I can’t take it any longer. I can’t take reading all these scenes that are so…….BAD! Scenes that just sit there. Scenes where nothing happens. Scenes where characters babble. Scenes that only dole out exposition. Scenes without conflict. Scenes without DRAMA!
Ah-ha! There’s the root of our problem! No drama. No baby mama drama. And what do scenes without drama result in?…Does anybody remember? That’s right! Scenes of death. The worst possible scene you can write in a screenplay. These are scenes with no dramatic or entertainment value whatsoever. I don’t care if your characters are talking about the origins of the universe. If it isn’t dramatized, we’re bored.
Confused? Do you still not know what “dramatizing a scene” means? Don’t worry. Actually, DO WORRY. Because if you don’t figure this out, you will never learn how to write an entertaining screenplay. You’ll be able to write people talking to each other. You’ll be able to write exposition. You’ll be able to move the plot from point A to point B to point C. But you won’t write anything that entertains an audience. So let’s make sure that’s never the case.
“Dramatizing a scene” means finding a dramatic component – usually fueled by conflict – to center a scene around. For example. 2 people talking about their day is a boring scene. 2 people talking about their day when one of them has a secret lover hiding in the closet is a dramatized scene.
An easy way to assess whether a scene is dramatized or not is to imagine the rest of your movie stripped away. All you have is this one scene. Would that scene entertain a reader? Context, of course, is essential to any good scene. So that always needs to be factored in. But in general, is your scene entertaining in its own right? If not, chances are you haven’t dramatized it. Because that’s what dramatizing a scene does – it makes the scene work on its own.
In order to help you understand the practice better, I’ve decided to lay out three screenplays I’ve been working on in my free time. In each of them, I will show you what a non-dramatized scene looks like, and then the thought process and approach that goes into dramatizing it. Now I’m trusting you guys to not steal my ideas here. These are three of the best ideas I’ve ever had so please keep them to yourselves. Let’s start with the first one, my martial arts fighting epic…The Weigh-In.
TITLE: THE WAY(EIGH)-IN
PREMISE: A martial arts fighter named RIGBY BONAPARTE is near the end of his career when he gets a surprise shot at the mixed-martial arts championship of the world.
SETUP: Rigby is getting by on ramen noodles and Wonder Bread, fighting a bunch of nobodies on Friday night undercards. At this point in the movie, he hasn’t yet been offered the title shot.
THE SCENE: Rigby heads over to his gym to get some of his angst out. As he battles away on the punching bag, he watches a couple of hot young fighters spar in the ring. The entire gym watches them in awe. It’s clear that Rigby feels old, left out, forgotten. He gives the bag one last PUNCH and stomps out, pissed about life.
VERDICT: This may SEEM like a decent scene. We’re showing instead of telling. That’s good, right? It does get across some information about the character (that he’s over the hill and frustrated) but we kind of already knew that. I mean, where’s the drama here? The guy is punching a punching bag, watching people. That’s not a scene.
Time to take The Way(eigh)-In through the Scriptshadow Dramatizer!!!
DRAMATIZED SCENE: Clearly, this scene needs more conflict. I have an idea. What if Rigby went into the locker room to change, only to find out that…his locker’s been given to someone else! Now we have some conflict (our hero is confused/angry) – somewhere to start our scene. Already, the scene’s looking better.
The situation also forces our character to be ACTIVE. He has to find out what happened. Why did someone change his locker? So let’s send him to the owner’s office and have him go off on the guy. That’s drama, right? Well, sort of. But I feel like we can do better. I mean, how dramatic is a private argument in a back office? Let’s put the argument right in the middle of the gym! Yeahhhh! Now the whole gym can stop and watch them go at it! Ooh, I’m liking this.
We’ll even have the owner, some crotchety old trainer named MACK, ignore Rigby when he approaches, focusing instead on these young buck fighters we had in our previous pointless scene. And to really maximize the drama, let’s make Mack hate Rigby. Let’s make him think Rigby is the biggest bum in the world, a real waste of space. Now, when Rigby finally reaches Mack and demands to know what happened to his locker, we have ourselves a bona fide dramatized scene.
SUMMARY: (Real movie – Rocky) I don’t know about you but I like this scene waaaaay better than the one where he’s banging on a speed ball looking upset. And all it took was a little dramatizing!
TITLE: THE BOAT HAZARD
PREMISE: A young strapping lad named Carribou Willoughby has managed to stow away on a passenger boat headed to America. It is on this boat that he falls for a beautiful out-of-his-league young lady named Jezzebel Gonzalez.
SETUP: So far, Carribou has only been able to marvel at Jezzebel from afar. She’s always flanked by a first-class entourage. He wonders if he’ll ever get a chance to speak with her before they reach America.
THE SCENE: One night out on the back of the boat, Carribou is laying down, chewing on some hey, when he notices – gasp – Jezzebel! She’s at the railing, staring at the stars, all by herself! This may be his only chance to talk to her. So he approaches, sidling up to her. “A wonderful night, isn’t it?” She turns, startled. But when she sees the handsome young man in front of her, she smiles. “It is.” Silence passes. The two look up at the stars. “You know what my father used to stay about the stars,” Carribou offers. “No. Tell me,” she replies. “He used to say that every star was one of the sun’s children. And that one day, they would all come back to rejoin him and when they did, there would never be darkness again.” She turns to him, offers her hand. “I’m Jezzebel.” He takes her hand up to his mouth, kisses it. “They call me Carribou.”
