three great scenes, no bad ones

Martin, over at writeafirstnovel, posted about "Big scenes, little scenes."

That post made me think about the movie director Howard Hawks. Someone asked him once to define what made a great movie. His answer was, "Three great scenes, no bad ones."

I've seen this cited in a few different articles about movies, but there are times when I think the writer has missed the point. It doesn't say "three great big scenes," after all. Sometimes the great scenes aren't the big ones, the ones which drive the plot. Sometimes they're the quiet ones in between.

My response to Martin's post said:

One example would be the Lord of the Rings movies. The big battle scenes are really big -- lots of special effects and digitally-created crowds and things flying through the air and whatnot -- but the scenes I remember the best are the conversations. Sam and Frodo, Aragorn and Eowyn, Pippin and Gandalf, Aragorn and Theoden.

Here are two examples from Hawks' movies:

In To Have and Have Not, the plot involves whether Bogart's character will take a dangerous job because he needs money, but the movie is only petending to be a thriller – it's a love story (in dangerous conditions) between Bogart's character and Lauren Bacall's. Her character has nothing to do with the plot, but the scenes between the two of them, with Hawks' usual crackling sharp dialogue (provided in this case by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner), are what people remember about the movie. I'm sure there are fans who could quote the Bogart/Bacall scenes from memory but couldn't tell you where the movie even took place.

In Rio Bravo, the plot involves whether a dangerious gang can lay siege to Sheriff John Chance's jail and free their cohort, who's being held for murder. The movie sets this situation up and then proceeds to ignore it for an hour, entertaining us with various interactions between Chance and his few (and very flawed) associates. (This was the model for the Avengers movie, BTW, where all the good parts involve scenes between the various heroes while the villain is in their custody.)

One thread that runs throughout Rio Bravo is that Chance's long-time deputy, Dude, has become an alcoholic, and will he be able to keep it together under the pressure of the siege? This is a fairly light-hearted movie, but this question is treated very seriously throughout (and without easy or pat answers), and the scenes between John Wayne (who plays the Sheriff) and Dean Martin (who plays Dude) are the best in the picture, though they don't have much to do with the mechanics of the plot.

Ther's one scene, near the end, which may be the best in the picture. Dude has failed. He's been captured, humiliated, and (in his mind, at least) replaced as deputy, and he's decided he really isn't any good any more (professional competence is always huge in Hawks pictures). He's sitting in the sheriff's office, about to take a drink The others are watching him, not about to say anything or interfere, and he pours the drink. Then, as he's about to drink it, he hears the "Deguello" music from outside. That's the music the bad guys are playing to remind them of the hopelessness of their situation. And, with an absolutely steady hand, Dude pours the drink back into the bottle.

It's a very quiet scene, with almost no dialogue, no big speeches or action, and it doesn't have a huge impact on the plot (Dude's decision doesn't determine how things go after that, and in fact he's taken prisoner again before the end), but it is a great scene.

I'm always leery of the advice I read here and there to get rid of any scene in a story that doesn't advance the plot. You could very easily end up with a very efficient engine that goes straight ahead, never slowing to look at the scenery and never turning to follow any interesting side roads.

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8 Responses to three great scenes, no bad ones

  1. I’m similarly dubious of that advice. I mean… plot is important. Plot may even be paramount. But it’s not the only thing in the story.

    A scene should do something, but it isn’t always advance the plot. Maybe it’s illuminating character. Maybe it’s exploring the world of the story. Maybe it’s addressing the primary themes and motifs of the story. Or maybe it’s doing something else that’s hard to describe but still important.

    Any given scene should be interesting in some way, but there’s more than one way to be interesting.

    • I absolutely agree that scenes have to justify their existence, but as you say there are many ways to be interesting. In fact, I think that long stories (novels, movies) need to have that variety. Shorter forms (half-hour TV shows, short stories) can have (and sometimes have to have) less variety.

      This is probably why a few of my mystery “stories” ended up being more novella-length — I just tend to want to take those interesting side-routes and see where they go.

  2. Nero Grimes says:

    That’s one of my favorite movie quotes.

    If I may.

    I think the saying ‘every scene must advance the plot’ is intended to mean ‘advance the story’. The four basic food groups of the narrative – plot, conflict, character, setting – are a single interdependent unit of storytelling. We separate them for ease in analysis.

    When Dude pours the booze back into the bottle he resovles a conflict and establishes character. Those move the ‘plot’ forward.

    I prefer El Dorado. I can’t take Dean Martin seriously – and don’t get me started on the Manchurian Candidate.

    I take my verse from EoS II 13 OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS

    “….for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts…”

    • Welcome aboard, Nero.

      It’s certainly true that the “plot” is frequently just a framework to hang the good stuff on. A great example is the movie Gosford Park, where the theoretical point is a murder mystery, but the movie doesn’t care much about that, and neither does the audience (or, for that matter, the characters).

      I worked on that concision pretty consciously in my last story, cutting some scenes that I’d have left in ten years ago. I’d planned on 42,000 words and it came in more than 10,000 short. I was so proud. πŸ™‚

      I agree with the analogy to drawing (and certainly to music), but I don’t think you can make a real analogy to a machine. Other than stories that strictly follow a formula (Hardy Boys mysteries, for example), I think it’s apples and oranges (though I admit I’ve never designed a machine). See the quote from Duncan Ellis that I referred to here:

      Plus, if the second part of the EoS rule had been left off, it would have been shorter and just as clear. πŸ™‚

  3. Nero Grimes says:

    A warning. I jump narrative media, books, movies, comics, TV, … freely. If it becomes annoying let me know – I’ll stop.

    >Plus, if the second part of the EoS rule had been left off, it would have been shorter and just as clear.It’s certainly true that the β€œplot” is frequently just a framework to hang the good stuff on.<

    Hitch's McGuffin….. I'll leave this for anpther post

  4. Nero Grimes says:

    I take it I shouldn’t put anything in quotation marks. Half the post is missing.

    • Half of your comment is missing? That’s very odd. It shouldn’t be a problem to use quotes. I can’t see a problem on the back end (in other words, I can’t fix something to make the rest of the comment appear). Sorry for the difficulty, and I hope you remember the point you were making. πŸ™‚

  5. Nero Grimes says:

    Tis but a trifle. My ancient desktop has a glitch with WordPress and Tumblr. It is all ephemera anyhoo.

    The one point I would retrieve from the dust is the over shooting of Occam’s Razor in the last paragraph in the original post.

    You could very easily end up with a very efficient engine that goes straight ahead, never slowing to look at the scenery and never turning to follow any interesting side roads.

    If going straight ahead were the only point.

    Strunk held that a writer could break any rule – if he dies so for good reason.

    Omit Needless Words – con’t…..
    This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

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