Writing a Scene: Breaking Down the 10 Key Steps in Getting Started
As with most stages of the screenwriting process, writing a scene is a journey of discovery.
It is useful to start the process of scene-creation by asking some questions. Once we know the answers to these questions, we can begin the process of dramatization.
Therefore, let us contemplate some inspiring questions and learning with examples fromButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Dirty Harry (1971), The Deer Hunter (1978), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
Through these examples and using ten steps, we will explore the various elements of how to write a scene.
#1: Essence and Purpose
- What happens in the scene?
- What is the purpose of the scene?
- Who is present in this scene?
- What do they want to accomplish in this scene?
- What are they going to do to achieve it?
- Where does it take place?
- What aspect of the character’s life will be shown: professional life, personal life, or private life?
“Every scene reveals at least one element of necessary story information to reader or audience. The information the audience receives is the nucleus, or purpose, of the scene.” – Syd Field
Essence and Purpose in The Empire Strikes Back
When Luke Skywalker is bested in a duel against Darth Vader and he discovers an uncomfortable truth.
The purpose of the scene is to reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.
- Luke wants to confront Vader.
- Vader wants to enlist Luke by turning him to the Dark Side.
Once we have established context, we can then determine content. Before doing anything else we must:
- Establish the purpose.
- Decide where the scene takes place and when.
After the context has been established, with purpose, place and time, we can begin to create content.
- This can be achieved by considering the physical elements of a scene. Ask yourself, what is present in this scene and how conflict can emerge from it.
Beware of the common pitfall when writing the ending of your scenes.
- Sometimes writers have a tendency to end their scenes too early.
- How early is too early? Before the purpose of the scene has been fully realised.
- This is what creates the sense of incompletion or the feeling that something is missing.
Before you write a scene, it’s essential that you have the essence and purpose of such scene in mind.
#2: One Main Point
- What is the vital incident that informs the journey?
- How does it move the story forward?
- If this scene is omitted, will the story be affected? If not, take it out.
- Is the desire going to move the characters closer to their goal?
Luke has made a personal discovery, which will affect the arc of his character as a Jedi, brother, son, and man.
Having acquired new information, a mortal wound, and failed in his mission to defeat Vader, Luke must re-evaluate his journey after this setback.
“A scene is the unit which contains one incident, which informs the journey. If it doesn’t contain an incident that informs the journey, it’s not a scene. It doesn’t belong in the play.” – David Mamet
From the first scene to the last, we are always trying to get from point A to point B.
Using the analogy of a boat travelling downriver, Mamet demonstrates the importance of “sticking to the channel”. If something unexpected happens on our journey, we deviate, and we come back to the channel. Never losing sight of the goal.
In terms of our character’s journey,
“These deviations are called incidents, the incidents are called scenes, and the totality of the scenes leads us from point A to point B.” – David Mamet
If the scene does not move the character one step closer to obtaining their goal, or present them with an obstacle that they must overcome in order to achieve it, then the scene should be removed.
- What is the obstacle in the scene?
- How do the characters deal with the problem?
- How can I make it more difficult?
- What is the character’s wound?
- What are they afraid of?
- Which elements can I use within the scene to create content?
Every scene must contain conflict. The purpose of the conflict is to deny the character their goal and to create drama, engaging the audience.
Putting obstacles in the way of the protagonist creates conflict. They can be physical or psychological but they must be made visual.
Desire + Obstacle = Conflict
Michael Hague reminds us that the primary goal of a storyteller is to elicit emotion.
“Emotion grows out of conflict, not desire.”
Once we have established context through purpose, place and time, we can begin to find the components within a scene to create conflict and generate drama.
Decide what the main desire is and use the content of the scene to create obstacles.
Escalation of Conflict:
For example, in The Empire Strikes Back, things become more challenging for Luke when he is outclassed by Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel. We can see some answers to the questions from above, demonstrating the progression of conflict:
- Luke is beaten and exhausted.
- Vader makes use of the surrounding equipment in the control room to attack Luke through means of the Force.
- The objects hurl at Luke, sending him through a shattered window and onto the platform below.
- The external and internal conflict grow as Luke struggles to control his emotions.
- He is already afraid of falling to the Dark Side and becoming like the Sith.
- In an attempt to defend himself, Luke loses his hand to Vader in the duel and he is forced to retreat.
