Monday, September 15, 2008

How Many Scenes?

The deadline for this year’s Red Planet Prize is looming and no doubt a lot of you are tweaking and tuning your ten pagers to Oscar winning standards. I got an email recently which asked: “how many scenes do you think should go into the first 10 pages of a pilot? One scene is probably too few, and six probably too many. I suppose my dilemma, in a multi-stranded series pilot, is how to give a feel for the depth and complexity for what is to follow, particularly to a competition reader. If I knew someone might be reading the whole script, I would probably be more relaxed about those first 10 - I would want to catch their attention, but not give them too much too soon.”

Good question. There is, of course, no set answer. A script starts and unfolds as it needs to, and uses as many scenes as necessary. However, if you examined the first ten pages of a wide variety of scripts, a safe average of somewhere between 4 and 8 scenes would probably emerge (I checked one of my hour long specs, and it had 4 scenes in the first ten pages). One scene is probably too few, unless the premise/situation justified such a lengthy opening (My Zinc Bed opened with a montage of Paddy Considine getting up & getting ready - sigh now - before settling down to chat with Jonathan Pryce, quite a long scene but if you’re not David Hare, then you might not get away with it).

The best thing to do is not to ask yourself ‘how many scenes in my opening?’ but ‘what kind of pace and tone do I want to establish?’, ‘who are the characters that I want to introduce?’ and, probably most importantly, ‘what’s my hook?’ You’ll find the answers to these questions through one ultimate question: ‘what’s the story about?’ and then it’s up to you, the writer, to choose the best way to introduce the audience to the key characters and premise.

A lot of good scripts have a positive energy and purpose in their first ten pages. This might mean an intercutting sequence between the main characters, establishing their situations through humour, interesting visuals or neat dialogue. If this is the case, the number of scenes could go into double figures but probably wouldn’t peak much more than fifteen or so. Use your common sense. Get across what you feel is necessary, and use as many scenes as you like. Don’t, DON’T, follow any pre-conceived rules. If someone has said “there should be only 5 scenes in your opening ten pages” and you follow the rule, it might be completely inappropriate for what you wanted to convey. Go with your gut. Establish the pace, tone and hook. If that comes across well, who cares how many scenes it took?

Another question: “do you have a view on the final line of a scene. Is it ok to end on dialogue, or should you end on action?”

It’s perfectly fine to end a scene with dialogue and not follow it with a line of action. This is especially useful if you want to bridge one scene to the next. For example, in episode one of series two of Battlestar Galactica, Colonel Tigh is talking to his wife about how the Galactica is Bill Adama’s ship. It goes something like this:-

---

INT. TIGH’S QUARTERS. DAY

Tigh gets agitated as he explains things to his wife.

TIGH
This is Bill Adama’s ship -

INT. CIC. DAY

TIGH
- It’s still under his command.

Tigh has gone from talking to his wife to briefing his worried staff.

---

That’s just me paraphrasing the scene and what the script may look like, but you get the picture. But even if you’re not bridging scenes like this, ending a scene with a line of dialogue is perfectly acceptable. For me, at least.

7 comments:

martin said...

Mr Stack! Hope you've recovered from Sat night? ;)

I hope six scenes in ten pages isn't too many - My Red Planet script has 19 scenes in the first 10 pages! And I was worried that one of them was too long.

I would imagine something like Spooks or Saturday's Casualty would have more scenes, something like the Wire or Eastenders less.

Probably the best advice is to look at the scripts on writersooms

http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/insight/tv_drama.shtml

or Lees fantastic script site

http://tvwriting.googlepages.com/

Adaddinsane said...

Mine's got a lot too - not entirely sure how many. Though admittedly about 8 could be classed as 2 since I'm cutting between two simultaneous sequences. (And one is actually the credit sequence.)

As you say, Danny, whatever's right.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Danny. Very useful and informative, as always.

JB

Bingethink said...

I read Danny's maxim below in a state of mild panic, having around 20 seperate scenes in my first ten TV pilot pages:

"A lot of good scripts have a positive energy and purpose in their first ten pages. This might mean an intercutting sequence between the main characters, establishing their situations through humour, interesting visuals or neat dialogue. If this is the case, the number of scenes could go into double figures but probably wouldn’t peak much more than fifteen or so.

So I am pleased that, having done the fact-checking from the handy link above, I can report that:

The Big Love pilot has 21
The Desperate Housewives pilot has 27
The Hustle pilot has 29

and

The Lost pilot has 39 scenes in the first ten pages.

Mild panic over. Am off to crowbar in another nineteen scenes.

Anonymous said...

Quick RP question, is there any advice out there about the ideal format for the one page pitch? What to include/what not to include etc?

Thanks

Danny Stack said...

Anon: No ideal format. It's a one-pager so not much room to fiddle about. Generally, it should give us a flavour of your unique voice as well as an idea of your vision for the series. This may include an overview of the series. You may know what happens in episode 2 but what happens in episode 52? In other words, what's going to make it run & run?

Perhaps some episode or character breakdowns (not compulsory), the style & tone that you envisage, that kind of thing. Whatever you think 'sells' the project as a series.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for those facts Bingethink. My 10 pages has 27 scenes and now there's no need to slip into a state of paranoia. Mind you, had the question not been posted, I'd never have questioned whether there was a 'right' or 'wrong' number of scenes. Isn't it fair to say, that the rules are - there are no rules?