With every scene, you should ask yourself this question:
What is the scene’s Beginning, Middle, and End?
Just as we think of a story with three acts or movements, so each scene has its own tripartite structure. Therefore as we approach working out a scene, we need to think about what constitutes each of its three parts.
A master at this is writer-director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets). From his wonderful movie Broadcast News, let’s look at how he introduces the three major characters in the story: Tom Grunick (William Hurt), Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), and Jane Craig (Holly Hunter). Brooks creates a story opening in which he juxtaposes the three characters as young people, selecting a revelatory moment in each of their lives that provides insight into what is at the core of their being. First Tom:
FADE IN EXT. CITY STREET - DAY A restaurant supply truck is curbside, near a small restaurant. GERALD GRUNICK, forty-one, is closing the back door of his truck, feeling good about the world, a common state for him. He moves towards the cab of the truck and gets inside as we SUPER: KANSAS CITY, MO. - 1963 INT. TRUCK - DAY As he sits down beaming over his recent good fortune... now we REVEAL his twelve-year-old son, TOM, seated quietly beside him. He seems a bit down. Gerald glances at his son. GERALD I don't know a recent Saturday I've sold more. You didn't think I'd sell that health restaurant, did you? TOM No. Not even you. GERALD Why so glum? TOM I don't know. GERALD (a beat) Go ahead. TOM No, nothing. I've got a problem, I guess. GERALD Were you bothering by those waitresses making a fuss? TOM No. But, honest. What are you supposed to say when they keep talking about your looks? I don't even know what they mean -- "Beat them off with a stick." Gerald stiffs a grin. GERALD You know, Tom, I feel a little proud when people comment on your looks. Maybe you should feel that way. TOM Proud? I'm just embarrassed that I like when they say those things. GERALD As long as that's your only problem you're... TOM It's not. He looks directly at his father and talks quietly, and sincerely. TOM I got my report card. Three Cs, two Ds and an incomplete. GERALD Oh my. I see you studying so hard, Tom. What do you think the problem is? TOM I'll just have to try harder. I don't know. I will. (talking himself into it) I will. I will. I will. He shakes his head for emphasis, glad he's received this pep talk from himself -- he hands the card to his father. TOM Thanks, Dad, this talk helped. Will you sign it, please? GERALD (as he signs) Would it help if I got you a tutor? TOM (suddenly hopeful) That would be great. (worried) It better help. What can you do with yourself if all you do is look good? SUPER THE LEGEND -- "FUTURE NETWORK ANCHORMAN" FADE OUT
Beginning: Tom unnerved about people’s reactions to his good looks.
Middle: Tom’s poor performance in school.
Ending: The father signs the report card and offers to get Tom a tutor.
Key note: Each beat in the scene has its own emotional center. The Beginning is Tom’s embarrassment about his good looks. The Middle is Tom’s despondence about his grades. The Ending is Tom’s elation about getting a tutor. As such, there is a flow of these emotions as Brooks takes us on a little psychological journey with an upbeat ending to transition us out of the scene and into the next, where he introduces Aaron:
FADE IN BOSTON, MASS. - 1965 INT. HIGH SCHOOL - AUDITORIUM - DAY AARON ALTMAN, looking almost preposterously young in his graduation gown -- is delivering his valedictory. He is a rare bread -- a battle-scarred innocent. AARON ...and finally to the teachers of Whitman High School, I don't have the words to express my gratitude which may have more to say about the quality of the English Department here than my own limitations... He awaits a laugh and gets only the weird sound of collective discomfort. AARON ...that was, of course, not meant to be taken seriously. A personal note. I am frequently asked what the special difficulties are in being graduated from High School two months shy of my fifteenth birthday. I sometimes think it was the difficulties themselves which enabled me to do it. If I'd been appreciated or even tolerated I wouldn't have been in such a hurry to graduate. I hope the next student who comes along and is able to excel isn't made to feel so much an outcast. But I'm looking forward to college; this is the happiest day I've had in a long time. I thank you and I forgive you. This is very little applause. ANGLE ON TEACHERS MALE TEACHER I'm always so confused by Aaron. Is he brave and earnest or just a conceited little dick-head? BACK TO AARON AS WE SUPER: "FUTURE NETWORK NEWS REPORTER" ANGLE ON STAGE As Aaron walks to his seat past three full grown tough looking semi-literate high school graduates. YOUTH #1 Later, Aaron. EXT. SCHOOL YARD - DAY Clusters of graduates at the fence bordering the sunken school yard looking down as the tough cap and gowners seen earlier cuff Aaron around. CLOSER IN Aaron feeling from a blow -- his lip bleeding -- his teeth covered with blood...as he gets to his feet. He is livid -- something primal triggered by this brutality. AARON Go ahead, Stephen -- take your last licks. (points at his face) But this will heal -- what I'm going to say to you will scar you forever. Ready? Here it is. He dodges as they come after him. They catch him by the hair and hurl him to the ground. As he gets up he hurls his devastating verbal blow. AARON You'll never make more than nineteen thousand dollars a year. Ha ha ha. They twist his arm and grip him -- his face scraped on the concrete. AARON Okay, take this: You'll never leave South Boston and I'm going to see the whole damn world. You'll never know the pleasure of writing a graceful sentence or having an original thought. Think about it. He's punched in the stomach and sinks to the ground. As the Young Toughs walk off Aaron catches a phrase of their conversation. YOUTH TOUGH Nineteen thousand dollars... Not bad.
