I’m a big believer in getting the most bang for your buck out of your screenplay. In many ways, a screenplay is an exercise in maximizing entertainment value. You take what, initially, feels like an average moment, and figure out a way to double, triple, even quadruple the entertainment value of that moment.
The most common example of this is the Hitchcockian break-up scene. Write a five minute scene between a man and a woman, then at the end of it, have her break up with him. While the break-up surprises the reader, and is therefore entertaining, that entertainment value lasts for all of five seconds.
On the flip side, you can inform the reader before the scene starts that our woman plans to break up with the man, and the exact same scene entertains the reader for five minutes instead of five seconds. Why? Because now we’re anticipating the dumping, curious how its going to go down and what the aftermath will be.
This leads me to today’s topic: scene-prepping. Scene prepping isn’t exactly like the Hitchcockian break-up, but it operates under a similar rule-set. The idea behind scene prepping is that instead of throwing us into a scene cold, you prep us for it beforehand.
The effect this has is two-fold. First, it makes the target scene bigger when it arrives. Think of it sort of like pre-game hype. You know how ESPN talks endlessly about what’s going to happen between LeBron James and Steph Curry when the two finally square off in the NBA Championship? We’ve been hearing about that match-up for so long, that by the time the game rolls around, we’re bursting at the seams to see what happens.
But there’s actually a more important effect to scene-prepping, and it dates back to the break-up example. By prepping us for a scene, say, 15 minutes down the road, you’re now entertaining us for 20 minutes (15 minutes prep + the 5 minute scene) instead of the only 5 minutes had you not prepped the scene at all.
Think about that for a second. You’re building up anticipation. And when your reader is anticipating something, they’re ENTERTAINED.
You may not know this, but you already do a form of scene-prepping without realizing it. Your entire script is one big scene-prep for the climax. Everything is gearing us up for that final showdown. Look at Swiss Army Man. The majority of that film is geared towards our lead character wanting to get back to the love of his life. This desire to see him make it home to be with her again keeps us more entertained than if there were no girl at all. Also, when they do reunite, it plays out with the weight of the world on it, since we’ve been prepping for this moment the entire movie.
A great example of scene prepping dates back to one of the best thriller scripts ever written – Die Hard. The entire opening sequence – before we get to the building – is one big scene prep for McClane seeing his wife. When McClane is in the limo talking to the driver, their primary discussion revolves around McClane’s troubled marriage. We learn that his marriage is on the rocks and this trip is his last chance to save it.
Again, this does two things. For starters, we’re now interested in what will happen when he sees his wife. The writer has looped an anticipation lasso around us, ensuring that we’re stealth-entertained until that meeting occurs. Second, when the two finally do see each other, the scene is much more powerful due to the fact we’ve been waiting for it. We know the key details. We know what’s at stake. So the scene plays like gangbusters.
I want you to imagine, if you can, how this scene would’ve played out if it weren’t prepped. Let’s say McClane got off the plane, took an Uber, said very little to his driver, showed up at the building, and then started arguing with his wife. We would’ve moved through the story quicker, sure. But we probably would’ve been like, “Where is this coming from? How did we get here?” The scene would’ve slammed into us. And by the time we caught up with it, it would’ve been over.
In my experience, a lack of scene prepping is one of the easier ways to spot amateurs. That’s because the pillars of scene-prepping – outlining and rewriting – are two areas amateur writers famously resist. To prep something takes planning, and good planning comes through outlining. Or, it comes from realizing a scene needs prepping after the fact, and going back and adding it through a rewrite.
An example of how a lack of scene-prep can hurt you occurred in The Force Awakens. Who was the weakest character in that film? I would argue that it was Maz Kanata, the alien tortoise thing that ran that little getaway bar. Now Maz had problems that went well beyond scene prepping. But the lack of scene-prep didn’t help. Do you remember how much time was spent getting us ready for Maz? About two seconds, when Han Solo looked back to Rey and Finn just before they walked into her place and said, “Oh yeah, Maz is a little weird so be ready.”
I mean, compare that to the scene prep of Hannibal Lecter, where we’re given a backstory on him, we’re going down a series of stairways and checkpoints and being warned by multiple people, we’re being shown pictures of what Hannibal has done to his victims.
The key term you want to familiarize yourself with here is ANTICIPATION. Anticipation is a storytelling turbo boost that excites the reader and encourages them to keep reading. You create anticipation by prepping what’s to come. If you don’t prep us and we just stumble from one scene to the next, only catching on to where we are in the moment, the audience never feels satisfied. To be satisfied, you need things to look forward to.
With that said, scene prep is one storytelling tool of many. You’re not going to use it in every scene. But it should definitely be utilized on multiple occasions in every script that you write. Go through your latest script and see if you’re prepping. If not, now you know how to do it!