A scene defines action that happens in a single location. The beginning of a scene starts with a scene heading such as:
INT. B-2 COCKPIT— NIGHT
The end of that scene occurs at the beginning of the next scene heading. As an general rule, scenes should be short. In stage plays where set changes can be cumbersome, long scenes occur in a single location. In movies where it’s easy to change locations, scenes are often far shorter.
Every scene needs to reveal at least one piece of new information that advances the story. ideally, scenes should reveal more than one piece of new information. If the information in a scene can be revealed in another part of your screenplay, then you don’t need that particular scene.
In “Terminator 2,” the bad Terminator has gone to John Connor’s house and taken the appearance of his step-mom. When John Connor calls, the bad Terminator mimics the step-mom’s voice. When the good Terminator mimics John Connor’s voice and learns that the step-mother is dead, he hangs up.
In the original screenplay for “Terminator 2,” there was an extra scene where the bad Terminator kills the step-father and then explores the house, looking for clues where John Connor might go. While rummaging through John Connor’s bedroom, the bad Terminator discovers letters that Sarah Connor has written to him. When the bad Terminator sees the return address on the envelope, he knows where to find John Connor.
In the movie, that entire scene got deleted because the only information that scene revealed was how the bad Terminator knows where John Connor will be. Yet after that deleted scene, John Connor tells the good Terminator that he wants to rescue his mom, but the good Terminator warns him that the bad Terminator will think of going there.
The information on where the bad Terminator can find John Connor is summed up in a single line of dialogue, completely eliminating the original scene where the bad Terminator finds Sarah Connor’s address by reading it off an envelope in John Connor’s bedroom.
As a general rule, the longer a scene, the more information it should reveal. Long scenes that only reveal one bit of information can often be cut or shortened. If a scene reveals one bit of information that isn’t revealed elsewhere, then the scene should be as short as possible.
Longer scenes = more information revealed
Shorter scenes = less information revealed
Look at other screenplays and you’ll see numerous scenes that got deleted from the final movie. If a scene doesn’t convey new information, get rid of it. If a scene conveys information that can be revealed through another scene, get rid of the repetitive scene.
The whole point of every scene is to advance the story and you do that by revealing new information that the audience (and the characters) didn’t know before. Although scenes often tell a fragment of a story, taken together, groups of scenes tell a mini-story. In every story, there are four parts:
- An attention grabber that introduces a problem and foreshadows conflict.
- A character pursuing a goal by trying to solve that problem.
- Other characters trying to foil the character from achieving a goal.
- A resolution that shows the character achieving the goal or failing to achieve the goal.
Here’s how the beginning sequence from “Inglorious Basterds” works:
- The attention grabber is a dairy farmer who spots a convoy of Nazi cars heading towards his farm. (EXT. DAIRY FARM – DAY)
- The dairy farmer tries to mislead the Nazis on the whereabouts of a Jewish family. (INT. FARM HOUSE – DAY)
- The Nazi officer, known as the Jew Hunter, interrogates the dairy farmer and patiently describes the extermination of rats and the rewards that await those who help identify the location of rats.
- The dairy farmer points to the direction of where the Jewish family is hiding under the floors, and the Nazi officer orders his men to machine gun the area. (EXT. DAIRY FARM -DAY) Miraculously, a girl escapes and flees as the Nazi officer taunts her.
Sequences must begin by grabbing our attention with a problem. At first, we may not know what this problem might be, but we do know that it hints of future conflict, which keeps us wanting to know more.
Second, we learn the goals of the opposing characters. One character is trying to pursue a goal and another character is trying to foil that goal. Initially, it looks like the character pursuing the goal will succeed.
Third, the character opposing the goal seems to gain the advantage and looks like he or she will foil the goal.
Fourth, the goal either gets resolved or not with one character the winner and the other the loser. Then the sequence ends with a cliffhanger to lead us directly into the next sequence by posing an unanswered question.
Make your scenes as short as possible, revealing the most information possible, and that will go a long way towards creating an interesting movie.