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Why Most Advice On How To Write A Scene Is Wrong

And How To Do It Instead

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
April 15, 2015 16 comments
script analysis

The most common advice given on how to write a scene is to approach it from the angle of escalating conflict between a protagonist and antagonist.

Writers are told to ask themselves when writing a scene: “What’s the protagonist’s goal?” “Who’s stopping them achieving it?” “What’s the rising conflict?” This advice, though, is misleading because it implies every scene falls into a neat protagonist vs. antagonist conflict paradigm, when clearly they don’t.

Consider the scene in the middle of The Shining, in which Jack tells Wendy he just had a horrible dream he killed her and Danny. Then Danny arrives with bruises on his neck and Wendy freaks out. This time there’s some conflict between protagonist and antagonist, but it comes right at the end, and still has nothing you could call “rising conflict” between Jack and Wendy. And besides, what’s her goal?

Or the scene in a cafe near the start of Bridesmaids. Lillian talks about her relationship with her fiancé and scolds Annie over her sex-based relationship with Ted. There’s no real conflict between them. There’s no real protagonist with a goal. It’s just a simple conversation between two friends.

The truth is, you’re putting yourself at a major disadvantage by approaching writing a scene purely through the lens of a protagonist vs. antagonist face-off.

So the question is—if this isn’t the best way to approach writing a scene, what is?

How To Write A Scene Step #1: Decide What You Need To Show The Audience

500 Days Of Summer script
The best way to approach learning how to write a scene is by stepping back from the characters’ minds and what they want, to focus instead on what you want. In other words, your thoughts shouldn’t be dictated by what the protagonist’s goal is in a scene, but simply by how best to reveal a certain piece of information to the audience.

If you think of every scene as a tiny nugget of information the audience needs to understand what’s going on, your approach to writing a scene should be, “What’s the best way to show the audience what this character’s like here?” Or, “What’s the best way to show the audience how the plot’s moving forward here?”

Ideally, you want to end up with an outline that has a Scene Label beside every scene.
Here are some examples from popular movies:

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER

During the second half of the film, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wanted to show that Tom is having a hard time meeting anyone new after breaking up with Summer.

Here’s the scene they came up with: Tom walks with a date and tells her up front it’s not going anywhere. In a diner, he complains to her about Summer and later sings some angry karaoke. His date leaves.

ROAD TO PERDITION

At the beginning of the film, the writer David Self wanted to show the audience that Michael Sullivan Jr. is fascinated by his father’s occupation — which involves carrying a gun.

Here’s the scene he came up with: Michael Sullivan Jr. is asked by his mom to go fetch his father. He stops at the end of the corridor and watches from a distance as his father empties his pockets… including a gun. Michael steps forward and says “dinner’s ready.” His father acknowledges this, without looking.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

Near the end of the movie, writers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez wanted to show that Josh is probably dead, while also letting Heather and Mike realize it too.

Here’s the scene they came up with: Heather and Mike wake up to find a bundle of sticks in front of the tent. Heather throws it away at first but then goes back to take a look… Inside she finds a pouch containing bloody human teeth.

Overall, a scene is best approached by working out what aspect of a character or plot you want to reveal to the audience, and then by engineering (or rewriting) the scene to clearly show it.

How To Write A Scene Step #2:
 Cut, Cut, Cut

how to write a scene
The key to learning how to write a scene is knowing how to keep the action tight and the scenes short. Most spec scripts we receive, though, contain scenes that go on for too long. Often for three, four or five pages when only one would do.

It’s not so much a question of cutting a scene if it doesn’t make sense, (although this can also true) but more a question of cutting a scene if you can’t pinpoint what exactly you’re trying to show the audience.

It’s fine to think about what happens when you first write a scene, but ultimately you need to know why it’s happening. If you’re not really showing the audience Jenny’s attitude to homeless people, or the fact that Gavin’s just messed up his one chance to make the soccer team, then that scene could probably be cut.

How To Write A Scene Step #3: Give Each Scene A Label

To make sure each scene serves a specific purpose in revealing something to the audience, go back to your outline (if you have one) or some scenes that you’ve written, and give each one a Scene Label. By this we mean label each one by what it’s supposed to show the audience. Not what happens in the scene, but why it’s happening.

If your outline says, “Kate talks to a cute guy, but fails to ask him out,” the Scene Label could say, “Kate is shy with boys,” if this is the scene’s actual purpose. If you find it hard to think of a Scene Label for a scene in your outline, there’s a good chance it’s not fulfilling a specific function so could probably be re-worked or cut.

Ideally, of course, you want to end up with an outline that has a Scene Label beside every scene.

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We hope this post has helped demystify some of the advice out there on how to write a scene. It was partially taken from our online screenwriting course, Script Hackr, that cuts through much of the misleading theory and improves a screenwriter’s writing chops through practical, hands-on exercises.

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16 Comments
  1. leitskev says:

    Excellent.

    1. SRP says:

      Thank you!

  2. Tony says:

    Really useful.

    Thanks.

    1. SRP says:

      Thanks Tony, glad you found it useful 🙂

  3. Steven Walters says:

    Love this. My writing starts from a story, plot, or what-if? scenario, and characters spout from that. This makes more sense than the constant conflict approach.

    1. SRP says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Steven. 🙂

  4. C. Petersen says:

    Agree! I have found that when I added conflict to every scene, my characters annoyed me. Life is already filled with stress. People come to movies to be entertained.

    1. SRP says:

      True, but they’re entertained through living vicariously through characters who’re under stress. It’s just the approach to showing this stress in scenes that most screenwriting advice gets wrong.

  5. Kevin Po says:

    This is awesome. I think I’ve been approaching scenes all wrong up till now. Thanks!!!

  6. Raajendra A. Vaidya says:

    Thanks Dear….

  7. Floyd Glenn says:

    This post, AND the blog, AND FB page is one of the Best!! Absolutely. Very well written, and extremely practical – Imho. ( :

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Wow, thanks for the feedback, Floyd!

  8. Graham Daniels says:

    Love this website – my go-to for screenwriting information. Thanks guys!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Graham 🙂

  9. Kenneth says:

    I think the idea of scene label is fantastic. It really ensures each scene serves a purpose and pushes the story forward. I also agree with the fact that each scene does not always require conflict. It really annoys me when my instructor that I had before kept insisting each scene requires some sort of conflict to push the story forward, as a matter of fact, this notion is also mentioned in several well-known screenwriting books. I think each scene requires a purpose, and creating conflict is an example of “purpose” but is not necessarily required. In fact, I think its worse if the scene has conflict but no purpose.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Kenneth. Yes, the usual advice to create conflict no matter what annoys us too. That’s why we wrote the post 🙂 Best of luck with your script.

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