How powerful scenes really work

Powerful scenes—Tom Cruise, as major Cage in Edge of Tomorrow
Powerful scenes—Tom Cruise, as Major Cage in Edge of Tomorrow

Powerful scenes are the building blocks of successful stories.

Strong scenes bring characters, action and dialogue together. They form strong narrative units that enrich characters and promote plot. As such, we need to master the ins and outs of scene construction. Before attempting to write a scene ask yourself:

  • Who is the focus character in the scene, i.e. which character has the most to lose?
  • What does the focus character (usually the protagonist) want to achieve in the scene?
  • Describe the focus character’s emotional stance at the beginning of the scene.
  • What is the obstacle standing in the way of the focus character achieving the goal in the scene?
  • If the obstacle is another character, (usually the antagonist or his lackey) answer questions 1-4 for that obstacle character.
  • What is the outcome of the clash between the focus character and the obstacle force or character?
  • What is the emotional stance of the focus character after the clash? How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
  • Describe the emotional stance of the obstacle character after the clash. How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
  • How does the result of the clash cause the next scene?

“Opposing character goals generate conflict, the life-blood of powerful scenes. They reveal the motivation of the characters, authenticating them.”

In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage, a television personality, hides behind cameras and microphones to dodge the draft. He is called to General Brigham’s office. He believes he will be covering the Allied attack against the invading Mimics from the relative safety of America. The General, however, wants Cage to deploy with the USA soldiers and cover the action on the ground. Both men have distinct goals at the start of the scene. Their demeanour supports those goals.

After the clash, Cage has failed to blackmail the General into letting him off the hook. He is arrested, stripped of his rank and forced to deploy overseas as a private. His cocky attitude has been reduced to one of protestation and panic. The General’s quiet demeanour, on the other hand, underscores his victory.

The scene follows the structure laid out above. Use it in your own stories. Your writing should perk up substantially.

Summary

Powerful scenes display a specific pattern. Study this pattern until it becomes entrenched in your writing.

2 thoughts on “How powerful scenes really work

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    A powerful scene usually follows after a character has experienced a great epiphany. This is the result of a opposing force ( positive or negative) that challenges the hero to question everything he believes to be true about his own self worth. In the King’s speech Bertie has always been in the shadows while his brother Edward (who is the crown prince) always took the spotlight. Bertie has been afraid for all his life and his stammer has manifested his self doubt and others lack of faith in him. Lionel Logue by contrast has a very different situation . Lionel has no formal training in speech therapy , everything he knows is based on his own experience. The whole film’s build up comes down to the eve of Bertie’s Coronation as King George the fifth. Bertie confronts Lionel on his lack of credentials and accuses him of sabotaging the country by giving them a voiceless king. Lionel resorts to his trademark ( unprecedented /outrageous unconventional) methods to erasure Bertie that he in deed has a voice. This seen leads to Bertie having a second epiphany. After this confrontation Bertie realizes that he is worthy of becoming a king that can lead Britain in the war against Hitler. In short : A powerful scene needs to hold up a mirror at a character’s face and force them to recognize a greater truth.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      The article is written from a structural viewpoint, Gerhard. Not all scenes in a story can repeatedly contain the sort of reveal you mention above, but most scenes can follow the structure suggested in my article. The scene you describe is powerful though.

      Reply

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