Changing scene values and competing agendas

When you see an interesting scene in a film it immediately registers because by its end something about the story and characters is radically different–or at least the foundation has been laid to disrupt the world of the story that existed up until that scene.

Additionally, the scene itself likely had many ups and downs, wreaking emotional havoc for the characters. A scene that began in a positive way for a character likely did not end that way, and vice versa, or somewhere in between. The point being something altered the story’s landscape.

In a scene I’ve outlined below from my feature-length rom-com “Something Between Us,” note how the value fluctuates between positive and negative for each character right up until the scene ends, clearly signaling a change in value:

  • Tim arrives home from work, excited about the new issue of his “Spiderman” comic book. His agenda is to delve right in.
    [His value begins as positive]
  • Carol is patiently waiting for him–yet clearly angry. Her agenda is to find out who Andrea is.
  • Now Tim’s excited that Andrea called. He wants to know if she’s in town.
  • Carol still has no idea who Andrea is, and clearly is jealous–the subtext being that Andrea’s message, which we didn’t need to hear, most likely revealed Andrea knows Tim very, very well, yet Tim has never told Carol about Andrea.
  • Tim must ease Carol’s jealousy, but also realizes he’s a bit up the creek for not having told Carol anything about Andrea–who at this point we know is a significant part of Tim’s life.
  • Carol, with minimal dialogue, pressures Tim for information.
  • Tim flounders, but eventually succeeds in putting Carol’s mind at ease–mainly because Carol is more engaged in the relationship, and therefore more forgiving than perhaps she otherwise might have been. The values for both characters here now are equalizing–thus endangering the scene of becoming really boring!
  • Until Carol hears that Tim and Andrea studied poetry together. Carol goes off on the poetry thing, supported by the subtext that, intimately, she knows there’s more going on than Tim has revealed.
  • Now Tim’s floundering again, supported by the subtext he can’t find the depth of intimacy with Carol that he had found with Andrea. A bit problematic given that he now is living with Carol.
  • The argument has escalated, but Tim wants out, and Carol won’t let him.
  • Finally Tim’s best case is to dismiss it, setting up Carol’s closing line: “Oh why don’t you go write a poem about it!” Which, by this point in the film, we know that Tim already had.

By the scene’s end Tim’s value has shifted to negative, and you’ll note there were value shifts within the scene, too.

Clearly, this is the beginning of the end of Tim and Carol, yet the scene also parallels the film’s underlying theme of intimacy, which provides even more depth.

Imagine that scene if instead Carol said, happily, “Your good friend Andrea called! I can’t believe you haven’t talked to her in months. Shame on you.”

Compelling scenes start with the characters: what do they want, and who is preventing them from getting it, and how? And how is it related to the overall story?

When you approach your scene outline from that perspective you’ll write a scene that’s not only interesting to the audience but to the actors as well, who will enjoy exercising their skills.

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