“It is important to understand what type of scene you’re dealing with because each requires a slightly different approach when you write it.”
Not all scenes are the same. Some scenes are long, others short. Some are almost all dialogue, others are filled with scene description. Some scenes feature numerous characters in multiple locations, while others involve a single character in one spot.
Therefore, it is important to understand what type of scene you’re dealing with because each requires a slightly different approach when you write it.
Here are six common scene types:
Establishing scene: The point of an establishing scene is to introduce the reader to a location. You may only need to use this type of scene at the front of your script in order to set up your story universe. On the other hand, your script may jump around in place and time, requiring you to use multiple establishing scenes. Furthermore anytime you write a scene in a location with which you feel the reader may not be familiar, it is always a good idea to paint a brief, but effective picture to ‘transport’ the reader there.
Exposition scene: The point of an exposition scene is to lay out essential facts relevant to the plot, to ‘expose’ key information. As a screenwriter, you have many tools at your disposal to convey facts: dialogue, action, scene description — from highway signs to hand-written notes, TV news broadcasts to overhead telephone calls, and so forth. But to be considered an exposition scene, the central function of the scene must be about conveying vital information to the reader.
Revelation scene: The point of a revelation scene is to uncover a significant twist in the plot, to ‘reveal’ a major turn of events. Oftentimes the revelation involves a shift in a key character’s attitude (e.g., from optimist to pessimist) or new information about a character which unveils a different side to their personality and potentially impacts their function in relation to the plot (e.g., they are not allies to the Protagonist, but aligned with the Nemesis camp).
Action scene: The point of an action scene is to move the plot forward through action. You might be tempted to think action scenes only occur in action movies. Not true. Depending upon the genre of the script, an action scene might simply be heightened activity or events unfolding at a faster pace. A more accurate way to think about action scenes is that they focus upon the actions of a character or characters — those deeds may be big or small, bombastic or quiet, but whatever they are, the character’s actions are significant in relation to the plot.
Interaction scene: The point of an interaction scene is to move the plot forward through character interchange. The interaction might be a simple, even mundane moment in time. Or it could involve exposition or even revelation. If the scene does either of these, it differs from an exposition scene or revelation scene because what emerges is laden with emotional significance, typically two (or more) people opening up, exposing some aspects of what is really going on inside them.
Transition scene: The point of a transition scene is to provide a bridge between significant scenes or sequences. Often they make use of subplots to shift away from the main plot, which allows the writer the opportunity to return to the main plot later as it has progressed ‘off-screen.’ If you have ever heard the use of the word interstitial, this is where that comes into play in relation to screenplays. Transition scenes provide interstitial buffers and bridges between necessary and important action in the Plotline.
Let’s compare three Establishing Scenes. Here is how the screenplay to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World begins:
EXT. TORONTO RESIDENTIAL STREET — DAYSnowy suburbs of Toronto. From a nondescript house we hear:KIM PINE (O.S.)Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler?INT. STEPHEN STILLS’ KITCHEN — DAYFour twenty-somethings lounge around a small kitchen table.
‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’
Since this is a familiar environment (i.e., the suburbs), the writers don’t need to go to any great lengths to describe it. Indeed, they use its very “nondescript” nature to make a point to the reader: You know this place, you know these people.
Compare to the beginning description from the Coen brothers’ adaptation of True Grit:
The street of a western town, night. The street is deserted. Snow falls.A shape lies in the street below the busted-out porch railing of a two-story building. A sign identifies the building as the Monarch Boarding House.The crumpled shape is a body. We hear the thunder of approaching hooves.A galloping horse enters frame and recedes, whipped on by a bareback rider. A long-barreled rifle is tied across the rider’s back with a sash cord.He disappears into the falling snow.
A different tone and feel entirely, befitting the Old West and suggesting a world where violence is common.
A third example, this from the first page of the screenplay for The King’s Speech:
INT. BBC BROADCASTING HOUSE, STUDIO — DAYCLOSE ON a BBC microphone of the 1920’s, A formidable piece of machinery suspended on springs.A BBC NEWS READER, in a tuxedo with carnation boutonniere, is gargling while a TECHNICIAN holds a porcelain bowl and a towel at the ready. The man in the tuxedo expectorates discreetly into the bowl, wipes his mouth fastidiously, and signals to ANOTHER TECHNICIAN who produces an atomizer. The Reader opens his mouth, squeezes the rubber bulb, and sprays his inner throat. Now, he’s ready.The reader speaks in flawless pear-shaped tones. There’s no higher creature in the vocal world.
Once again a different tone and feel, the story located in the rarified environment of aristocracy and formality.
Takeaway: Equally important to positioning the story in terms of place and time, an establishing scene should also convey a sense of the story’s tone and feel.
Consider the exposition scene in the first few pages of The Apartment. An excerpt:
DESK 861Like every other desk, it has a small name plate attached to the side. This one reads C.C. BAXTER.BUD (V.O.)My name is C.C. Baxter — C. forCalvin, C. for Clifford — however, mostpeople call me Bud. I’ve been withConsolidated Life for three years and tenmonths. I started in the branch office inCincinnati, then transferred to New York.My take-home pay is $94.70 a week, andthere are the usual fringe benefits.BAXTER is about thirty, serious, hard-working, unobtrusive. He wears a Brooks Brothers type suit, which he bought on Seventh Avenue, upstairs.
This is a good example of an exposition scene for several reasons: (1) Using voice-over narration is an efficient way to convey a lot of information quickly. (2) We not only learn facts about Baxter, but also his personality through how he communicates those facts. (3) It uses scene description as well as dialogue to express exposition.