- This negative situation is made worse with the fact that there is nowhere for him to go.
- He clings to the structure, hanging precariously over the abyss.
Consequently, tension is amplified due to making a difficult situation even more difficult. Drama is conflict. Seek it out when writing a scene, any scene.
#4: Action and Dialogue
- Do I know what each character wants?
- What action can they go through to achieve it?
- How can the action be shown visually? Use dialogue sparingly.
By making the decision to let go of the structure and throwing himself into the abyss, Luke shows that he would rather die than join forces with Vader.
- How can I avoid ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue?
- How can characters speak with subtext?
- Are the voices of the characters unique?
Dialogue is used primarily for two purposes:
- To reveal how the character is feeling towards a situation.
- To persuade someone or take control of a situation.
“Instead of announcing their feelings or desires, how can they hide their true desires or disguise their feelings with more interesting, sub textual dialogue?” – Michael Hauge
If you are struggling to write dialogue, one approach is to begin writing ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue. When writing a scene, having characters explicitly stating their feelings, their wants and desires, will undoubtedly make for bad writing or unintentional comedy.
However, at least you will have something to work with. It can then be stripped back, edited, and refined.
- What is at stake?
- Do they succeed and at what cost?
- What is lost if they fail?
Including stakes are vital in the process of writing a scene. With the addition of high stakes and complications, there is something to play for.
It gives the characters purpose and keeps the audience invested with tension. Although every scene does not require the presence of an antagonist, each scene must have something at stake.
The stakes don’t get much higher than when being forced to play Russian roulette against your comrade and friend, as seen in The Deer Hunter.
The stakes are increased by the content of the scene: if the soldiers do not play, they will be shot by the guards or put in ‘the pit’ – a submerged bamboo tiger cage, filled with rats and the corpses of the unfortunate players.
#6: Show, Don’t Tell
- What is their visible goal?
- How can the action be shown visually? Use dialogue sparingly.
- Whose POV is it from?
- How can character be shown?
In The Deer Hunter, Michael’s character possesses the traits of bravery, self-control, leadership, and the ability to improvise and think quickly in emergencies. His heroic actions move and inspire us during the Russian roulette sequence, as he shows:
- bravery in the face of death, mocking his captors
- leadership through his calming and reassuring dialogue as he consoles his traumatised friend, Stevie
- self-control in resisting the urge to fight his captors, using patience to outsmart them
- quick-thinking, with the ability to improvise, by getting another 3 bullets in the gun, which he uses to kill their captors.
We know these things to be true, not because someone tells us, but because we see him exhibit these qualities through his actions and dialogue.
#7: Cause and Effect
- How will the character have changed by the end of this scene?
- Does this scene influence the overall character arc?
- How can I build drama, action by action, line by line?
In a well-written screenplay, every sequence, every scene, traces back to the initial moment our main character decided to go on their quest. Furthermore, each scene has been integral as far as getting them to this very moment. David Mamet tells us,
“It’s possible to structure a drama so that the supposed arbitrary incidents are related back to the first cause.”
Cause and Effect in The Deer Hunter
Before leaving home for Vietnam, Michael was an avid hunter.
Upon returning to Pennsylvania, Michael is a changed man. The trauma of war has removed any desire in him for bloodsport. As a result, he chooses to let the deer go, intentionally missing his shot.
Michael returns to Vietnam because of the words spoken by his friend, Nicky, in a much earlier scene. Before deployment, Nicky asks:
“If anything happens, Mike, you don’t – don’t leave me over there. You got, you gotta… Just don’t leave me. You gotta promise me that, Mike.”
In the final act, Michael’s decision to return to Vietnam is predicated on this promise. The effects of the later scenes trace causally back to the earlier scenes in the narrative. Everything is connected.
By the same token, the words that characters use can have profound meaning with a cause and effect relationship between scenes.
In Act I, the two friends prepare for a hunting trip. Mike complains about how nobody ever listens to him when he tells them:
“…a deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that, they don’t listen.”
During Act III, at the climactic scene, Mike attempts to convince Nicky to put the gun down and come home. He fails to get Nicky to recognise him. Becoming desperate, Mike resorts to their earlier conversations.
