Sep 11, 2009

Article: How to Spice Up That Dull Old Scene

Sep 11, 2009
You are watching two people talk in a living room. It doesn't really matter what they're talking about, it's boring. Someone arrives at a hotel, and books a room. Boring. But, sometimes you need it.

Every script, in its early stages, has at least one of these scenes. Sometimes called Plot Scenes, Filler Scenes, Set-Up Scenes or even Exposition Scenes - they need to be there, but they are duller than Ben Stein's voice.

Bad movies are filled with them, but even the best script can end up with one or two unavoidable 'pauses'. I'm not talking about how to save those scenes that should probably end up on the cutting room floor, I'm talking about the scenes we can't get rid of - so we might as well make good.

I've had to 'Brainstorm the Spice-Up' so many times that I've assembled this list to kick-start my own Brainstorm sessions. Hopefully you can use it too. Once again, this is not even close to a definitive list, just some Starting Points.


How to Spice Up That Dull Old Scene
With things lying around the house!

Let's start this with an example.

There's this boring, trivial scene in The Empire Strikes Back when an Imperial Officer comes into Darth Vader's meditation chamber, and tells him about the Millennium Falcon or something.
The scene was important, as this information was needed for later - but it was so forgettable.

Oh wait, no it wasn't. That was the scene where Darth Vader's helmet drops from the ceiling. It has actually become one of the most iconic science-fiction moments. Why?

It should have been insignificant - they should have rushed through it. But it wasn't, and they didn't. This is an excellent example of successfully spicing up a scene. In fact, it uses all three items on my list.

In order of most usually successful, from least to most (depending of course on the idea):

Change to Interesting/Contrasting Location

Have to have two people giving exposition? If they're talking about taking risks and living on the edge, then maybe have the conversation while skydiving. The opposite works well too - If they're talking about slowing down, waiting and biding their time - then set it next to a busy street with the zooming of cars and planes and such. I save the contrast 'gag' for particularly boring scenes.

If there's nothing particularly thematic available, then play up the interest. If it's at all possible, s
et the scene on the side of the Volcano. Or at the bottom of a well, or a skyscraper scaffold, or on a beach, or with wild animals playing and foraging in the forefront, or even in front of a vibrant, and comically relevant painting if you don't have the budget.

The Darth Vader example did this by setting it in the previously unseen Inner Sanctum, inspiring Curiosity in the viewer and Apprehension in the Officer.

Add Interesting/Conflicting Item, Event or Character

Item:
Ever wonder why there are so many scenes where characters are throwing a baseball to each other? Or playing cards? It instantly lends a dynamism to the scene, an extra level. Still lots of room for new, creative uses here: What about talking while trying to work out how to use a lawn mower? Or carving a pumpkin?
Event:
Two people talking in a living room: Boring.
Two people whispering at a funeral: Interesting.
Two people yelling over a battle, while talking about vegetarianism: Interesting.
Character:
Of course, this really depends on how good your characters are, and how interesting their interactions are. But if you've done them right, try pulling in someone who shouldn't be there and see if that fixes the scene. Let them do the work for you.

I don't care what you think of Red Dwarf, this is a great example:

(Skip to 9:40, watch till 10:14)



Since the Cat didn't really need to be there, in a worse script that scene might have just been
Lister and Rimmer:
LISTER: "So, what is it?"
RIMMER: "It's a time hole."
LISTER: "Ah. I completely understand."
End scene.
Mix it with Another Scene or Reveal

Luke and I have this unwritten rule never to settle for just 'what's passable', even when that means a sleepless night banging our heads on walls and yelling at each other; This last one has saved us more than a few times.

Now when I say mix with another scene, I don't mean incorporate this scene into another better one - the whole problem with these scenes is they don't really fit anywhere else. Sometimes there will be other scenes with lots going on, and it will be possible to steal material from it. For example I could easily imagine Vader's Head Reveal being at a more pivotal time in the movie, perhaps with Luke - but it was needed more in the small insignificant scene.

We often have many minutes of hilarious deleted material for each script, that simply isn't relevant enough to fit. Having a scene that needs spicing up is a great opportunity to try and 'transplant the hook' from one of these.
I like to look at scenes like music. If you look at the absolute best pieces of music, there are usually enough interesting melodies and beats and sounds to make at least two normal songs out of - but it works as a harmonious whole.

We're simply trying to find another melody line to insert.

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Of course, as I said before these are not the only ways - just the first three ways I experiment with. For example, House MD and The West Wing (and many other TV series) use the 'walk and talk' film technique to liven up Exposition Scenes.

How do you know it's ready?

These are our own Rules of Thumb that we judge each of our scenes by. If they don't match up, then we re-think them - possibly by running them through the above three ideas.

Before writing a scene, we try to find it's clicking point - its hook.

"This is the ______ scene."

Sometimes a scene will need to be this or that, but often it still needs that angle. Finding the clicking point makes it easier to write also.

After writing, and maybe this is just me, but to be happy I ask myself this question: Could it be parodied or quoted? Often only the most iconic, creative and unique scenes can be parodied.

Or to put the question another way: Would someone upload it to YouTube? Regardless of your thoughts on Copyright, and theft - if someone loads it up to YouTube it means that both they think highly of it, and that the scene has enough of a hook to be semi-self contained.

Anyway, that's how I approach scenes.

8 comments:

  1. Man, that Red Dwarf clip was the perfect example of what you were saying.

    There are no obstacles, just opportunities!

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  2. yeh explanations get boring, and i have noticed that crime shows do the walk and talk, its done too much, try something else.
    I also hate it on crime shows how every witness or suspect doesnt want to talk to the cops, and they shut the door in their face, or they will be at work and they'll be doing something while talking to the cops then they'll say " are we done here.."

    boring, if the cops came to your work i think you would stop working.
    I guess i think about with scenes, could it happen in real life. not sci fi stuff more like peoples emotional reactions to situations, or reactions to each other. does the dialogue flow.
    and i think thats great how you want evry scene to be exciting and differnt.
    im very critical when i watch movies from new directors or wen i have to watch tv show, cause evry one else is watching it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. edit, wen i was talking about reactions, i dont apply it to most comedies

    ReplyDelete
  4. Longest blog ever.
    Red dwarf rules.
    That is all.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yeah, our blog posts just keep going don't they?

    In response to Jen's comment of 'could it happen in real life', I agree. But... okay I just deleted many paragraphs of an epic rant. Maybe that's better saved for a blog post.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I had a blast reading this. Keep them coming. One of my favorite examples is from When Harry Met Sally.

    Harry is telling his friend about how he found out his wife had an affair. This could be boring exposition, but they put this very private conversation into the context of a football match, where they amongst the audience constantly are interrupted and have to participate in a "wave". : )

    David

    Fun stuff! : )

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks David, and what a perfect example, as well!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Saw another good example of this - In the latest Star Trek movie, Kirk simply has to convince a couple of people about a theory he has. Boring.

    What they did in the movie is first, make it urgent so he's hysterically running all over the place. Second, he's in the middle of a terrible injection reaction - puffy hands, swollen tongue and Bones frantically trying to medicate him. "I can fix that!"

    Hilarious.

    ReplyDelete

 
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