10 Questions That Will Help You Find Scenes That Don’t Work
If writing is the difficult uphill slog and finishing your first draft is the victorious moment you reach the top of the summit, revising is the part where a giant gust of wind knocks you off your feet and sends you careening out-of-control back down to the bottom again.
All metaphors aside, revising is tough work that can seem impossible if you don’t know where to start. So I suggest breaking your script down to its smallest unit: scenes.
Part of every screenwriter’s revision process should be going through their script scene-by-scene to determine if each scene is working effectively or not.
To do just that, here are 10 questions that will help you figure out which scenes are working and, more importantly, which ones aren’t.
What is the Scene About?
This first one can be a doozy. Because you’re not trying to figure out what the scene is about on the surface — no, you need to determine what the scene is about in the grand scheme of things.
Examine your scene from a bird’s eye view, so to speak. What is the scene doing for the overall story? And what is it about thematically?
Maybe the scene establishes a key relationship, introduces the antagonizing force, or sets up the protagonist’s internal conflict. Maybe it raises the stakes, leads the characters in a new direction, or propels the plot forward in an important way.
All of those are completely valid reasons for a scene to exist. But if you don’t have an answer to this question or the answer is, “It’s just a fun scene,” it’s a good indication that you should cut the scene completely.
What Happens in the Scene?
To use a theatre term, this question is all about the stage business. What are your characters physically doing during a particular scene?
Dialogue and action are the two primary elements of a screenplay, so it makes sense that what your characters do is just as important as what they say.
The actions your characters take can add critical meaning and subtext to your story. After all, it’s one thing for a character to convince his girlfriend that he truly loves her while he’s sipping tea, it’s another thing entirely if he’s busy sharpening a knife.
Whose Scene Is It Anyway?
First-person, second-person, third-person omniscient — just like literature, all movies and TV shows have a point of view. And while revising your screenplay, it’s critical to examine the point of view of each individual scene.
Now, I’m not talking about how you write the words in the script itself. This is about the point of view of the story in a larger sense.
Whose perspective is the scene from? If you had to assign a primary character (or, fine, a pair of characters) to be “leaders” in the scene, who would it be?
Some stories adhere to the equivalent of a first-person point of view, following one character throughout the entirety of the story. In these stories, the audience learns information as the POV character learns information.
Other stories may hop between two characters’ perspectives, focus on various characters in a larger group, or feature an omniscient narrator of sorts who knows everything and can comment on the story itself.
There’s no right or wrong answer here, but you should try to pinpoint which character each scene belongs to and how that affects the audience’s perception of the story.
What Does the Character Want?
Once you know whose scene it is, the next question to ask is about the goal. What does the character want in this scene?
When your character wants something — even if it’s just a glass of water — that desire inherently creates stakes, obstacles, and conflict.
Stakes and obstacles are essential to your script. Who wants to watch a movie where everything goes the protagonist’s way and he has no trouble getting the thing he wants? No one, that’s who.
Scrutinize your character’s goal in each scene. Get really micro with it, too. Indiana Jones’ big goal in Raiders of the Lost Ark is to get the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis, yes, but he has a smaller goal in each individual scene that will get him one step closer (or further from) actually finding the Ark.
And if you have two main characters in a scene, be sure to answer this question for both characters. Sometimes the best drama occurs when two characters want completely opposite things.
How Does This Scene Propel the Story Forward?
The scenes in your screenplay should be like a line of dominoes. When you push the first domino, it falls into the second domino, which falls and hits the third domino… and so on and so on.
You want your scenes to cascade into each other like that line of dominoes, meaning that what happens in one scene should be reliant on what happened in the previous scene and should directly affect what happens in the next scene.
A slightly easier way to look at this is to consider whether a single scene impacts the plot of the story or the character’s arc. If it impacts either the plot or character arc, good; if it impacts both, great.
