Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 1: Writing Scenes

With every scene, you should ask yourself this question: What is the scene’s Beginning, Middle, and End?

As we prepare for the 2018 Zero Draft Thirty September Challenge, a five-part series on Screenwriting Back to Basics. Today: Writing Scenes.

Just as we think of a story with three acts or movements, so each scene has its own tripartite structure. Therefore, as we approach working out a scene, we need to think about what constitutes each of its three parts: Beginning. Middle. End.

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A scene from the 1987 Oscar- winning movie ‘Broadcast News’

A master at this is writer-director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets). From his wonderful movie Broadcast News, let’s look at how he introduces the three major characters in the story: Tom Grunick (William Hurt), Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), and Jane Craig (Holly Hunter). Brooks creates a story opening in which he juxtaposes the three characters as young people, selecting a revelatory moment in each of their lives that provides insight into what is at the core of their being. First Tom:

        EXT. CITY STREET - DAY	A restaurant supply truck is curbside, near a small 
restaurant. GERALD GRUNICK, forty-one, is closing the back
door of his truck, feeling good about the world, a common
state for him. He moves towards the cab of the truck and
gets inside as we SUPER:
KANSAS CITY, MO. - 1963 INT. TRUCK - DAY As he sits down beaming over his recent good fortune... now
we REVEAL his twelve-year-old son, TOM, seated quietly
beside him. He seems a bit down. Gerald glances at his son.
GERALD
I don't know a recent Saturday I've
sold more. You didn't think I'd
sell that health restaurant, did you?
TOM
No. Not even you.
GERALD
Why so glum?
TOM
I don't know.
GERALD
(a beat)
Go ahead.
TOM
No, nothing. I've got a problem,
I guess.
GERALD
Were you bothering by those
waitresses making a fuss?
TOM
No. But, honest. What are you
supposed to say when they keep
talking about your looks? I don't
even know what they mean -- "Beat
them off with a stick."
Gerald stiffs a grin. GERALD
You know, Tom, I feel a little
proud when people comment on your
looks. Maybe you should feel that
way.
TOM
Proud? I'm just embarrassed that
I like when they say those things.
GERALD
As long as that's your only problem
you're...
TOM
It's not.
He looks directly at his father and talks quietly, and
sincerely.
TOM
I got my report card. Three Cs,
two Ds and an incomplete.
GERALD
Oh my. I see you studying so hard,
Tom. What do you think the problem is?
TOM
I'll just have to try harder. I don't
know. I will.
(talking himself
into it)
I will. I will. I will.
He shakes his head for emphasis, glad he's received this pep
talk from himself -- he hands the card to his father.
TOM
Thanks, Dad, this talk helped. Will
you sign it, please?
GERALD
(as he signs)
Would it help if I got you a tutor?
TOM
(suddenly hopeful)
That would be great.
(worried)
It better help. What can you do with
yourself if all you do is look good?
SUPER THE LEGEND -- "FUTURE NETWORK ANCHORMAN" FADE OUT

Beginning: Tom unnerved about people’s reactions to his good looks.

Middle: Toms poor performance in school

Ending: The father signs the report card and offers to get Tom a tutor.

Key note: Each beat in the scene has its own emotional center. The Beginning is Tom’s embarrassment about his good looks. The Middle is Tom’s despondence about his grades. The Ending is Tom’s elation about getting a tutor. As such, there is a flow of these emotions as Brooks takes us on a little psychological journey with an upbeat ending to transition us out of the scene and into the next, where he introduces Aaron:

	BOSTON, MASS. - 1965	INT. HIGH SCHOOL - AUDITORIUM - DAY	AARON ALTMAN, looking almost preposterously young in his
graduation gown -- is delivering his valedictory. He is a
rare bread -- a battle-scarred innocent.
AARON
...and finally to the teachers of
Whitman High School, I don't have the
words to express my gratitude which
may have more to say about the quality
of the English Department here than
my own limitations...
He awaits a laugh and gets only the weird sound of
collective discomfort.
AARON
...that was, of course, not meant to
be taken seriously. A personal note.
I am frequently asked what the special
difficulties are in being graduated
from High School two months shy of my
fifteenth birthday. I sometimes
think it was the difficulties
themselves which enabled me to do it.
If I'd been appreciated or even tolerated
I wouldn't have been in such a hurry to
graduate. I hope the next student who
comes along and is able to excel isn't
made to feel so much an outcast. But
I'm looking forward to college; this is
the happiest day I've had in a long
time. I thank you and I forgive you.
This is very little applause. ANGLE ON TEACHERS MALE TEACHER
I'm always so confused by Aaron.
Is he brave and earnest or just
a conceited little dick-head?
BACK TO AARON AS WE SUPER: "FUTURE NETWORK NEWS REPORTER" ANGLE ON STAGE As Aaron walks to his seat past three full grown tough
looking semi-literate high school graduates.
YOUTH #1
Later, Aaron.
EXT. SCHOOL YARD - DAY Clusters of graduates at the fence bordering the sunken
school yard looking down as the tough cap and gowners seen
earlier cuff Aaron around.
CLOSER IN Aaron feeling from a blow -- his lip bleeding -- his teeth
covered with blood...as he gets to his feet. He is livid --
something primal triggered by this brutality.
AARON
Go ahead, Stephen -- take your
last licks.
(points at his
face)
But this will heal -- what I'm
going to say to you will scar you
forever. Ready? Here it is.
He dodges as they come after him. They catch him by the
hair and hurl him to the ground. As he gets up he hurls his
devastating verbal blow.
AARON
You'll never make more than
nineteen thousand dollars a year.
Ha ha ha.
They twist his arm and grip him -- his face scraped on the
concrete.
AARON
Okay, take this: You'll never
leave South Boston and I'm going
to see the whole damn world. You'll
never know the pleasure of writing
a graceful sentence or having an
original thought. Think about it.
He's punched in the stomach and sinks to the ground. As the
Young Toughs walk off Aaron catches a phrase of their
conversation.
YOUTH TOUGH
Nineteen thousand dollars...
Not bad.
FADE OUT

