She obviously wasn’t into it. The reveal later as to why was pretty emotional too, I immediately forgave her for cheating on her man.

      The ending paid off better than I was expecting. When we had Hearse and Emma teaming together, I thought we might be getting something similar to Jane Got A Gun… but not as good (if you’ve read that one, you can see how well he sets up the final gun fight). However, having Hearse run off leaving Emma there by herself was a surprise to me, and put her in a tougher position, especially with the Winchester Seven showing up earlier than expected. I enjoyed this, however, I have some mixed feelings on her ending fate. Call me a sucker for a happy ending, but I felt like I wanted to see Emma make it through this (I’m not sure if she does or not).

      The twist at the end was great too. I actually for a second was wondering if Emma was going to be in the casket, and tricking him at the end, she finally gets to kill the man who took out her husband. The twist with the brother was shocking as well, but may be a bit confusing. Perhaps some dialogue here to clear things up on “who” was “who” would help. However, maybe this was addressed in the middle of the new draft, and I missed it since I only read the beginning and end of the new one.

      Either way – I thought this was a good script. I think it deserves AT LEAST the worth the read. Good Job Ben.

      • hickeyyy

        I haven’t read Jane Got a Gun. I’ll need to get my hands on it. The idea of Emma popping out of the casket at the end is actually really awesome. I never even thought of that.

        Thanks so much!

  • Buddy

    OT : interesting articles : Hollywood has always been OR never been original ?
    pros & cons here :
    -always : http://filmschoolrejects.com/features/hollywood-has-always-been-original.php
    -never : http://filmschoolrejects.com/features/hollywood-has-never-been-original.php

    • Malibo Jackk

      (Those never charts are scary.)

  • Linkthis83

    When adding/creating that problem, don’t forget it’s purpose. It should enhance something about your story. All the AB examples he used are for the purpose of showcasing the family dynamic, Lester’s life, and enhances the effectiveness of what the story is building towards. Those problems help towards the overall intentions of the script/story. They are not arbitrary choices.

    Having a guy cut in front of your character waiting for coffee isn’t added because your scene is boring. It’s added because you want to highlight something about your character that’s serves the overall purpose of the story. And also, it should be doing more than that. It should play with theme as well. It should hint at other things to come. It should add depth. It could also be paying off something from earlier in your story while leading to whatever is next. You are aiming for an impact on your reader/audience. This is one of those opportunities to help deliver on the promise you are making to a reader that the story they are reading will be worth their time. You are also wanting to make good on a promise to the people that want to invest in you.

    • drifting in space

      As always, a spot on response.

    • brenkilco

      Adding problems to a scene to spice it up seems a solution to a problem that should not exist. if the scene as written has no juice seems to me the first question shouldn’t be how do I improve it but why does it exist at all. Every scene exists to get from here to there. Without expectation or tension or destination you have no scene and the addition of extraneous business can never be more than a cosmetic effort to conceal the fact that there really is no there there.

  • scriptfeels

    Yes yes yes yes yes. Its like Carson read my mind. Working on act 1 of a script at the moment and I’m trying to balance out developing the characters through action with setting up the world and exposition for the central story. In terms of script development, I’m not sure if I should just write the scenes from the heart first and go back and juice them up with conflict, or just go about it analytically and create clearer obstacles in each scene. Either way, thanks Carson. I always appreciate articles in regards to scenes and look forward to more :3

  • ripleyy

    A problem could just be as simple as a waitress coming to the character’s table during an important conversation. You also could add that one of the characters is a bit temperamental, so the more the waitress bugs them, the more irritated he/she gets.

    Or maybe the problem is as small as the fact one of the characters got coffee instead of tea and they don’t like tea, but they’re also the sort of person who won’t ask for a change.

    Problems have to be heightened. Problems in our own lives might not be as dramatic.

    • walker

      Actually your second example recalls an excellent scene in The Last Detail (1973).

    • klmn

      I really hate it when I have to spank a waitress.

      Actually, I don’t hate it that much.

  • MichaelAQ

    Conflict makes for better scenes and gives you insight to a character. Boring scenes usually happen when writers are just trying to convey information through conversations. Using Carson’s example, if your character gets cut in line when they really need a coffee, the VERY NEXT thing they do will tell me more about them than any back and forth dialogue.

  • Midnight Luck

    “Never be boring.”

    sums it up.

