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Scene-by-Scene Plot Outline and Analysis of a Half-Hour Chunk of a Film

Preparing a Scene-by-Scene Plot Outline

Provide a scene-by-scene plot outline for a half hour chunk of the film you’ve selected from the lengthy list of Assignment 2 titles on your syllabus. Then write a five to six page essay with any half-hour section[beginning, middle, or end] of the film as your primary focus.  The essay must have a TITLE and a title page!

Here’s what I want you to do. Select a roughly half-hour segment from the film that you’ve  decided to work with. Perhaps self-evidently, you will choose either the film’s first half-hour, final half-hour, or a particularly interesting half-hour section  from the middle. Prior to writing your essay, I would like you to prepare a scene outline for that section.. NOTE: this is a scene list, not a shot list.(Bear in mind as well that a DVD Chapter does not, usually, consist of a single scene. It will likely contain a number of scenes. The DVD “scene selections” have little to do with the director’s shooting script or his/her plan for the narrative. They are often put together by people who had no connection with the film’s production.) For each scene or bit (a very short scene), provide a heading indicating  the location where the action takes place, then, if it can be determined, the time of day or night.

Beneath the heading provide a brief description of what happens in the specified scene.  Here are a few examples of scene descriptions, from Sea of Love: Scene 16.   Jim and Frank become partners.  1. The fingerprints at the apartments of two murdered men match. 2. Both dead men put rhyming ads in the singles paper. 3. Jim sees that Frank is lonely, invites him to his daughter’s wedding.   Scene 17.    Frank figures out how to catch the murderer.  The police need to place a rhyming ad in the same singles paper.   They’ll meet with all the women who answered the ad.   Scene 18.    The third man turns out to be married with a family.   The Family Man admits he put the ad in the singles paper but never met with any women.  He swears that no one answered his ad.

 My purpose in having you prepare this scene outline before you write your paper is to make you think carefully about how an extended portion of the  film is structured (how one scene leads to another, more or less logically), and to keep you from being tempted to WASTE time and valuable space in the essay proper summarizing the plot. [And yet, year after year, many students submit essays which are almost entirely plot summaries ANYWAY, suggesting that all the lessons of Assignment 1 about film form. May have been forgotten.] Because you have numbered the scenes, you can refer to them by number in the course of your analysis. I can quickly check the scene list and know exactly which scene you’re referring to.

Selecting a Half-Hour Segment to Analyze

NOTE: An outline of scenes requires Far Less  work, obviously, than a shot breakdown, and is much, much shorter.

As you are preparing your scene list, give some thought to the settings, story, elements, visual and sound motifs/patterns which are most prominently featured or to which the film returns most often.  Pay close attention to those scenes and moments that ‘rhyme’ with others in the narrative.  In fact, it might be useful for you to make separate lists for yourself  under the following headings:  Images worth thinking about: character actions worth thinking about; sounds worth thinking about;  key lines of dialogue (and their implications. e.g.,what is said vs. what is meant). These are not part of the assignment, but would certainly prove useful.

I would like you to formulate a thesis based on your repeated viewing of the assigned section of your chosen film, and develop an argument in which you trace one or more significant aspects of the section (always grounded in specific images and precisely detailed character behaviour) through the scenes in the section that you consider most important.  I expect your analysis to show  how small structural units serve to bring different issues (and feelings about these issues) into play.  Remember that as we move further into a good narrative, progressively more effort is made to “bind” the issues together in a manner that provides some sort of equilibrium - however fleeting - and prepares us for the final coherence or resting place offered by the film’s conclusion.

Note Well.  You Must pay attention to a film’s formal elements in your discussion.  If you do not, you might as well be talking about a short story or poem or play.  Work with film in the language of the medium.

It is important that your essay has a clearly formulated thesis.  A thesis, as I’m sure you’ve heard and read by now, states the main idea of your paper.  The thesis functions as a promise to the readers, letting them know what the writer intends to discuss.  Everything that your argument touches upon should be at least loosely related to your thesis statement. [In some ways, an essay structure resembles a story structure.] Though you may not have a final thesis when you begin to write, you should establish a tentative working thesis early in your writing process.  The word working is important here because the working thesis may well change as you write.  Even so, a working thesis focuses your thinking, and helps keep you on track.

  1. It is potentially interesting to the intended audience. (At the very least, it should be interesting to the writer.)
  2. It is as specific as possible.
  3. It limits the topic enough to make it manageable.
  4. It is a debatable point, one about which reasonable persons might disagree. 4 and no. 1 are closely related.  A thesis must not be bland or self-evident.

Once you have framed a working thesis, try to state your major arguments or points, preferably in sentence form.  Together, your thesis and your arguments will give you a rough outline of your essay.  In trying to decide what you are most interested in communicating to the reader, you might wish to start with the phrase: “I want to convince you that...”  I sometimes find that this phrase helps me to locate the main idea I wish to explore.

Your primary emphasis in this essay will obviously be on the scenes that best illuminate the thesis you have developed.  Some scenes will naturally require - for purposes of demonstration - far more detailed attention than others.  Let me repeat for the third and final time: I insist that you integrate an analysis of formal elements (such as mise en scene, editing, sound, dialogue, performance details, etc.) with your discussion of theme, story structure, or character development.  You might find it useful to review the Ed Sikov chapter on  writing a film essay one more time when thinking about how best to proceed.  Let me stress once again the value of working imaginatively with the small details in a scene.

Note Well: Keep generalizations to a minimum. When students resort to them, they often turn out to be statements that either “go without saying”  (“Some of our closest friendships are those we form in  school at an early age”) or need a lot more clarification and argument than a student is prepared to supply.   When you do make use of  them, allow the general statement  to arise from the discoveries you make examining the scene- by- scene progression of your section.  A thesis, as I never tire of pointing out,  is not a synonym for a boring generalization that does not really intrigue you or the reader.

Remember: Keep all descriptions of film action in your essay in the present Tense.

Here is a list of rules for honest writing from George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which I’ve found useful to think about when doing essays of my own.

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. (Examples: “like a deer caught in the headlights”; “the movie was an emotional roller coaster ride.”)
  • Avoid needless repetitions, vagueness, ready-made generalizations, jargon, and humbug. The danger of the vague and ready-made is that they give you permission not to think clearly and concretely about what you are trying to say.  They will construct your sentences for you - even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent - and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.  Ask yourself: Do I want to think and write like a politician?  A corrupt defense attorney?
  • Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing you can do with words is surrender to them.  In other words, know what you are trying to say in a sentence before you write it.
  • Never use a long word when a short one will do.[Once again, “use” is always preferable to “utilize”, “repeat” to “reiterate.”]
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active voice. . If you still don’t know what the passive voice is, consult the pages in Strunk & White quickly.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

To sum up, regard language as an instrument for expressing  thought, not for concealing or preventing it.

Optional: I would greatly appreciate receiving from each of you a thesis statement proposal at least a week before the essay is due. Not a requirement, but a suggestion,

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