Making a Scene

I was going to try and write a blog entry on How to Construct a Scene, but when I thought about it I realised I don’t really know How to Construct a Scene – I let my imagination do it.  Within the parameters of the story, that is.  TV episodes are usually carefully structured; you can’t just make stuff up as you go along. (I can’t, anyway – for me it’s like driving blindfolded and hoping you’ll end up at your destination.)  Before I start I know what the scene needs to do: what bit of story information I want to reveal, and how the characters react to it.  That’s dictated by the characters’ personalities and attitude and what they want to achieve.  I figure out who is there already when the scene starts, who enters, if anyone, and who initiates the important part of the conversation that we the viewers witness.  (That’s presuming there is conversation; often scenes are more dramatic and cinematic when nothing is said. But you’ll rarely see many scenes like that, on TV anyhow – I think producers get nervous.)

I give the characters something to do, preferably business that is relevant to the storyline and affects its direction, rather than activity for its own sake.  It helps if you reflect the business and the environment (whether it’s raining or cold or dirty) in the dialogue, so the conversation seems natural and spontaneous, and not just dry information exchanged for the sake of moving the story on.

I also try to bear in mind the audience – what they have just seen, what they know about the show and what they expect to happen, so I can hopefully subvert their assumptions and surprise them.   I worked on a one-off crime story that I knew would be going out in a certain slot ending at ten o’clock.  I knew that in this sort of show the villain was almost always unmasked ten minutes before the end, followed by a few scenes of ‘retrospective exposition.’ (You know, the ones where characters ask each other questions like: ‘One thing I don’t understand – how did he get rid of the weapon?’*)

Since the audience were expecting the reveal at that moment, I decided to drop in a fake revelation, where another character appeared to confess.  Then I did all the ‘one thing I don’t understand is’ scenes and tied up the loose ends. In the very last one of those, we revealed the real baddie.

It made quite an effective twist.  If you know your structure you can mess around with it and play tricks on the viewer.  Audiences enjoy that stuff, provided you don’t take the piss.

Recently I watched the broadcast of a show I had written, and noticed during one pivotal scene that the actors were standing still with their hands hanging by their sides.  It irritated me; either the crew ran out of time, or the director was merely lazy and lacked imagination.  Actors are trained not to be self-conscious, but in real life almost everyone is self-conscious, to an extent.  We touch our faces (that’s how colds get transmitted… sorry, trivia), twiddle our hair, fiddle with our sleeves…  We limit the amount of eye contact we make, especially with strangers.   Our bodies reflect our attitude – boredom, irritation, impatience. We put hands on hips, cross our arms, tidy up crockery… it’s actually incredibly rare for any of us to stand talking with our hands by our sides.  Good actors know this, and given time and space will explore the scene and find a way of expressing feelings in their body language.  Sadly however, you rarely have enough time or space on the average shoot, and it helps if the director can suggest something.

I’m not saying that characters never stay still and do nothing.  I just think that since doing nothing is so unnatural, stillness should be reserved for scenes where characters are too shocked or upset to fidget.    Or where they’re dead, of course.

It’s not on my Credits page, but I directed ten episodes of the Bill over several years.  I even got fan mail, from a child of nine who seemed to think I directed every episode.  (At least, I presume it was a child of nine…) It was an excellent training ground for any film-maker.  In one scene I directed the detectives had just made an arrest, and we opened on them as the suspects were being led away to a police van.  The actor playing one of the detectives suddenly barked at me, ‘And what am I doing while this is going on?’

I had no idea. It hadn’t occurred to me he needed to do anything.  I said the first thing that came into my head: ‘You’re blowing your nose.’  I was being slightly facetious, but he didn’t notice, and when we went for a rehearsal, I said ‘Action’ and the actor blew his nose while the other went into the dialogue.  And of course the moment and the scene worked very well, because the gesture was so natural – busy without being contrived.  That exchange taught me a lot.

However, when I’m writing a script I rarely put in detailed directions.  A good director will have ideas of his or her own that expand on what the writer is trying to say.  A mediocre director will resent the writer’s presumption and ignore suggestions in the script, then fail to replace them with anything at all. You can usually spot their work: the actors will be standing there declaiming the lines with their hands hanging by their sides.

* NB:  I try to avoid actually writing lines this hoary and stale.  If something predictable has to be said, there’s usually a way of saying it that isn’t predictable

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