Scene Tonic for Stories

Scene tonic for stories? Why would you need it?

Chinatown —no scene tonic needed
Chinatown’s scenes are so well written that no scene tonic is needed.

How many times have we come across this scenario? Our hero needs to uncover information about someone, or something. He googles it, goes to his local library, zips through old newspapers, records.


In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers suggests the only memorable thing about such scenes would be if the computer blew up in his face, or a library shelf collapsed and hit him on the head.

Staring at computer screens, or paging through records makes for dull scenes. It is much better to have your character corner a grumpy librarian and try to solicit the information from her, or try to bribe a shady cop, or talk to the local priest.

Now, you not only get the information necessary to drive your story forward, but you layer the scene with tension or humor via the subtext rooted in the reluctant informant. The result is a richer, more dramatic and entertaining event. Even if your character fails to extract the information, he generates interest.

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson has to deal with a sour, officious clerk. He asks if he can check out a book of records from the facility and is told this is not a lending library. He then asks the clerk for a ruler. “A ruler?” the man snarks back. It’s to help keep his eyes focused on the lines of text, Nicholson replies. The clerk slaps a ruler on the desk in front of him. Nicholson grabs it and hurries back to the records book. He coughs loudly, simultaneously tearing a page from the book with the aid of the ruler.

Good writing!

In the example above, there is no scene tonic needed—not only does the hero get the information he needs, he makes a fool of the unlikable clerk.

Interaction between characters is always superior to eyeballing screens, or flipping through pages in a book. Scour your story for such scenes and try to inject human conflict into them, even if that conflict is small. Your scenes will be better for it.


A scene tonic is needed if information gathering becomes boring. Extracting information from another character is better than extracting it from the internet or a book. At the very least, have your hero try to convince others to help him acquire it.

One thought on “Scene Tonic for Stories

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    The tricky thing about writing a memorable scene is to not to brake the laws of physics that apply to the rules of the universe of your story . If the scene is funny yet unbelievable it will make for a less effective scene. You are not writing a script for a Loony tune or Tom and Jerry Cartoon thus you can’t all of a sudden drop an anvil on a character’s head and have him simply move on – Unless of course it’s a Mel Brooks comedy starring Leslie Nielsen or Jim Carrey where the film is so ridiculous that it’s basically a cartoon. One way to write an effective scene is to establish character relations before writing the scenario. In the beginning of Rocky Mickey wants nothing to do with Rocky. In a previous scene Rocky confronts Mickey and asks him why he resents him to which Mickey explains it’s because Rocky works for a cheap second grade lone shark instead of applying himself to become a better boxer. The later scenario is when Mickey goes to Rocky and offers to be his manager only after he is given a title shot against Apollo Creed. It’s a very moving scene when Rocky lashes out at Mickey when he offers his help six years after Rocky first asks for Mickey’s help.

    In short – to have a situation within a scene you must first need to establish the situation between your characters.


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