Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Writing Other People's Scenes

We all know movie scenes that feel like magic. We've all been overpowered by scenes that somehow are more than the sum of their parts. We've all seen something ineffable on screen that stayed with us. And we all feel that somehow we'll never attain something like that ourselves.

But there's something about ineffably powerful scenes -- they're usually the product of some tremendous but fairly straightforward thinking by a writer who knew what tools he had on hand. There's something incredibly economical in the use of those elements, just like in any other great art. And a writer can learn from the masters by taking apart how the whole thing works.

Most great scenes have a powerful set up: say, two priests talking in a bar (as in the Exorcist), or a cop hitting on a cokehead (in Magnolia), or a police line up with five guilty men (as in The Usual Suspects). That set up is usually a direct and simple expression that springs from the conceit.

Most great scenes -- okay, ALL great scenes -- are based around conflict. That conflict is visual, so there's the setting coming into play. The writer knows the two main elements that make up her main character. She also knows that they need to be present throughout as a way of making a character's complexity accessible to the audience.

All these things are tools, and the greater the scene, the more likely that there's a seamless union of conflict and set up and conceit and character and plot structure. It's simpler in great scenes than it is in your average scene.

As an exercise, try watching your favorite scenes. Write down as much of the toolkit as you can surmise. Look at what's going on in the foreground and the background. Look at all the actual, physical acts and objects in front of you.

Now, write the scene. Take your time with it. Maybe watch several times. Try to get the visual beats down so that a fresh reader can understand them.

Can you pull it off? Test yourself. See if you can create the sum greater than the parts. And while you're at it, see what a great scene really looks like -- in all its humility and simplicity.

I like this exercise because it forces my students to really engage creativity, even as you're trying to simply re-create someone else's work. You need to think down into someone else's thinking. So many new writers slip straight into what seems quicker and faster -- thinking the scenes out through dialogue. Most great scenes aren't written that way, if only because that kind of writing doesn't allow you to think down into your OWN thinking.

When you're done, you can check your work against the actual script (or some version of it) by doing a search on

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