Updated: Nov 6
WHAT MAKES A SCENE TRULY GREAT?
You've dragged your butt off the couch to go to the cinema instead of spouting the old "I'll just watch it when it streams at home". So there you are, all cozy in a movie theatre, $100 popcorn in hand, then suddenly a scene unfolds on the screen that just grabs you by the feels and doesn’t let go. That, my avid moviegoer, is the advent of a magical scene. It's like the images on the screen have a heartbeat, leaving you with memories that stick around like the events that just unfolded happened to you, rather than just witnessed by you.
Now, creating a scene like that is like catching lightning in a bottle, but it's not impossible! Let's break this down and take a look at the anatomy of a great scene.
When an actor nails it, they don't just play a part – they become the moment, turning even the most basic lines into something electrifying. Take Robert Downey Jr.’s “I am Ironman” from "Endgame" – a simple line that he packed with a punch that reverberated through the Marvel universe. It's that magic blend of depth and dedication that can lift a scene from good to legendary, making it stick in our minds forever.
Or how about Uma Thurman wielding a sword in "Kill Bill," where her sheer presence makes every scene she’s in slice with intensity? Then there’s DiCaprio in “The Revenant” – talk about a masterclass in gritty survival. And let's not forget Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight," where he delivers every line with a truth that echoes in your soul.
Sometimes, you get an actor who just clicks with their role so well, that it's like everything else just fades into the background. They own the screen. Everything from the lighting to the soundtrack just becomes part of the backdrop to their performance. Want more insights on this kind of scene-stealing performance? Check out my blog on "The Actor's Director" to understand the prowess of this type of performance.
Perfectly Captured Shots
In certain cases, the magnificence of a scene is primarily a result of the cinematographer. The mastery involved in capturing the perfect shot, with a meticulous eye for detail and a keen sense of visual composition, can transform a frame into a work of art. This aspect of filmmaking enriches a scene with layers of meaning and an enhanced atmosphere.
Consider, for instance, the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex reveal in "Jurassic Park." The scene’s deliberate framing, extended takes, and dramatic interplay of light and shadow invoke an atmosphere of palpable dread. Such thoughtful shot selection and composition elevate what might otherwise be a routine moment into the realm of the extraordinary.
On the small screen, "Euphoria" has emerged as a sterling example of how powerful cinematography can amplify storytelling. The series pairs arresting performances with visually stunning cinematography, transforming even the most prosaic scenes into awe-inspiring spectacles.
Similarly, the "John Wick" films demonstrate how dynamic lighting and innovative set design can refresh and invigorate a narrative that might otherwise risk repetition. Through its continuous visual evolution, the franchise maintains a sense of novelty and excitement that captivates.
Integration of Music
Music possesses a transformative power in cinema, serving as the invisible force that elevates a scene from ordinary to extraordinary. The perfect selection and application of a soundtrack can make an on-screen moment go from eh, to wow! Music makes the experience immersive.
It guides the audience's emotional journey, subtly dictating the mood and impact of a scene.
When filmmakers skillfully wield music, they tap into an incredibly powerful element of cinematic storytelling. Music acts as an emotional compass, subtly guiding viewers on how to feel about a particular scene, character, or event. The popular social media trend of exchanging film scores in iconic scenes serves as a compelling demonstration of this power. Such experiments reveal the profound impact music has on the emotional texture of a scene, illustrating its capacity to shape and redefine narrative moments.
Try it yourself! Grab some of your favourite scenes and drop in different tracks, scores, and songs behind the moments. Sit back and pay attention to the different emotional reactions it elicits.
If we take a look at some classing scores, the heart-thumping "Duel of the Fates" from "Star Wars: Episode I." The moment Obi-Wan and Darth Maul lock sabres and the music kicks in, it’s not just a fight scene anymore; it’s an epic showdown you can’t forget. And it's not just about the action, that familiar swell of the "Star Wars" theme has this way of sending shivers down your spine, no matter which generation you hail from. Let's not even get started on Darth Vaders theme.
Hans Zimmer and John Williams, these guys are the dominant forces in movie scoring. Pick any movie they've touched, sit back, and just listen, you’ll get what I mean. They've got this knack for mixing tunes that lift a scene up, giving it wings to really soar. When the music hits just right, you're not just watching the movie, you're living in it.
The Lack of a Universal Formula
Whilst these elements work, there's no one-size-fits-all formula for crafting a standout scene. I've said it a million times and iI'llsay it again, it's all just tools for your toolbox The beauty of filmmaking lies in its diversity and creativity, allowing for a multitude of approaches and styles. What works for one scene may not work for another, and that's part of the magic of creating. Find the challenge, find the right tool.
Is it that easy? Maybe
The quest for understanding what makes a scene truly great leads us to the recognition that, while there's no prescribed recipe, there are essential elements that consistently underpin remarkable scenes. These elements include conflict, character development, plot relevance, and the visual dynamics of staging and blocking. They provide the foundation upon which unforgettable performances, perfect shots, and music integration can flourish. Does it mean you're going to create the perfect scene every time? No. Does it mean you have invaluable building blocks that will make creating a "perfect" scene easier, yes!
A QUICK PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE:
From the brilliant minds of Matt Stone & Trey Parker, when crafting a story, if you find yourself using "and then" between your scene beats, you're in trouble. Instead, the flow should be more like "this happens, therefore this happens" or "this happens, but then this happens." Keep it tight and connected! Now, let's delve into the elements that can transform a "basic" scene into an unforgettable one.
I.SCENES: THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF CINEMA
In the intricate tapestry of cinema, scenes emerge as the fundamental building blocks that shape the larger narrative of a film. They are, in many ways, the lifeblood of any narrative movie. Imagine them as mini-movies within the grand cinematic journey, each with its own unique role and significance.
Picture a film as a grand tapestry, composed of numerous threads expertly woven together. These threads are the scenes, and they serve as the connective tissue that binds the story into a coherent whole. An oldie but a goodie, the phrase from Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" when she famously says, "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." In that simple sentence, Dorothy transitions from one scene to another, signalling a shift in time, place, and narrative focus.
Distinct Purpose and Impact
For a scene to qualify as a great one, it must have a clear and distinct intention. In essence, each scene should be a self-contained unit of storytelling, existing within a specific time and space. This encapsulated moment within the larger narrative is a critical juncture in the story, where a single action unfolds, leading to a significant change. This change should be multi-faceted, impacting both the progression of the overarching story and the development of the characters within it.
The Anatomy of Scene Design
The creation of a scene demands thoughtful consideration of various elements. These include but are not limited to setting, time, characters involved, their objectives, the nature of conflict or tension, and the outcome. A well-constructed scene becomes a vessel, transporting the audience through time and space, while offering a deeper insight into the characters and the plot. It is within these narrative capsules that the characters' motivations, desires, and the obstacles they face become intimately known to the viewer.
Think of the scenes as a series of carefully laid stepping stones, guiding the audience through the narrative landscape. Each step provides a piece of the puzzle, and collectively they propel the story toward its ultimate destination. The deliberate design of scenes ensures that no moment is wasted, and every interaction and event serves to engage, enlighten, or entertain. A scene is like a puzzle piece in the big picture of a movie. Just like how each piece has its own place and purpose, scenes have their own stories and emotions that, when put together, make the whole movie come alive. To really understand why movies tug at our hearts or keep us on the edge of our seats, we need to understand the magic behind each scene. Let's take a deeper look.
II.CONFLICT: THE ENGINE OF A GREAT SCENE
The Essence of Conflict
Conflict emerges as the dynamic force propelling the narrative engine. It's the vital spark that brings scenes to life, infusing them with tension, depth, and vitality. At its core, conflict is the manifestation of opposition, a tussle between contrasting forces or desires. It's this intrinsic clash that captures the viewer's attention, making them invested in the story's unfolding.
Varieties of Conflict
Let's break this down and try and simplify it:
Physical: This involves tangible confrontations, like fistfights, chases, or battles. Think of the epic battle scenes in well....every single superhero movie....ever.
Verbal: Here, the battle is of words. Passionate debates, scathing accusations, or heartfelt confessions all fall under this category. The verbal dual that unfolds in the brilliant "Malcolm & Marie" by Sam Levinson is basically one entire verbal conflict. Likewise as seen in "A Marriage Story" by David Heyman.
Situational: This is when characters find themselves in problematic situations, often due to external circumstances beyond their control. The life-threatening situations in "Gravity" where Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) struggles to survive in space or the heart-wrenching edge-of-your-seat film "Room" starring Brie Larson (No, not THE Room...let's not go there) by Lenny Abrahamson illustrate this situational conflict masterfully.
Internal: This is all about the battles inside a character's head. It's those moments when they're wrestling with feelings, wants, and those tough choices. Think of Hamlet's deep thoughts on life and death in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" – that's some serious inner struggle. And if you need more proof, just check out pretty much any anime series. They're masters at showcasing epic internal dramas!
Conflict Driving the Narrative
Every piece of conflict, no matter its nature, plays a crucial role in pushing the narrative forward. It introduces challenges, setting up hurdles that characters must overcome, thereby shaping their journey. Conflict elevates the stakes, making every action, decision, and consequence all the more critical. In essence, it builds a bridge between the character's goals and the barriers they must navigate, creating a path of suspense, intrigue, and anticipation. Moreover, conflict is an invaluable tool for character development. It forces characters to reveal their true selves, confronting their fears, vulnerabilities, strengths, and motivations. It's through these challenges that they grow, evolve, and transform, allowing the audience to witness their metamorphosis.
While conflict is undeniably the heart of drama, it's crucial to remember that it shouldn't be forced or contrived. Instead, conflict must emerge organically from the story's fabric, feeling authentic and purpose-driven. It should serve the narrative, not detract from it.
Consider the movie "Whiplash" or the mesmerising TV series "Succession". In these stories, the conflict isn't thrown in for mere drama's sake. Every argument and every showdown serves to unravel the narrative further, providing insight into the characters and emphasizing the story's themes.
Conflict, in all its varied forms, is the cornerstone of cinematic storytelling. It's the engine that sets the narrative machine in motion, ensuring scenes resonate with depth, emotion, and significance.
III.CHARACTER: BREATHING LIFE INTO A SCENE
Characters are a story's conduit. Plain and simple. Right? Kind of.
To craft a great scene, it's essential to have memorable characters. These are individuals who are multi-dimensional, relatable, and capable of evoking a range of emotions from the audience. Think of characters like Jay Gatsby from "The Great Gatsby," Ellen Ripley from "Alien," or Tilda Swinton from every single film she's ever been in. These characters linger in our minds long after the credits roll because of the depth and complexity they exhibit.
Make it complex
A pivotal aspect of character development is the revelation of complexity. In a great scene, characters should be allowed to show their many facets. They might be courageous yet fearful, generous yet selfish, or confident yet insecure. These internal conflicts and contradictions add depth to the characters and make them more relatable. Take, for example, the character of Jay Gatsby played by the one and only Leonardo Decaprio. In the scene where he's reunited with Daisy Buchanan, we see not just his extravagant wealth and charm but also his vulnerability and longing. It's this complexity that makes Gatsby such a compelling character and these scenes so memorable.
Growth and Change
In a great scene, characters should also exhibit growth or change. This doesn't always mean a complete transformation, but it could be a shift in perspective, a realization, or a decision that alters the course of their journey. Such moments of growth can be subtle or profound, but they should be integral to the character's arc within the larger story.
