What makes an unforgettable scene? It’s not what people think…
A deep look at a scene from Return of the King. Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Writing for an Audience’s Subconscious
The techniques a writer uses that grips an audience and moves them emotionally in multiple directions, often simultaneously, are what I call “Emotioneering”® techniques.
These techniques address the audience’s subconscious. Because of this, they are a challenge to consciously isolate.
Also, because these techniques are the reason people get caught up in a character, a scene, or a plot, it’s hard to pull back and examine them objectively.
Let’s look at the Emotioneering techniques used in two related scenes (one follows the next) from Return of the King.
The first scene is with Frodo and Sam on a large boulder. Frodo has just destroyed the ring, and with it Sauron and Mount Doom.
This transitions to a scene where Frodo is recovers in the Gondor capital of Minas Tirith.
NOTE: If you know this scene well, skip the script and go right to the deconstruction that follows it.
The two scenes comprise of just over two pages of script, but, on screen, they’re 5 1/2 minutes of film. Also, because Peter Jackson was not just one of the writers but the director as well, he left out some things from the script that he already knew he would add when directing. (Most writers/directors do this.)
One example is the quality of emotion between Frodo and Sam when they’re reunited in Minas Tirith. Normally, there’d also be a hint or description of the emotion between them in the screenplay.
Also, these writers tend to use three dots in a row (…) much more than most writers. They also capitalize each character’s name every time that character appears in the script. Neither of these practices is very common.
Thus, I suggest you enjoy this wonderful script selection by a trio of great writers, but I don’t suggest that you use it as a format template for your spec scripts.
By the way, if you’d like to actually see this scene, this article has also been reprinted on the “Beyond Structure” website, and there it contains the film clip.
EXT. SLOPES OF MOUNT DOOM - DAY The VOLCANO is ERUPTING, FIRE belches from its riven summit, sending LAVA streaming down its sides. ANGLE ON: FRODO and SAM stagger out of the SAMMATH NAUR DOOR...all around ASH and MOLTEN ROCKS fall. The SKIES burst into THUNDER, seared with LIGHTNING. The screaming NAZGUL fall from the sky in FLAMES! The ground is shaking so violently that FRODO and SAM can barely stand. FRODO stumbles...SAM helps him up...FRODO smiles. FRODO It's gone...it's done. SAM looks down at FRODO...FRODO'S FACE is at PEACE...his BURDEN destroyed... SAM Yes, Mr. Frodo...it's over now. FRODO and SAM crawl onto a ROCK as LAVA streams towards them...in seconds THEIR ROCK is an island in a sea of MOLTEN FIRE. FRODO shuts his eyes... FRODO (remembering) I can see the Shire...The Brandywine River, Bag End, Gandalf's fireworks... the lights in the Party Tree... SAM Rosie Cotton dancing...she had ribbons in her hair... (sobs) ...if ever I was to marry someone... it would have been her... it would have been her. FRODO glances at SAM...he is WEEPING. CLOSE ON: FRODO wrapping an ARM around SAM'S SHOULDER. FRODO (calm) I'm glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee...here at the end of all things. HIGH WIDE: TWO TINY HOBBITS waiting to die amid a cataclysmic landscape...LAVA erupts around them... FIREBALLS rain down from the sky. We SLOWLY FADE TO BLACK... FADE UP: SLOW MOTION: GWAIHIR, the GREAT EAGLE flaps towards CAMERA ...He bears GANDALF on his back, and is followed by TWO MORE EAGLES. WIDE SHOT...The EAGLES bravely fly amid the RAINING ASH and MOLTEN ROCKS...and SNATCH FRODO and SAM from the ROCK! CLOSE ON: FRODO'S FACE...as the FIERY VOLCANO recedes away beneath him...the wind ruffles his hair...he PASSES OUT. FADE TO BLACK. INT. MINAS TIRITH, HOUSES OF HEALING - DAY SLOW MOTION...FRODO'S eyes flutter open...looking around slowly his eyes alight on GANDALF... FRODO Gandalf? GANDALF'S face breaks into a smile...then laughter... ...as MERRY and PIPPIN run in... jumping on the bed and hugging FRODO...GIMLI and LEGOLAS enter the room... their joy is PLAIN... ARAGORN joins them -- the FELLOWSHIP is complete... ...finally FRODO'S eyes fall upon a FIGURE standing apart from the others...it is SAM... CLOSE ON: FRODO'S and SAM'S eyes meet...
I find it helpful, when speaking about film and television scripts, to divide them into five elements:
There are techniques to make each of these five elements unique and interesting (“Interesting Techniques”), and techniques to make each of these five elements have emotional depth (“Deepening Techniques”).
By “depth,” I mean what others mean when they use phrases like:
- Emotionally complex
- Psychologically complex
Not all techniques in creating stories and scripts fall into these categories of “interesting” and “deep,” but the vast majority do.
This scene from Return of the King uses quite a few such techniques. Here are some of the techniques used in this pair of linked scenes:
(Techniques to cause an audience to like or identify with a character)
For both Frodo and Sam:
- They are heroic.
- They have performed self-sacrifice for the greater good.
- They are in danger.
- They are loyal to each other.
- They experience pain and sorrow –– from what they’ve gone through, and from their impending deaths.
Character Deepening Techniques
- Sam has an unfulfilled dream –– of marring Rosie.
- They both have pain and sorrow. (This causes not just empathy but depth as well.)
- Frodo and Sam simultaneously feel different things about different subjects: they’re glad they conquered Sauron; they’re sad they’re going to die.
- At the end, in Minas Tirith, they’re “alone in a crowd” –– despite the joy around them, their history of struggle and torment sets them apart from others in the room.
Scene Deepening Techniques
- There is a contrast between the stillness on the rock and the violence of the lava below.
- (At the end): “One Scene, Two Universes”: Frodo and Sam are (figuratively) in one universe, and all their joyful companions are in another.
Plot Deepening Techniques
- “Desolation Row”: The characters face the very worst possible situation. In this case, it’s their impending deaths.
- Symbol of a Concept: Fire. There are four ways to use symbols in scripts. “Symbol of a Concept” is one of them. Throughout the film, fire is a symbol of Sauron. Other symbols of Sauron are machinery and darkness. “Symbol of a Concept” is a type of symbol that runs through an entire plot. It gives emotional depth to the plot –– and thus is a plot deepening technique.
- The End of the Fire Plotline: Evil has been destroyed, so the mountain (the world) empties itself of the last signs of evil (fire).
- Symbol of a Concept: White. In the “Lord of the Rings” films, white, trees, and water are symbols of good.
This article went over 15 different Emotioneering techniques, used in 5 1/2 minutes of Return of the King.
From this we can see that what makes a scene unforgettable and emotionally powerful isn’t the use of a single technique, but rather many techniques used either simultaneously or in rapid succession.
Such techniques are valuable not just in deconstructing scenes, but also in creating them. They are extremely powerful and effective tools for elevating your artistry –– and with it, your chances of commercial success.
You wouldn’t try to use all these techniques as you write –– if you did, your head would explode. No one can keep them all in mind as they create.
There are some techniques that you do use as you write your first draft. However, most of those described in this article are more effectively used when you rewrite. They take a lot of thought to apply artfully, and you need to make aesthetic choices in order to use them in combination to create the complex emotions you intend to evoke.
The techniques provide craft. They turn into art when you add the “X Factor.” What’s the X-Factor? The X-Factor is you –– you, with all your experience, your insights, and your own aesthetic vision.
Hopefully these tools will be helpful to you in your writing.