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Good Scenes – How to Write Them

Great scenes in Out of sight
Great scenes abound in Out of Sight

Good scenes are comprised of story units involving meaningful dramatic beats.

The general function of any scene, we are reminded, is to provide the reader or audience with essential information in order to follow the story.

The specific purpose of a scene, however, is determined by what sort and how much information to provide. To do so effectively the writer has to understand that scenes are narrative units of the sort referred to on this and other websites as the inciting incident, pinch, turning point, mid-point, climax, resolution, and so on.

The specific purpose of the inciting incident, for example, is to kick-start the story, the first turning point’s function is to turn the story in an unexpected way, and so on.

Identifying scenes in this way highlights their specific function and tells us where they slot into the story. Particular scenes, therefore, allow us to map information in the right place along the story path.

But what about the nuts and bolts of scene construction itself?

“As a general rule good scenes should start late and finish early, meaning that scenes should not contain excess fat. A scene should fulfill its function and end, allowing the next scene to perform its function and end.”

Scenes should also adhere to the genre stylistics of the story. Stylistics inform how the scene delivers its information. The climactic scene in a love story, for example, is very different to the climactic scene in the action genre, in terms of setting, tone, tempo, and protagonist/antagonist interaction. In a love story the antagonist and protagonist might very well end up having sex and getting married; in a thriller, they might end up killing each other,

Out of Sight

In the superb comedy/action/crime/love story movie Out of Sight, Jack Foley (George Clooney), a failed bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) a US Marshall, share an ostensibly antagonistic relationship, which conceals a growing attraction between them — an attraction usually associated with a full-blown love story. The outer journey — the cop chasing the bank robber — neatly echoes the inner journey — the lover’s chase. The accomplished but disjointed time-line adds to the sense of uncertainty in which the viewer is unsure whether Sisco is out to arrest Jack or make love to him. 

Summary

Great scenes correspond to the narrative units discussed in previous posts. Each scene performs a specific task and is located at a specific point within the overall story.

Tension in Stories

Tom Cruise —tension in A Few Good Men
Courtroom tension in A Few Good Men

Tension sucks your readers and audiences into your stories. In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers urges us to keep ramping up the tension of our tales. The tension he is referring to here is different from shoot-outs and car chases – that’s chiefly excitement through action, not tension. 

True tension is coiled up inside difficult moral choices: Which one of her two children does a mother sacrifice to save the other — Sophie’s Choice. Does the father in Mast lower the drawbridge to prevent the train from falling into the river, or does he leave it up and avoid crushing his son who has fallen into the lifting mechanism of the bridge?

Not all choices have to be world changing. They can be small, as long as they are significant to the characters who make them. In Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins keeps the inquisitive Emma Thompson from seeing the title of the book he is reading. It’s a small action in the scene, but the tension in her wanting to know is palpable.

“Tension spring-loads your story. It keeps it taut and delivers a walloping release at the end.”

Higher stakes need higher sacrifices to resolve them. Whether the stakes are world domination as in a James Bond movie, or merely the control of your home, they are still high for the affected characters. If your characters don’t have everything to lose, ratchet up the stakes and keep doing so as the story progresses to keep the tension high.

In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise is trying a big case which will send his client to prison for a long time, if he loses. But later in the story, the stakes rise even more. If Cruise gambles on turning the tables on the Jack Nicholson character, and fails, not only will he lose the case, it will cost him his Navy legal career. For a man living in the shadow of his father, the previous U.S. Attorney General, the stakes are high indeed.

In filling your story with tension, ask yourself the following questions: What are the stakes for my hero and how can I raise them? What is the moral choice he faces, and what does he stand to lose if he makes the wrong one? Correctly structuring the tension in your story will make for a more gripping tale.

Summary

Keep the tension high in your stories by resenting your hero with difficult moral choices.

Story Strands — How To Merge Them

Story strands in Braveheart
William Wallace perfectly merges the story strands in Braveheart


The outer and inner Journeys comprise the two most important strands of a story, which is another way of saying that they relate how the hero acts in the world, and why.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts, beat-by-beat, the external events of the Hero struggling against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the race, preventing a robbery, and so on. 

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, and setbacks.

“The pivot points merge the story strands, the outer and inner events of the tale, into single actions.”

Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing, explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, the turning points, including your midpoint, describe events that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his evolving inner state.

Is it preferable to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? There is probably no definitive answer to that question—either will do, as long as both through-lines are tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength. He manages to kill the fop, an expert English swordsman, despite his being defeated in the actual sword fight, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Breaveheart, William Wallace accepts his knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes up arms against the English. The ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection. 

Summary

The pivot points are the perfect place for the story strands to merge and ensure that the “why” explains the “what” in the story.

