How To Write A Scene: Casablanca

In comparing Casablanca with other great movies, it is clear they aren’t of the same mettle. You’d find yourself mesmerized by the free-flowing and double-layered nature of the dialogue that boredom will not be an option. The interplay of words and actions is often riveting and complementing in such a way that you will believe it is the greatest script ever written.

The sharp dialogues, great characterization, and fantastic music were tools used to great effect in each scene. This is why Casablanca can be regarded as the gold standard in writing a scene.

Using Robert McKee’s ‘Guidelines for Scene Analysis,’ let’s examine how scenes were written in Casablanca. He provides a succinct template for how a scene should be written.

McKee posits that what makes a great scene is not just the dialogue or visuals but the subtext and underlying structure of the scene. By this, he portends that both the text and subtext go a long way in writing a great scene, but it is the actions and feelings of the characters that make a scene great.

Superimposing these guidelines on the mid-act climax scene, you will see the elements used in writing this scene so perfectly. They serve as a representative for other great scenes in the movie.

In writing a great scene, the conflict and the opening value are central. In the previously mentioned scene of Casablanca, the conflict is reviving or not, the estranged love between Rick and Ilsa while the opening value is love.

Going further, the beats, which are the action and reaction sequence along with the behavior of characters both on the textual and subtextual levels are real tools to writing a great scene. The beats, more importantly on the subtextual level, tend to show the conflicts and often truer intentions and feelings of the characters beyond what the textual dialogue portrays.

A deeper understanding of the motifs and inferences of the embellished words, gestures and actions of the characters also contributes to writing a great scene. Analyzing each of the eleven (11) beats in this scene, it is clear that the screen master used this writing technique to great effect.

Through the witty conversations attached to a perfect depiction of subtextual elements, we see a rapid progression from the opening value to the closing value. It is subsequently used to unravel the first conflict and bring it to resolution.

This goes to show that in writing a great scene, a lot of attention has to be paid to scene structure and the subtext which is sure to produce the kind of master-crafted scenes seen in Casablanca. It’s never just about the dialogues.


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