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 new 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?
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
Spoilers level: high.
Today, we’re taking a closer look at 6 six pages that constitute one of the many unforgettable moments from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) written by Michael Arndt. The scene starts off in the second half of page 70:
The scene begins with Olive testing her brother’s vision. Quickly, the writer misdirects us with Olive’s line, “20/20 vision!” Even before the conflict kicks in, the scene works because it is endearing to see the two siblings bonding. And if you recall from the movie, just a few scenes prior the whole family was mourning Grandpa’s death. After that, they ran into trouble with a state trooper and a hyperactive car horn. Therefore, this moment of diversion lets the audience breathe… before the next gut-punch. (Peaks and valleys of tension.)
On the first half of page 71, we move away from Olive and Dwayne to remind the audience that they are on a time crunch. As Frank announces the time, “Sharyl looks at Richard, who steps on the gas.” Richard’s line “We’ll make it, okay? Maybe a few minutes late” is immediately shot down by Sheryl’s “No, Richard…! They said three o’clock sharp! They were very explicit.” This brief exchange is important because…
Oliver tests Dwayne for colorblindness. And here’s when the scene’s conflict explodes. Since the beginning of the film, the audience has known that Dwayne wants to fly jets for the navy. It’s his dream, which he carries as an obsession. It’s the reason why he doesn’t speak (a vow of silence shows unwavering discipline). So when he learns that he’s colorblind, he’s entire life purpose disappears before his eyes (pun intended). And the author skillfully spells that out within the scene, gradually building to his breakdown: