Force the characters to their feet, and give them a lot of stuff to do. Break off two people from the group for a brief, private conversation, and then reintegrate them. Even if your characters are at a large dinner table, you can create mini-scenes for any pair so that the other characters seem to fade away.
Characters need a goal in each scene, and the other characters need to be the obstacles in their way, literally and figuratively. You already know human interactions have “push and pull,” so why not physicalize that? Let them actually shove or yank on each other. For physical interactions, I generally stick to a “one-touch” rule: Two characters should touch each other once, and only once, in each scene.
- Flirtation scenes contain a significant touch on the shoulder, arm, or wrist, which is met either with a recoil, a shirk, or a meaningful look.
- Romantic scenes often build up to a single kiss (whether it’s accepted or not) or begin with a single kiss and then unravel from there.
- Manipulation scenes often build to the moment when the manipulator puts a pseudofriendly arm around the scene partner’s shoulder or gives him a forceful pat on the back or a firm grasp of the arm, applying some literal pressure.
- Antagonism scenes often build to a single poke, slap, shove, or punch.
This is a classically constructed scene: two fully humanized characters with justifiable points of view both want something, and they’re each confronting the other determined to get it immediately. In this case, each is the idol of millions and used to getting his way.
King sits down to make his case, and Johnson sits to listen for a while, then gets up when he makes his counterproposal, goes over to get his War on Poverty proposal from his desk and tries to hand it to King. When King refuses to take it, Johnson instead leans over and touches King once on the back as he says, “I want you to help. Help me with this.” King instead stands up to make his point more emphatically as Johnson backs off to listen. Things end there, with them both standing, at an impasse.
Obviously, in film, the blocking is more up to the director than the screenwriter, but it’s still good to indicate one touch in your write-up of each scene. In prose, you don’t want to spend too much time on blocking, which is up to how your reader pictures the scene, but again, it’s good to indicate that one touch, which is a simple way to show the crux of the scene.
Rulebook Casefile: The Peril of Bad Scenework in Justice League (NOTE: I wrote this in 2018. No, I did not watch the Snyder cut when it was finally released, so I never found out if my assumptions were true.) So I finally got around to seeing Justice League, which is nowhere near as bad as Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but still terrible. I don’t talk a lot about “how not to” examples on this blog, but I thought we might pause to look some terrible scenework.
The original version of this movie was made by BvS:DoJ writer/director Zach Snyder, and then it was taken away from him (supposedly he left due to a family emergency, but many reports claim he’d already been forced off the project) and massively rewritten/reshot by Joss Whedon. Everybody liked Whedon’s The Avengers, so the hope was that he would purge Snyder’s darkness, lighten it up, add some jokes, and save the franchise. He did the first three, but not the fourth. From everything I’ve heard, Snyder’s version would have been even worse (Cyborg causes his mom’s death and then dies gruesomely at the end, for instance), but the scenes that are understood to be Whedon’s are pretty terrible, and worse than the remaining Snyder scenes.
To be fair, Whedon had to work incredibly fast and all of the actors were busy doing other things. Gal Gadot was off promoting Wonder Woman and had to be added to many reshot scenes using green screen later. Jason Momoa was shooting his own Aquaman movie. Henry Cavill was famously shooting the latest Mission: Impossible movie and not allowed to shave his mustache to play Superman. So it’s a miracle anything coherent was produced.
Let’s look at three bad scenes, all of which are rumored to be Whedon scenes: Lois Lane’s sit-and-talk with Martha (“Martha!”) Kent,
Bruce Wayne’s walk-and-talk with Diana Prince,
and Aquaman’s stand-and-talk with Mera.
These scenes break all my rules for scenework, and they show how my tips can be useful. Most importantly:
- There is no reblocking (Bruce and Diana walk parallel to each other, but that doesn’t count)
- There is no touching in any of the three scenes.
- There are no objects exchanged (Lois does give Martha [“Martha!”] a coffee cup before they sit down, but then the scene really begins)
Each of these scenes would have been helped immensely by literal push and pull between the characters, preferably with one significant touch. Each would have been far more dynamic if the plot point they were discussing was represented by an object that changed hands.
