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Above: Still from Bergman's The Virgin Spring
With City Lights, Charlie Chaplin gambled that the power of good storytelling and the appeal of The Little Tramp could overcome any perceived advantages of the captivating but still primitive technology of sound. His gamble paid off as critics and fans alike raved about this touching and simple story of a young blind woman who believes the Little Tramp is a wealthy duke.
"At the end of City Lights, the blind girl, who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time... And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies." -- James Agee, "Comedy's Greatest Era," Life magazine (September 3, 1949) anthologized in Agee On Film, Volume 1 (1958).
Below: The opening sequence from Vertical Limit
Screenplays are made up of ACTS; acts are made up of sequences, and sequences are created out of scenes. The SCENE is the smallest unit of dramatic meaning, equivalent to the sentence. It is a truism but worth re-stating: if you can't write a scene you can't write a screenplay.
In my DRAMA OF SCREENWRITING workshop all of the participants are required to write one dramatic scene. It is harder than it sounds. The scene they must write can have only two characters, must not be longer than 3 pages and must be DRAMATIC. Making a scene dramatic involves ACTION producing change. The dramatic meaning of a scene is the change produced by the action or actions of the character/s.
Generally, dramatic action is the quest of a "hero character" to overcome whatever it is that is preventing or impeding him/her from achieving a specific, ACUTE goal. It ncessarilty involves a frustrated desire and an action aimed at defeating, transforming or transcending whatever it is that is frustrating the hero's efforts to get what he/she wants. Fundamentally, a dramatic scene lays bare the emotional state of the characters involved; through outer actions and reactions the inner emotional state of the characters is revealed.
In looking at the effectiveness of your own scenes, it would be wise to remember what David Mamet has said:
"WRITERS MUST ASK OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS:
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF S/HE DOESN’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
"THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE THE LITMUS PAPER OF DRAMATIC ACTION. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWERS WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT."
Final Scene from Paths of Glory
Scene from Strangers
The White Balloon
(see snake scene at 20:00)
The following DRAMATIC SCENES occur mainly between two characters. Most of them required three pages or less of written dialogue. Using the 'Scene Report', watch each scene to see how well the action answers the questions on the Scene Report at http://www.wheresthedrama.com/thedramareport.htm - Afterwards, apply this test to every scene in your own screenplay and see how each one fares.
from Nil By Mouth
from A Woman Under The Influence
from Dog Day Afternoon
from Born Yesterday
from One-Eyed Jacks
from Man In The Saddle
WRITING TIP :
If a scene’s not working, if it lacks impact and emotional energy, try shrinking it down, writing the shortest and quietest version of the scene you can imagine, whilst still retaining its meaning.Take out all the dialogue if necessary. See what it "says" when there is nothing but movements (actions) and looks and the environment in which the action is occurring. Or have the characters talk to each other, but limit their words. Does the emotional logic become any clearer?