9 Quick Ways to Break Down a Scene

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OK, actors. It’s the middle of pilot season, and auditions are coming in all the time—10 pages the night before, five pages hours before (complete with two monologues), and sometimes you get the scene at the audition itself (yikes!). You obsessively try to memorize the lines so that you are ready for when you walk in the room, but put very little thought into the scene itself. Everyone at the audition is reading the same words over and over, but it’s up you, the actor, to have the skills to break down the scene—to interpret and express the words in an original and interesting way, and to find the wonderful, spontaneous moments between the lines. It’s about understanding what’s happening in the scene, peeling away the layers of this character, understanding the behavior, the thoughts, and having a strong point of view in the scene. What is the right way to do this? How do you feel grounded and connected when you are sitting in a chair in a sterile room with a camera on you and people staring at you? How do you activate your imagination so that the circumstances are vivid and real?

You have to know what you are saying and why you are saying it. If you are only thinking about the lines, your eyes will be glazed over. However, if you are really connected to the scene, and have a strong connection to it, your eyes will be alive and your performance that much more compelling.

Here is my advice on nine simple ways to break down a scene:

1. Tone. What type of scene is this? Is it a one-hour gritty drama, a single-camera mockumentary in the style of “The Office,” an over the top Disney multi-cam, a melodrama, or a quirky dark comedy? This will affect the dynamic of the scene, the pacing, the rhythm, and the style of your acting.

2. Conflict and objective. What is at stake in the scene? What is the conflict? What does your character want, and what happens if he doesn’t get it? Write it at the top of the page. (“I want…”). This is what drives your character, and drives the scene. Keep it simple, and make sure you go after it with every fiber of your being.

3. Relationships. What is your character’s relationship to everyone else in the scene? How does he feel about each person? Be clear and specific.

4. Point of view. What is your character’s perspective? Write it in the top left corner of the page. (I feel annoyed, I am in love, I want to punch him in the face, etc.)

5. The moment before. Write down what happens before the scene starts so that you are connected emotionally at the top of the scene. Perhaps your character just got in a fight (cause he just punched someone in the face), and is feeling upset. Remember, most of these scenes start right in the middle of a conversation, so you have to be very clear about where your character just came from, both physically and emotionally.

6. Character. Write down three adjectives that best describe your character at the top of the page. (Shy, nervous, jittery, etc.) This will help you lock into their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, and this is where good choices are born.

7. Active words. Underline the operative words. These are words or lines your character says that stand out from the rest, that really need to land, and affect the other person. These can also be words other characters say that you have a strong reaction to.

8. Subtext. Write out what your character is thinking in the left column throughout the scene, even when he is not speaking. This is how you really dig deep into their psyche. It’s this inner, stream of consciousness monologue that really helps you understand your character, and what he is thinking and feeling at any given moment, and whether or not he is saying what he means, or masking his emotions. The words are born out of these thoughts and feelings.

9. The unwritten moments. To me, these are the most important. The scene isn’t so much about what the character is saying, it’s also about what the character is not saying. It happens in the pauses, the unwritten moments, where the character’s reactions and behaviors say so much. Make sure those pauses are filled with thoughts.

At the end of the day, you are searching for absolute truth at every moment of the scene. An actor needs the skill to be able to take a writer’s words, dig deep, and understand what the writer is trying to convey, while also putting their own spin on it. Good luck!

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Matt Newton
Matt Newton is one of the most sought-after on-camera acting coaches in New York City. His clients include Tony winners, Emmy award winners, Golden Globe nominees, and well-known actors from film and TV.
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