Worst of all is that, according to the scale I describe here, they’re all level-one “listen and accept” scenes. The first two are bland and placid, while the Aquaman scene is more volatile, but there’s still not any convincing going on. They don’t like each other, but Mera tells Aquaman what he needs to do and Aquaman agrees. In none of them does either party try to force or cajole or trick or seduce the other into doing anything, and nobody is being clever.
Now let’s look at a better scene. This one had reshot inserts by Whedon to interject jokes, but it’s mostly Snyder. Bruce Wayne meets with Barry Allen to try to recruit him for the team.
Bruce actually wants something and is determined to get it. And how does he do that? First Bruce forces Barry to accept a photo of himself showing him using his powers, then Bruce cleverly throws a bat-thingie at Barry to see if he’ll grab it out of the air, and by doing so Barry visibly admits his powers and tacitly accepts his place on the new team. That’s good, basic meat-and-potatoes scenework. It’s not an Oscar clip, but it’s a thousand times more engaging than the other three scenes.
Based on what we’ve seen in other projects, Whedon has more storytelling talent in his pinkie than Snyder has all over, so it’s pretty obvious that Whedon (who took a re-write credit but no re-directing credit) was just spackling in the cracks here. Snyder turned in an unwatchable three hour cut, WB cut all the awfulness out until it was an incomprehensible 90 minutes, and then Whedon had to shoot 30 more minutes to tie everything together with spit and baling wire, even though he couldn’t get all the actors in the same room. So he made it easier on himself by shooting listless unambitious scenes.
The result was a big flop that killed the franchise. The movie technically made a profit but it tanked its company’s stock, which is far worst than losing money. Aquaman and another Wonder Woman are in the can, but The Flash and Cyborg seem to be cancelled and Affleck and Cavill were let go. Supposedly, WB executives rushed the reshoots so that they didn’t lose their year-end bonuses. Hope they invested the money.
For this Scenework series, we’re examining these scenes:
The 40 Year Old Virgin
Andy goes home with a drunk woman from a Bachelorette party.
After the deaths of Kane, Brett and Dallas, Ripley becomes captain, so she has a meeting with the other survivors, Ash, Parker, and Lambert, to decide what to do next.
Jenny is amazed as David gets permission from her parents to take her on a weekend trip to Oxford by claiming to know C.S. Lewis.
Amelia chases her son Sam down to the basement, where he knocks her out, ties her up, and drives the Babadook out of her, temporarily.
Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople
Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy catches Jeffrey in her apartment and has sex with him at knifepoint.
The Bourne Identity
Jason and Marie are attacked at her family’s farm by the assassin known as The Professor. Jason blows up a propane tank to distract him and kills him, but as the Professor dies he convinces Jason to come back.
Annie is driving angry after feuding with Helen when she gets pulled over by a cute cop, who gives her his number under the pretense of recommending a place to get her tail light fixed.
Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.
Jake confronts Noah Cross with the glasses
Lefty seeks to go behind Sonny Black’s back to set up his own meeting in Florida with Trifficante. He has Donnie borrow a boat for this purpose, but Sonny Black knows everything, and he crashes the party. Lefty bitterly assumes that Donnie has betrayed him, and shuns him. Sonny takes Donnie aside and elevates him above Lefty.
Do the Right Thing
Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.
Billi finds out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents.
Micky and Charlene confront Micky’s family about his career.
Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace
Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off.
Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy drinking tea. She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup. She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.
Phil takes Rita to a cafe and tries to convince her that he’s living the same day over and over. He convinces her by predicting what Larry will say.
How to Train Your Dragon
Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.
In a Lonely Place
Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others.
Tony has built a better chest-device to keep shrapnel out of his heart, so he calls Pepper in to reach into his chest and replace the old one with a new one.
Lady Bird flirts with Kyle in the parking lot.
During Hi and Ed’s first night with Junior, brothers Gale and Evelle show up having just escaped from jail, and begin to suspect the truth.
Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers.
King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act
Jack finally takes a drink from the ghosts in the ballroom. A waiter spills a drink on him, and takes him to the bathroom to clean it off. While he does so, Jack realizes that the waiter is actually Grady, the former caretaker that killed his family. Grady encourages him to do the same, but Jack is uncertain.
Miles has struck out with Maya, but Jack comes back to the motel after a wild night with Steph, intending to go back out. Miles tries to get Jack to stay by forcing him to call his fiancé, but she doesn’t answer and Jack takes off with Steph after getting Miles to return his unused condom from the night before.
The Silence of the Lambs
Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.
The gang takes over the Death Star command office.
Joe discovers Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.
So how do those scenes answer this question?
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. Just one touch: she kisses him.
YES. Parker tries to leave, Ripley stops him with her voice. Then Parker leaves, then Ash leaves. There’s one touch when Parker puts a hand on Ash to keep him from coming with him.
NO. Not really. They’re British. The dad touches his wife’s hand once at the very end, signaling he’s made his decision.
YES. Lots. She tries to choke him to death.
YES. Lots of reblocking, but nobody touches anybody.
YES. lots. Yes, the scene begins with lots of distance and gradually culminates in lots of touching.
The Bourne Identity
YES. Quite a bit of re-blocking. Jason never touches the professor, but the kids hug their dad.
YES. She gets out of the car, back in, she tries to flirt by dancing back and forth along the line. They don’t quite touch, but they exchange pieces of paper.
YES. Rick sits down to play chess with no one, Ugarte comes and goes, Rick gets up to confront him, stand over him. There’s one touch when Ugarte has interested Rick in looking at the letters but doesn’t want him to see them yet.
YES. The obituary is handed over.
YES. lots. Yes: just one touch. Lefty and Donnie don’t touch (in fact they repel each other to opposite ends of the boat). Donnie avoids touching Sonny until Sonny reveals that Donny belongs to him and throws a menacing arm around him.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Lots. Buggin’ sits down, then Sal comes out with the bat, then Mookie takes Buggin’ out.
YES. There’s reblocking, but nobody touches each other.
YES. Oddly, there is no re-blocking after Alice and Dicky sit down. Presumably it just would have been too hard to choreograph an 11-character scene in a small space. There is one touch, when Dicky puts a hand on Micky’s knee to pull him back in.
YES. They never directly touch, but Elsa creates a creature to pick Anna up and throw her out.
NO. There is no touch. (Builds up release where there is finally a touch at the very end.)
NO. they both just sit down and don’t touch. She pushes him in a different way.
YES. He drags her around the café.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. Tons of reblocking and just one touch between Astrid and Hiccup, when she falls on him then pushes his face away
In a Lonely Place
Just a little. Mostly, they’re at the table, until Dix punches his agent.
YES. She actually reaches into him, after barely having touched him before this.
YES. He has her write her number on his hand.
YES. Hi hugs Evelle, then playfully slaps Gale, then puts an arm around Evelle, then goes and puts an arm around Ed instead.
YES. He makes a show of moving closer and futher away from her (with unintentionally loud clanking on the bleachers) and then shakes hands with her at the end.
YES. They re-block quite a lot. At the beginning Johnson shakes his hand and puts a hand on his shoulder while pointing out, “I’m a tall son of a bitch” Later, when he’s making his big pitch to King, he crosses the room and puts a hand on his shoulder. “I want you to help, help me with this…This voting thing is just going to have to wait.”
Not really. It’s very still, which is typical for Kubrick. The butler cleans the jacket until Jack takes his rag away in order to confront him.
YES. Jack taps Miles on the chest, signaling that he’s about to lie, then taps him on the chest again later to confirm his mastery.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. He makes her come closer. They can’t touch, but he smells her, which feels even more invasive.
YES. Obi-Wan touches Luke’s arm once to convince him.
YES. lots of reblocking, She keeps beckoning and then repelling him, but they never quit touch, except exchanging the object.