Screenwriting: What is a Scene?

One of the most important technical elements of a screenplay are the scene headings, also known as “sluglines”, which denote where and when the action of a scene is taking place. Some examples include:

INT. HOUSE – BATHROOM – NIGHT

EXT. RESTAURANT – DAY

INT. CONVENIENCE STORE – DAY

INT. denotes that the action is taking place inside.

EXT. denotes that the action is taking place outside.

The place (in the cases above “House”, “Restaurant”, and “Convenience Store”) is denoted next. If further information within the location is necessary (“Bathroom” above) it is noted after the initial place.

Lastly, the time of day is noted.

The slugline is a functional aspect of a screenplay and not only lets a reader know where to envision a scene, but also assists the production team in scheduling an actual film shoot. In scheduling a production it is absolutely necessary to know where to place the camera and what time of day to schedule a shoot for.

Often, writers will mistakenly think that a scene is strictly defined by any series of events that occur between two sets of sluglines. While this may be true some of the time, this is not necessarily always true. Several scenes can play out within one slugline. Just a scene may play out over multiple sluglines. In simple terms a scene can be seen as a unit of action that occurs within the story as a whole.

Let’s imagine a film that is about a convenience store owner who owes a lot of money on his store but also has a family who puts pressure on him to provide. This may not be the best story in the world, but it helps illustrate the point nevertheless.

In one location, the following could play out:

You see here that two scenes are played out. First, Tom talking to Tommy Jr. about how he cannot send him to camp. Second, Tom talking to Goon #2 about the money he owes and when he’ll have it. Both scenes feed into the overall narrative of Tom’s plight, and both scenes happened in one physical space at one time.

A scene is a narrative device. If the film at large is the “story”, scenes are the mini-stories that occur within a story to propel it forward.

Scenes within a film will each have a beginning, middle, and end. If you deconstruct the above scene down you’ll find the following:

SCENE 1: BOY & FATHER

Beginning: Son asks to go to camp (scene starts with tears in his eyes as he’s rejected).
Middle: Son pleads with his father to let him go. His father denies his request.
End: Son runs out of the store.

SCENE 2: FATHER AND GOON

Beginning: Goon walks into store.
Middle: Goon asks for Money. Tom asks for one more day.
End: Goon leaves the store after a threatening gesture.

Next, make sure your scene is dynamic rather than static. Something needs to change during each scene and there needs to be some type of dramatic friction (i.e. characters in the same room with different desires, philosophies or ways of approaching problems). Each scene needs to have their own conflict and resolution. Again, let’s deconstruct the scene above to find the conflict of each scene.

SCENE 1: BOY & FATHER

Conflict: Boy wants to go the camp so he asks his father. Dad refuses to let him go. The boy enters hopeful and leaves disappointed. The Father enters stressed and leaves even more stressed.

SCENE 2: FATHER AND GOON

Conflict: Goon enters the scene asking for money. At first he’s fairly friendly but suggests there is danger on the horizon. On his way out he becomes aggressive and hostile. The Father begins the scene stressed from his previous encounter. He ends the scene not only with his previous stresses, but now he’s also burdened with a physical threat.

Within both of these examples there is change. They end the scene differently than they started it. This is a big part of what makes a scene interesting and engaging.

Lastly and possibly most importantly, each scene needs to support the overall story and move the narrative at large towards its own beginning, middle, and end.

To help you visualize how a scene plays out on the screen we’ve included an example from a well known film below. Let’s take a look now at a 1 minute 53 second scene from “In Good Company”. Pay attention to the scene’s beginning, middle and end. Also pay special attention to the dynamism of the scene (i.e. she changes from being suspicious and skeptical of his presence in her house to intrigued by his honesty). Within this short amount of time she changes from wanting him out of her house to wanting to play a game of foosball with him. He also changes his story from “being invited over” to “inviting himself over”. There is also a bit of character exposition as he let’s us in on a few character traits (flaws) about himself such as “being guarded and anally retentive”. This is a great example of a scene that goes to show that a lot can be communicated in a short amount of time.

Prepared by Lauren S. McGrail

 

 

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