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Writing the Scene

Page history last edited by Steve 7 years, 4 months ago

This entry is about the process of writing scenes.




Divide an A4 page into three columns. Use the right-hand two columns for brainstorming and notes. Use the left-hand column for 'clean copy': final decisions about dialogue, motivations and scene structure.


Number this page as page '[1]'.


Some initial questions: This is John August's checklist of what to think about first (http://johnaugust.com/2007/write-scene):

  • Ask: What needs to happen in this scene? Fill in the blank: "This is the scene where ___________."
  • Ask: What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted? This is vital: I should always be asking myself what I can cut from the script.
  • Ask: Who needs to be in the scene?
  • Ask: Where could the scene take place?
  • Ask: What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in the scene?
  • Ask: Is this a long scene or a short scene?
  • Ask: How could I play this without words?


In one line, what is the point of the scene?



The Purpose of the Scene: David Mamet's advice

Look at the scene and ask yourself "Is it dramatic? Is it essential? Does it advance the plot?

Answer truthfully.

If the answer is "no", write it again or throw it out.


The scene must start because the hero has a problem

This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about.

1) Who wants what? What is their problem/their need?

2) What happens if they don't get it?

3) Why now?

Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene,to failure (either thwarted or educated that another way exists).


This is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.


Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.

Any time any character is saying to another "as you know", the scene is a crock of shit.


Rob Thomas (iZombie) on writing for a broad audience.

On this show, more than the others, I try to ask myself, “What is the more fun choice?” rather than “What will the critics and my TV snob friends like?” I’d never steer one of my own shows into shameless territory, but I’m trying to actively court viewers, keep the show paced up and not make it feel like the show belongs to an exclusive club.



What could happen in the scene?

B20 ("brainstorm 20 things"): cool moments, motivations, dialogue - stuff to inspire me. Reorder it into rough chronological order


What does each character want: Their motivations naturally come out of their previous scenes. Clearly determine the main characters motivations. Make sure they're consistent (How to create consistent motivations for a character)


Play it on the screen in your head: "At least 50% of screenwriting is simply sitting there with your eyes closed, watching the unwritten scene loop in your head. The first couple of times through, it’s really rough: a blocking rehearsal. But eventually, you start to hear the characters talk to each other, and the vague motions become distinct actions. Don’t worry if you can’t always get the scene to play through to the end — you’re more likely to find the exit in the writing than in the imagining. Don’t rush this step. Let the scene percolate. Mumble the dialogue. Immerse yourself as fully into the moment as you can."

          -- John August


Add the moments that come out of these rehearsals to the B20 list (which can be much much longer than 20 items). The intention is to push myself to at least 20 options, because that's where the really interesting stuff starts to happen.      


Divide the items into three acts: a beginning, Turning Point 1, a middle and mid-point (or crux) of the scene, Turning Point 2, and an end.


Does the scene contribute to the bigger picture? Each script (or TV series) should have a central plot question and a central thematic question (about the main character) that the series (or season) is trying to resolve. Does this scene represent one or both of these conflicts? Does it answer or complicate the central questions? Does it build to a bigger moment about one of the questions?


What would make me say 'Wow' about this scene?





1. If I’ve got a clear idea of where the scene’s going

  • Brainstorm a starting point. Brainstorm at least three different ways it could begin. 
  • Break the scene down into acts and turning points.
  • Visualise how the characters will move within those acts and turning points.
  • Use those movements to inspire deeper tensions and oppositions.




2. Capture the scene you just imagined

  • Write a scribble version--essentially a cheat sheet so you’ll remember the great scene you just saw in your head.
  • Don’t write sentences; don’t write full dialogue. Just get the bare minimum down so that you won’t forget the scene in the next hour as you’re writing it.
  • It shouldn’t take more than five minutes.  