Every scene in a script has the same job: move the story forward in some way. That forward momentum can take many shapes, but it has to be present in the scene. If it’s not, best to cut ties before you get too attached.
What Does the Scene Reveal about Character?
Some scenes are more about character than anything else — they establish who someone is, what internal conflicts they battle, and what their relationships are like with others.
For these scenes, you need to look critically at what the scene reveals about the character. This can be in action, dialogue, or the cumulative scene as a whole.
With that car ride scene at the beginning of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig establishes the fraught mother/daughter relationship that holds up the entire movie in just a few minutes. We hear how quickly Lady Bird and Marion’s conversation about their audiobook turns into a fully-fledged argument. And we see that their relationship is so tense that Lady Bird is willing to throw herself out of a moving car rather than continue talking to her mother.
The things that we do and say reveal who we are, whether we want them to or not. Make sure that each of your scenes is revealing something interesting.
What Is (and Isn’t) Being Said?
Ah, what a world we’d live in if everyone always said exactly what they meant. Unfortunately for us — and our characters — that fantasy land doesn’t exist.
What characters say during a scene is hugely important. The last thing you want is meandering, pointless dialogue. But on the other hand, you don’t want your characters’ speech to be unrealistic.
We humans are nothing if not messy communicators, and some of the best cinematic conflicts can come from miscommunication. Don’t be afraid to mine miscommunication for conflict in your script.
So during revision, look at the dialogue in each scene and ask yourself two questions…
- What’s being said?
- What’s not being said?
What’s not being said is subtext. It’s the meaning behind their words, often the things they can’t — or don’t want to — say aloud. Using subtext, it’s wholly possible for your characters to have a surface-level conversation about wallpaper patterns when what they’re really talking about is getting a divorce.
Not all scenes need heavy subtext — sometimes you just have to explain something straight-up or get from one scene to another with transitionary dialogue. Just make sure your screenplay isn’t full of these simple dialogue scenes.
Does the “Charge” of the Scene Change?
For the last three questions on this list, take a step back from the scene. Stop dissecting individual lines and look at it more abstractly.
First, consider the “charge” of your scene. By this, I mean the emotional charge. What emotion does the scene start with, and what emotion does it end with?
Think of a battery — on one end, there’s a positive charge, on the other, a negative. Just like that battery, your scene should have different emotions on each end.
You can assign rough designations to emotions to track the “charge.” The key is that you want this emotional “charge” to change during a scene.
Scenes could start with joy (positive) and end with despair (negative), or the exact opposite. Longer scenes may go through several emotional changes.
The change doesn’t need to be monumental, but it should be detectable in some way. Worst case scenario is to have a scene where the emotional “charge” simply stays the same the entire time. If nothing changes, what’s the point of including it?
Is There a Beginning, Middle, and End?
Just like your larger story, each of your scenes needs a beginning, middle, and end.
Every scene should have an arc, just like your larger story and each of your main characters. In any given scene, something changes, stakes get higher, information is revealed — what happens will vary, but the structure should remain the same.
When revising your script, try to identify the beginning, middle, and end of each scene. If you can’t pinpoint a particular part, dig into the mechanics of the scene. Are you ending too quickly without setting up what’s to come? Is there no change occurring during the scene? Does the scene happen seemingly out of nowhere, with no connection to the ones before and after?
Are You in Late and out Early?
Finally, use this screenwriting trick to determine if your scenes are too long.
Have you started the scene at the last possible second, and ended it as early as possible?
Cut the pleasantries and get to the good stuff — no one needs or wants to hear characters do the “Hi,” “Hi,” “How are you?” routine. And don’t let your scenes linger on too long. Once the good stuff’s over, end the scene and get out.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the last thing you have to do when testing your scenes is check your spelling and grammar.
You could write a screenplay full of perfect scene after perfect scene, but if you forgot crucial punctuation or misspelled an important word, that’s all the script reader or executive will be able to remember.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.