Scenes are the dramatic units of films — the building blocks of cinematic storytelling. It is said that scenes should have a beginning, middle, and end. Additionally, all scenes should also have a goal, move the story forward, and present an emotional shift for at least one of the characters.
On a tightly constructed film, no scene is wasted! Whereas first-time writers focus on twists and big events, connecting the dots between “exciting moments” to fill in the pages, a skilled writer knows that every scene must be infused with purpose and exciting in its own right.
Analyzing film scenes is an amazing process to learning the craft of screenwriting. In this series, Anatomy of a Scene, we read or watch a scene from a movie and deconstruct it, asking ourselves what the writer intended to do. Does it work? Why or why not? And of course, what makes the scene great? Or awful?
THE WAY WAY BACK
Spoilers level: low.
Today, we’re taking a closer look at scene 22, a total of 3 pages from the coming-of-age comedy-drama film THE WAY WAY BACK (2013) written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
In case you are not familiar with the film, Duncan (played by Liam James) is a shy 14-year-old teenager visiting a new town for the summer. Without further ado, here’s scene 22 one third into the page:
At first glance, you may think this scene is just about two dudes getting acquainted and teasing one another, vying for a sense of superiority. And that’s true, but what makes the scene so effective is how their personalities clash — so that what they argue to feel superior is lost on the other. Additionally, the scene is also filled with clever dialogue. Let’s break it down:
Scene 22 opens on Duncan buying a soft drink at a pizza joint. Notice how the writers efficiently (one paragraph) describe who’s hanging out here and what they’re doing. In the very next paragraph, we’re in a different location inside the main location — the BACK GAME ROOM where Guy/Owen plays Pac-Man.
As mentioned above, in true “fish out of water” fashion, Duncan doesn’t know anyone in this town. So the screenwriters create an analogy to this with the arcade games: “EXCEPT for the classic PAC-MAN upright, the rest of the video games are very 2012.” Here, the Pac-Man is the fish out of water, much like Duncan throughout the film. It is also a suggestion of the age gap between these two generations.
As Duncan approaches the game, immediately he’s reprimanded: “Do you mind standing to the side? I’m getting your reflection in the screen.” This movie sees Duncan making unintentional mistakes by simply existing. Naturally, this scene could be no different.
As the conversion continues at the bottom of page 24, we see how Duncan and Owen are out of sync (again, much like the newer arcade games and Pac-Man). While Owen considers it “the game of his life” surviving this long, Duncan is unimpressed, “But, that’s the first level.” This exchange quickly conveys how both men have contrasting senses of accomplishment and excellence, which sheds light on their diverging personalities.
After a quick dialogue about Pac Man, Duncan pretentiously declares: “You know, there’s a pattern.” — only to be shot down again — “Oh, don’t tell me you’re one of those guys. That takes all the challenge out of it. Anybody can learn a pattern.” With this, Owen pulls the rug from under Duncan, obliterating his sense of superiority. And we’re left to interpret. Perhaps Owen’s happiness is not dependent on winning, which is a timeless lesson worthy of philosophical discussions. But we don’t have time for that because…
Halfway through page 25 (also the scene’s half-point), Owen’s co-workers begin heading out and calling after him, which puts a clock on the scene. This is the motivation for Owen to hand the reins to Duncan, who promptly declines.
After more friendly banter where Duncan continues “spoiling” the game, Owen heads out, dispensing the scene’s wisdom — a synthesis of the theme that carries the movie: “Oh and hey, no pattern on my quarter, man. Cut your own path.” It’s a brilliant line that concludes the scene and sets up the rest of the movie. Duncan’s emotional journey/character arc is about “cutting his own path”. And again, we can interpret that phrase in a couple of ways: “Don’t follow anyone’s footsteps” or “Find your own happiness.” Regardless of the actual intended meaning, the line invites reflection.
And then, Pac-Man dies, symbolizing again how out of place and awkward Duncan is, unable to fit in and meet expectations — his “curse” throughout the film.
This scene is exquisite in execution because the writers get so much done in less than three pages! Sure, the comedic elements alone could justify the scene. But introducing characters, showcasing their differences, creating analogies and contrasts, and dispensing some philosophical and thematic wisdom over Pac-Man just puts this “little” scene in another level. Always aim to accomplish the most in as few pages as possible.