3. Build a Step Diagram of Bangs

  • Each character’s input into the scene must provoke a reaction from at least one of the other characters (Ask "What’s the worst they could do?").
  • Draw a step diagram down the page, taking it very methodically and asking “If Forster does this, what is Peter’s reaction? Okay, if Peter reacts like that, what would Forster say?” The reactions are big, personalised, and surprising - keeping the characters off-balance. Force them to respond to things they’re not expecting. Trap them in a rapidly evolving situation that’s out of their control.
  • Keep swapping through each character’s perspective, trying to continually increase the tension in the scene.
  • B20 each line or beat: Before I begin, read the previous line(s). Bear in mind that the line doesn’t exist in isolation. It needs to flow from what has come before. Imagine the actor who’s saying the line. Then ...


   1. Write down the obvious lines.

   2. Spell out the subtext behind the beat, and play around with that.

   3. Once those lines dry up, try another subtext. Feel free to write down random lines, as they occur to me.

   4. Re-read it all. Jot down any lines that occur to me from that.

   5. I always get a fresh insight (or two) towards the end.

   6. Finish off with some arbitrary stuff. 

  • Circle the options that appeal to me. Create a separate list of those options and choose the one that most appeals.


Deepen your understanding of the character at every point: After getting the answer to "What would this character do?", ask "Why did they do that?" either straight away or in an extensive post-draft analysis.


What else is going on?

 Scenes can benefit from having stories going on in the background, and from advancing the plots of secondary characters. David Brechin-Smith mentioned that the biggest thing he’d learned from writing on Insiders’ Guide was to ‘layer scenes’. To have at least 2 (but more like 3 or 4) things going on. Part of this is to do with subtext, part of it’s about having stuff going on in the background and still more is about keeping the scene alive, filled with energy and keeping the viewer engaged.


Another way of doing this is through off-screen stories: see the sound design commentary track on the Se7en DVD for many examples of this.


Resolve the scene: At some point, there needs to be a turning point in the scene where things head towards that resolution.

What effect does this have? On the person who didn’t get their way. On the person who did. On what we want to see next.


At all times: Stop writing when you still know what's coming next





What’s the scene about: Define Stakes and Conflicts.

What’s the scene really about: Subtext.

What do I need to know in order to write the scene? Keep asking myself what this scene is about until I figure out its truth. Once I figure out the heart of the scene, it flows easily. Otherwise, I can get bogged down in a scene for 2 and a half weeks until I figure out what it's really about.

How should the scene make us feel: Emotion

Deepen your understanding of the character: After getting the answer to "What would this character do?", ask "Why did they do that?" either straight away or in an extensive post-draft analysis.





Remember dialogue in lovebites 1.2 like the "Rough and feisty" / "Who let the dogs out?" conversation? Remember my feeling that it didn't quite work? TRUST THAT FEELING. I was trying to emulate someone. Don't do that: find myself in the work.


Don't be hard on my first draft of dialogue: there will be life, spark and energy in there that I will like on a re-read.





How do I know I can move on to the next scene? When I can see it playing like a film in my head.


Re-examine what the scene's about. How does it add to the About of the film

Ed's checklist of stuff to examine if a scene has ...

  • Clash
  • Emotional Change:
  • Unanswered Question Left:
  • Visual:
  • Unexpected Turn of events:
  • Purpose of scene:
  • What do the characters want:
  • Theme (scene emotion):
  • 2 things or more:
  • Symbolic:
  • Valuable real estate:
  • More Visual:
  • TRUTH:
  • Sounds:
  • Sharp Audience Thinks:
  • Foreign Film:
  • cool:
  • transition:
  • The last line or out or button of the scene: It's the most important line because it raises a question. Creates a tension we want released. Primes us for what we expect to see in the next scene.







-- Overview of my scene-writing process

-- Emotions

-- Tip and Tricks




-- -- --



treating drama scenes as action scenes – a little dodge I wanted to try out because action is easy for me to write and visualise, whereas drama and emotions, quieter stuff, is opaque.