    • Ninjaneer

      “Never Be Boring” mostly sums it up, but… some amateurs translate that into Tarantino style dialogue, or doing something quirky, etc but that is not what makes something interesting. So it helps to know the most useful tools for making something not be boring. Most of us already know this but it is good to be reminded er’day, add conflict.

      • Midnight Luck

        Yes. What is boring?
        Just like everything else, defining the “rules” leads to a million different answers, opinions and beliefs.
        I may think Avengers was the most boring movie ever, because it had more pointless, on the nose, repetitive scenes than 10 amateur, indie, movies combined. However, 99.9% of the WORLD disagrees with me. They think CGI, spectacle, explosions and expositional dialogue are all interesting, exciting and not boring. Why? They think because it is wrapped in spandex and has a big budget it MUST be interesting and fun.
        I think it is the most boring thing on earth.
        The story, and typically the characters don’t make choices. Or the choices are boring. Dialogue is boring.
        So, what is boring?
        I know it when I see it.

        I still say, #1 rule is

        “Don’t be boring.”

        #2 rule

        “Definitely Don’t try to write like Tarantino if you aren’t Tarantino. ”

        Hell, sometimes HE shouldn’t even try to write like Tarantino.

        • klmn

          “Hell, sometimes HE shouldn’t even try to write like Tarantino.”

          I agree. He’s really stretching the limits in The Hateful Eight. (Going by the script, that is. He might have something up his sleeve for the movie). That’s his most dialogue heavy script yet.

          It feels like more of a stage play than a film. The stagecoach scenes are either inside the coach, or outside it when it’s stopped. There is nothing moving – unlike John Ford’s Stagecoach.

          It’s the same thing when they get to their destination. A lot of dialogue inside the building.

          I’ll be curious to see what the film looks like.

  • Malibo Jackk

    OT:
    Not sure why that recent news of the 4.8 million dollar gold bar heist sounds like a bad script.
    The truck carrying the gold bars was traveling from Florida to a northern city when it made an unscheduled stop in North Carolina. The passenger guard said he smelled gas so both men left the cab without their guns — and were immediately approached and robbed by two HISPANIC MEN. This despite the fact that the truck was unmarked — and nobody but the guards were supposed to know about the shipment.

    OK. So here’s the big twist. The police had trouble getting the story straight — because both security guards spoke little English. (Yes, that’s right. Both guards were also HISPANIC MEN.)

    • klmn

      I’m sure they’ve found a Spanish speaking interrogator by now.

      • walker

        These guys are taking jobs from American armed robbers.

  • NajlaAnn

    Excellent observations and suggestions – thanks!

  • walker

    OT: I have noticed that posting as a guest I am no longer allowed to upvote anyone’s posts. I think downvoting was always unavailable, but I never had any interest in downvoting any posts anyway. On the other hand, upvoting was like my main positive karmic activity in the universe. So my apologies to all of my favorite commenters, I have been disenfranchised.

    • Linkthis83

      Now you’ll just have to leave “upvote” comments.

    • brenkilco

      This sounds unconstitutional. One fan, one vote! One fan, one vote!

    • Bifferspice

      ah well, you never upvoted my comments anyway ;-)

  • leitskev

    Using the problem thing is also a great way to dump in some exposition if it’s needed. You set up the scene problem, the kind of thing that has our attention to see what happens. Then you dump the expo while the audience is paying attention because they want to see how the problem is resolved. Then you resolve the problem.

    Quick example(hopefully not too lame):

    Meet Jack, who is having hot and heavy sex with a woman.
    It’s her house.
    The living room door opens and we hear(VO) “Honey, I’m home!”
    She forces JAck under the bed(I know, lame)
    husband(VO): “I’m gonna fix a drink, you want one?”
    “Sure, the usual.”
    Jack from under the bed: “You didn’t tell me you were married!”
    “And you’re not married?”
    “But this is your house!”
    “That makes it kosher with you? Long as it ain’t where you eat, no big deal?”
    “It’s not like I make it a thing. Truth is I don’t want to cheat on her. I didn’t even want to be here, but you were the only one who gave me the time of day. I’m only doing this because she did. I’m balancing the books you might say.”
    husband(VO): “I’m gonna shower first.”
    wife to Jack: “Go! Now’s your chance!”

    It’s a stupid scene, don’t shoot me. The idea is to find a way to reveal the expo about Jack’s situation with his wife. No, this is not from a script, don’t worry! All I could think of on short notice. If we create some tension with a problem, we create a window to introduce exposition about the character or the world.

