10 Types of Scene that Work Onscreen but Not on the Page

It goes without saying that reading a script does not have the same sensory effect on a human being as watching a film or TV show. That’s because there are certain types of scene that can only be properly realised on screen. Sometimes the most memorable and visually impactful scenes are the ones that don’t work on the page, as they need more than words to bring them to life. We’ve compiled a list of the types of scenes that are perfect for the big screen, but leave us wanting more when confined to the page.

Scenes more effective onscreen than the page

1. Scenes that play with the dimensions of reality… – INCEPTION

INCEPTION is a film that draws heavily upon dreams, imagination and alternate realities. The most memorable moments of the film involve wide shots of the dream world, that at once convey the scale of the alternate reality as well as the incredible detail contained within the fantasy world.

Christopher Nolan, the film’s director, writer and producer, explains how the film’s subject matter necessitates a very particular style of visual manipulation:

‘as soon as you’re talking about dreams, the potential of the human mind is infinite. And so the scale of the film has to feel infinite. It has to feel like you could go anywhere by the end of the film. And it has to work on a massive scale’.

The film also includes very unique sequences of action, depicting the movement within a world and the ‘unfolding’ of the background. For example, Ariadne’s manipulation of the setting when learning to construct dream worlds has a particularly notable visual impact.

Although it is possible to convey the basic concept behind building and then invading dream worlds in order to infiltrate the victim’s subconscious, it is challenging for a reader to construct their own image of this from the words on the page. The descriptions of some the key scenes in the script are without a doubt less convincing than their visual equivalents.

The script describes the moment the dream world is invoked as:

She CONCENTRATES on the street. The street starts to BEND IN HALF− the buildings on either side FOLDING IN until they form the INSIDE OF A CUBE OF CITY, GRAVITY FUNCTIONING INDEPENDENTLY ON EACH PLANE. Ariadne looks up (or down) at the people on the opposite city surface.

The hotel sequence at the beginning of the film, which operates at a tilted degree, is another memorable moment. Nolan himself explains that this scene

‘looks unlike anything any of us has seen before. The rhythm of it is unique, and when you watch it, even if you know how it was done, it confuses your perceptions. It’s unsettling in a wonderful way’.


2. Scenes that play with time… – MEMENTO

MEMENTO challenges the conventional linear model of narrative storytelling. The film follows different story threads; one in black and white, and one in colour. The scenes from both threads are interspersed, and eventually combine at the end of the film to show one complete and cohesive narrative.

The structure of Memento is complex: the black and white story is shown chronologically, but the series of sequences in colour are shown in reverse order to mimic the protagonist‘s anterograde amnesia.

Being able to separate the two story lines by switching between black and white and colour makes it easier for the audience to follow the narrative. The colour distinction is of course only possible on screen, and is far more difficult to identify on the page. The constant movement between the two story lines on the page would make reading the script difficult, and may even confuse the script reader‘s understanding of the story.

While it is possible to dictate the terms of the unique story-telling method on the page, it is more far effective to have the audience experience the frustration and excitement of the narrative disruptions visually. Moments in which the picture turns from colour back to the black and white are particularly effective, for the emotional impact they have on the audience.

As the audience becomes absorbed in one story line, hoping that they are finally going to get some answers, it becomes increasingly frustrating to be pulled back and shown sequences from the other one. This frustration only makes the audience more eager and desperate for the narrative to progress, so that they can get back to the development in the other story line.

The recurring visual aids such as the tattoos and Polaroid photos used by Leonard to track his progress in finding one of the attackers, are effective catalysts on screen. Seeing Leonard trying and failing to make sense of his situation helps the audience to form an emotional attachment to his character.


3. Scenes that feature hyper-stylized action sequences… – THE MATRIX

The Matrix trilogy marked a breakthrough in genre films, showing audiences action sequences that had never been seen before. The first MATRIX film draws on action, neo-noir and science fiction genres, introducing cinematic audiences to the ‘bullet time’ action shots.

The ‘bullet time’ visual effect combines the technique of slow motion for action (ie. the bullets) while the camera’s viewpoint moves through the scene at normal speed; allowing Neo to bend back and dodge bullets in this iconic scene.

