Whether you are writing a commercial or independent film and regardless of the genre, a successful screenplay requires good scene pacing. An attention-grabbing screenplay contains a solid ticking clock that will inspire the reader to want to turn the pages to find out what’s going to happen next.
Scenes must have a complete arc—a solid beginning, middle, and end. Characters’ journeys drive the script’s narrative, and each scene must steer their journey forward.
Scenes must have a reason to exist. Each scene must somehow advance the narrative through both dialogue and visual storytelling.
Sleepless in Seattle Example
In the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (directed by Nora Ephron, screenplay by Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch) reporter Annie Reed crosses the country to meet a man she has never met after hearing his young son on a call-in radio show, seeking help to find a new wife for his widowed father.
In this scene example we find Annie and Barbara, having a warm mother/daughter talk in the attic.
The Scene Objective: Annie starts reexamining her feelings about her fiancé Walter.
Here’s the scene:
While trying on her grandmother’s wedding dress, the newly engaged Annie tells her mother, Barbara, about how she and her fiancé, Walter, met. Mother and daughter differ when it comes to believing in destiny, signs, and magic in a relationship—Barbara is a believer while Annie is a pragmatist. The scene concludes as Annie, wearing her grandmother’s wedding dress, hugs her mother and the dress rips. Annie now believes in signs.
In the beginning of the scene, Annie doesn’t believe in destiny and expresses her certainty about her upcoming marriage to Walter. By the end of the scene, Annie is having some subtle doubts when she realizes that she doesn’t have the same type of magic with Walter that her mother felt for her father when they met, and Annie is beginning to believe in destiny.
Top Five Scene Pacing Tips
1. Get to the objective of each scene quickly and then cut out of the scene as close to the action as possible; this does not mean that your script needs to be fast-paced — be true to your story and style.
2. Examine the objective of each scene in your screenplay and use this as your guidepost for pacing.
3. Every scene in your screenplay should provide insights and information about your characters’ decisions, choices, motivations, obstacles and goals.
4. Each scene must have a strong arc, clear objectives and an event or action that propels your plot forward.
5. Well-paced scenes must serve a purpose otherwise they must be cut!
Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and industry executives worldwide. (www.su-city-pictures.com). Her short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and Whitney Museum’s Biennial. Kouguell worked with Louis Malle on And the Pursuit of Happiness, was a story analyst and story editor for many studios, wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies. Susan wrote THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, available at $1.00 off on https://www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. On Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply). Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell on Twitter, and read more articles on her blog: http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog/