I’m watching my Gettysburg DVD again in honor of the battle’s 150th anniversary this week, and I’m noticing the quieter scenes often seem to trail off. It’s a good reminder of the importance of ending each scene sharply with what’s sometimes called a ‘button,’ a bit of dialogue or action that tops off the scene or spins us into the next one. Now, there can be stylistic reasons for letting a scene trail off; to emphasize confusion or disarray. But mostly it’s sloppy writing (or, in a film, sloppy direction or editing).
For example, there’s a scene just past the halfway point in Gettysburg, a pretty inconsequential one where Tom Berenger as General Longstreet orders a spy to scout the enemy flank after the second day of battle. The spy, a former actor, replies that the problem with his current occupation is the lack of an audience – when you do the job right, nobody notices you at all. That would have been a pretty good button to end the scene on, a good, funny line, at least. Instead, Longstreet and the spy just stand there looking at each other for awhile, and Longstreet finally mutters “go on, then,” and the spy leaves. So instead of a sharp ending on a funny line that moves us into the next scene, we’re wondering why we’re still watching a scene that for all intents and purposes has already ended.