You see, action scenes are easy to write. I'm not sure why I find that yet - but I build a clear visual image in my mind of what happens, and I find it easy to see where the gaps are and edit accordingly. I also find it easy to create and maintain the point of view (sympathy for the hero) in an action scene, and to increase tension and put the people I like under stress.*


* For me to write it effectively, an action scene has a person in jeopardy and something putting them in jeopardy. In the case of The Limit, that something is usually a person. Typically the person IN jeopardy as the hero or the person we have sympathy with in the scene. Because The Limit is a vigilante thriller, the person causing pain is the hero. So I'm constantly finding I have to tweak the scene to keep the hero sympthetic.


Drama scenes lack that clarity for me. I feel they should build tension and maintain interest in the same way that action scenes do, but because the (opposing force?) is non-physical, that clear visual image is harder to create in my head.





First-drafty = not worth paying $13 to see.


Out of the drudgery of writing, I build momentum.




Had an insight while rewriting an interrogation scene. I was giving all the dialogue to the main character. Doing that forced her through sudden changes in her motivation and emotions. For instance, Trace was disbelieving everything Forster said, and then she'd clarify a point he’d made. An odd shift from hatred to logical.


So the Insight was: I’d use a third person in the scene to ask all of Trace's rational questions. And extrapolating from that: put as many players in a scene as there are positions to adopt.


[theory] Characters can shift positions, just not constantly. I mean, one big shift in position per scene is probably good. When I put more than 3 or 4 into a scene, I get actors complaining that they can't see where their character’s head is at. Of course, the longer the scene the more changes a character could go through – see Richard’s seduction of Lady Anne in King Richard the Third, Act 1, Scene 2.[/theory]





[from Freaks and Geeks] One line from the directors' commentary I thought was true is that on a TV show, ideally you're going to be working with the actors you've cast for 5 or more years. So you adjust the script towards them. You want to have fun with the actors, explore the little moments in their character relationships and most of all make them feel comfortable so they can bring a bit more realism to their roles.




A lot of money gets spent on famous actors and CG. Flashy things are supposed to keep our interest, our eyes glued to the screen (a pretty disgusting visual now I think about it). However, with a no-budget movie or Season 1 of a normal budget TV series, there’ll be no cash to spend on those things. In this case, emotions are your special effect.



Emotions can grip the audience. They can be complex and spectacular. You can find emotions that haven’t been tackled before. Best of all, they are cheap. And if they’re cool enough, maybe you’ll attract the funding to get those famous actors and flashy CG effects.


Some random thoughts on emotion


The first principle in the first book on screenwriting I ever read was that the primary goal of any screenplay is to elicit emotion from the audience.[1]


Scripts deal in emotions and motivations. As script-writers, those are our 2 basic tools. We can make characters behave in plausible and fascinating ways.

We can aim to make the reader (and hopefully the eventual viewer) feel a certain way.


An well-drawn action setpiece can illustrate these 2 things working together just as effectively as a moving on-screen declaration of love.



I think it’s important to know the emotion you’re trying to produce with each scene. That’ll go on the checklist.



James Cameron says, “Audiences don’t think in scenes. They think in a continuously dynamic and evolving force field of emotions and ideas.” Sometimes when I’m considering the overall script, I don’t think in terms of plot or character; I just go through it feeling what the audience will feel at every stage. Then I ask myself, “Is this a good journey to go on?”


“Do we buy it?” was a question often asked in the latter stages of writing lovebites. Do we believe in what we’re reading. Maybe you don’t buy it because the script hasn’t made you care enough … or maybe you don’t buy it because you care so much that you think what the character’s doing is (a) wrong, (b) against type or (c) just something you don’t want to see them do …







Working on the scene where we turn Michelle into the hero. It’s another action scene, so all I need to do to write a good scene is a) keep coming up with ways to block her from escaping and b) figure out how to make the situation worse.



The longer I write a scene, the more chance I have of fucking up what the scene’s about.


Action obeys Harold Ramis’ rule for writing comedy: it should take as long to read it as it would to see it.






A lot of the time, I was watching the film going "Where's the conflict in this scene?" And I realise that my recent experiences with Primetime Adventures have been subtly educating me in this screen-writing tool. Creating conflicts and having to decide which ones are meaningful up to 15 times a game is a really effective way of building up your chops.

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