Creating Visual Scenes

Copyright © 2003, Dorian Scott Cole;

Images get immediate emotional reactions. Images communicate powerfully - they are very important symbols. Movies are full of images that can communicate if you write the film visually.

An example of the power of images comes from the field of marketing. If you are beginning a marketing project and throw in any old image to suggest that a picture might be present, people can never get past the image if they don't like it. If they don't like the image, the rest of the advertising page is seen negatively. This is universal - I have seen it over and over again. The image casts a pall over the entire page. In film, or any writing that even suggests an image to the imagination, the same effect is true.

In cinematic media (movies), which are primarily visual, much of the communication is done through images that move in sequences to portray drama. While there are typically few negative images in movies that turn people away, screenwriting commonly suffers from images that simply don't communicate at all. Image choices are very important, including the choice of sets, set motifs, and physical action. How do you tell a story cinematically? Consider the following common occurrence:

The writer creates a scene that lasts two minutes (approximately two pages). The writer thinks that the scene is important to the story.

In the scene, George enters his supervisor's office and asks Bill for a raise. There is a lot of dialogue, very heated, and George gets nowhere. Finally George places folders into a stack on the desk, and places a placard on top of them that says, "Revenue: $2.5 million. New salary: $100,000.00," and threatens to leave the company. Bill finally nods affirmative, and George smiles and exits.

The director, actors, and shooting script writer, think the scene isn't "visual" enough. So accompanying the dialogue at the end of the scene, they have George clinging to the door by his fingernails as he feigns being pulled away by his feet. The director likes the scene, but thinks it isn't pivotal, and marks it as one that can be cut to shorten the movie, if needed. After all, George extols his triumph to his girlfriend in the next scene.

The cinematographer gets the scene on film, capturing a lot of action from many directions. All of the material is there. Next, the film editor gets it. His job is to splice together the individual shots to form a coherent story that is told cinematically.

The film editor feels that the scene is long and adds little dramatic intensity to the main story. The scene is like a side-rail on a train track. He works with the scene, removing pieces and splicing, eliminating dialogue, until he finally gets a good, but short, cinematic presentation that lasts 45 seconds. In the final cut, the scene goes like this:

George enters Bill's office, carrying a stack of folders, with a determined look on his face.

      Bill, I think I deserve a raise.

      I agree. But Sorry George, the
      company is tightening its belt.

      I really need the raise.

Bill is unmoved and continues working. George lays the folders on the desk one at a time as he calls out names and figures.

      Gorilla Foods, $800 thousand,
      Noble Candies, 950 thousand,
      Billboy Drinks, 1.0 million,
      Beverly Catering, 1.1 million.

George places a placard on top: Total Revenue $3.85 million. New Salary: $100,000.00. He walks to the door, opens it, and waits, holding onto the door frame as if he is being pulled away.

      I'm really being tempted here,

Bill looks at George, who stretches farther and farther out the door, pretending to be pulled away feet first.

          (Laughs, shakes his head)
      I'll see what I can do.

George slips so that he is holding on by only two fingernails.

      OK, OK, you got it.


In the final cut, the props and the physical action tell the story. If the dialogue was missing, we would still know what was going on. The short length and physical action are more appropriate to the scene than a lot of heated dialogue.

In constructing a scene this way, similar to the way that I developed it, you can follow three steps:

Step 1. Think of a scene as a miniature story. Scenes typically have a very brief opening that establishes the conflict, followed by rising tension, and a climactic resolution. Thinking through the scene, and then creating a representative shot, will help focus the drama and influence the visual presentation.

To create a story arc (rising tension) and a representative shot, ask yourself what character need is driving the action to this scene, why there will be a conflict, and what is going to happen in the scene.

For example, leading up to the scene, "George needs money to entertain his expensive girlfriend, that he is head over heels in love with and wants to marry, so he is going to ask for a raise. He knows it is going to be a difficult battle, so he goes prepared. He knows if he doesn't get the raise, he will have to get a higher paying job. But he doesn't want to go in making threats to leave. So he will keep the threat of leaving as his ace in the hole, and say it is as tactfully as possible.

Step 2. Ask how important the scene is to the story. If the scene was missing, would the story still be intact? If no, it is an important scene, so choose an appropriate setting that enhances the drama, and if needed, give it time. But if the scene isn't that important, use the available locations or sets, and give it less time.

Step 3. Sketch a single shot that represents the entire drama in the scene. For example, in the "George asks for a raise" scene: include in the shot, the placard in the middle, Bill to stage left agonizing over the issue, and George to stage right, holding onto the door frame by two fingers as he is being pulled out the door by a higher paying job. This very visual shot would represent the height of tension where the conflict is fully developed, the climax.

This shot can also form the locus of activity in a short scene, so the drama will focus in this space. Any other set features then are incidental, and are there for variety only. However, creating too many scenes in this manner, that limit physical action to a small space, would make the movie (or novel) come off like a stage play. Cinema presents the probability of larger movement. Establishing a locus is one helpful technique for creating a short scene.

In the scene, to create the arc (rising tension) think through the battle. Make sure that the physical action matches your character's personality. Many characters, if they hung out the door like George, would look like a clown, totally out of character.

What would your character do? Think about a range of actions: cry, beg, demand, argue, build a case, use metaphors to help Bill see his side, threaten, walk out and come back, smile a lot and be imploring or insistent. While the original picture may tell the story, an individual character action may need to be altered to fit his personality.

When you are finished, you have a scene that is presented visually, is dynamic, and fits your character.

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