    • Bluedust

      That’s not bad, but a real problem would be when he slides under the bed and finds another guy hiding there.

  • fragglewriter

    Everyone views about a PROBLEM are different. A writer might say, you know, this person getting arrested at at an airport is a PROBLEM. But a reader might read it as saying, what’s the significance?

  • LostAndConfused

    I got 99 problems but…

  • Craig Mack

    Way to ‘up vote’ your own asinine statement.

  • Citizen M

    How many abstract, rule-shattering screenplays have you sold?

    • Somersby

      Check out his disqus profile. Not a positive word to be offered on any of the sites he frequents.

      Those who can’t, teach. Those who don’t even try, criticize.

  • drifting in space

    Because abstract screenplays from unknown writers are all the rage.

  • Citizen M

    Good article, Carson. Mamet says something similar, albeit rather louder.

    EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

    THIS NEED IS WHY THEY CAME. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE, TO FAILURE – THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS OVER. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE NEXT SCENE.

  • Casper Chris

    Can’t think of a better spec.

    • filmklassik

      BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was written on spec. So was CHINATOWN.

      You might reply, “Like I said…” and many would agree with you, but for me, AMERICAN BEAUTY was the most wildly overrated movie of its year.

      • Malibo Jackk

        Would be an interesting script to study (American Beauty).
        The plot almost seems directionless and then you have that ending.

    • http://screenplayamonth.tumblr.com FilmingEJ

      I love American Beauty, but whenever the movie deals with the teenagers, it rings a little false to me… but that might just be because I’m a teenager myself.

    • Midnight Luck

      Neither can I.

      What is all the dislike of American Beauty?
      I think it was one of the best scripts, films, acting, directing, you name it of the last 20 years. It had a solid concept, had some of the best character study work I have ever seen on film.
      Just fantastic.
      I know everyone has their likes and dislikes, but I am baffled as to how people can call it typical, or low level, or whatever.

      If that is how people feel, I think they need to: 1) get out more, 2) broaden their horizons (when it comes to what movies they see), and 3) turn off the Adam Sandler movies, step away from the video games, quit getting stoned 24/7, stop watching Fast and the Furious 9 or Spiderman/Batman/Ironman/whateverman 7. Read a book, take a walk, get out and see the amazing variety of life and nature and the world.

      I think people can only appreciate the more interesting movies, and the deeper films if they have some notion of the world they live in.

      Too many people have only seen the surface of things. Have only dealt with superficial issues and problems in their lives. So a movie like American Beauty isn’t accessible to them. They cannot GET it. They don’t have the brain capacity or the maturity.

      Wait a while. Odds are, the world will come knocking and you have no idea how hard, terrible, troubling, difficult, and insane it can actually be.

      Life isn’t only about going to the gym, getting Starbucks, buying a new car, getting hired at that killer job, nailing that hot guy or girl at the bar, getting digits, getting a pedicure / manicure, frosting your nether regions, shopping, getting the right phone, having a bunch of Twitter friends, or any of the other banal things 99.9% of American people and people from 1st world countries care about.
      No, there is more. Much more. And it entails feeling. Caring about things. Caring about others. Seeing tragedy. Feeling horrific things and terrible tragedies yourself.

      Maybe all these people will be lucky and never have a single hardship in their lives, so they won’t have to learn how the world actually works.

      To them I say:
      Don’t be a writer.

      Go do something else.
      Writing comes from dark places (even comedy).
      Superficial people can’t write for shit.

      • drifting in space

        Shit.

  • klmn
    • Kirk Diggler

      Get off your plane!

  • Dan B

    Just happened to come across this, but Doug, the guy who wrote the Stone of Destiny script, seems to be running an Indiana Jones fan fiction website.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Cool.
      (The guy definitely has talent.)

    • Malibo Jackk

  • filmklassik

    Never understood the love for AMERICAN BEAUTY. But I know many people (most people?) on here think highly of it.

  • Midnight Luck

    here, let me help you out, I’ll upvote his comment for you.

    • drifting in space

      I’m drunk and that is sick as shit.

      • Midnight Luck

        you seem to be on a Shit-Train today.

        I like that word as well.

        Shit. Shit, shit. Shit.

        • drifting in space

          I’m so hungover today. Don’t tell my boss.

          • Midnight Luck

            secret is safe with me.
            unless you were drunk all weekend,
            and today as well.

    • drifting in space

      I feel bad for letting my friend down so I drowned my sorrows. Plus, I love your comments.