Scene Beginnings & Endings

Let’s drill down to the structure of scenes and sequences.

The techniques in this module will keep your audience always longing to know what happens next.

Remember from Lesson 20, a scene or sequence should do more than one of the following:

Have an obstacle, major or minor, that needs to be dealt with.

Foreshadow, subtlely or explicitly, story events that come later in the narrative.

Reveal a character trait or flaw that influences story events and audience sympathy.

Raise the stakes for your lead character(s).

Signal a change in status in key characters, whether social or situational.

Include a chance event that worsens a character’s situation. On occasion, it can help.

These help to ensure every part of your screenplay has purpose, clarity, direction, and intrigue.

Before continuing, let’s clarify what we mean by a scene and a sequence.

In a film or screenplay, a scene is a block of narrative in which the action remains in one place for a continuous duration of time. The scene ends when there is a change in place or time.

A sequence is a succession of scenes that form a distinct unit in the narrative.

Here’s an example. A film opens with the lead character getting up in the morning and rushing into the city center for a job interview.

This “frantic morning routine” sequence is made up of the following scenes:

The character wakes up to the sound of her alarm clock.
Place: bedroom.
Time: early morning.

She stands in the hallway, arguing with her roommate to free up the bathroom.
Place: hallway (the place has changed).
Time: a few minutes later (the time has changed).

She hurriedly eats breakfast while talking to her mother on the phone. She accidentally spills coffee on her skirt.
Place: kitchen (the place has changed).
Time: a little while later (the time has changed).

Wearing a new skirt, she rushes down a set of stairs and manages to slip into a subway train just as the doors close.
Place: subway station (the place has changed).
Time: a little while later (the time has changed).

On the train, she goes over some notes she’s prepared on responses for possible interview questions. As she mouths a response, she notices a handsome guy who seems amused by her rehearsal. He smiles at her. She smiles and waves a friendly hello.
Place: subway train (the place has changed).
Time: a little while later (the time has changed).

She takes off her shoes to run down a busy street.
Place: busy city street (the place has changed).
Time: a little while later (the time has changed).

She finally arrives, slips her shoes back on, and gazes up at the intimidating tall building.
Place: office building exterior (the place has changed).
Time: a little while later (the time has changed).

Whenever there is a shift in time or place, we start a new scene. A consecutive arrangement of scenes forms a sequence.

Here’s another way to think about it:

Several shots make a scene.
Several scenes make a sequence.
Several sequences make an act.
Several acts make a film.

The next module on screenplay format will help clarify how a single scene is formatted.


Starting and Ending a Scene

The best advice is to start late and leave early.

Cut out the boring bits and focus on what really matters. Sometimes, however, starting early can heighten suspense. Horror and thriller genres exploit this technique.

Here are some effective ways to start and end a scene.

Start a scene with:

Action. A character does something relevant.

Dialogue. A character says something significant.

Establishment. The characteristics and mood of the setting are revealed for a reason.

Emphasis. A relevant detail is emphasized. This could be the holes in a character’s sock, the time left on a ticking bomb, or the sound of glass breaking in another room.

End a scene with:

A tease, or in mid-action. This is like a cliffhanger moment that heightens suspense at a critical plot point. The audience has to wait and see how the conflict is resolved because you go to a different scene. 

A discovery. Something relevant creates suspense or arouses the curiosity of the audience. This could be a physical discovery or a realization.

An emotional reaction. A character has a clear emotional response to what happens in the scene. This reaction is something the audience can relate to.

There is no exercise for this or the following two lessons. The key points are incorporated in the exercise at the end of the module.

Larger Scene Structure

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