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How to Build Stronger Scenes

By Ron Moskovitz · October 12, 2011

In my last article, I talked about defining characters through the use of “want” and “obstacle,” and I showed how this provided a method to construct characters who were clear and dramatically interesting, but also had the kind of contradictions and subtleties in their personalities that we see in real life.

Those same tools can be used in scene construction. Defining a scene by a character’s want and the obstacles to that want can give it a dramatic shape, and help make it pop. It helps keep the story moving by suggesting when to move to the next scene. It can be educational to look at successful films and analyze their scenes to see this principle in action.

Obviously, sometimes you look at a scene, and it’s easy to figure out the want and obstacle, especially with big action set-pieces. For example, in the final battle in Star Wars, it’s pretty easy to tell what Luke Skywalker’s want is. He wants to blow up the Death Star before it comes in range of the rebel moon. The obstacles are the anti-aircraft guns, TIE fighters, and Darth Vader. It’s all very clear and straightforward. (As obvious as those things are, it’s worth watching the film to examine how specific and clear George Lucas was, leaving zero room for ambiguity.).

However, many writers miss that the idea of applying a want and obstacle applies to all scenes, even the subtle, quiet ones. In fact, when an experienced screenwriter tells you that he knows how good a screenplay is going to be from the first couple of pages, this is often what he’s reacting to, at least subconsciously. Do those little scenes have clear dramatic thrust?

To give you an example of how this works, I’m going to walk you through the first several scenes of a successful film. I’ve picked Ocean’s 11, the remake, written by Ted Griffin, directed by Steven Soderberg, and starring George Clooney. One thing that really stands out in this film is the stylistic pop. These early scenes move!  Many of these are small scenes, but we’ll see how that doesn’t stop them from having wants and obstacles. “Conflict” isn’t something reserved for fight scenes.

The movie opens with Danny Ocean (Clooney) in front of a parole board. In the hands of a lesser talent, this might be a dry exposition scene. However, all the exposition is clearly related to Ocean’s want: he wants to be released from prison. The obstacle is a parole board. This scene lasts just over a minute, but the want is very clear.

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After a credits montage showing Ocean leaving prison (which shows us the resolution of that first scene), we join Ocean again at an Atlantic City casino. Now he’s trying to recruit Frank (Bernie Mac). While we don’t yet know what Ocean is up to, immediately there’s a clear issue. Frank needs Ocean not to blow his cover. He insists that his name is Ramon, and sets up a meeting with Ocean for later. Again, a scene which only lasts about 40 seconds, but the tension is clear. It’s worth pointing out that the clearest want in the scene belongs to Frank, not Ocean.

Watch this scene, and try to notice what you feel. Chances are, you have a quick flurry of thoughts, along the lines of, “Oh no, will Ocean blow Frank’s cover?” “Will he pick up on the suggestion to meet later?”

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The next scene shows Frank and Ocean at a bar. This is a very brief scene, but again we can see a clear want. Ocean wants to know where someone is. We don’t know who, yet. Notice how, despite the clear implication that these guys are old friends, the script doesn’t waste time on their small talk. Instead, it relies on shorthand (they both know who the “he” is who Ocean is referring to), and ends the scene as soon as Ocean’s want is resolved because Frank answers his question.

 

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A lot of amateur scripts would want to get caught up in demonstrating these two’s past relationship. Griffin’s artistry is on display in how he implies a lot of shared history in a few words, but it’s his craft, in terms of clear want and obstacle, that gives the scene it’s shape.

The next scene introduces us to Russ (Brad Pitt). We first meet Russ as an actor is pestering him to be allowed to pay him by check. The want and obstacle are very clear, again, we see great economy of words here, but this little scene begins with the actor winding up his pitch, and ends the instant that want is resolved – “We could just stick to cash.” One great aspect of this scene is how it demonstrates how a character doesn’t have to be the one with the want in order to be the one commanding the scene.

 

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Notice how the location changes from the hallway to the poker room at the end of this scene. In other words, the scene defined by the dramatic want – “Will the actor get Russ to accept a check?” – is mirrored by the choice of locations. As writers, we often talk about scenes in terms not of physical locations, but rather of dramatic units: wants resolved. Often these go hand-in-hand, but not always.

The next scene shows us Russ trying to teach a group of actors poker. Here we see want and obstacle used to create comedy, where the humor comes from the actors’ struggles with a simple game. This want is resolved when an actor lays down a hand of “all reds” – the implication is clear: these guys are never going to get it. A close-up of Russ’s incredulity buttons the scene.

 

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Even the tiny little scene that follows has a want. Russ is sitting at the bar, and because of the artistry on display we basically know that he’s trying, essentially, to get away from all those idiots. But he can’t – because the bartender is just as much of an idiot. To be fair, the want and obstacle are implied more than clearly stated here, but the emotional flow is clear.

 

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Some of you may feel that this is a hopelessly pedantic exercise, saying, “Wait a second, do people actually think about this nit-picky stuff when they’re writing their scripts?”

When you’re starting out, with your first couple of scripts, this is good material to apply in your second draft. You should keep your first draft about discovery, learning who your characters are. Inexperienced writers who try to apply this material too quickly end up with drafts that feel sterile.

On the other hand, as you gain experience, this stuff starts to become intuitive. Rather than requiring conscious thought, it simply becomes how your scenes come out. On second or third drafts, looking at wants and obstacles can help guide the scalpel (or sometimes the chainsaw) to help trim down scenes and give them shape, but the dramatic tensions are usually there from the beginning.

And the proof is really in the pudding. Grab one of your favorite films, and analyze the scenes yourself. That dramatic conflict didn’t slip into the script by accident.