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8 Out of 10 Writers Have Been Told How to Write a Scene the Wrong Way

Are You One of Them? If So, Here's the How You Should Approach Writing a Scene Instead

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Scene
April 15, 2015 37 comments
how to write a scene

8 Out of 10 Writers Have Been Told How to Write a Scene the Wrong Way. Are You One of Them?

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.

Aspiring 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 may be true in many cases, but is ultimately misleading. It implies every scene falls into a neat protagonist vs. antagonist conflict paradigm, when clearly they don’t.

Examples of How the Usual Scene Advice on How to Write a Scene Misleads

Here are a couple of examples of scenes that don’t really conform to the traditional “protagonist vs. antagonist” advice.

The Shining

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.

Yes, there’s some conflict between protagonist and antagonist, but it comes right at the end of the scene. And it still has nothing you could call “rising conflict” between Jack and Wendy. And besides, what’s her goal?

Bridesmaids

Or take 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 here as laid out by most screenwriting “gurus” when discussing how to write a scene. 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 how to write 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

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 wanted to show Tom 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 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, learning how to write 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
How to Write a Scene Step #2: Cut, Cut, Cut

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.) It’s more a case 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 a character’s attitude to the homeless, or the fact that he’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. Then, give each one a Scene Label.

What Is 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 scene 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.

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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How did you learn how to write a scene? What do you think of our method? Let us know in the comments section below!

how to write a scene

Liked This Post? Read More on How to Write a Scene and a Screenplay Overall… 

Writing a Scene: The Epic Technique Most Aspiring Writers Don’t Use

8 Keys to Writing a Scene That Pops Off the Page and Grabs the Reader

How to Write a Screenplay: The Secret to Elevating It Above the Ordinary

[© Photo credits: Wikipedia Commons / Unsplash]

37 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. Curtis says:

    I’m not sure I agree with this. Writing a scene is surely more about improvising with actors who feed off each other in the moment.

  9. Yusef says:

    very interesting thank u.

  10. Archie Chadwell says:

    My professor showed us this post in our screenwriting class today.

  11. Graham Daniels says:

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

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Graham 🙂

  12. Seit says:

    How can I write a scene using this method if only character is in it?

  13. Margarie says:

    Will be spreading the word about this. Thanks so much Scriptreader Pro!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Margarie!

  14. 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.

  15. Aaron V says:

    Now whenever I’m watching a scene in a movie I’m thinking about this post…

  16. Robin says:

    Thank you SRP. This makes learning how to write a scene much much easier for me. Eternally grateful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, glad it makes sense for you.

  17. Janet says:

    Adding Scene Labels is great advice! Makes the outline even more focused and useful, with ultimately a better script. Thanks for clarifying the protag/antag conflict paradigm.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Janet!

  18. Daniel says:

    This is the first time I’ve seen the concept of scene labels, and it’s a game changer. I agree that having conflict just for the sake of having conflict doesn’t always make sense. But each scene needing a PURPOSE for the story…that makes a world of sense. Fantastic article!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great, glad you find it helpful!

  19. Irene says:

    Excellent advice

  20. Bob Woods says:

    I just finished listing my scenes and adding three columns next to each one. They were labeled Info-Entertainment-Conflict and I scored each one from 1 to 10. I found that I didn’t have strong conflict in each scene…Then I read your advice.

    Now, I’m going to add another column for PURPOSE. What a great idea and it was FREE!

    Thanks,
    Bob

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you found it helpful, Bob!

  21. Geraldine says:

    This is just perfect… Thanks Fir this wonderful info. Its really helpful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks so much for the comment, best of luck with the script!

  22. Novotny Ingersol says:

    Twelve on a scale of ten for a great big blast of fresh air! It’s about time a little gas was let let let out of The Eternal Conflict Bah-loon. What’s next to vent? The BME Formula?
    All best best wishes, Max Headroom.

  23. patricia faithfull says:

    I think the definition of “conflict” needs to expanded. Everyone seems to think it means confrontation or anger/escalation. There is so much in between, before and after, that seeing a wider perspective of it would benefit many writers. For example, Bridesmaids coffee scene: Wiggs’ character is single and we learn later she was dumped at a financial low point, by her cad-boyfriend. Her best friend is about to marry a wonderfully, solid guy. This is the beginning of tension! It is so subtle, most don’t see it. (sorry, men definitely don’t) And her friend expresses disapproval over Ted. again, very subtle. so its not a lack of conflict, but so subtle it is almost imperceptible as a baseline of “we’re heading different directions.”

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Exactly – excellent comment, Patricia. Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean fighting but there has to be a reason for the scene – and that reason should circle back to the protagonist’s overall conflict – the problem/flaw they have to overcome.

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