In his later years, Clint Eastwood has not only continued to shine as a writer-director but has truly honed in on capturing the essence of personal growth and transformation in his storytelling. Take, for instance, the deeply moving and utterly captivating "Gran Torino." This film serves as a testament to Eastwood's brilliance, illustrating how a single character's growth and change can fuel every single scene in a film.
In the realm of character development, interactions between characters within a scene are invaluable. It's through these interactions that relationships are established, conflicts are ignited, and emotions are laid bare. A well-crafted scene can serve as a microcosm of the broader character dynamics within the story. Consider the famous "bar scene" in "Goodfellas." (Thanks social media for keeping this scene fresh in our minds even in 2023) In just a few minutes, the characters of Jack and Henry are vividly brought to life. Jack's temper and dark humour contrast with Henry's eagerness to please and avoid trouble. This scene's masterful character development lays the groundwork for the conflicts and alliances that will shape the rest of the film. Character development is not limited to standalone scenes but is an ongoing process throughout the story. Each scene should offer an opportunity for characters to reveal themselves, evolve, and face the consequences of their actions.
IV. PLOT FUNCTION: ADVANCING THE NARRATIVE
We now understand that scenes in a film are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each one must fit seamlessly into the larger picture, contributing to the overarching narrative. They are not isolated pieces that fell to the floor; they should always serve as intricately crafted sections that progress the story at all costs.
Secrets and Twists
Some scenes are designed to unravel secrets and deliver the edge-of-your-seat plot twists or act climaxes. These moments are significant turning points in the narrative that propel the story in a new direction. Think about those final 30 seconds at the end of every single television show you've ever watched. Act climaxes do happen repeatedly throughout each scene but viewers are most keenly aware of those final moments before the episode cuts to black and we wait for the next episode to load.
In a more film-like narrative, think about M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense." Throughout the film, the audience is unaware of the major secret that alters the perception of the entire story. In the scene where the truth is revealed, it's not just a scene; it's the reveal holding the entire narrative together. It's a testament to how a scene can be designed to serve a vital function, providing a plot twist that resonates long after the credits roll. Act Climaxes are not limited to twists. There can also be moments where the stakes are significantly raised. Take, for instance, the revelation of Darth Vader's true identity in "The Empire Strikes Back." This scene not only changes the audience's perspective on the story but also sets the stage for the conflicts and resolutions in the subsequent films.
Advancing the Story
At the core of every great scene is the mission to advance the story. When a scene doesn't contribute to the overall narrative, it can feel like a distraction or a detour. These scenes are often the first to be edited out in the filmmaking process, as they dilute the impact of the story.
A prime example of a scene that masterfully advances the plot is the intense dinner table conversation in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." The tension, conflict, and revelations in this scene are not there for mere dramatic effect; they have profound consequences for the characters and the narrative. The audience is left hanging on every word, as they sense that the story's course is about to shift dramatically. And boy does it.
A scene's relevance to the narrative is not solely determined by its placement within the script but also by its ability to engage the audience. If a scene feels disconnected from the overarching story or lacks resonance, it can hinder the viewer's immersion in the film.
In a well-structured screenplay, every scene should have a purpose. Even seemingly mundane moments can serve to build character relationships, offer foreshadowing, or create atmosphere. A scene doesn't have to be action-packed or filled with revelations to be essential; it simply must progress the larger story.
A scene reveals secrets, delivers twists, and propels the story in a new direction. By focusing on a scene's plot function, you ensure that it remains relevant, engaging, and an essential component of the larger cinematic experience.
V. STAGING AND BLOCKING: VISUAL DYNAMICS
Without the proper visual techniques, even the most compelling narratives can fall flat. This is where the intricacies of staging and blocking come into play, allowing filmmakers to breathe life into the scenes and amplify emotions.
Camera and Characters
Staging and blocking are like a choreographed dance between the camera and the characters. Where the camera is placed, how it moves, and how characters interact within the frame can transform a scene from static and lifeless to dynamic and emotionally charged. The camera's positioning and movement dictate how a viewer experiences a scene. Close-ups can intensify emotions, while wide shots can establish a setting or provide context.
Blocking is the choreography of actors within a scene. This involves deciding where an actor stands, how they move, and how they interact with their environment and other characters. The way characters move or are positioned can reveal their relationships, power dynamics, and emotional states.
Staging is the art of positioning and moving the camera to tell a story. An aerial shot might show the vastness of a location or the isolation of a character, while a tracking shot can follow a character through their environment, immersing viewers in their journey. The way the camera moves, zooms, pans, or remains static can set the tone of the scene and highlight key moments or emotions.
As we haven't seen Killers Of The Flower Moon just yet let's take a look at another of his classics. Martin Scorsese's iconic Copacabana shot in "Goodfellas." This long tracking shot following Henry and Karen on their way into the club, weaving through the kitchen and emerging onto the main floor, not only showcases Scorsese's masterful staging but also serves to introduce Karen to Henry's world of privilege and power.
When staging and blocking work in harmony, they can create moments of pure cinematic magic. In the dance sequence of "La La Land," the characters Mia and Sebastian waltz through the Griffith Observatory, suspended in a world of their own. Here, the careful choreography of the actors combined with the sweeping camera movements provides viewers with a sense of the characters' budding romance and the dreamy world they inhabit together.
Staging and blocking are indispensable tools in a filmmaker's arsenal. While they operate behind the scenes, their impact is deeply felt on the screen. They set the mood, tone, and pace, guiding the viewer's eye and shaping their experience.
VI.YOUR JOURNEY INTO SCENE WRITING
A Unique Voice
Every filmmaker and writer brings a unique perspective to their craft. As you dive into scene writing, remember that your individual experiences, emotions, and worldview will shape the stories you tell. Embrace this uniqueness. It’s your voice that will set your scenes apart in a vast sea of narratives. See anything by our favourite, Taika Waititi for the leader of unique voices in film.
Starting can often be the hardest part. Staring at a blank page might feel daunting, but it's also a realm of endless possibilities. The key is to start somewhere, anywhere. Write a line, a dialogue, or even a vague idea. Let it flow without judgment. You can always refine it later, but you can't edit an empty page. Want amazing advice on where to start? Jump on YouTube and watch Jordan Peele explain his process, take notes!
One of the most profound wellsprings of inspiration comes from our own lived experiences. Reflect on significant events in your life or even mundane incidents that evoked a feeling. When these authentic experiences are portrayed in cinema, they can deeply connect with viewers. Dive deep, share intimately, provide intricate details, and be vulnerable; the audience will be deeply moved. Cinema serves as both the ultimate truth revealer and the supreme stage for unfiltered sincerity. Harness its power.
Become a keen observer. Watch people at cafes, listen to conversations on the bus, or simply observe the world around you. These snippets can become the seeds for compelling scenes. Notice the emotions, the conflicts, the unsaid words. They can all be goldmines for a scene writer.
Study Great Scenes
As with any craft, studying the masters can provide invaluable insights. Watch your favourite movies and break down the scenes. Understand the conflict, the character arcs, and the visual elements. Ask yourself why a particular scene moved you. Then, apply these learnings to your own writing.
Feedback and Growing
Once you've written a scene, share it with trusted peers or mentors. Constructive feedback can offer a fresh perspective and highlight areas for improvement. Remember, every criticism is an opportunity to learn and refine.
Write, Keep Improving
Your first scene might not be perfect, and that's okay. Like any skill, scene writing improves with practice. Write daily, even if it's just a few lines. Challenge yourself with different genres, tones, and settings. The more you write, the better you'll get.
The journey into scene writing is deeply personal and filled with highs and lows. Yet, it's in these moments of struggle and triumph that great scenes are born. With passion, observation, and relentless practice, you'll be on your way to crafting scenes that captivate and inspire. And heck you may just win an award or two! So, get to writing, dive deep, and let the world see what you have to say.