Because of Mama

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Drafting the Short Screenplay...

Writing the Short Film

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Drafting the Short Screenplay: Writing Scenes. Beginnings, Middles, Ends

    All films - even the bad ones - have beginnings, middles, and ends. But in the short film, these three very important components have to be handled with particular delicacy and speed.

Beginnings and Endings
    In a feature, you have the first ten pages or so to set up your story. That's roughly 1/12 of your film. But one twelfth of a short film is, well, short. Therefore a good opening scene for a short film needs to convey a lot of information, and to convey it right away. When thinking about where you want to begin to tell your story, think about the very last moment that you can enter the story and still have it make sense. That's the moment you should begin with.

    Syd Field argues that to have a strong beginning, you need to know your ending. In other words, before you begin to write you need to know what your character's problem is, and how it's going to resolve itself. Field points out that the resolution of your script and the end of your script aren't usually the same thing: in many films the story is resolved before the end of the film. Usually, these endings give the audience some sense of what the future will be. For instance, in Natural Born Killers, after the conflict is resolved and the couple escapes their pursuers, we see them driving around in a Winnebago with a couple of kids. There's almost always a forward-looking moment like this in film: audiences seem unsatisfied without them.

    In a short narrative (not experimental) film, the relationship between a film's beginning, resolution, and end must be very snug. Curiously, we've found that it's best to think about this relationship as both linear and circular. On the one hand, because the short film's beginning is so close to its end, the screenwriter needs to provide a very linear sense of how the character gets from a to b. On the other hand, it's helpful to think of your story line as coming full circle. Whatever elements you lay out as essential in the beginning must be apparent in the resolution and the end.

    In Because of Mama, our opening scene indicates that feelings are important: the cello teacher's first bit of dialogue instructs the boy to use his music to express his feelings, and she repeats that dialogue just before he goes on stage. Our resolution comes when the boy does indeed manage to play the cello with exquisite feeling, thereby pleasing both of his parents.

    As to the end of our film: Our last scene does indeed come after the resolution. As in other films, our last scene also points to the future that's in store for the boy. We've left the future bleak: his mother will continue to be a perfectionist, and his father will continue to mess up - for instance, by leaving the cello on the tram. The only thing that has changed in the film is the boy. And the audience believes (or, at least, hopes) that this change will be enough to help him deal with his world.

The Unwieldy Middle
    We've already talked about how a writer puts scenes together in a step-outline, so that he can see the dramatic structure of his story. But each scene has to be structured, too.

    To talk about structuring scenes in detail is more than we're willing to take on here. Some of what it takes to make a great scene is intangible: you need talent, experience, practice, and patience. Still, it's helpful to have a strong sense of the basics of what makes a good scene good:

  1. A good scene has its own dramatic moment. Embedded within each scene should be a dramatic moment that reveals the character's conflict, as well as the film's controlling idea. If your scene lacks a dramatic moment, it won't work.
  2. A good scene moves the action forward. If your film slows down or stalls in a particular scene, get rid of it.
  3. A good scene reveals something new. Your audience wants to find out something new about the character or the situation in every scene. If your scene conveys no new information, then you still have work to do.
  4. A good scene accomplishes several goals. In a short film it's especially important to make your scenes accomplish more than one goal. The more a scene accomplishes, the richer it will be, and the more it will engage your audience.
  5. A good scene has a clear purpose. If you find yourself wondering, "What's the point of this interaction?" then your scene's purpose isn't clear enough. Rethink it.
  6. A good scene is engaging. You may have written a scene that moves the action forward, reveals something new, accomplishes several goals, and has a clear purpose. But if you haven't written it in a way that engages your audience, you've come up dry.


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