Screenwriting Tips: Scene Checklist Part 3
First, let's examine our terms. A better understanding of them will help your screenwriting in many ways, so it's worth taking the time.
GOAL - that clear, concise, easily-recognisable finish line your character thinks they need to cross to achieve what they want.
STRATEGY - the holistic plan, seen from 35,000 feet that will help them reach that goal
TACTICS - the on-the-ground, action-by-action details of how that strategy will be executed.
To make these concepts crystal clear, here's an example from everyday life:
GOAL - I want a birthday cake for my son.
STRATEGY - I will wait until I'm alone in the house and can concentrate on baking it myself. Being drunk may help, too, so I'll need to have a bottle of wine handy.
TACTICS - drink, combine, pour, SPILL, drinkdrink, whisk, layer, BREAK, drinkdrinkdrink, bake, burn, SCREAM, drinkdrinkdrinkdrink, pass out.
Notice the verbs I used when describing the tactics of baking a cake. They're all active verbs, i.e. the subject of the verb, ME, is (assumed to be) performing the action.
Phil spills the cake batter on the floor.
When the verb changes to passive, the object (not the hero) becomes the subject.
The cake batter is spilled on the floor by Phil.
See how the active form conveys a greater sense of DOING by the main character?
SCENE STRATEGY AND TACTICS
As screenwriters, we're taught to keep our characters active, moving forward towards their goal, because passive is boring. This maxim applies not only to your plotting in a macro sense; it's also true for their strategy and tactics within a scene.
So, let's put our hero in a scene with another character.
The hero has a goal: to get the other character to do something. Naturally, we need some drama, so that other person doesn't want to do what the hero wants, i.e. for this scene, the other character is the antagonist.
If the hero knows they will meet resistance, they may go into the scene with a plan. If the opposition they encounter is a surprise, they'll have to make one up on the fly.
Either way, the hero needs a strategy to reach their goal. What will it be? Will they approach them at work, on the street, in a bar? Are they dressed for conflict or seduction? Do they intend to use overwhelming force, gentle persuasion, or something in between to get what they want?
Okay, now, the scene starts. The hero deploys their tactics....
Rick saunters up to a smartly-dressed woman. Hands in pockets. Smiling.
See the active verbs? Great, but guess what? Active verbs can be used not only to describe the main character's physical tactics., but also their verbal - in a different way.
Allow me to explain.
Think about how many times you've tried to get someone to do something they didn't want to do? How did it go? Did it start off well? Did you...
comment on their attire/haircut (to disarm)
ask about their day (to empathise)
talk about the football game (to bond)
I'm guessing if your friend didn't want to do the thing you wanted from the outset, things got tougher. But maybe they owed you one? Perhaps you thought a good friend should do that thing, so you persisted because you had a goal to reach.
you brought up the subject (to ask a favour)
you laughed off their concerns (to downplay)
you highlighted the benefits (to convince)
you denied it was self-serving (to deflect)
you got hot under the collar (to argue)
you reminded him he owes you (to guilt)
you suggested there could be consequences for refusing (to threaten)
they physically or verbally punched you and walked away.
See how this meeting between hero and antagonist arcs from positive to negative?
Notice the rise in tension as your efforts are blocked, your chances of failure are rising, and you become more desperate to reach your goal?
No matter the genre of film you're writing, you want to scene dynamics similar to this.
One way to ensure that is to go through your first draft and see if you can label each beat of your scene with the kind of 'active verb descriptors' I've put in brackets above.
It's a shorthand way to map your character's tactics. It will confirm whether their strategy and goal is clear and authentic. If it is, the reader will recognise what the character is doing based on their own life experiences and it will ring true!
Tips from the STORY Guru
Robert McKee, in his book STORY, examines a scene from CASABLANCA that illustrates this technique of analysis brilliantly. He refers to each active verb moment as a BEAT and shows how the scene arcs from positive to negative. Not just from the beginning to the end of the scene, but from beat to beat. THAT'S how you make a scene sing with drama!
Below are two video clips of the same scene from CASABLANCA. In the first, some enterprising person has overlaid the scene with McKee's audiobook commentary to show you beat by beat what I'm talking about. This may or may not be an infringement of copyright.
In case it is, and it's taken down, I include another clip without the commentary. Read my list of 'argument beats' above and then see if you can recognise (and label) the different kinds that are in the CASABLANCA scene.
I hope you found that helpful, If so, please feel free to share this post.
Now, cancel your plans to bake a cake and get writing! :)
Phil Parker, a dual-citizen American/Aussie screenwriter, based in Sydney, writes feature screenplays, TV pilots, and treatments for directors and producers around the world. His speciality is adventure stories. Phil's animated family adventure, CATSAWAY is in production in Abu Dhabi, and currently, he's writing a WWII action/adventure feature for producers in Australia and England.
Contact Phil now