VERDICT: WORRRRRRRRRST SCEEEEEEEEEENE EVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVER!!! No conflict. On the nose dialogue. Cheesy lines. Ugh. Awful.
Let’s push this puppy into the SCRIPTSHADOW DRAMATIZER shall we?
DRAMATIZED SCENE: Okay, first of all, a person standing at the back of a boat looking up at the stars is the equivalent of placing your reader in a 4×4 foot concrete coffin. That’s how boring it is. So, how can we spice this up? First of all, let’s change Jezzebel’s situation. Let’s say she’s engaged to a man she despises. Yes! That’s good. And he makes her feel trapped. To the point where she’s considering suicide. Ooooh. Okay, now we’re on to something.
Jezzebel isn’t going to the back of the boat to look at stars. No. She’s going to the back of the boat to jump off! Now, instead of Carribou simply having to start a conversation with Jezzebel, he has to save her life!
But let’s amp up the conflict even more. She’s dead set on jumping. Nothing’s going to change her mind. So Carribou has to come up with a clever way to stop her. “The freezing water!” he thinks. That’ll be his angle. He can use that to scare her. And you know what? It’s working, to the point where she lets him approach, even take her hand to help her back over.
But that’s too easy. This is called the “Scriptshadow Dramatizer,” not the “Scriptshadow Sort-of-make-things-more-interestinger.” So what if she slipped! Yes, an obstacle (DRAMA!)! Now he LITERALLY has to save her. Using all his strength, he yanks Jezzebel up over the railing and to safety. Phew, she’s okay!
SUMMARY: Obviously, this is a scene from Titanic. You’re aware of the finished product. But what you didn’t know is that the “the sun and the stars” scene I mentioned earlier could’ve made the final cut had Titanic been in the hands of an amateur. Believe me. I’ve read tons of “Sun and The Stars” scenes in my life! Too many!
TITLE: CHUBBS HENRY
PREMISE: Chubbs Henry is an idealistic middle-aged literary agent at WMA who wants to change the business. He’s tired of the agency selling these crappy POS screenplays to the studios and wants them to make a stand. So he sends an e-mail out to everyone saying they need to get behind good material and good material only, even if it means selling less product.
THE SETUP: While Chubbs’ idealistic approach goes over well at first, a week later his boss calls him in and fires him. Sorry Chubbs. That’s not how this industry works. We sell crap because we make a lot of money off crap.
THE SCENE: Okay, so Chubbs just lost his job. What is he going to do? Well obviously he’s miserable, depressed. But he’s got to think of the future! So on the way to his car, he starts calling all of his writers, seeing if they’ll stay with him. The first eight say no but his big moneymaker, his top writer, says yes! Hooray. Chubbs is still in the game.
Let’s take this puppy through the Scriptshadow Dramatizer…
DRAMATIZED SCENE: First of all, the method of firing (boss calling him in) is too standard. Let’s try something different. Why not make it so his rival (Ted Sweets) gets to fire him? YEAH. Now this firing has some meat behind it, some angst. This should piss our hero off (pissing off heroes is good – creates conflict).
Next, him calling his clients on the way to his car is boring. Let’s make him have to do it at the office. Now he has to walk through an entire company that knows he just got fired. How embarrassing. But talk about conflict! Already this scene is way better.
And you know what? Why take Sweets out of the picture? When you have a great nemesis/villain, you want to use him as much as possible. Hey, I know! What if Sweets immediately starts calling all of Chubbs’ clients, trying to poach them before Chubbs can call them himself?? Okay, now we have some URGENCY to the scene. Chubbs has to move fast or risk losing his writers to Sweets. We could turn it into a sort of “phone-battle,” with both of them speed-dialing numbers as fast as they can.
That’s a good scene but you know what? We could dramatize it EVEN MORE. What if, in a previous scene, Chubbs’ promised one of his lower-level writers more personal attention? Like SWORE TO HIM that he’d give him more personal time? Yeah, and let’s say that that writer (we’ll call him Joe Estzeras Jr.) calls him RIGHT IN THE MIDST of this phone battle, demanding that personal time come RIGHT NOW. Okay, now we have a real obstacle. He can’t call people if he’s stuck talking to Estzeras Jr. Friends? We have ourselves a real scene!
SUMMARY: Obviously, this is the famous scene from Jerry Maguire. But did you see how it looked before it got dramatized? Talk about boring. And yet I read DOZENS of those scenes every single day. Which goes to show just how important dramatizing a scene is!
Hopefully these examples have given you an idea of how to dramatize a scene. And while it may seem daunting at first, figuring out how to dramatize a scene actually becomes really fun! It’s like a puzzle where you’re constantly asking yourself, “What elements can I add to this scene to make it more dramatic?” Just remember, not all scenes have to be over the top dramatized. Just like any aspect of screenwriting, the level of dramatization will depend on the genre, the scene, the tone, the situation and dozens of other smaller factors. Sometimes you need to throw a big heavy dose of dramatization onto a scene (like the Jerry Maguire example) but other times it might be something simple – like a wife who’s upset with her husband but won’t tell him why. What you don’t want to is a write a scene without a single dramatic element to it. I cannot stress how often I read that type of scene though. So I’m telling you guys. START DRAMATIZING YOUR SCENES. Recognize how to dramatize.