Beginning: Aaron’s honest, yet abrasive speech to his so-called peers and teachers.

Middle: The toughs pounding Aaron.

Ending: Aaron’s verbal retort to the toughs.

Key note: Again each of the three parts of this scene has its own emotional center. The Beginning is the awkwardness of Aaron’s speech. The Middle is the pain Aaron suffers at the hands of his attackers. The End is the humiliation Aaron directs at the toughs, even if they’re not insightful enough to discern the truth of Aaron’s comments (“Nineteen thousand dollars… not bad”). So as with the previous scene, there is an emotional flow to the scene with an upbeat ending. Now for the introduction of the story’s Protagonist Jane:

	ATLANTA, GEORGIA - 1968	INT. SUBURBAN HOME - NIGHT	JANE CRAIG, ten years old, is in her room typing.  Above the
desk where she works is a bulletin board with letters and
pictures tacked to each one. Her desk has several file
racks which contain bulging but neat stacks of air mail
envelopes -- a roll of stamps in a dispenser is to one side.
Jane types very well in the glare of her desk lamp.
JANE
(voice over; as
she types)
Dear Felatzia, it's truly amazing
to me that we live a world apart
and yet have the same favorite music.
I loved the picture you sent and
have it up on my bulletin board.
You're growing so much faster than
I am that I...
OTHER ANGLE SHOWING Jane's FATHER standing near the door. JANE
(voice over)
...am starting to get jealous.
I read in the newspapers about
the Italian strike and riots in
Milan. I hope you weren't...
FATHER
(softly)
Honey?...
Jane SCREAMS, and grabs her heart, breathing heavily,
babble nervously at her Dad.
JANE
Oh God -- Daddy -- don't...don't...
don't ever scare me like that --
please.
We SUPER: "FUTURE NETWORK NEWS PRODUCER" Her father is himself taken aback with the shock of her
reaction. Falling back towards the door:
FATHER
Jane -- For God's sake...
(recovering)
Look, it's time for you to go
to sleep.
JANE
I just have two more pen pals and
then I'm done.
FATHER
You don't have to finish tonight.
JANE
(he doesn't get in)
Nooo. This way the rotation stays
the same.
FATHER
Finish quickly. I don't want you
getting obsessive about these
things. Good night.
We REMAIN WITH Jane who has obviously become disconcerted
and troubled.
INT. HOUSE - NIGHT As Jane moves to room at the other end of the hall -- a
family room where her Father reads the latest Rolling Stone
of the mid-60's -- Hunter Thompson, the New Journalism, the
slim Jann Wenner -- Jane bursts into the room.
JANE
Dad, you want me to choose my words
so carefully and then you just throw
a word like 'obsessive' at me. Now,
unless I'm wrong and...
(enunciating)
...please correct me if I am, 'obsession'
is practically a psychiatric term...
concerning people who don't have anything
else but the object of their obsession --
who can't stop and do anything else. Well,
Here I am stopping to tell you this. Okay?
So would you please try and be a little
more precise instead of calling a person
something like 'obsessive.'
She advances furiously on her Father since even this strung
out, even with two additional pen pal letters to get off,
she had enough sense of duty to kiss him good night before
storming from the room. She exits the room INTO BLACK.

Beginning: Jane busily writing one of her pen pals.

Middle: Jane’s heightened reaction to her father’s interruption.

Ending: Jane correcting her father’s misuse of the word “obsessive.”

Key note: Yet again, each of the scene’s three parts has its own emotional center. The Beginning is the sheer happiness Jane feels as she reaches out to one of her pen pals. The Middle is the conflict between father and daughter over her behavior. The ending turns the tables as the child parents the parent, providing yet another little psychological journey, topped off with Jane kissing her father, an upbeat resolution to the scene.

Furthermore, this Script Opening sequence has its own Beginning, Middle, and End as constituted by Tom’s scene (Beginning), Aaron’s scene (Middle), and Jane’s scene (End).

So a back to basics reminder: When you approach writing any scene, ask yourself, “What is the scene’s Beginning, Middle, and End.”

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This week, I’ll be posting something every day to remind us of a fundamental principle of screenwriting, just to make sure we’re not overlooking something obvious. Good to remember and especially for those writers who will be participating in the 2018 Zero Draft Thirty September Challenge.

30 Days. Fade In. Fade Out.

To join the Zero Draft Thirty Facebook group, go here.

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