Dave Trottier is a produced screenwriter, award-winning teacher, acclaimed script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible , and friendly host of keepwriting.com. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DRTrottier.
It’s all in the writing. After all the structuring is done, the scenes themselves have to entertain. Most often, when I read a script, I think to myself, “It needs color.” Color the characters; color the scenes; color the dialogue. It’s all in the writing.
William Goldman shows how
Consider William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. Here is an outline of three scenes from that screenplay:
The Man in Black defeats the Spaniard.
The Man in Black defeats the Giant.
The Man in Black defeats the Sicilian.
It doesn’t sound particularly exciting, and it doesn’t have to—it’s an outline. Fortunately, Goldman colored those scenes and they are three wonderful scenes that most everyone enjoys.
My personal favorite is “The Battle of the Wits” section of the third scene. The Man in Black apparently pours deadly iocane powder into one of two goblets of wine. The scene ends with a lovely twist after Vizzini dies from drinking the wine in the Man in Black’s goblet.
cup that was poisoned.
last few years building up an immunity
to iocane powder.
Not only do movies benefit from an unexpected twist but scenes do, too.
It doesn’t matter if the location is boring or typical; it’s how you color the scene itself that makes the difference. Let’s examine a fairly typical scene from a Western. I think you will find it only moderately interesting. (We’ll color it later.)
A typical scene
Winslow is the central character who is a bad guy trying to reform, but who believes nothing he can do will make up for his evil past. Prior to this scene, he brought in the murderer Bradford to be hanged. The reference to the bloody pregnant woman is from something in Winslow’s past that haunts him.
redemption. His soul is going to Hell
for sure unless he repents, and this
town can know that the retribution of
the Lord comes upon all those who do
wickedly. And there is no wavering of
his all-searching Eye.
has spoken it.
Minister. And that’s Winslow here.
Why he caught him in Mexican territory
and brought him back across the border
just to be hanged for justice. May God
have mercy on his soul.
repentance for one’s transgressions
neck. No need to suffer.
A quick evaluation of the typical scene
Now if you had submitted the above to me, I’d say it’s in fairly good form, but it lacks color. And I would provide the following advice.
Avoid passive verbs (too much use of “is” and “are”). Use active verbs and specific details.
You don’t need the words “Off screen” or the camera direction “POV.”
Dramatize dramatic moments, such as the hanging. Maybe a bit of humor would help the scene. When I evaluate a script, I often see overwriting. This particular scene is underwritten. It’s a key scene that needs more drama and a greater sense of the characters’ emotions. [I can say that it’s a key scene, having read the entire script.]
You have a crow squawk; maybe it should preside over the scene as a bad-luck symbol. Also, use it for a transition from the vision of the bloody pregnant woman back to scene.
Characterize your characters. Right now, they’re rather typical of what we’ve seen in other movies. You can characterize them by how you describe facial expressions, gestures, and actions. Again, use specific language.
Contrast the sheriff and the minister; emphasize differences. That will help define both. Maybe you can label them more definitively as a characterization tool. For example, what kind of sheriff and what kind of minister? I’m looking for an adjective for each.
At one point, Winslow says, “Is that so?” It might be a good place for him to express his belief that the good he does can never make up for the bad. “Ain’t enough” leaves a little room for subtext.
Some of the dialogue is obvious. “I’ll see you in Hell” is typical, but could work if there is an original follow-up line or comeback line.
You wrote, “Winslow’s thoughts turn to that word ‘repentance.’ He thinks about his past.” Thoughts, insights, and feelings cannot appear on the movie screen. Describe an action or a look that can appear on the movie screen, something that the actor can act.
Coloring the typical scene
The scene below was written by a client who graciously gave me permission to share it. (The script is entitled Chasing Redemption by Daniel P. Douglas). The “original” above is the same scene written by me in an attempt to imitate what I so often see in screenplays that I evaluate.
Let’s see how my client colored his scene, which I’m sure you’ll find more entertaining than the “original” above. The best learning will come when you carefully compare the “original” with the “revision” paragraph by paragraph, speech by speech.
measure of repentance…
hundred feet over the Mexican border?
feet over. Hard to say, Sheriff.
the way of our Lord.
slack to break his neck good.
croak. Just let him hang a spell.
Can the above be improved? Maybe. But when I first read it, I wanted to read more, and that’s because 1) I found myself getting involved with Winslow, 2) the elements of the scene and characters were not typical, 3) there is a twist with the gallows not operating properly, and 4) the writing is good.
It’s all in the writing…and in coloring your scenes.
- More articles by Dave Trottier
- Breaking & Entering: Rewriters – Can This Script Be Saved?
- Screenplay Format: The Most Common Formatting Mistake
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