How to Break Down a Scene | Scene Analysis for Actors
How to Break Down a Scene (1)

How to Break Down a Scene

Written by on | Acting Tips

Learn the lines and don’t bump into the furniture. We’ve all heard the quote, and we all know how untrue it is. Saying the lines without any motivation behind them leads to uninspired work and a lack of storytelling. In this article we are going to look at how to break down a scene and how to get the most out of a scene whether it’s for a showreel, TV show, film or theatre production.

Why Scene Analysis is Important to your Acting?

How is it that some movies can fly by in a heartbeat, but have run for 2 hours? But that tacky ensemble rom-com you watched was a torturous marathon while in reality, it had a brisk running time of 90 minutes?

It’s all in the way each individual scene breaks down.

There is an unwritten rule of script writing that a scene must always earn it’s spot in the plot. Unless it is absolutely necessary, then it needs to be cut. What makes a scene necessary is one of three things:

Character progression.
Plot progression.
Exposition.

If you are choosing material to perform as a stand alone scene, or for your showreel, then you need to focus on number one.

What NOT to look for:

It’s not advisable to choose a scene from a sketch show, even if they work without context. The reasoning here is that a sketch show is a very specific kind of genre, like improv. The success of a scene relies on the audience to be onboard with this absurd, abstract style of short form comedy. Sometimes the humour is coming from the edit, or the contrast between the sketch before it. Maybe it doesn’t appeal to the casting director’s sense of humour.

What to look for:

Character Journey. Let’s say it again: Character JOURNEY.

The key to making a scene work for you is having your character begin in one state, and end in a different state.

Popular ways of doing this, are having the character learn a new piece of information, realise a personal flaw, or solve a problem. This is why break up scenes are so popular. Family secrets, detective cases that have a eureka moment, proposals, anything that drags your character between dizzying emotional highs and crushing emotional lows.

Make your shortlist of scenes and for each one, identify the emotional change of state; for example, from frustrated —> euphoric, from triumphant —> hopeless. Then identify the source of conflict; for example, Jim wants to marry Liz/Liz wants to travel the world alone for two years. The detective needs to solve the case/the only known witness has turned up dead. If you can identify a verifiable source of conflict and an emotional shift, then you know your scene is a winner.

Plot Progression

Awareness of plot progression is an essential skill for every actor. When hired for a role, you may only receive your own sides, or be a featured extra, but you still have an awareness of where your character begins, and where they end up. As actors, it is natural to assume responsibility for more than our role. Sure, the look, the feel, and the direction of the scene relies on an actor’s performance, but at the end of the day, the writers might cut your scene, or shuffle something in the edit that changes the whole story. With this in mind, one way to improve your scenes is to let go of your responsibility to the plot. Let go of end gaming your story, and focus on your short term objectives.

Read more: What is an Objective 

Take out a copy of your scene and break it down into beats. For each beat, identify the practical actions. Don’t use actioning, intentions or justifications at this point. Explain what happens in the least creative way possible. Once you have the plot, you can step back and see how your character reacts to these external forces. More often than not, the most entertaining choices come when an actor allows the plot to happen around their performance, rather than intentionally driving the plot.

Take out another copy of your scene, and action it in every possible way you can that fights against the actions you found in the previous exercise. Chances are, unless you used a different script, your character will end up in the same place no matter what you do. You might even find some meatier choices along the way.

All this means is that you need to understand that the plot is seperate to your inner life. While, for example, you may die at the end of the script, don’t let this affect anything about your performance up until that point. Don’t imbue your actions with heroism or martyrdom, assuming that this will make your death ultimately more satisfying. Most of the time, the opposite is true. It’s almost always more powerful to watch someone hold back their tears than it is to see them weep. Don’t try to show all of your homework in your performance. Ever heard of an actor who keeps a character trait secret to themselves? This is another tool to maintain depth and distance between the inner life of the character and the plot.

The bottom line? The plot is a dry and emotionless beast, and it will happen inevitably whether you focus on it or not. Affect your fellow actors, and let the plot fall into place.

Why scene analysis is important for actors

Exposition

Now we’ll cover the difficult task of delivering an exposition scene. Often dramatically barren, with on-the-nose dialogue, exposition scenes are those which bring the audience up to speed with background information. More often than not, if you are dealing with an exposition scene, it is necessary to the project and not to your reel. Avoid exposition scenes for your reel or showcase, as they rarely offer an ideal dramatic scenario.

When performing in an exposition scene, keep in mind that the information is more important than the drama. Find a reason why your character wants to divulge this information. It can be tempting to act out the story you are telling rather than acting the reasons your character has for telling it. Action the script accordingly, and rather than inserting emotional responses in, really ask how your character feels about the current moment. Keep in mind that you wouldn’t cry when telling a story about someone else crying.

Regardless of the fact that we are letting our dramatic ego take a backseat, still find those moments of character progression: emotional state change, and source of conflict. Always ask yourself why you are motivated to explain this information. Most of the scripts on Home and Away and Neighbours are filled with exposition, due to the large cast of characters and fast moving plots. The audience needs to be able to catch onto the action even if they tune in halfway through an episode. Learning how to deliver exposition with purpose is an invaluable skill that will earn your character their moment to dramatically shine.

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of young professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew Hearle, Luke McMahon, Indiana Kwong, Patrick Cullen and many more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of young professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew Hearle, Luke McMahon, Indiana Kwong, Patrick Cullen and many more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

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