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The 8 Dramatic Principles Of Writing A Scene


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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
June 21, 2014 24 comments
writing a scene

When it comes to writing a scene, there are 8 Core Principles you should follow. Every well written screenplay scene—especially the big ones at major plot points—contain 8 dramatic principles that best move your story forward and keep the audience engaged. 

In order to illustrate these 8 dramatic principles we’ll be using the scene in Sideways in which Miles and Jack share a drink with Maya at the bar for the first time and Miles says they’re just going back to crash.  

We chose this scene to study as it’s fairly dialogue heavy and doesn’t rely on a heap of action or drama, but still demonstrates all 8 principles very well. Re-read the scene from the screenplay, or re-watch it, so you get a better idea of the 8 dramatic principles as described.

Script Scene Principle #1: ONE PIECE OF INFORMATION

When you’re writing a scene, remember it should only reveal ONE new piece of critical information.

Your scene can reveal several nuances about character or theme of course, but there should be only one overall critical piece of info—the one piece you want the audience to come away with from the scene.

This information is the overall point of the scene—the line that you write in your step outline to describe what happens in it—and everything should revolve around this revelation.

In an outline for Sideways, you might write this particular scene like this: “Later, they meet Maya again at the bar. After some small talk, she asks Miles what they’re up to tonight but he blows it by saying they need to crash.”  

The one piece of key information that the screenplay scene demonstrates is that Miles is far from ready to make any kind of move on Maya. Or any woman for that matter.

Writing A Scene Principle #2: ONE GOAL

When writing a scene, it should include a goal that relates to the overall objective of the protagonist. 

Here, Miles’ scene goal is to remain friendly but not get too close to Maya. He does ask if she wants to come over and join them for a drink, but this is done out of politeness more than anything, and from then on in he lets Jack take over the talking.

Miles’ scene goal relates to his overall goal in that his overall goal is to also remain aloof from female contact. Over the course of the trip he just wants to play golf, relax and drink wine. He has no intention of flirting with Maya.

Script Scene Principle #3: STRUCTURE

Like the overall movie itself, writing a scene in a script should include a set up, complication, and resolution. This is particularly  true of the most important scenes in the story, i.e. the Call to Action, Big Event, Midpoint etc.  

This scene in Sideways adheres to a classic structure as it represents an Act Break. Here are the major beats of the scene:

Set Up: Miles and Jack are having a drink at the bar.

Call to Action: Maya enters and Miles calls her over.

Act 1 Turning Point: Maya asks Jack if he’s an actor and they begin flirting.

Midpoint: Maya asks them what they’re up to tonight, and Miles says they’re probably going to go “crash.”

Climax: Maya leaves.

Denouement: Walking home, Jack berates Miles for screwing it up.

Note how closely this scene structure mirrors conventional 3 act structure. All it’s missing is the Act 2 Turning Point as—like in all good scenes—it’s best to get out as quickly as possible once the point of the scene’s been made after the Midpoint.


Writing A Scene Principle #4: CONFLICT

It should be a given that each scene should include some sort of conflict and stakes

In the Sideways example, Miles is the protagonist and Jack is the antagonist. Miles’ scene goal is to just be polite and make small talk with Maya. Jack’s scene goal is to ratchet things up a notch by engaging Maya in some flirtatious conversation.

Note how both of their goals relate to the overall scene goal. The clash of these two goals gives the scene it’s conflict as we see both Miles and Jack reacting to the other’s tactics.

Screenplay Scene Principle #5: ACTION

When writing a scene, remember to include some sort of visual action. Scenes are combinations of action and dialogue, and finding the right balance between these two elements is essential to creating a successful scene. 

In the Sideways scene, we start with Miles and Jack at the bar. It’s static. But then Maya arrives—an action—and then joins them—an action—and leaves—another action.

The scene could have opened and closed with all three of them sitting at the bar, but adding Maya’s arrival and entrance gives this dialogue-heavy scene some needed visuals.

Writing A Scene Principle #6: ONE TRUE CHOICE

Each screenplay scene should include one true choice, by which we mean a moral choice between two goods, or between two evils.

Dustin Hoffman will only make a film if his character has 40 choice points.  A scene can contain many small choices but, like with the revealing of information in Principle #1, it must contain one critical choice that propels the story forward. This usually happens at the Climax of the scene.

In this case, the major choice Miles makes is, of course, when he says they’re going to just go back to the hotel and crash. This decision comes at the Climax to the scene and is also the major decision he makes near the end of Act 1, propelling Jack in the next scene to declare he’s not going to let Miles’ “neg-head downer shit” stop him from getting laid.