Pantser or Plotter?

James Joyce as a pantser
James Joyce, pantser extraordinaire.

The great Irish writer, James Joyce, a pantser extraordinaire, once said that writing is like climbing a mountain. When ascending the rock-face, all you can see is the surface directly in front and behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. Writing is a little like that. All you can see is the page you’re working on.

When we sit down to write a screenplay, novel, or short story we are faced with the daunting challenge of having to fill the blank page or screen in front of us. Having a roadmap helps us orientate ourselves and gets us to our destination sooner.

Some writers like to plan the story meticulously before writing down a single word. Others like to write from the seat of their pants—pantsing, in colloquial speech. But even pantsers ought to have some idea of story direction prior to commencing the journey. Having a sense of the overall story’s structure, knowing how our story ends, for example, allows us to to begin charting the protagonist’s journey from page one.

Even more useful is also knowing where the midpoint or turning points are. This grants us freedom to parachute down to any point in the story and continue from there. If we are feeling sensitive and soppy today, we might write up the love scenes of our tale; if, on the other hand, we are in the mood for action, the confrontational scene between the hero and antagonist might suit us better.

“Most writers fall somewhere inbetween the pantser / plotter spectrum, sometimes running on instinct sometimes drawing on a preconceived plot.”

Writing a story from a structural roadmap, however, changes the roadmap. Turning points, the midpoint, pinches, even endings, shift, breathe. The structure that we outline in the light of day may not work late into the evening. Indeed, this is the most common reason pantsers give against pre-planning a story.

Yet, a changing structure need not be an argument for no structure at all. There is nothing wrong with going back and adjusting/rewriting the midpoint, or second turning point, or pinch, according to some new direction that may suddenly seem more appropriate. This to and fro is part of the writing process. It turns us into more accomplished writers.

Summary

Having a roadmap for our stories (plotter), doesn’t preclude allowing our story to develop as we write (pantser). The two approaches work well together.

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Unforgiven
Character conflict in Unforgiven arises from William Manny’s thinking he can stay true to the wishes of his dead wife to be a better man versus his true nature as a hired gun.

We’ve often heard that character conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories lack dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Character Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how juxtaposing the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, against an external conflict makes for a gripping tale.

“Internal and external character conflicts continuously struggle against each other, thrusting and parrying like opponents in a fencing match, until there is an eventual winner.”

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the length of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict that arises, should build on the danger and intensity of the previous one. This means that inner conflict is adjusted to suit changes to the physical threat. Is the character more or less fearful after each physical challenge? More or less prejudiced or committed?

Character Conflict in Unforgiven

What, then, follows a scene containing such conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven Ned Logan decides to walk away from the job involving killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic Schofield Kid to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces an entire saloon filled with men seeking to kill him. This is the result of the setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan, who was unjustly accused of murder. Manny now has no alternative but to revenge Ned’s death.

It is important to note, then, that each conflict has the following structure—conflict, setback, climax, resolution.

Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as inner conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

No villain, no hero

The villain in Ordinary People
The mother as villain in Ordinary People


The success of a story largely depends on how well the writer uses the protagonist’s inner and outer struggles, juxtaposed against a powerful villain, to prove the theme.

But it’s not all just about the protagonist. Behind every successful hero lurks a relentless and ruthless villain.

Inexperienced writers tend to develop their heroes and villains separately, instead of crafting them as polar opposites of a single narrative entity.

If your hero is a formidable Kung-fu expert you need an even more powerful villain to stand up to him. Pacific Rim is filled with battle-hardened hero types, driving highscraper-tall machines. The writers, therefore, had to come up with monster-size villains to fight them. 

The more powerful your hero, the more powerful your villain needs to be in order to generate risk, suspense, and excitement—to pose a worthy threat to the hero. 

Strength, of course, is not merely physical. In Ordinary People, the mom is a formidable and relentless opponent whose implacable determination to take custody of her young son drives the plot forward.

“Never forget that it is the villain that inadvertently spurs the hero to achieve his best in order to win the day.”

Although villains are crafty and tireless plotters, they are not always 100% bad. Remember, villains don’t see themselves as villainous. They feel justified in doing what they do. In their minds, they are merely seeking revenge, righting a wrong, balancing the books, for a perceived injustice perpetrated against them.

Additionally, a successful villain knows how to punch the hero’s buttons. He takes advantage of the hero”s weakness. If your hero is a rich stockbroker, the villain is an even richer businessman who manipulates the market to bring him down. If your hero is a champion boxer, his opponent is a seven foot, three-hundred pound Russian giant. 

Remember, then, that the hero and villain form a single unit. Identify the hero’s weakness and the villain’s strength, and have the villain take advantage of that weakness—until the last moment when the tables turn and the hero uses the same technique against him. 

