How To Write a Great Scene
How To Write a Great Scene
Learn how to write an unforgettable scene in a book or screenplay.
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What is a scene?
A scene is a unit of a story that focuses on one or more characters involved in a specific conflict.
Though scene changes often accompany a change in setting, a single setting can contain multiple consecutive scenes. For example, in a boxing story, a boxing ring may be the setting for various scenes in a row. As long as multiple distinct conflicts occur, multiple scenes can occur.
For example, in one scene, a boxer is engaged in a conflict with his trainers in his corner of the ring. After this conflict is resolved, the boxer heads to the center of the ring to fight, engaging in a new conflict with the opposing boxer.
In film shoots, the term scene may be used to describe a series of consecutive shots in a single setting, even if those shots don't constitute all the events of a conflict. For example, let's say a movie has a knife fight. An angry character walking up to the bar through the parking lot may be referred to as a scene, with the knife fight inside the bar versus another character referred to as a second scene.
However, from a dramatic writing perspective, since both of these actions (walking up to the bar and fighting with knives) refer to the same conflict (one character trying to stab another), we can view these actions as part of one scene.
What makes a good scene?
Conflict is the key to a good scene. Every scene should have a subject character wrapped up in a conflict. This conflict typically involves other characters, yet doesn't have to. For instance, a character may be in conflict against nature, struggling to climb a mountain.
Characters in a setting who are simply conveying information to the audience doesn't make a scene. Even if the audience needs to know certain pieces of information to follow the plot, the characters should still be engaged in conflict.
For example, let' say the audience of a thriller needs to know that a suspect's phone signal was tracked to Houston. Here are two options for getting that information to the audience with a dramatic scene:
(1) Express the information on the periphery of a conflict. Two police officers are at their station. They receive a phone call from a tech colleague that the suspect was tracked in Houston. The cops are excited about this news and head to their car to make the trip to Houston. However, moments after the officers get on the road, a masked man in the woods starts shooting at their car.
(2) Express the information at the heart of a conflict. The two police officers at the station receive a call from a tech colleague that the suspect was tracked in Houston. However, in this example, one of the cops isn't satisfied with the information. He starts asking the tech colleague about the specific neighborhood of Houston where the suspect is. The technician says he doesn't have that level of detail. The cop accuses him of being bad at his job. The technician explains the limits to the tracking technology, yet the cop stresses more should still be done.
A scene should advance the plot
Even if a scene features a compelling conflict, the scene still needs to tie into the overall story to be effective. It should advance the plot. Ideally, it would characterize one or more characters too.
For example, a scene where two cops are dodging gunfire from a masked man in the woods may be exciting. However, if the scene doesn't move the story's plot forward, it'll feel flimsy and out of place. If it did advance the plot, while also revealing information about the personalities of the cops and shooter, it would enhance the story.
To learn more about character and plot, have a look at my posts on character development and plot structure with acts.
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