“Writing Scenes for Screenplays” is an updated and retitled edition of my previous “Making a Scene” book about writing scenes. This updated version includes more information about scene structure along with creating scenes that define the villain’s goal, the hero’s pursuit of a Symbol of Hope goal, the ally’s change, and the mentor’s redemption. If you watch bad movies, you’ll notice that they lack scenes that properly explain the subplots of the villain, ally, mentor, and even the hero. If you study good movies, you’ll notice that they all focus on telling complete stories for the ally, mentor, villain, and hero. The following is an excerpt from the book:
Chapter 10 — The Mentor Scenes
Act I must set up the story by introducing the hero and villain. In addition, Act I must also hint of the mentor and introduce the Symbol of Hope from the villain. The crucial scenes needed in Act I include:
- Introducing the hero
- Introducing the villain
- Introducing the Symbol of Hope from the villain to the hero
- Leading the hero to the mentor through the Symbol of Hope
You can introduce the hero first and then the villain (or vice versa). When introducing the hero, you must define the hero’s dream and foreshadow the mentor. When introducing the villain, you must hint at the villain’s goal (which may not be clear initially) and introduce the Symbol of Hope.
By the end of Act I, we should know who the hero is and what the hero wants, and who the villain is and a rough idea what the villain wants. To transition the hero from Act I to Act IIa, the hero needs two forms of motivation:
- The guidance of a mentor
- The pursuit of a Symbol of Hope
The mentor is a person who enters the hero’s life early and protects the hero through the first half of the story. Then in the second half of the story, the mentor provides help and emotional support one last time before abandoning the hero to fight the villain alone.
Sometimes this means the mentor gets killed and sometimes it means the mentor simply cannot help the hero any more. The purpose of the mentor is to teach the hero how to change into a better person based on the theme of the story.
Characteristics of a Mentor
The villain can be seen as an evil version of the hero because the hero possess similar powers as the villain, but the villain is more experienced and more powerful. The mentor, on the other hand, is more similar to the villain.
The mentor is a villain with a conscience. The big difference between the villain and the mentor is that the mentor is sorry for something he or she did in the past. Now the only way for the mentor to redeem him or herself for this past mistake is to help the hero. Once the hero defeats the villain, this will redeem the mentor for the mistakes made in the past.
In “Star Wars,” Obi-wan trained Darth Vader. By teaching and helping Luke, Obi-wan eventually redeems himself for the past when Luke destroys the Death Star and foils Darth Vader’s plans.
In “The Karate Kid,” the hero’s mentor is the apartment handyman who also knows karate. When the hero discovers the mentor’s painful past in losing his wife and son, he better understands the mentor as a person. By defeating the villain, the hero can help the mentor forget about this painful past so the mentor can finally live life in the present.
The mentor is always stuck in the past, and the mentor can only be redeemed by the hero defeating the villain. In “Up,” the hero’s mentor is his wife who died before the two of them could go on their dream vacation to visit Paradise Falls.
The mentor’s painful past is never being able to visit Paradise Falls. Only after the hero defeats the villain can he finally put his house on a cliff near Paradise Falls, helping fulfill his wife’s dream that she could never achieve while she was still alive.
Besides being stuck in the past, the mentor often appears as the least likely character to help the hero. In “Star Wars,” Obi-wan is initially described as Old Ben, a crazy hermit who lives by himself in the desert.
In “The Karate Kid,” the mentor (the hero’s karate instructor) initially appears to be a harmless apartment handyman who’s a little odd.
In “Up,” the mentor (the hero’s wife) has died.
In “Rocky,” the mentor is the boxing trainer, who seems old and washed up.
Exercise #34: Describe the Mentor
Every hero needs a mentor who teaches the hero the story’s theme. Once you know your story’s theme, you automatically know your mentor’s lesson to the hero. Every mentor must fulfill the following:
- Be an unlikely character able to help the hero
- Be haunted by the past
- Possess skills that the hero needs
- Be redeemed for the past when the hero defeats the villain
In “Terminator 2,” the hero is the good Terminator and his mentor is John Connor, the kid he’s programmed to protect. The theme of “Terminator 2” is that killing is wrong. John Connor fits the structure of a mentor like this:
- (Be an unlikely character able to help the hero) John Connor is just a kid.
