It has been my pleasure to teach an advanced scene writing class at USC this semester. We discard the macro elements of structure and character arc, break out the microscope, and take a closer look at the cells that make up a piece of dramatic writing — its scenes. We focus on specific scene types as well as the individual craft elements found in all good scenes.
I’ve been reading a lot of student work lately and have been feeling a little blah about the use and choice of locations. So, today in class we’ll be discussing real estate. Here are a few considerations for choosing where the what happens happens in your scenes.
1. Is this location organic to your story? Does it fit the world and tone, make sense in the context of the structure, is it planted or advertised? If not any of these, if it’s a surprise or twist, can it be easily explained by a character?
2. What kind of transition does this location provide? What are you cutting from and to entering the scene? What is the best opening image for the scene within this location, and how does it relate to the last image of the previous scene? Cuts are story telling, too. What visual do you end with in the scene?
3. Is this location cinematic? Is there a strong visual component? Clearly, not every scene in a movie features sweeping vistas, stunning cityscapes or fantastic visual action. That said, how can you maximize the cinematic elements of this place? What can be going on in the background, and what can you show us through activity and action that makes even a mundane location feel cinematic? Bring the place to life as a character.
4. What is the mood and atmosphere of this place, right now? Is it as we would expect, or is there something different about it? Who is there aside from your cast? What are they doing? What’s the weather? The color? The tone? What sounds are present that can effect the players in the scene?
5. Can you twist on our expectations in a mundane location? If this is the kind of place we know and are familiar with, how can you surprise us using gags, dramatic irony and suspense in a way that we might not expect here?
6. The perfect location for a scene is often the worst location for your character to do what he/she needs to do. This discrepancy heightens the conflict. So is there a better worst place to stage this scene?
7. What props come into play within this location? What things do your characters have at their disposal, and how can they use them in the scene?
8. Is there emotional resonance to the location that develops throughout the film? Can you plant an important memory or moment in this space to payoff later, showing growth, change or character arc? Does your character’s impressions or feelings of this place change over the course of the movie?
9. Thinking about locations should be a function of outlining and planning, as well as rewriting. The more you consider locations before you write, the more engaging your movie will be cinematically. Give thought to the “where” of the scene as you consider the “what” of it, as they should be related somehow and work to enhance each other. Don’t allow it to be random.
10. Interesting, exciting, visual places are exciting to actors and directors. Use this to your advantage in building critical mass for your project.