Other iconic moments include Trinity’s ‘stop time kick’ in the first film’s opening, and the mid-air slow motion gun battle scenes in THE MATRIX RELOADED. Part of what makes these scenes so memorable and important, is that they make full use of the visual medium. It would be impossible for the audience to imagine what these stylized action scenes would look like by simply reading the description on the page.

Neo's 'bullet time' move
Neo’s ‘bullet time’ move

The slick costumes used in the film, as well as the singular colour scheme and impressive weaponry also help make the action scenes more visually impactful. The Matrix’s production designer Owen Paterson used subtle variations in colour to help the audience to distinguish between the real world set and the world of the Matrix.

The carefully considered soundtrack also heightens the dramatic effect of fight scenes, with Neo’s final epic battle with Agent Smith in THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS standing out.


4. Scenes that portray sensory confusion… – VERTIGO

A crucial challenge of Hitchcock‘s VERTIGO is to find a way to convey the protagonist ‘Scottie’ Ferguson’s sense of space and motion discomfort. By experimenting with specialised filming techniques Hitchcock attempts to capture Scottie’s psychological fear of heights and his vertigo in a way that creates a visceral physical reaction in the audience.

Hitchcock developed the ‘vertigo effect’ which portrays his protagonist‘s false sense of rotational movement. The ‘vertigo effect’ is achieved by a special dolly zoom, in which the camera physically moves away from a subject whilst simultaneously zooming in. This effect is used most famously in looking down the tower shaft in the film, in order to emphasize its height as well as Scottie’s disorientation.

Hitchcock’s use of flashing colour and unusual graphics also have a strong visual impact. Another great example of these effects is the scene depicting Scottie’s nightmare. The pace of changing colour, which affects the reality of Scottie’s surroundings, helps to convey his disorientation and sensory confusion. Coupled with the tense and dramatic music this helps the audience develop an uncomfortable gut feeling that something is not quite right.

An image from Scottie's Nightmare
An image from Scottie’s Nightmare

Examples of Scottie’s subjective fear of heights are not given as much detail in the script. Descriptions such as ‘From Scottie’s viewpoint: the high church tower’ and

‘Scottie is immediately stricken by vertigo, and the tall tower seems to slide away from him.

He makes an attempt to start up the stairs, flattens himself against the wall and struggles up.’

do not have the same effect as the visual manipulation of height and perspective on screen.


5. Scenes that display futuristic imagery… – 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY relies heavily on imagery and setting to tell a story. Kubrick deliberately included only minimal dialogue in an attempt to make the film more cryptic and visually intriguing. He himself explains that the film is

‘basically a visual, nonverbal experience’ that ‘hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting’.

The film contains no dialogue for approximately twenty minutes at both the start and end of the story, relying instead on visual representation to draw the audience in and to conclude the tale. Kubrick aimed for the imagery to provoke a strong emotional response from the audience, explaining that he was

‘determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe… even, if appropriate, terror’.

The film pioneered the use of special retroreflective matting and front projection in order to produce the extensive backdrops such as in the Africa scenes as well as the moments when the astronauts walk on the moon.

The depictions of zero-gravity movement are other examples of scenes that work better on screen than on the page. The ‘Star Gate’ sequence which features a stunning display of colour and movement using slit-scan photography, is a further example of imagery that works well on screen as opposed to on the page.

Kubrick’s film continuously challenges the audience’s existing knowledge of space, by surprising them with breathtaking visual sequences that they had never seen before.


 6. Scenes that SHOW the monster… – ALIEN

There is a temptation in movies about monsters, to delay or avoid showing the monster in order to create suspense and build tension. This is an effective technique, both on screen and on the page, for thriller or horror films as it capitalizes on the audience’s fear of the unknown, allowing them to fill in the blanks and construct their own terrifying image of the monster.

Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror film ALIEN takes a new and bold approach to facing the monster, that only works through his graphic visual depiction on screen. By focusing on an extra-terrestrial monster Scott cleverly ignites the audience’s excitement and curiosity, presenting them with a kind of monster that they have never seen before.