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Screenplay Scene Principle #7: REVERSAL OF VALUES

Writing a scene means including some sort of change, or reversal of values. In other words, if a scene starts on a positive charge it should end on a negative charge and vice versa. By the end of the scene, the protagonist must have an understanding of this change.

So, in our example, the scene starts on a positive charge when Miles calls Maya over to join them at the bar. Note how Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor make it Miles and not Jack who calls her over. This is because if Miles does it, it’s an even more positive charge than if Jack did it. i.e. we’re thinking that maybe Miles is not so uptight after all.  

The scene ends on a negative charge when Miles destroys the chance to hang out that night with Maya, and he is made fully aware of this change—and mistake—by Jack’s remonstrations.

Writing A Script Scene Principle #8: STORY ADVANCEMENT 

Each scene in your screenplay should advance the plot, character, and theme

In this scene, the plot is advanced by Jack planting the lie that they’re celebrating the publication of Miles’ book—a lie that will have serious repercussions later. We also now know Maya is single and available.  Miles’ and Jack’s characters are both advanced because we get a better idea of their mindsets: Miles wants to stay aloof, Jack wants to party and is ready to lie, making his friend appear to be a success.

We learn through exposition that Jack’s acting career is not going too well and he is now relying primarily on voice over work.

The theme of the film is that emotional maturity is necessary for a truly happy relationship. Maya represents emotional maturity, but the  flip side of this—emotional immaturity—is expressed by both Miles and Jack.

All three characters display these traits in this scene.  Maya is emotionally mature and is ready to meet someone new—someone like Miles. Miles, however, shows his emotional immaturity by not being able to move past small talk with Maya. Jack, meanwhile, displays his emotional immaturity by lying to Maya about Miles’ book and by flirting with her when he’s engaged.


Use this checklist when writing a scene and let us know in the comments section below what you think of it. Do you have any screenplay scene principles you think we’ve missed? And don’t forget you can have one of our pro screenwriters review your script scenes by checking out our script coverage service below. 

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  1. Marcella says:

    Thanks for the good writeup. It if truth be told was once a
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  2. Tatiana says:

    This is incredibly helpful. I have searched all over today for information on what makes a great scene and how to put those principals into practice and this is by far the most helpful write up. Very, very incisive and well done, with a great example. Thank you so much.

    1. SRP says:

      Thanks Tatiana!

  3. Francis says:

    Yes! This is the information on scenes I’ve been looking for. Thank you.

  4. Francis Gek says:

    What about #9 – keep a whiskey bottle close at hand.

  5. Francis Gek says:

    Many writers just think a scene is a couple of people sitting around talking. This post shows you it’s not, good job!

  6. Dennis P says:

    This is amazing. I’m a newbie writer but this helps so much.

  7. Sacha S says:

    Informative post, this is. I like the way you break down writeing a scene like this. Thanks

  8. Alejandrina Gomez says:

    I never knew any of this about a scene. It’s so refreshing to read advice that’s not just ‘write conflict between protagonist antagonsist’ Big THUMBS UP guys!

  9. Mike G says:

    Finally I got a website from where I be able to actually take helpful facts concerning screenwriting.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, Mike!

  10. Lawrence says:

    I am exploring becoming a screen script writer. This write up was most encouraging. Can you recommend other sites that offer this kind of information. Thnks.

  11. Collins says:

    Its amazing how this information has freely helped a newbe like me. Thanks

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Collins!

  12. Simon Akugizibwe says:

    Big love and thanks

  13. Mazara says:

    This quite helpful, with these instructions it will make my life easier. I am beginner trying to write a screen play for 4seasons (Wahunzi wa Efeso)

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Mazara – good luck with it!

  14. benson saimon karanja says:

    what an awesome instructions? i am a beginner in writing of these scripts, but despite having the whole story, still i didn’t have some ideas. thanks so much since i will now develop my ideas… thanks so much

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks a lot for this, best of luck with the script!

  15. Stavros says:

    There are very few MUST haves. Good outlines, but none are musts.

  16. Anton Godfrey says:

    Hi Guys,

    Found this very useful.


    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Anton!

  17. Kait Marcus says:

    Like so many of us, I’ve been paddling through the ocean of Google-able advice on how to write a screenplay forever. I’ve learned a lot, and am ready to start writing. I’ve got a log line and a detailed synopsis. But today, of course, I Googled instead. The prospect of 120 pages is so damn daunting. So I searched “one scene at a time” and came across this. It is BRILLIANT. Thank you very, very much. Today, the writing begins.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Kait and best of luck with the script!

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