- (Be haunted by the past) John Connor is hurt being separated from his real mom and is sad that his mom seems to be crazy.
- (Possess skills that the hero needs) Teaches the hero about the importance of not killing and uses his hacking skills to defeat ATMs and electronic locks.
- (Be redeemed for the past when the hero defeats the villain) When the hero defeats the villain, it brings the mentor closer to his mother when he realizes she wasn’t crazy after all.
The Mentor Scenes
The mentor plays a crucial role from beginning to the end in helping the hero. The basic scenes involving the mentor as follows:
- Act I
- Hero learns about an unlikely mentor
- A Symbol of Hope leads the hero to meet the mentor
- Act IIa
- The mentor reveals his or her power
- Act IIb
- The mentor teaches the hero a lesson (occurs at the end of Act IIa or the beginning of Act IIb)
- The mentor motivates the hero one last time
- Act III
- The hero’s actions redeems the mentor for the past
- Act I
The mentor personifies the theme. Once you know the theme, you automatically know what the mentor will teach the hero. If you don’t know your story’s theme, you won’t know what your mentor needs to teach the hero.
In “Terminator 2,” the theme is that it’s wrong to kill. The hero is the good Terminator and the mentor is John Connor, who teaches him that it’s wrong to kill so this is how the mentor scenes work in “Terminator 2”:
- Act I
- (Hero learns about an unlikely mentor) John Connor is a kid.
- (A Symbol of Hope leads the hero to meet the mentor) After grabbing a shotgun, the hero starts searching for John Connor.
- Act IIa
- (The mentor reveals his or her power) John Connor learns that he can control the good Terminator.
- (The mentor teaches the hero a lesson) John Connor teaches the hero that it’s wrong to kill.
- Act IIb
- (The mentor motivates the hero one last time) The hero discovers he can keep the police away without killing anyone.
- Act III
- (The hero’s actions redeems the mentor for the past) The actions of the hero helps John Connor realize that his mother was right and he’s left to get closer to her.
- Act I
In “Star Wars,” the theme is to trust yourself. The hero is Luke and the mentor is Obi-wan, who teaches him about trusting the Force so this is how the mentor scenes work in “Star Wars”:
- Act I
- (Hero learns about an unlikely mentor) Luke thinks Old Ben is just some crazy hermit in the desert.
- (A Symbol of Hope leads the hero to meet the mentor) Chasing after R2D2 leads Luke to Obi-wan.
- Act IIa
- (The mentor reveals his or her power) Obi-wan uses the Force to get past stormtroopers and slice up bad guys in a bar with a light saber.
- Act IIb
- (The mentor teaches the hero a lesson) Obi-wan teaches Luke how to trust the Force in blocking laser blasts while blindfolded.
- (The mentor motivates the hero one last time) Obi-wan’s disembodied voice urges Luke to run for safety.
- Act III
- (The hero’s actions redeems the mentor for the past) By blowing up the Death Star, Luke redeems Obi-wan for helping create Darth Vader.
- Act I
Exercise #35: Define the Mentor’s Past Mistake
The mentor doesn’t exist solely to help the hero. The main goal of the mentor is to redeem him or herself from a past mistake. Sometimes the mentor helped create the mentor as in “Star Wars” where Obi-wan trained Darth Vader.
In most cases, the mentor’s past has nothing to do with the villain and more to do with a painful past. In the original “The Karate Kid,” the mentor lost his wife and son in an American internment camp while he was fighting in World War Two. In the remake of “The Karate Kid,” the mentor lost his wife and son in a car accident caused by the mentor. Because of this painful past, the mentor is still living an incomplete life.
In “Die Hard,” the mentor is Officer Powell, the police officer on the radio who helps John McClane. Officer Powell’s past mistake was shooting a kid by mistake who had a toy gun that looked real. Ever since then, he can’t draw his gun out of fear.
So define the mentor’s past mistake. Is it related to the villain or is it completely unrelated to the villain (far more common)?
The Mentor’s Redemption
Once you know the mentor’s past mistake, you need to decide how can the mentor be redeemed when the hero defeats the villain? Whatever mistake the mentor made in the past, it can never be reversed. However, the results of that mistake must be overcome when the hero defeats the villain.
