ScriptMag sat down with Jim Mercurio, who is finishing up the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scene writing.
Q: How is writing scenes different from working on story structure?
Jim Mercurio: In some ways, they are the same. In a scene, there needs to be an organic build up to a great reversal. You are mining similar elements – characters, personalities, quirks of the world, setups – to find a surprise. You’ve heard of turning points, right? Writers have to turn a story. They also have to learn how to turn a scene. Or a line of dialogue.
Q: If scenes are like stories, does that mean they also have beginnings, middles and ends?
Jim Mercurio: Yes and no. Scenes in the beginning of movies are more likely to have explicit beginnings, middles and ends because you may be establishing a character or a location, so there is a sense of introduction and orientation that needs to be achieved. But later, the beginning of a scene may be implied from an earlier setup, which allows the story to accelerate as scenes get shorter. A simple example might be the first time we see a character at work. We might need to see an establishing shot, the parking lot, the building, the office space, the supporting cast of co-workers. But think like an editor. The second time we go to their work location, maybe we only need an establishing shot of the building. And then later, once we know the space, we might not even need that. A more complex example from one of my favorite movies… In Annie Hall, there are two scenes where Alvie is in a small kitchen with a woman and is trying to cook a lobster. In the second one, he freaks out in contrast to a completely non-neurotic woman’s stoic reaction. The scene has a middle and an end and, on its own, gets by. However, the earlier lobster scene, where he and Annie are cooking lobsters but are enjoying being silly while doing it is, in essence, a beginning or a set up that makes the second scene work on more levels: it is funnier and it has more thematic strands that reveal how we all carry baggage from old relationships into new ones, which is revealed in the way Alvie tries to shape a new lover into Annie and tries to relive and recreate time spent with her.
Q: What is special about what you are doing?
Jim Mercurio: I like to go into very detailed explanation of craft elements. Sometimes students and clients will admit that they weren’t even aware of everything that was going on in a scene. I try to get them to see the task of screenwriting very clearly which gives them new tools, opportunities and responsibilities, which leads to their growth as writers.
Jim Mercurio: Yeah. I will show writers that a specific type of scene like an introduction or meet-cute or climax has to hit certain beats and cover predetermined ground. Not in a limiting way. But once you know what it is you are trying to achieve in a scene, you can go about it in many ways… you can find the way that works for you. I approach teaching from diverse and multiple perspectives. I don’t present rigid rules or feedback but I also don’t bash other books or story paradigms that may propose a more methodical approach to understanding screenwriting. It’s like the old mantra from improv. I don’t say no. I try to say, “yes, and…”
I bring my filmmaking background into the understanding of screenwriting. Instead of referring to the “goal” in a scene, I often borrow a term from acting: “What am I fighting for?” Sometimes this paints a more clear picture for the writer as far as what has to be accomplished in a scene. Think about the moment in Good Will Hunting scene where Chuckie tells Will that he wants him to move on and leave Boston. Even if Chuckie were his career counselor, “giving him advice” or “educating” or “convincing him to leave” is a flimsy beat or goal. But in terms of what Chuckie is fighting for? I believe it’s his friend’s soul.
Q: So Chuckie is fighting for Will’s soul?
Jim Mercurio: Think about it like an actor and director. If the actor said, “I am having a hard time finding the ‘importance’ (another term swiped from the acting lexicon) here. What’s the big deal about me telling him this stuff?” If you don’t have a great answer for yourself or the character, then the scene probably is not firing on all cylinders
Q: Does a writer’s skill at scene writing impact the business and marketing side of the biz?
Jim Mercurio: Absolutely. Development budgets are shrinking or non-existent. The closer a movie is to being able to be shot, the more marketable it is. Your script has to be able to attract name talent… actors, producers or directors whose involvement leads to production. This is where the creativity and business side merge. Scene writing helps writers to find and reveal their idiosyncratic voice. Understanding advanced topics like writing to concept allow you to find a novel way to express something that might be familiar. Juno and Her might hit the same story beat but, based on their concept, the moments are going to look very different. We will go into that in my advanced scene writing webinar this week.
Q: The title of the class is “Breaking the Rules with Style.” Are you going to give us rules about rules?
Jim Mercurio: No, I am going to give you principles. All of these unwritten rules about scene lengths, too much dialogue, parentheticals or “cheats”(something that can’t be seen or heard) in the action description are trying to protect the writer in some way. It ends up doing the opposite by constricting them but at some point in the derivation of these “rules” there was some good intent. They were designed to help writers avoid bad storytelling. I guess we are back to that strange word above: “responsibilities.” If writers take care of their business and make sure a scene has what it’s supposed to have, then there is more leeway for personal style, potential cheats or other daring touches.
- Learn new craft principles that will help you become the screenwriter you have always wanted to be by creating powerful and memorable scenes and establish your unique voice
- Cut through the competitive spec market by delivering bullet-proof execution that allows your script to attract agents, actors, producers and directors
- Free yourself from the laundry lists of rules that tell you what not to do