The director manages to strike the perfect balance between intrigue and fear; drawing on the audience’s amazement at the unique visual depictions of a new kind of monster, and their shock at the unpredictable nature of the unfamiliar alien.

The two scenes which particularly stand out are the ‘facehugger’ alien and the ‘chestbuster’ scenes. Both scenes show how the alien can cause damage in an aggressive and explicitly violent way, an effect which cannot be conveyed as convincingly on the page.

Special visual techniques were used in the ‘facehugger’ scene in order to make the creature that springs out and attaches itself to Kane’s face particularly scary. The alien prop was constructed out of real sheep intestines and the shots were filmed in reverse and slowed down in the editing process, in order to manipulate the pace and build tension.

When filming the ‘chestbuster’ scene, Ridley Scott maximised the shock effect by surprising most of the actors in the scene with the vast amounts of fake blood, in order to capture their most realistic and horrified responses. The disturbing scene showing the monster burst forth from Kane’s chest was shot in one take, with an artificial torso filled with blood and viscera.

According to the influential film critic David Edelstein, the ‘chestbuster’ scene is so visually shocking that it belongs to the ‘body horror subgenre’, for the way in which it shows a startling

‘dissolution of the boundaries between man and machine, machine and alien, and man and alien, with a psychosexual invasiveness’.


7. Scenes that focus on “cool” movement… – PULP FICTION

One of the most iconic scenes in PULP FICTION is the twist contest dancing scene. Part of what is so captivating about this moment is the apparent spontaneity of the endeavour. The scene stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film, which deals with heavier topics such as hard drug use and gangsters.

The film’s writer and director, Quentin Tarantino explains his admiration for the spontaneity in musical scenes, saying

‘My favourite musical sequences have always been in Godard, because they just come out of nowhere. It’s so infectious, so friendly’.

Thus, making it easy to see his inspiration for the twist dance scene in Pulp Fiction.

The scene also works well on film rather than on paper, because of the specific nature of the dance moves as well as the actors performing them. There is something intriguing about the body language between the two characters. Both protagonist‘s bodies appear to become increasingly caught up in the routine, and yet both their faces remain somewhat expressionless.

Pulp Fiction 'twist' scene
Pulp Fiction ‘twist’ scene

The scene also has an important self-referential power that comes from the co-incidence of having cast John Travolta in the role, an actor with a significant history of dancing on film. Although the scene existed on paper even before John Travolta was cast, the moment has an additional power on screen due to the audience’s familiarity with Travolta’s reputation. Travolta’s career becomes a kind of back story to his character in the iconic scene, with the audience recalling similar scenarios from his roles in GREASE and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.


8. Scenes that convey dark mood or atmosphere… – APOCALYPSE NOW

The serious subject matter and setting of APOCALYPSE NOW against the backdrop of the Vietnam War demands a certain severity of tone. Director Francis Ford Coppola intended to bring a harsh and shocking quality to the depictions of wartime on screen, saying that he wanted to take the audience

‘through an unprecedented experience of war and have them react as much as those who had gone through the war’.

One of the scenes which stands out for its realistic portrayal of the psychological damage of warfare is the opening sequence with Captain Willard in his hotel room. The drunken struggles of the protagonist are particularly compelling due to the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of his movements and apparent pain and torment that overwhelms the character.

The scene was famously unscripted and improvised on set, when a heavily intoxicated Martin Sheen demanded that the cameras keep rolling while he battled his demons. The raw and impulsive nature of the scene is chilling on screen, however, even if it had been scripted, it is difficult to imagine that a scripted version would be able to capture the spontaneity and danger in Sheen’s actions.

The film also challenged the existing cinematic procedures at the time of its release, especially in relation to the sound systems. The film’s sound designer Walter Murch used novel sound techniques in post-production, using only the most up-to-date gunfire sound recordings.

He also used a special Dolby Stereo 70 mm Six Track system, which employed two channels of sound from behind the audience as well as three channels of sound from behind the movie screen itself. This sound system aimed to give audiences an enhanced and immersive experience, by bringing to life the surroundings.

