Straight from our Cameo archive Hal Ackerman—screenwriter, playwright, and Co-Chair of the UCLA Screenwriting Program—shares some indispensable advice on scene-writing from his book, Write Screenplays that Sell: The Ackerman Way. Take it away, Hal!
There is a one and only purpose for every scene that is placed in your script. Nope. It’s not the one you’re thinking of. No. Not that one either.
Your number one focus is to create a situation in which two characters each have an urgent, immediate need and those needs are in direct opposition to one another. The distance you deviate from this will measure the level of deterioration of your scenes’ health. Here’s how to keep them alive and dancing:
1. Protagonist must have a CHARACTER OBJECTIVE. This is not something long range, like “finding happiness, finding true love, coming of age, gaining empowerment.” An objective must be tangible, not abstract. (Get the job, get out of the room, find out a name, open the safe). It must be specific. (Grab that money…as opposed to getting rich). It must be immediate. Right NOW.
2. The opponent in the scene must also have a CHARACTER OBJECTIVE (most scenes have two principal characters and then minor foils). The same criteria apply. TANGIBLE, SPECIFIC, URGENT, IMMEDIATE. Don’t make either character a pushover.
3. Main characters’ objectives must be in OPPOSITION TO EACH OTHER. If Joe wants to buy cat food and Jane wants to wear a yellow blouse, there is no opposition to those desires. Both can be accommodated without conflict. ORGANIC CONFLICT is the product of urgent, immediate desires placed in a circumstance where only one can prevail.
4. Are characters dancing their WADOOGEES? “Wadoogee” is made up of the three key words you must remember. What does the character WAnt? What does the character DO to GEt it? Screenwriting is a verb-oriented craft. Verbs are words of action. The dance is the wa”DO”gee, not the Wa”SAY”ee. What does the character DO? It is a far better scene when you have a character take definitive action that the other character has to UNDO, than to have the characters debate or argue or threaten.
Action puts consequence at stake, which engenders responses based on individual needs, which are at odds with each other, which generate opposing needs, which generate the lifeblood of every scene…CONFLICT.
5. This is the most important one. One out of a hundred of you will do this with true commitment. And you are the one whose writing will improve most dramatically. WRITE DOWN THE CHARACTER OBJECTIVE FOR EACH CHARACTER IN EACH SCENE. (It should be no more than a few words. If it takes too long to say, that’s a litmus test that you haven’t defined it clearly.) A day after you’ve written the scene, read it back aloud. Can you sense the character’s Wadoogee every moment? Are there times where you, the writer, intrude? Are you having the character talk about stuff that interests you but is not in the character’s immediate, urgent interest? Create a brand new file for great bits that you adore that have nothing to do with the scene.
Does the scene hold your attention? Where do you get bored in it? Figure out why. (As a clue, re-read 1-4.)
6. (A bonus for doing all the other 5). By staying with the characters’ desires, you will bypass having to think about theme, morality, or meaning—all stuff that, when self-consciously imposed upon a script, makes it less interesting. If you write through characters’ desires, the meaning will emerge that way. And moments will occur that you never anticipated, surprising and delighting you…and your reader.