I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good scene. The improv class I’m taking has been an intense study in scene writing for me. I get to watch so many scenes unfold and see first-hand what works, what doesn’t, and why. Even more helpful than watching my classmates’ scenes is experiencing the ones I’m in as they evolve.
I’ve learned a few important lessons. For one, it is crucial to establish your characters and relationships as soon as possible in a scene. You need to give the who, what, and where to the audience right up front. It really makes such a difference to get the ball rolling right away. No one wants to see an extended set-up or a bunch of boring dialogue. (Speaking of dialogue, I like Dave Trottier’s recent scriptmag list of 7 rookie dialogue mistakes.)
And I have found it so helpful to consider why on this day we are seeing a scene. Perhaps a scene unfolds between, say, a regular customer and business proprietor. Assuming they have had many mundane conversations in the past, what makes today worth watching? Is today the day that the store owner confesses his love? Does the customer decide to rob the store? One of their mundane days is not interesting. But the day when everything changes? That’s worth seeing.
In a related matter for screenwriting, John August hits the nail on the head in his How to Write a Scene post. He suggests that if a scene is not essential, it should be cut. He asks us to envision a screening of the movie, where a scene is accidentally left out. Does the movie still make sense? If so, then omit the scene. And I would add that a mundane exchange is rarely essential, unless it is full of hidden meaning or somehow manages to elucidate character development or plot. In that case, it would be a crucial scene. In Dave Trottier’s aforementioned list, he explains how chit chat can be revealing in some rare occasions.
I think the biggest considerations in presenting a scene should always be: 1) Is it interesting? and 2) Is it important? In the end, we are all about creating stories and being entertaining, and we need to do that the best way possible.