The unique auditory experience helps the audience to feel a sense of the chaos and intensity of the jungle surroundings; something which can only be imagined when these scenes were confined to paper.


9. Scenes that use culturally-specific vernacular… – KIDS

When specific types of ‘slang’ or modern vernacular are used successfully in films they can become powerful tools of expression, capturing the idiosyncrasies of characters in a particular setting. Larry Clark‘s KIDS successfully and controversially captures the hedonistic and degenerate behaviour of urban youth in 90’s New York.

The cultural impact of KIDS is tied to screenwriter Harmony Korine‘s decision to wholeheartedly embrace the vernacular of the film’s main characters. Korine himself explains that

‘ half the script was written in a kind of slang that was specific to that time in New York, and to those kids. There was a lot of inner coded language that we thought was really interesting, and I guess I had a good ear for it’.

While the very specific modern vernacular would undoubtedly be challenging for a script reader to understand on the page, the dialogue starts to make sense and to feel natural when it is seen coming from the mouths of disheveled and restless teens.

Korine’s determination to take the adolescents seriously is what makes the film so convincing and powerful. Rather than talking down to the kids, he constructed the dialogue as if he were a kid. Contrary to popular opinion the majority of the film, even the most banal and spontaneous outbursts, were in fact scripted.

Actor Leo Fitzpatrick who plays the lead role of ‘Telly’ elaborates on Larry and Korine’s impact, explaining that

‘Our whole life was getting kicked out of spots, being told we were losers. And Larry was like no, what you guys are doing is cool. He was actually curious about what we had to bring to the table. The smartest thing he did with the film was have Harmony write it. Because he knew that he needed a kid to write KIDS.’

A selection of adolescent cast
A selection of the adolescent cast

KIDS also does not make a moral judgement on the main character or attempt to censor them in any way, adding a rough and raw quality to the tone of the film. Korine comments on the realistic portrayal of danger in an urban environment, saying that

‘there was a wildness to it, living on rooftops and no one really had houses and no one really cared, that was all pretty accurate. Drugs and the girls and the shadow culture. It was a real, pure street culture. It was street. It was all about the street and never going home’.


10. Scenes that capitalize on a catchphrase… – THE SHINING

Sometimes the most unexpected and spontaneous lines in films are the ones that stick with the audience. Although some catchphrases may appear within a script, it is mainly the actor’s delivery and intensity on screen that helps make these phrases memorable.

In Stanley Kubrick‘s seminal horror THE SHINING it is the axe-wielding Jack’s disturbing and threatening announcement ‘Heeeere’s Johnny!’ that remains in the minds of the audience. Jack’s iconic line is particularly chilling due to the positioning of his face in the gap in the door that he is chopping down with an axe. Jack actually breaks through a real door in the filming of this scene, giving his movements and the timing of his blows a dramatically accurate portrayal.

The close-up, together with the tense accompanying soundtrack, draws on Jack’s proximity to his victim. The fact that the line was actually improvised by Jack Nicholson whilst in character, makes the moment seem more natural and believable, which itself adds to the terror of the moment.

Part of what makes Jack’s line so unsettling is that it changes the context for the catchphrase from a welcoming and upbeat introductory line from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, into a chilling and unnerving introduction of a villain in a horrifying circumstance.

There is something very creepy about Jack’s delivery of the line, as his psychotic and forced cheerfulness is so out of place when he is breaking a door down with an axe in order to kill his wife.

Jack Nicholson delivering his famous line
Jack Nicholson delivering his famous line

There is a further disturbing child-like playfulness to Jack’s line, particularly as the scene establishes a sinister twist on a classic game of hide and seek. Director and writer, Stanley Kubrick describes the evil and unnerving quality of his protagonist, explaining that

‘there’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious; we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly’.

Scenes that work better on screen than on the page

Does your screenplay include any of these types of  scene that work well on screen but not on the page?  Find out if they are working effectively and get a second opinion. Alternatively, if you’re looking for more ideas and inspiration, why not see what other articles we have to offer. 

If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our article containing Writing Holiday Movies – Friday the 13th, Christmas and Halloween?

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