What makes a great scene in a screenplay? We asked veteran TV writer Ross Brown, who you may recognize from hugely popular shows like “Step by Step” and “Who’s the Boss.” Brown now spends his time teaching other creative writers how to get their story ideas to the screen as the director of the MFA program at Antioch University in Santa Barbara. Below, he reveals his tips for developing scenes and sequences that will propel your script forward.
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This tip is critical, and it’s actually where a lot of screenwriters make mistakes. Does the scene do anything to move the story forward? Every scene should be dynamic and should have an introduction, a shift in direction, success or defeat, and something that will help transition into the next scene. If it’s just for fun, throw it out. It will slow your reader down.
Scene pacing can be the difference between someone reading to page 2, or someone reading to page 120. Cut the fluff and get to the good stuff. We mustn’t see your hero walking into a café, to understand that they’re sitting in one.
Your character should have a goal in each scene, face conflict, and either fail or achieve their goal. Every scene should have an arc and give us more insight into your hero’s motivations and obstacles.
In general, most scenes will last three minutes, but of course, there are exceptions. These days, scenes are getting even shorter, because filmmakers want to keep the tempo of the story moving quickly to keep it engaging for audiences whose attention spans are getting shorter. Aim for three pages per scene.
A sequence is made up of three to seven scenes, or 10-15 pages. There are usually eight sequences in a screenplay, including the setup/inciting incident, the challenge and lock-in, the first obstacle, the midpoint, the subplot and rising action, the climax or main culmination, the twist and new tension, and the resolution. To learn more about the anatomy of a screenplay outline, I’d suggest checking out our series with aspiring screenwriter Ashlee Stormo, where she goes over the 18-step outline that she uses to make sure she has the right scenes and sequences in her screenplay.
Keep it moving,