What is Hollywood’s Best Kept Screenwriting Secret?
Answer: The Expanded Scene Breakdown.
What is the Expanded Scene Breakdown?
Read on to find out!
Another step in the screenwriting process, you ask?
The Expanded Scene Breakdown is a 20 to 40+ page point by point, step by step, scene by scene outline of the entire screenplay in prose form using dialogue, character development, action, etc. It’s an essential way to see the entire movie before you reach the screenplay stage.
The Expanded Scene Breakdown is an essential way to see the entire movie before you reach the screenplay stage.
It’s also is the most difficult part of the process, the most necessary, most thorough, the most stomach turning, and the most satisfying. Once you get the Expanded Scene Breakdown down on paper, writing the script itself is a cinch. Pros spend four to six months on the Expanded Scene Breakdown and two weeks on the script.
It’s the critical step that is almost always ignored. Without writing The Expanded Scene Breakdown, chances for success are severely limited.
This is why pro screenwriters use it. Why then is it screenwriting’s best-kept secret?
A number of screenwriting teachers are not working screenwriters and either don’t know about it or feel they don’t know enough about it to teach it.
Too many beginning screenwriters want to “write” the script right away, get to the juice. Impatience kills.
Here is Screenplay Writing’s 5-step process:
Step One – The Idea
Step Two – The Mini-treatment
Step Three – The Scene Breakdown (or Step Outline)
Step Four – The Expanded Scene Breakdown
Step Five – The Script
Follow this process and your script will be exponentially better than if you went straight to the script.
How do you reach the expanded scene breakdown?
1. Write the story idea in a page or two.
2. Structure the mini-treatment in four pages, in three acts, using prose. Focus on the big events, as if you’re speaking to a five-year with a short attention span.
3. Break the entire story down into one-line scene headings, showing where it happens and the main action of the scene with the reason for the scene’s being always feeding the context of the story. For each scene ask two questions: Who’s in the scene and what’s the central action?
Example: Joan tells Revi that her husband knows about their affair.
That’s it. One line per scene. Use the same four-page breakdown you used for the mini-treatment: Act I on Page 1; Act II on Pages 2 and 3; Act III on page 4. By doing this step you’ll see a lot of logic holes that need to be filled, scenes you need, scenes you don’t need. You’re starting to move in on the story, from a most exacting point of view.
4. Once you get this down, you begin the Expanded Scene Breakdown. Start with the Scene Breakdown from the beginning of Act I. Begin with the first scene heading and expand it, in prose, building in details, character, dialogue, atmosphere, and location, whatever you feel the scene needs. Load it up. When you get to the actual writing of the scene in the script you’ll have a lot to choose from.
Taking one scene after another, work your way through the entire script. This step is important for another reason. If you jump too quickly into the actual writing of the screenplay, the work on the page becomes more permanent. The writer is less inclined to change something already written in screenplay stone. With the Expanded Scene Breakdown, you’re one step away from the screenplay.
What does a scene in the Expanded Scene Breakdown look like?
Let’s go back to that scene in which Joan tells Revi that her husband knows about their affair. It could be a romantic comedy, a thriller, or a supernatural thriller.
Here’s how it might look on the page. Let’s say it’s at the end of Act I, we pick it up in mid – scene.
INT. SOUTH BEACH LOFT – DAY: Joan, smoking, nervous, barefoot, pacing, in a sexy beige dress. Late afternoon light slants through the skylights. The bed is unmade, Revi’s art pieces – some on easels, others stacked. Revi’s in jeans, no shirt, on a bar stool, watching her. They’ve just made love.
- R: Yeah?
- J: Yeah, what?
- R: You’ve wanted to tell me something from the moment you walked in here.
- J: You know so much.
- R: How about coming over here and giving me a kiss?
- J: Look –
- R: I knew that’d do it.
- Revi gets off the stool and walks to her, taking her into his arms. Off her resistance:
- R: You want to go back for another round. I don’t if I can do much right now but –
- J (moving away from him): Ted knows about us.
- This stops him.
- J: I don’t how he knows but he does.
- R: What’d you do, blurt it out?
- J: Of course not.
- R: You like to hurt him. That’d work.
- She crosses to where she’s left her shoes and bag.
- R: Where are you going?
- J (slipping into her shoes, extracting her keys): I can feel a fight coming on.
- R: No, please, I promise. I’m – I don’t know what I am, but don’t leave. Please? They stare at one another.
You can write it all down, all the variations, play them all out if you wish, before choosing what works best.
You get the idea. Everything will stem from what happens next. What’s she going to do, leave or stay? And how about Revi? What about Ted? By this time you’ll know pretty much what happens. How they do it is the key.
This is one major reason the Expanded Scene Breakdown is so valuable. You can write it all down, all the variations, play them all out if you wish, before choosing what works best.
I’ve seen Expanded Scene Breakdowns run 150 pages and more. Some run thirty. It depends on your own needs and that of the story.
The Expanded Scene Breakdown is screenwriting’s best-kept secret. It’s the step that can turn mediocrity into gold.
Chris Keane is a working screenwriter and coach with major feature and TV series credits at Paramount, ABC, USA Network, etc. He’s published novels and nonfiction books, including the best-selling ‘How to Write a Selling Screenplay’. Chris has lectured at Harvard, Emerson College, NYU and The Smithsonian Institution.