Beginning: Aaron’s honest, yet abrasive speech to his so-called peers and teachers.
Middle: The toughs pounding Aaron.
Ending: Aaron’s verbal retort to the toughs.
Key note: Again each of the three parts of this scene has its own emotional center. The Beginning is the awkwardness of Aaron’s speech. The Middle is the pain Aaron suffers at the hands of his attackers. The End is the humiliation Aaron directs at the toughs, even if they’re not insightful enough to discern the truth of Aaron’s comments (“Nineteen thousand dollars… not bad”). So as with the previous scene, there is an emotional flow to the scene with an upbeat ending. Now for the introduction of the story’s Protagonist Jane:
FADE IN ATLANTA, GEORGIA - 1968 INT. SUBURBAN HOME - NIGHT JANE CRAIG, ten years old, is in her room typing. Above the desk where she works is a bulletin board with letters and pictures tacked to each one. Her desk has several file racks which contain bulging but neat stacks of air mail envelopes -- a roll of stamps in a dispenser is to one side. Jane types very well in the glare of her desk lamp. JANE (voice over; as she types) Dear Felatzia, it's truly amazing to me that we live a world apart and yet have the same favorite music. I loved the picture you sent and have it up on my bulletin board. You're growing so much faster than I am that I... OTHER ANGLE SHOWING Jane's FATHER standing near the door. JANE (voice over) ...am starting to get jealous. I read in the newspapers about the Italian strike and riots in Milan. I hope you weren't... FATHER (softly) Honey?... Jane SCREAMS, and grabs her heart, breathing heavily, babbles nervously at her Dad. JANE Oh God -- Daddy -- don't...don't... don't ever scare me like that -- please. We SUPER: "FUTURE NETWORK NEWS PRODUCER" Her father is himself taken aback with the shock of her reaction. Falling back towards the door: FATHER Jane -- For God's sake... (recovering) Look, it's time for you to go to sleep. JANE I just have two more pen pals and then I'm done. FATHER You don't have to finish tonight. JANE (he doesn't get in) Nooo. This way the rotation stays the same. FATHER Finish quickly. I don't want you getting obsessive about these things. Good night. We REMAIN WITH Jane who has obviously become disconcerted and troubled. INT. HOUSE - NIGHT As Jane moves to room at the other end of the hall -- a family room where her Father reads the latest Rolling Stone of the mid-60's -- Hunter Thompson, the New Journalism, the slim Jann Wenner -- Jane bursts into the room. JANE Dad, you want me to choose my words so carefully and then you just throw a word like 'obsessive' at me. Now, unless I'm wrong and... (enunciating) ...please correct me if I am, 'obsession' is practically a psychiatric term... concerning people who don't have anything else but the object of their obsession -- who can't stop and do anything else. Well, Here I am stopping to tell you this. Okay? So would you please try and be a little more precise instead of calling a person something like 'obsessive.' She advances furiously on her Father since even this strung out, even with two additional pen pal letters to get off, she had enough sense of duty to kiss him good night before storming from the room. She exits the room INTO BLACK.
Beginning: Jane busily writing one of her pen pals.
Middle: Jane’s heightened reaction to her father’s interruption.
Ending: Jane correcting her father’s misuse of the word “obsessive.”
Key note: Yet again, each of the scene’s three parts has its own emotional center. The Beginning is the sheer happiness Jane feels as she reaches out to one of her pen pals. The Middle is the conflict between father and daughter over her behavior. The ending turns the tables as the child parents the parent, providing yet another little psychological journey, topped off with Jane kissing her father, an upbeat resolution to the scene.
Furthermore this Script Opening sequence has its own Beginning, Middle, and End as constituted by Tom’s scene (Beginning), Aaron’s scene (Middle), and Jane’s scene (End).
So a back to basics reminder: When you approach writing any scene, ask yourself, “What is the scene’s Beginning, Middle, and End.”
This week, I’ll be posting something every day to remind us of a fundamental principle of screenwriting, just to make sure we’re not overlooking something obvious.