Screenwriting: How to Craft a Scene

The purpose of a scene is to move your characters further along in the plot. With that in mind it becomes easy to see that each scene inspires the next scene and so on down the line. You may have already thought up a bunch of great characters but if the scenes they inhabit are boring or pointless then the screenplay isn’t going to be worth the paper it’s written on.

To structure a scene we must understand what a scene is comprised of exactly. Scenes are made up of smaller parts called beats. A beat as defined by wiktionary is:

 The smallest division of action in a play, film or other work of drama; The moment at which increasing dramatic tension produces a noticable change in the consciousness of one or more characters.

So for instance if we had a scene between a man and a woman:

Beat one- The man and the women lock eyes.

Beat two- The man holds out his hand for the woman to take.

Beat three- The man begins a conversation.

Okay that is a very simple explanation of what beats look like. Beats are what make scenes great because they can be filled with subtle nuances that tell a lot about the characters or plot. An actor and/or director will often break down scenes into beats when trying to understand a screenplay and the character they are portraying. Remember like a story with a three act structure, a scene also has a beginning, middle, and an ending. Now that we’ve explored the very basics of a scene let’s go into how to create a good one.

1. What is the character’s objective?

What is it that your character wants to accomplish in the scene? Each speaking character must have something that they want in each scene. Say that our story featured a man whose daughter was kidnapped by some mad man and in this particular scene the two are discussing a ransom. Well obviously what our hero wants is to recovery his daughter with the least amount of injury possible and what our bad guy wants is the money for her safe return. For dramatic effect what a character in a scene wants to accomplish should be a need not merely something they want. Your character may not want to do something but feels obligated to because of health, family, duty, etc. Our example hero may have some belief about not negotiating with bad guys but feels that he must to save his daughter.

2. Where’s the conflict?

Conflicts can be between characters, an outside threat, or conflict within a character’s own self. The very essence of drama is good conflict so if your scene is lacking or doesn’t have any at all it is going to pretty bad to read and eventually watch on screen (if such a bad script would get made). A strong character can be brought into a scene by featuring inner conflicts, for example if you had a character that sought revenge on someone he would have emotions of anger or jealousy. But let’s say that after the revenge is acted upon within the scene this character has a moment of reflection and after the initial happiness he feels about it he begins to feel guilty or ashamed. There is a lot of conflict going on just within one scene and it is interesting to see.

3. Who or What is opposing the character?

Think about our hero from before trying to rescue his daughter from the bad guy. While it is a simple story our main character has something that is opposing him and trying to foil his objective, in this case a person. The opposition force should be formidable and have some capability of harming our hero otherwise why would the story progress forward?

4. Create more tension in the scene.

A lot of books that concern writing a novel or a screenplay advocated thinking about what is the worst thing that could happen to the character and then using that in a scene. You should think about what could happen to that is bad but not so outlandish that it is detrimental to the story. Maybe what happens in our example that as the father is about to make the money drop and some overzealous police officer makes his presence known thus angering the kidnapper. Now the kidnapper informs the father that if he doesn’t double the original amount of ransom money in six hours his daughter will be killed. You see the stakes have been raised, there is greater tension in the story, and it pushes the story on towards its conclusion. Your character should not be able to just give up and say screw it I’m done with this, he has to have something to lose and it can’t be inconsequential.

5. What happened before this scene?

Like I said each scene is going to build off of the previous scene but by identifying what the circumstances were that changed can help you plot out what is going to happen in the scene you are about to write. What makes this period of time in a characters life so different than their life before we met them? Did our hero have a strained relationship with his daughter and only realizing once his daughter was kidnapped how much he loved her? This is important because if today is like every other day where he goes to work without incident, comes home and watches TV then there is no story anybody would want to watch.

6. Consider the pace of your scene.

A scene doesn’t necessarily have to start off at a snails pace but it should change and the conflict should rise until it gets to the climax. There should be sufficient tension to keep the interest of the audience and end with something dramatic before going on to the next scene.  We don’t need to see two characters bantering about nothing important in fact it is better to delay starting a scene until there is something important to talk about or some action is happening. A good scene is smooth with the rising action like shifting gears in a car going faster and faster (increasing tension) until the dramatic climax is reached.

7. What’s going on in the scene besides character objective?

What is the location? What are the characters doing physically in the scene? All of these choices have effects on tension and drama Remember the scene from Jaws when they are sitting on the boat and exchanging stories and Hooper and Quint try to one up one another by showing each other their scars? Think about how the tension was raised in that scene. Well first the slow rock of the boat gave an extra eerie feeling in the background before Quint spoke about his experience with sharks. The showing of scars was a very simple action that helped to show that the two men shared more in common than they realized and provided the basis for telling the ultimate shark story. Physical actions matter and so does scenery be sure to use them to help create a good scene.

There is one important aspect that I intentionally did not talk about in this post because it deserves its own one entirely and that is dialogue. This post simply stated what comprises a scene and how is it made better but not the actual words that populate it. I’m going to take about a week or so to get to work on that and be sure to post it up as soon as it’s ready.

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