The key to the mentor’s redemption is identifying the mentor’s mistake and how it affects the mentor’s belief and thoughts about him or herself.
In the remake of “The Karate Kid,” the mentor is a handyman who lost his wife and son. When the hero defeats the villain, the villains’ students abandon their mean teacher and rush to acknowledge the hero’s mentor as a better teacher. While this can’t bring the mentor’s wife and son back from the dead, it does boost the mentor’s self-esteem so he no longer sees himself as a loser.
In “Rocky,” Rocky’s mentor is his trainer, who has never coached a winner and sees Rocky as his last chance. Even though Rocky fails to defeat Apollo Creed, he does stay on his feet the entire fight and wins the admiration of the world. Rocky’s ability to stay on his feet also redeems his mentor because now his trainer is seen as equally important.
If the mentor is dead, then there’s no way for the mentor to change. What can change is other people’s opinion about the mentor. Initially they must believe the mentor is a failure. After the hero defeats the villain, others suddenly realize the mentor was right all along.
In “Ratatouille,” the mentor is a dead chef whose restaurant fell out of favor with a restaurant critic after he wrote a book explaining how anyone can cook. When the hero defeats the villain, the restaurant critic recognizes that the mentor’s cookbook was true, anyone really can cook.
In “Up,” the mentor is the hero’s dead wife. Since the dead wife can’t change, what changes is the hero’s belief about himself. In the beginning, the hero feels like his life is over because his wife is gone. In the end, the hero realizes that even though his wife is gone, he can still live another adventure and honor her belief in him as a result.
In “Star Wars,” Obi-wan is Luke’s mentor. Even though Darth Vader kills Obi-wan, Obi-wan helps Luke destroy the Death Star. By helping Luke defeat Darth Vader, Obi-wan redeems himself for his past mistakes, even if he’s not alive to see it.
Exercise #36: How Does the Hero Redeem the Mentor?
First, determine if your mentor is going to be alive or dead in your story. To redeem a dead mentor, you must change the opinion of others about the dead mentor. To redeem a mentor who remains alive, both the outside world and the mentor must change their opinion of the mentor’s reputation.
A dead mentor gets redemption through others. A live mentor gets redemption through both others and the mentor him or herself.
Once you know if your mentor will be alive or dead, determine how the outside world will change their opinion of the mentor when the hero defeats the villain. If your mentor is alive, then take the extra step of defining how the mentor changes his or her opinion of themselves as well.
The Mentor’s Power
The mentor teaches the hero the story’s theme, which allows the hero to gradually change. In addition to helping the hero change, the mentor also offers unique skills that help the hero live in the new world.
Such skills can be eye-opening such as in “Star Wars” where Obi-wan has the ability to wield a light saber and use the Force, but most often the mentor’s skill is something subtle but unique.
In “Terminator 2,” the hero (the good Terminator) wields tremendous physical power, but the mentor (John Connor) knows how to use a portable device to hack into ATMs, which also comes in handy when the mentor uses this same device to unlock a door. John Connor also teaches the hero how to find car keys (flip down the sun visor).
Even though John Connor is just a kid with far less physical power than the hero, he still possesses valuable skills that the hero lacks.
The mentor’s power is more about understanding and helping the hero navigate through the unfamiliar new world that the hero finds him or herself in.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero’s mentor is a hairdresser. Even though the hero’s attending Harvard law school, the hairdresser knows about dealing with life outside of law school and helps cheer up the hero.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero is a little girl but her mentor is her grandfather. The grandfather may seem old and powerless, but he has the skill to teach the little girl her dance routine that will ultimately defeat the villain in the end.
The grandfather also loves pornography and buys dirty magazines to look at, which will eventually help the hero defeat a policeman who stops the van and threatens to keep her from attending the beauty pageant.
The mentor’s power never needs to be awesome and overwhelming like Obi-wan wielding a light saber. In most cases, the mentor just needs a unique set of skills that can help the hero when he or she needs it. In “Terminator 2,” John Connor is just a kid but he’s street smart in a way that the hero (the good Terminator) needs to know to survive in the modern world.
