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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Narrative Flow Part Deux


In an attempt to clarify for myself and all 5 members of my web surfing audience I found an old article in Creative Screenwriting magazine by Jeff Newman that does just that. It's called Is Plot Master or Servant? It illustrates how the writer is told that each scene must advance the plot in some way, shape or form. The advice to do this is important in an attempt to keep the writer focused about what actually goes into the screenplay but does every scene need to function this way?

I don't believe so. I always found this advice to be a little too clinical. There are numerous examples of great films where scenes that I love didn't advance the plot. They served as a moment to give an audience a look at these characters as people like you and I, to make this a living breathing thing and not a cold and calculated exercise in story manipulation.

Now you might ask, why can't you do that with a scene that does advance the plot? Again, back to what we've been taught. Every scene must further action or you are not doing your job as a screenwriter. I don't buy it. Scenes like this serve as a moment to take a breath. When tension is that high, as it should be, it gives everyone a moment to reflect at the task at hand, for the characters to check in with the audience.

Need an example? Going back to that article, Jeff Newman brings up three films. Jaws is the one that works for me. I will assume that everyone has seen this film. The scene where Quint and Hooper are comparing scars is one that draws the audience into the two men's experience with the killer they are attempting to destroy. It starts out humorous, turns chilling and then back again. By the time everyone is ripped and singing "Show Me The Way To Go Home" the killer makes his presence known by ramming the ship. We are into the third act. That scene did not advance the story in any way but it has a purpose. We connected with those three men. After Quint told his account of the Indianapolis sinking there was a good chance these three men weren't coming back. It set the tone for what was to come while at the same time allowing us to take a breath and have a laugh as a collective maybe for the last time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The way I learned it (and passed it on to others) is that every scene in the script should advance plot, reveal character, and ideally do both at once. Any scene that doesn't qualify must be cut or rewritten -- most often cut, because most new writers overwrite like mad.

The other rule-o-thumb is get in late, get out early. This is one of the fundamentals of tight writing. The sure sign of a new writer is that they show us people walking up to doors, walking down hallways, and saying "good morning" to people. That's way too early -- look at how late LAW AND ORDER gets into a scene. Sometimes we enter in midscene, and have to put together what's going on.

When the scene is done, get out. Make your point and move on.

5:12 PM  
Blogger William said...


Both valid points and thanks for the input. I'm not trying to come off as a blow hard that knows all there is to know about screenwriting. As a writer I look to improve my writing skills everyday. The point I'm trying to make is I think there is room to push the envelope here and there and support the structure of your screenplay at the same time. Sure, if someone wants to buy your screenplay and they want changes then you cross that bridge.

I mean now that you've seen Jaws could you imagine it without that scene?

11:03 AM  
Blogger AAP said...

It's true that every scene doesn't have to advance plot. There are scenes of Preperation and Aftermath of Setting tone, without the desire of plot advancement.

Just write great movies everyone. And let the Professors learn from your ways and teach them.

(Just one of those days where I am sick of hearing about How To Write. That said, My girlfriend thinks there isn't a screenplay book left for me to read)

4:29 PM  
Blogger William said...


I hear ya! With the bombardment of books and theories on writing the "perfect" screenplay I think it can be a little maddening if you let it. I think you need to stay within the boundaries of some form of structure whatever that may be, whatever works for you. Make your characters want something. The most important thing is never being boring. That is a rule of that cannot be broken. Even if the screenplay is about boredom find a way to make that interesting.

The real issue is that the form is very rigid. Time is compressed. Everything is heightened, even if it is a quiet, intimate piece where it appears that not much is happening. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong way but I think it’s good to know the rules so you can break them and create something different. Choose to read the books or don’t. If you do, take what works for you and throw out the rest. Personally, I can’t stomach the McKee book but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for some people. The formulas are out there if you want them. I don’t. I want to create original work but I know I need to be on some kind of path. I need a sense of where I am going otherwise it turns into tedious bullshit.

Whatever gets you there.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

I think rigidly clinging to any rule is as foolish as deliberately ignoring conventions for the sake of being different. For the most part, you want your narrative to have cause and effect. Perhaps we should say that each scene should service the story, rather than "advance the plot", because a movie isn't just plot. Even in a very plotty action film, it helps to have a moment to decompress after the all the action. That's why a scene like Marion kissing Indy's wounds works. Without the contrast, it's all noise.

But just because you can have one kissing-the-wounds scene, or one comparing-the-scars scene, it doesn't mean you can make a whole movie out of those scenes.

6:58 PM  

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