Takeaway: The dissemination of facts and information is always a challenge, by nature boring to a reader. Use whatever tools you have at your disposal to make exposition scenes as entertaining as possible.
A memorable revelation scene takes place in The Shawshank Redemption when the prisoners read a letter from Brooks:
He steps up onto the chair. It wobbles queasily. Now facing the beam,he carves a message into the wood: “Brooks Hatlen was here.” He smileswith a sort of inner peace.BROOKS (V.O.)I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss.Not for an old crook like me.TIGHT ON CHAIRHis weight shifts on the wobbly chair — and it goes out from under him.His feet remain where they are, kicking feebly in mid-air. His hat falls tothe floor.ANGLE WIDENS. Brooks has hanged himself. He swings gently, facingthe open window. Traffic noise floats up from below.
‘The Shawshank Redemption’
It may seem like an exposition scene because it communicates information about Brooks, but what we learn surprises us — his suicide a significant revelation to the prisoners, forcing them to confront the harsh reality of institutionalization’s impact on them.
Takeaway: Surprises are almost always best served up at the end of a scene, so structure a revelation scene to build to that climax.
A great example of an action scene in a non-action movie takes place at the end of the screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine. Olive is going through her risqué dance routine, disgusting the pageant official:
OFFICIALIf you don’t stop her, she’ll bedisqualified.Richard stares at her. Then he nods.RICHARDOkay.He turns and walks out on stage.Olive, seeing him, is confused. He steps up behind her.Then Richard starts dancing.
‘Little Miss Sunshine’
Soon Frank, Dwayne, and Sheryl join in, a family united through their actions in their support of Olive by bumping and grinding on stage together.
Takeaway: Movies are first and foremost a visual medium. Action scenes should play to that strength, so think visually when you write one.
Interaction scenes can run the gamut from small (conversation) to big (a fight), mundane (trivial matters) to weighty (life issues). An example of the latter takes place at the end of the screenplay When Harry Mets Sally as Harry runs through the sidewalks of Manhattan to find Sally at a New Year’s Eve soiree. After pronouncing his love for her, Sally tells him life doesn’t work that way:
HARRYWell, how does it work?SALLYI don’t know, but not this way.HARRYHow about this way. I love how youget cold when it’s 62 degrees out. Ilove the way your mouth turns downjust a little bit, right there. I love howit takes you an hour and a half to ordera sandwich. I eve loved when you usedmy sweater for a Kleenex. I love it thatafter spending the day with you I canstill smell your perfume on my clothes.I love how you’re the last person I wantto talk to before I go to sleep at night. It took me eleven years to figure this out.And I came here tonight because whenyou realize you want to spend the rest ofyour life with someone, you want therest of your life to start as soon as possible.SALLY(furious)See, that’s just like you, Harry. You saythings like that, and you make it impossiblefor me to hate you — (almost in tears)And I hate you. I hate you, Harry, I hate you.She starts to cry.Harry puts his arms around her.They kiss.
‘When Harry Met Sally’
The focus of an interaction scene is the interchange between characters, not just the exchange of information or the revelation of one to another, but some sort of significant relational interplay between the characters.
Takeaway: While it may be tempting to think of every scene as an interaction scene, too many significant emotional moments in a movie actually undercut the overall impact. Choose your spots carefully and build the story toward key moments where you can use interaction scenes for maximum benefit.
There are numerous transition scenes in most movies, naturally so considering how a story goes through multiple shifts — time, place, mood, pace. An example of transition scenes is found in the screenplay The Dark Knight. After an opening featuring the Joker robbing a bank, then Batman taking on some bad guys, the story shifts from the Caped Crusader to his alter ego Bruce Wayne. Here is a set of transition scenes:
INT. WAYNE PENTHOUSE — MORNINGAlfred walks past soaring downtown views as he carries a breakfast tray through the vast, empty penthouse. He stops, looking at a still-made bed. Alfred sighs, turns.EXT. RAIL YARDS — MORNINGAlfred gets out of the Rolls carrying a thermos. He walks towards a RAILWAY BRIDGE, stops at a FREIGHT CONTAINER sitting, lopsided, on blocks. Alfred unlocks the RUSTY PADLOCK AND CHAIN. Steps inside.INT. FREIGHT CONTAINER — CONTINUOUSAlfred FUMBLES in the dark- bangs his elbow- A HISS as the FLOOR LOWERS… Alfred sinks down into…INT. BAT-BUNKER — CONTINUOUSThe container floor lowers on a giant PISTON. Alfred steps off into a large, LOW-CEILINGED CONCRETE CHAMBER. The Batmobile sits in the middle. Machines- 3d printers, power tools- dot the high-tech space. Wayne sits at a bank of monitors watching CCTV footage of the bankrobbery.ALFREDBe nice when Wayne Manor’s rebuilt and youcan swap not sleeping in a penthouse for notsleeping in a mansion.
‘The Dark Knight’
Takeaway: Just like Alfred gives this bit of business some personality, make sure you imbue your transition scenes with something to make it entertaining as well as functional.
What type of scene is it?
The main benefit of this question is to help a screenwriter drill down into the essence of each scene, determining its reason for existence, it’s point.
Therefore, we should consider scene types as tools, not rules.
You may have a scene that defies definition. So be it.
You may have a scene that feels like it must be two scene types. Fine.
The bottom line is not to feel constricted by these six scene types, but rather use them to open up possible narrative functions of any scene you write.