Exercise #37: Define the Mentor’s Power
Remember, your mentor’s power is simply any skill or knowledge that the hero needs to navigate a new, unfamiliar world. Think of the mentor as a tour guide whose knowledge of the world allows the mentor to protect the hero.
The mentor typically demonstrates his or her power at least two times and usually in different ways to avoid monotony and repetition. In “Terminator 2,” the mentor (John Connor) demonstrates his skill and knowledge as follows:
- Shows the hero how to find car keys in the visor of most cars
- Helps unlock a door using a gadget that he uses to steal money from ATMs
In “Finding Nemo,” the mentor (Dory) demonstrates her skill and knowledge as follows:
- Can read the street address on the diver’s mask that identifies where Nemo was taken
- Helps get the other fish to answer her questions on which way to go
Notice that no matter what the mentor’s skills may be, all the skills are different but consistent.
In “Terminator 2,” John Connor’s power is centered around being street smart. In “Finding Nemo,” Dory’s power is centered around being friendly and smart despite being forgetful.
What if John Connor’s power in “Terminator 2” included knowing how to find car keys and being able to throw fireballs from his hand? Notice how inconsistent that would be?
First, think of the type of person your mentor is. A librarian will have a different set of skills than a Navy SEAL commando. Second, think of two or more ways your mentor’s skill or knowledge of the world, consistent with the mentor’s background can help the hero.
The mentor plays a crucial role in your story beyond just helping the hero. Like the hero, the mentor must also change over the course of the story. Initially, the mentor appears unlikely to be useful to the hero. Then the mentor helps the hero navigate the new, unfamiliar world while also teaching the hero the theme of your story.
Later the hero learns about the mentor’s haunted past. After helping the hero multiple times, the mentor must eventually step aside and let the hero face the villain. Using the mentor’s lesson, the hero can eventually defeat the villain.
The defeat of the villain redeems the mentor for his or her painful past. Thus the mentor’s life changes for the better by the end. Even if the mentor is dead, the opinion of others and the hero towards the mentor is greatly improved, redeeming the mentor from the painful past.
Remember, your mentor is similar to your villain, except with a conscience. Once you know your hero, you know your villain must be an evil version of your hero. Once you know your villain (the evil version of your hero), then you know your mentor as well.
The mentor is the person who keeps the hero from making the same kind of mistakes he or she made. In your story, your hero must change, however the mentor must also change (or the hero’s opinion of the mentor must change). Make sure your mentor changes because it’s a crucial and necessary part of every story.
The outline of “Writing Scenes for screenplays” looks like this:
Chapter 1 — The Elements of a Scene
Chapter 2 — The Goals in a Scene
Chapter 3 — Linking Scenes Together
Chapter 4 — The Parts of a Scene
Chapter 5 — Scene Enhancing Techniques
Chapter 6 — Defining the Main Goals of a Story
Chapter 7 — Scene Structure
Chapter 8 — Introducing the Hero and Villain
Chapter 9 — The Symbol of Hope Scenes
Chapter 10 — The Mentor Scenes
Chapter 11 — The Leap of Faith Scene
Chapter 12 — Act IIa Scenes
Chapter 13 — Act IIb Scenes
Chapter 14 — The First Half of Act III
Chapter 15 — The Second Half of Act III
Chapter 16 — Outlining a Story
Appendix A — Additional Resources
Appendix B — List of Exercises
Of course nearly all the information in the book is written in these blog posts but the book provides a convenient place to read information related specifically to scene structure. Scene structure is important because even bad movies have good ideas. The reason bad movies fail isn’t because of the idea but because they fail to create compelling scenes. In addition, they often omit crucial scenes that explain the ally or mentor’s motivation. All you have to do is watch a bad movie like “The Dark Tower” to see a villain who’s completely evil with no apparent motivation other than to destroy a tower to wreck the universe. When you watch “The Dark Tower,” you can see the importance of including scenes that explain motivations of characters and resolve multiple subplots in an emotionally satisfying way.
Scenes are also not isolated entities. They must link and tie together with other scenes like building blocks. Scenes must also change a character emotionally. If a scene fails to change the emotional state of a character, it will likely fail and be irrelevant. That’s why it’s important to understand scene structure because when you tart writing your screenplay, you want to know how to turn your great ideas into compelling scenes that will make people want to keep reading all the way through your screenplay.