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What are some essential parts of a mission briefing scene?

In war movies, you have a general going over some plan. Here's our target. He's in some place. Look out for X, Y, Z. And then sometimes, the general asks if someone has some question to which he may get some kind of response. Is that part required, or can we literally have the general going over something for 1, 2 or 3 minutes and then switch to a different scene?

One issue is that having someone talk for 1-2 minute and then cut to a different scene feels really abrupt, so I am wondering how to navigate this and avoid the problem of having a terrible transition and a seemingly pointless scene.

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The mission briefing scene exists for one reason (with a corollary); it is to let the audience in on the plan, so they won't be confused by what people are doing during the mission.

The corollary is that the audience knows when the mission has gone sideways, when some traitor is doing what they should not be doing, when there is a surprise development (something unexpected happens) or something they expected to happen doesn't happen, and the team has to improvise.

The mission briefing sets up these tensions. It can be skipped altogether if the mission is straightforward. Famously, the Knight John Marshall (1140's true badass) was asked by a comrade what his plan of attack was to take down a troop of men. Marshall answered, "I plan to hit them with my sword."

Okay, mission briefing accomplished!

Mission briefings technically exist to ensure everybody knows their roles and what to expect, and what the backup plans are, including retreat. That stuff is boring when you can just show the action.

In fiction, mission briefings exist so the audience will not be confused and bored as you cut to various things going on. For example, the true mission is to hack a satellite, the distraction is a frontal assault they cannot win. You don't want the audience confused about what the heck is going on as you flash cut between the frontal assault and your hacker struggling to break the encryption, or she is surprised it isn't (as the briefing assured her it was) an XYZ encryption, but a triple X* encryption! She informs the assault crew they need to buy her 15 more minutes! Then 5 more minutes! Okay, they're getting killed out there and have to think on their feet.

In fiction the briefing sets up expectations for the audience, so your scenes and surprises make sense.

But, this doesn't always have to make sense right at the briefing. In Ocean's Eleven, for example, most of the movie shows people making the plans, but the audience is not clued in to the full and final plan until the actual heist takes place.

That is on purpose, the movie set up is like the mission briefing, we see details (like the acrobat, the pickpocket, the remote control guys, the con man playing the wealthy aristocrat, the guy supposed to create the power outage, etc), so we know all these capabilities exist on the team.

The heist scene itself seems implausible if we don't see them practicing at this stuff.

Remember Show don't Tell: We (the audience) is not told how all these puzzle pieces will fit together. When the heist is shown, it is surprising and delightful, but it all makes sense because we recognize how all those puzzle pieces now fit together, or when there is a worrying miss the team has to scramble to cover -- the acrobat gets injured! Can he still make his jump?!?

So keep this in mind, also. The mission briefing is not there to steal all the surprises and spectacle of the actual mission. It is to keep the audience from getting lost. In Ocean's Eleven the plan is so complex the audience needs an 80 minute "briefing" just to make all the skills involved plausible.

Short or long, that is what mission briefings are for, in fiction. Getting the audience ready to appreciate the ups and downs and roles of characters in the mission itself, when it is shown in action. You don't want your audience to get lost and confused, and lose their immersion in the story.

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Essential?

Whatever the scene needs to do.

If it's merely to inform the audience, it should cover the information in as interesting a manner as is feasible. If it's to start conflict between two characters, it should show that. If it's to demonstrate that the official response is useless, briefly show someone droning on, and the main characters glancing at each other and rolling their eyes.

The best way to smooth the transition is to have the last thing mentioned appear in the scene. For instance, if the general mentions that helicopters will be needed, a cut to the helicopter pad is smooth. It may take some subtlety, if so obvious a connection is not possible.

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  • It doesn't matter how short it is? I've been thinking I can make them as short as I want. I can make any scene super short, but I wasn't 100% sure about it.
    – Sayaman
    Apr 13, 2022 at 3:20
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    As long as it works, it's long enough.
    – Mary
    Apr 13, 2022 at 3:56

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