The six-hour scene
One page may be about one minute of screen time, but it's not one minute of writing time.
This week’s rebroadcast from 2008 takes a deep dive into how to tackle tricky scenes.
In How To Write a Scene, I explained my basic process for getting a scene on paper, which consists of looping it in my head, doing a “scribble version,” and then writing up the final thing. But like all workflows, there’s something a little best-case-scenario about the way I described it. So in the interest of myth-busting, I want to explain how some scenes are a lot more work.
Note that I’m only promising to explain “how,” not explain “why.” After a decade doing this, I’m still sure not why some scenes are exponentially more difficult to write than others. Many times, you don’t see the monsters coming.
The scene I’m thinking of took six hours to write. It wasn’t, on the surface, a particularly challenging scene: Two characters in a room, talking. A very clear in and out point, with the bookending scenes already written. But it was still frustrating to get on paper.
In general, when I reach a scene that seems unyielding, I’ll happily skip ahead to write another scene.1 But in this case, I knew I needed to crack this scene before writing any others, because it introduced a major character’s primary goal, his cri de coeur that would set the tone for much of the movie. That’s something you don’t get in an outline — the emotional drive. I needed to feel it in order to write any of the major scenes later in the script.
So I needed to write it.
The scene looped in my head pretty well. I could see the basic action, and had a sense of what the characters were saying. But when I tried to do a scribble version, it refused to come together. I had a notepad full of dialogue, mostly just single lines, with arrows trying to arrange them into a meaningful sequence. I spent two hours on a flight trying to make the pieces fit before finally putting it aside.
After writing three comparatively easy scenes, I took another stab at it. I asked some obvious-but-necessary questions:
Was I starting at the right place?
Was I ending at the right place?
Could another character drive the scene?
Would changing the location help?
Did it need to be two scenes, rather than one?
Did the scene even need to exist?
The answers confirmed my frustration: it was the right scene. It was just a beast to write.
I went back to looping it in my head, and tried to forget about the half-written dialogue. If you’ve ever watched a movie with the sound turned off, that’s basically the effect: you don’t know what they’re saying, but you know they’re saying something. And you can tell what the tone is.
Tone ended up being the variable that needed tweaking. By cranking one character up to a near-manic state, his leaps of thought made a lot more sense. I did a new scribble version on a clean sheet, this time with half the arrows.
I finally wrote the scene itself. It was still tricky, but it hit all the points in an agreeable way. It felt like a scene you could see used as a clip on a TV review show, in that it embodied the tone and ambition of the story.
So now it was done, and I could continue on to the remaining 60-odd scenes left.
Why screenwriters have it so good
Here’s the thing: You don’t always have six hours to write a single scene. In television, that level of output would get you fired. Even on features, there is real time pressure. Spending six hours on two-and-a-half pages is a luxury problem.
So what do you do if you have to write the scene, and you only have an hour?
You muscle it. A good writer with enough experience can get a version of the scene on paper that will range from unobjectionable to pretty damn good. Particularly on production rewrites, I’ve had to muscle scenes that in a perfect world would have been handled more artfully. But the results aren’t terrible. Given the needs of the director, cast, production and studio, you do the best you can with resources you have. Time is finite. So is mental energy.
But when it’s your own script, you owe yourself the time and effort to let each scene be the best it can be. The first 10 pages of Big Fish took three solid weeks of work. I’m convinced that almost any lesser version would have significantly hurt the movie.
The six-hour scene is now typed up, and I’m happy with it. In the cold light of Courier, I know it still needs tweaking, but I’m pretty confident it will remain in the movie in largely the shape I wrote it. If I’d brute-forced it, I’d always wonder if it was the right scene.
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Actors and directors generally have to shoot the scene listed on the schedule, whether it suits their mood or not. The writer, working independently, can check their inner barometer and determine which scene would be most fun to write. “Fun” being relative. At some point, all the easy scenes are finished, and it’s only the sight of the finish line that gets those last scenes written.