Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #8: Scenes in restaurants

Screenwriters are only allowed to write two things in their scripts: what the audience will see and what the audience will hear. One of the most common mistakes that screenwriters make is to forget to pay attention to what the audience will see. This is easy to do since we tend to focus on what the characters are saying and doing, and not where they are saying and doing these things. As a result, screenwriters often locate scenes in restaurants, which is the laziest thing that a screenwriter can do.
One big difference between movies and plays is that you can place a movie scene in its actual setting, rather than having to re-create that setting on a stage. This gives you unlimited power to choose any location you like in order to help you contribute to the action of the scene or to provide a visually spectacular backdrop. But everyone who has seen Spiderman knows that with great power comes great responsibility, so screenwriters must take on the responsibility to give their audiences something compelling to look at in every single scene. Every location that you choose should contribute something to the scene. To put it another way, the location should never be irrelevant to the scene. Unless you have a good reason why a scene needs to be set in a restaurant, then you should set it in any other location that will contribute to the story.
One example of using visually compelling settings can be found in the movie “When Harry Met Sally.” This movie is all about people talking and not at all about action. If I had read this screenplay and the scenes had been set primarily in restaurants and caf├ęs, I would have recommended that the author write it as a stage play instead. But Nora Ephron is much smarter than that. She knew that she needed to give her audience something to look at in every scene, so she turned the visuals of this movie into her own personal love letter to New York City. Every scene is located in some place that is either integral to that scene, or that is an iconic New York backdrop, or both. The end result is a movie that is satisfying on every level. One scene in this movie that is set in a restaurant takes full advantage of the location by using it to demonstrate that Sally is a high-maintenance person, while also including that unforgettable interaction that concludes with the line, “I’ll have what she’s having.” The bottom line is that you may only set a scene in a restaurant if that location contributes to the story, or if the scene ends in an orgasm. Or both. Yeah, definitely both.

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