In reminding Nicky, the two share a final moment of friendship amongst the chaos of the crowd. There is a look of recognition, laughter, and tears from Nicky as he speaks his final words.
The emotional weight of this line carries such profound meaning and significance because of the conversations in earlier scenes. Nicky listened to Mike, while no one else ever did.
#8: Scene Structure
- Where, in the overall narrative structure, does the scene occur?
- How does the scene begin?
- What happens in the middle of the scene?
- How does the scene end?
Every scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but you only need to show part of it.
The following structure is a useful tool when writing a scene:
- Rising action
- Falling action
- Momentary rising action
For example, the classic bank robbery scene from Dirty Harry uses this structure:
Scene Structure in Dirty Harry
- Stasis – Harry Callahan visits his usual diner. Ordering a hotdog from the cook, he asks if the suspicious tan Ford is still sitting outside the bank with its engine running. Callahan gets the cook to inform the police that there is a robbery in progress. Harry intends to enjoy his hotdog while he waits for the police to arrive.
- Rising action – A gun shot from the bank. Security alarms ring out. Harry abandons his hotdog, draws his gun, and crosses the street to stop the getaway.
- Climax – Callahan shoots the driver through the windshield, causing the car to flip after hitting a fire hydrant.
- Falling action – Callahan crosses the street to apprehend the injured criminal lying on the ground. The criminal tries to stretch his fingers out for his gun beside him.
- Momentary rising action – Callahan takes aim and gives his iconic monologue about the .44 magnum. If the guy reaches for the gun, Callahan threatens to “blow his head clean off” but in all the excitement he can’t remember how many bullets he has fired.
- Resolution – The robber resists the gun. Harry collects it and walks away. But the crook wants to know if the detective was bluffing or not. Callahan points the gun at him and pulls the trigger. An empty chamber. He laughs and walks away, leaving the robber for the cavalry.
#9: Get In Late, Get Out Early
- What happened before this scene began?
- At what point should we enter?
- How can I end this scene with tension?
- What is necessary and what isn’t necessary to show?
Two main points to remember when ending a scene:
- Get out with a sense of tension.
- Make the transition from one scene into the next visually interesting and smooth.
William Goldman’s scenes are a prime example of how to “get in late, get out early” when writing a scene. His scenes typically begin right before the ending of an action or a decision.
Doing this helps to keep the pace up, creates tension, and makes for dynamic transitions from one scene to the next.
For instance, one of Goldman’s greatest and funniest scenes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid begins with our two heroes evading capture from the authorities.
However, they run into a dead end. Butch and Sundance must choose between confronting their pursuers, facing jail, or jumping from the cliff edge into the rocky waters below.
The scene begins just before their decision to act and ends shortly after they choose to jump from the cliff, swimming to safety.
#10: Scene Format
No matter how well you write your scenes, if they do not have a layout that adheres to industry standard screenplay format, your screenplay will not be read.
The first line of a scene is the ‘slugline’. This instructs whether the scene is an interior or exterior scene. Next comes the name of the location and the time of day.
INT. GANTRY - OUTSIDE CONTROL ROOM - REACTOR SHAFT
Immediately after the slugline, and always before any dialogue, is a line of action.
Luke moves along the railing and up to the control room. Vader lunges at him and Luke immediately raises his lit sword to meet Vader's. Sparks fly as they duel,Vader gradually forcing Luke backward toward the gantry.
Screenplay action is at its best when it is lean and concise. Therefore, a good rule-of-thumb is to write no more than 3 – 5 lines of action at a time, separating each action into a visual.
Anything written must be visual. There is no point in writing what is going through a character’s head or how they feel.
Film is a visual medium and, as the old adage goes, “if it aint on the page, it aint on the screen”.
After action, the character with their dialogue, single-spaced beneath their name. The name and dialogue should be justified to the centre of the page with names capitalised above the dialogue.
VADER You are beaten. It is useless to resist. Don't let yourself be destroyed as Obi-Wan did.
In short, asking important questions leads to discovery.
By considering the purpose of a scene, its critical entry and exit points, and by being aware of structural elements pertaining to causal relationships of conflict and stakes, you will immediately improve your ability to write a scene.
Writing a scene needs focus and discipline. It can be easy to get caught up in the flow.
But set out a clear plan and your scenes will be more robust from the very start, saving yourself countless re-edits.