In this post I’m going to discuss three basic principles that form the foundation of a good scene. First, a scene must cause a change for the characters; next, a scene needs to accomplish multiple goals at once; finally, a good scene needs subtext.
Change Within a Single Scene
At the end of a scene we may ask ourselves “what has changed for the characters?” If the answer is “nothing,” then what we have is a waste of time, no matter how clever or “badass” the dialog was. Take those lines and put them in a scene that matters.
While this may seem very elementary, it can sometimes be difficult to determine if something has changed or not. If we have a scene that begins with Sansa in her bedchamber telling Shae she’d like some lemon cakes, then Shae leaves, and Sansa brushes her hair while she waits, and Shae returns with the lemon cakes, has something happened? Technically, Sansa didn’t have lemon cakes before, and now she does have lemon cakes, so that’s different. But, it’s a difference that doesn’t matter.
Compare that bland scene with the actual lemon cakes moment, where Sansa meets with Margaery and Lady Olenna and confides that Joffrey is a monster. What has changed? The Tyrells learn the truth about Joff, putting into motion the assassination plot, and Sansa simultaneously gains an ally while putting herself in danger if either should reveal what she said. The change for Sansa is what really drives the scene — she’s either much closer to or much further from danger, and we don’t know which, though we know for certain that moment mattered.
For an offender of this rule, we can look to the forge scene of episode 8.1. Set in the Winterfell forge, Gendry gives a custom ax to Sandor Clegane who then insults Gendry for arming the wildlings. Arya arrives, she and Sandor exchange some “pleasantries,” then Arya and Gendry do a little awkward flirting and Arya asks Gendry to build her a custom weapon.
In a scene that takes nearly three and a half minutes of screen time, what happened? Or more specifically, what changed from the beginning to the end? People who weren’t reunited are now reunited, but so what? Sandor and Arya’s relationship doesn’t change. It hasn’t even really changed from when we last saw them together. Arya and Gendry now have a bit of sexual tension to their relationship, but it’s not only largely the same as when they last saw each other, it doesn’t change over the course of the scene. The biggest change in the scene is that Gendry didn’t have the weapon plans before and now he does. That’s no more a scene than Sansa not having lemon cakes and then getting lemon cakes. The weapon itself isn’t even very important; she could have shown up in 8.3 wielding a normal dragon glass spear and the rest of the episode would have played out all the same. That scene is more important to the prop designer than to the characters.
Compare that to the scene where Daenerys and Jorah talk to Sam. At the start, Sam presumably supports Dany because of his support of Jon. At the end, not so much. Jon’s closest friend having a grudge against Dany is a huge development. This is possibly one of the most important moments of the last several seasons, and it takes only two and a half minutes.
Doing More Than One Thing
A scene which brings about some change will advance the plot, but if it does only that and nothing else, it’s a very dull scene. When a TV episode gets 55-75 minutes, and a movie has 120-150, spending 2-3 minutes to do only one thing means you can’t get very much done. Shakespeare wrote that brevity is the soul of wit, but we can’t have a story made up of a series of very short single-purpose scenes. Instead, we need scenes which accomplish multiple goals simultaneously.
Goals may include advancing the plot through change as discussed above, as well as introducing characters and delivering information to the audience.
Let’s take a look at a simple scene from episode 1.3, where King Robert, Jaime Lannister, and Barristan Selmy are trading war stories. This scene is mostly about getting information to the audience. We learn that Robert is surrounded by Lannisters and isn’t happy about it, we establish Jaime and Selmy’s sword fighting skills by recounting the battle against the King’s Wood Brotherhood, and we learn a bit more about the killing of the Mad King (that he was saying “burn them all” when Jaime killed him). Robert also taunts Jaime in this scene, so we learn more about their relationship. This is some pretty good information for a 3 minute scene, but if all it does is provide some exposition, it’s not doing enough.
Going back to the first rule, we have to ask what has changed from the beginning of the scene to the end. The answer comes in the final moments of the scene when Robert asks about the Mad King’s final words. When he asks, Robert is rubbing in Jaime’s reputation as the dishonorable Kingslayer. Without going into detail, Jaime lets Robert know there was more to it, hinting at the destruction the Mad King would have wrought upon the city. At the start of the scene, Robert describes Jaime as a “glorified sentry;” at the end of the scene, Jaime locks eyes with Robert, and talks about the Mad King’s death as if to say “The last time we had a shit king, I took care of business. Good luck on your reign, Bobby.” Not only is implicitly threatening the king a significant moment for what seems like such a small scene, it gives a huge information bomb — we learn just how precarious Robert’s power is. He doesn’t have the stereotypical absolute rule of fantasy kings, but is instead walking along a knife’s edge. This otherwise forgettable moment is doing yeoman’s work.
Text and Subtext
If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in deep shit. In Story, Robert McKee expresses this concept as such:
Two attractive people sit opposite each other at a candlelit table, the light glinting off the crystal wineglasses and the dewy eyes of the lovers. Soft breezes billow the curtains. A Chopin nocturne plays in the background. The lovers reach across the table, touch hands, look longingly in each others’ eyes, and say “I love you, I love you” … and actually mean it. This is an unactable scene and will die like a rat in the road.
The Star Wars: Send in the Clones fauxmance between Anakin and Padme comes to mind. Compare with each original trilogy lightsaber duel: in none of these do we really have two people both trying to kill each other. Obi-Wan is seeking closure, Vader wants to convert Luke, then both Vader and Luke are trying to convert each other. None of these scenes is about a sword fight. Since then every lightsaber duel has been about exactly what it’s about, just two (or more) people trying to kill each other. Snooze.
The easiest way to identify subtext is to look at a scene and ask what (if anything) is happening beyond what the characters are saying or actively doing. The dialogue and overt actions are the text, and everything else is the subtext.
Returning to one of the bright spots of Season 8, Queen Daenerys delivers the news about the execution of Sam’s father and brother. That delivery and Sam’s reaction is the text of the scene. As discussed above, Sam loses faith in Daenerys’s leadership, but that’s also pretty much on the surface of the scene, so we can consider that to be text as well.
The subtext in the scene comes in Dany’s reaction to having to deliver the information and watch Sam hear it. Daenerys is now contemplating the wisdom and consequences of her earlier actions, and this moment will (or ought to!) inform the decisions she makes later on. Some important stuff is happening for Dany despite the spotlight being on Sam.
What’s caused Daenerys (and Emelia Clarke) to get a lot of criticism over the years is the lack of subtext in her scenes, with this moment with Sam being an exception. Nearly every thought she has in her head comes out of her mouth, not leaving much behind (“I will answer injustice with justice” for example). It’s difficult to say how much of this is writing and how much is acting, but when a character doesn’t seem to have anything in their mind beyond their dialog they become flat and off-putting. They’re all text, no subtext. The scene with Sam works because Dany doesn’t try to justify her decision to him or to Jorah, she doesn’t talk about what it means to rule, or the hard decisions of war. The scene works because all that is left unsaid.
Not every scene needs some important subtext. Consider the Tower of Joy battle. What would have been subtext is actually just narrated by Bran, leaving nothing left unsaid in the scene. But, the scene still works because it follows the other rules: Something has changed (Bran learns there’s a secret he needs to uncover) and the scene does multiple things (gives us more of Ned’s backstory and entertains us with some badass fighting). Subtext isn’t necessary here. However, in other scenes subtext can be an easy way to accomplish the task of doing several things at once. A scene can only fit so much text, so subtext allows more story to fit within the same moment.