Lastly, have the final confrontation play out in the villain’s lair—the place that is most advantageous to the villain. It will raise the tension and fill your readers or audience with dread. Providing you have chosen an up-ending, it will also make your hero’s final victory that much sweeter.

Summary

The hero and villain are polar opposites, forming a single narrative unit.
The hero’s weakness juxtaposed against the villain’s strength complicates the plot and heightens tension.

Story Pace — How to orchestrate it.

Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace
Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace

Story pace: One of the reasons that storytellers need to master structure is so that they may orchestrate narrative events—the highs and lows, tension and release—in a way that keeps readers and audiences engrossed. Too much of a good thing makes for boring or inaffective stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act a writer needs to craft a new low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point that unleashes the third act. It is the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom. Others have called it the lowest ebb, or the darkest night of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition. 

“A tale without story pace is like an orchestra without a conductor, speeding up or slowing down at the whim of its individual instruments.”

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he once thought he wanted to be rid of.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’ phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet. His destiny will remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic but safe hometown. 

Although these examples are triggered by external events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero to experience his deepest doubt, the story positions itself for a final resurgence.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It is an important indicator of story pace. It defines the point in the journey where the Hero seems the most distant from his goal.

Exposition—how to write it

American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.
American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.


Exposition is a necessary part of any story. We must know certain facts about a character or event in order to make sense of the unfolding narrative. But an unskillful use of exposition can also slow the momentum of the story.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA gives several examples of good and bad exposition.

In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration. This is a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. But the scene is too static—boring.

In American Graffiti, a radio dial and catchy music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy diversions.

“In Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino brilliantly weaves exposition into the forward thrust of the story. A Nazi officer interrogates a French farmer who is hiding a Jewish family under the very floorboards where the interrogation is taking place.”

In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on cigars they step into the water and discuss things you’d expect to hear a gangster boardroom scene. By portraying the gangsters as fat old men in a pool, Tarantino allows the exposition to slip in surreptitiously. 

In these examples, context, mood, and necessary information are indeed relayed through exposition. The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer. The next three do so more skillfully. They insert subtext in the setting and dialogue to keep the audience engaged. 

Summary

Load exposition with subtext or make it part of the forward thrust of the story.

Invitation

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Scene tension — how to achieve it

Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow
Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow

In my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading the writing with contradictory cues to increase scene tension. 

This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.

Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.

Here’s an example:

Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.

“The bad way to try and achieve scene tension is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party shouting the other down at the end.”

The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow

In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected. 

In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands. This is always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.

But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up. He towers over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him. Cage retreats. 

Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair, startled. 

This small incident emphasises the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.

No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue. 

Summary

Create scene tension in your story by having actions play out in counterpoint to threats being delivered through dialogue.

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Success as a Writer

Juno was an unexpected success.
Juno was an unexpected success.

How do you measure success as a writer? Writers like to speculate about what it takes to write a smash hit. We pour over the year’s best-sellers, read manuals and books on the subject, take classes, cruise websites such as this one, searching for an edge.

But while that’s all to the good, Ray Charles said it best: “Ain’t no son of a bitch knows what’s gonna hit.”

That’s the plain truth.

When a publisher or a movie producer says, “Give me something like The Hunger Games, it’s what young audiences want,” what she means is: “I believe that’s what young audiences want.” She can’t know for sure.

There are many reasons why a specific story proves popular. Remove or misplace one element and you could end up with a dud.

Hugh Howey’s Wool seemed like just another post-apocalyptic story — people kept in the dark about the real situation beyond the confines of their silos. But something about the visceral way the story starts, the way we are drawn into the mind of the lead character caught the readers’ imagination. Wool shot to #1 in its category on Amazon, and Hugh Howey became the indie writer’s poster child.

“No one knows for sure what’s going to prove popular this month, this year. The landscape is littered with failed imitations of yesterday’s hits. Success is all too often elusive.”

Juno seemed like a non-starter. Ostensibly about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, the story seemed destined to wallow at the bottom of the slash pile. Yet, the integrity, freshness, and passion behind the writing drove the movie to an Oscar for best original screenplay.

So, amid all the seemingly contradictory advise, what’s a writer to do? Emulate the formula and risk being yesterday’s news? Write something so original he has to wait ten years for audiences to catch up?

Here’s John Truby on the subject: “Write a screenplay [or story] that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”

If your story is something you care deeply about, others will too. But even if they don’t, you will, at least, have explored a subject close to your heart. It’s far better than grinding your teeth and writing something you think readers want, only to discover they don’t.

Summary

Maximise the chances of success while insulating yourself against failure by writing stories that you feel passionate and excited about.

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