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

Use These 8 Rules to Supercharge Your Scenes and Take Them to the Next Level

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Scene
June 21, 2014 61 comments
writing a scene

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

Every well-written screenplay scene—especially the big ones at major plot points—contain these eight key principles that move the story forward and keep the reader engaged.

In order to illustrate these eight key 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 eight 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. So let’s get started.

Writing a Scene Key Principle #1:
Reveal One New Piece of Key Info

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 Key Principle #2:
Give the Scene Just 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.

Writing a Scene Key Principle #3:
Give the Scene a 3-Act Structure

Like the overall movie itself, writing a scene means giving it a 3-Act structure.

It 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

Writing a Scene Key Principle #4:
Not Every Scene Needs Conflict, But It Needs Stakes

It should be a given that each scene should include some sort of conflict and/or 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 its conflict as we see both Miles and Jack reacting to the other’s tactics.

However, don’t fall into the trap of listening to all those so-called screenwriting gurus who say “every scene must contain conflict.” The idea that every scene in a screenplay should be thought of as a battle between a protagonist who wants something and antagonist who wants the opposite, is just false.

When writing a scene it’s better to think of it in terms of what you want to reveal to the audience, rather than as a head-on clash between two or more characters. Here’s a helpful post on how to write a scene that discusses this in more detail.

Writing a Scene Key Principle #5:
Include Some Kind of Visual 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 entrance, then joining Miles and Jack at the bar, then the shot of them walking home, gives this dialogue-heavy scene some needed visuals.

How to Write a Scene Principle #6:
Give a Character One True Choice To Make

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

Dustin Hoffman has commented he will only make a film if his character has at least 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.

Writing a Scene Principle #7: Make Sure There’s a 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.

How to Write a Scene Principle #8:
Advance the Story, Characters and Theme

Ideally, each scene in your screenplay should advance the plot, character, and theme of the overall story. 

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 voiceover 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.

Conclusion

Rather than using this checklist as a starting point before writing a scene, we recommend you write the scene first and then refer back to the list in order to tighten it up.

Use this eight-point checklist once you have a draft of the scene and then go back in order to make sure the scene protagonist makes a true choice, there’s a reversal of values and something at stake, etc.

###

Do you have any screenplay scene principles you think we’ve missed? How do you go about writing a scene? Let us know in the comments section below.

writing a scene

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

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

[© Photo credits: Unsplash]

61 Comments
  1. Marcella says:

    Thanks for the good writeup. It if truth be told was once a
    entertainment account it. Look complex to far added agreeable from you!

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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!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re right, Francis. And thanks for the comment!

  6. Dennis P says:

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

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out, Dennis!

  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!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks!

  9. Rebecca says:

    I’m going to go through and make sure every one of my scenes follows these principles. Thanks guys!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Rebecca!

  10. Alda says:

    I see there’s no mention here of goals.

  11. William says:

    Personally I don’t agree with everything here but it will help newbies. I’ve sold twelve scripts in my time and am a WGA member whose worked with many top producers and execs.

  12. Majid says:

    I don’t understand why there need to be just one peice of information revealed? More than one thing happens in scene?

  13. Norman says:

    I feel this is among the most significant information I’ve found on scenes out there. My story will definitely be helped when I apply these 8 principles.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Best of luck with the script, Norman!

  14. Dieter says:

    I think the writer of this post doesn’t understand that writing is not all about rules and regulations and “key principals”. It’s about FEELING and EMOTIONS. And you can do that without all these rules. Good day.

  15. Jermaine says:

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in to helping writer like me.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s what we do 🙂 Thanks for reaching out.

  16. Odell says:

    Hi SRP, this is very useful please keep up posting these content on writing scenes.

  17. Monica says:

    What if I want to write a scene that doesn’t have any characters? What then? This post says nothing about that.

  18. Gerald says:

    I have shared this with my writing group and they love it too. Thanks for helping struggling writers like us.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We wish you and your group all the best, Gerald!

  19. 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!

  20. Helen says:

    I have been able to find so much good information on writing scenes from
    your blog. Keep up the good work

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you found us, Helen!

  21. Rachel says:

    I am sure this post will help A LOT of writers out there. Great stuff SRP!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We hope so – thanks, Rachel!

  22. Mr Malkmus says:

    What an island of great complexity.

  23. 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.

  24. Dalton says:

    Every aspiring screenwriter should read this page. Wonderful stuff.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re a star, Dalton. Thanks for the feedback!

  25. Joel says:

    This is the best post ive read on writing a scene. Thanks so much guys.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great, thanks, Joel.

  26. Harvey says:

    Are you looking to read a great script about a man’s fall from grace as he battled inner and outer demons? Based on a true story.

  27. 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!

  28. Simon Akugizibwe says:

    Big love and thanks

  29. 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!

  30. 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!

  31. Stavros says:

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

  32. Anton Godfrey says:

    Hi Guys,

    Found this very useful.
    Regards

    Anton

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Anton!

  33. 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!

  34. Chandrayee says:

    I love how the post has been written with such generosity – being not-even-an aspiring-kind-yet I loved how the principles have been tutored to any reader who reads it. Thanks @Writer, Script Reader Pro

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for your comment, Chandrayee. Means a lot.

  35. Lillian says:

    Dоes your website have a phone number? I would like to discuss my script with you.

  36. Hanna G says:

    Love these 8 keys! No.2 is my favourite. Keep up the good work Script Reader!

  37. William Whiteford says:

    Generally, every next scene should result from a previous one. – An extreme case, hated by Guru Aristoteles, is a collection of pure episodes free of the cause-effect-chain.
    The first scene is of the paramount importance – it has to capture the audience’s attention. (Yet, not every film can begin with a bank robbery).
    Some scene might be enriched with “moments” showing the relations between characters and “motives” enhancing the coherence.
    Apart from all the tips (not rules), a screenwriter should emotionally, intellectually, etc. explore every scene. If she/he decides to crush all the rules, THE REVERSAL OF VALUES will be done.
    WITH MY THANKS to SRP-Co.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Well said, thanks, William.

  38. Melissa Milich says:

    Thank you so much or such a GREAT tutorial!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reading, Melissa!

  39. LEE BRUCE says:

    Outlining the entire story is what I do first. I do at least three reviews of my outline, leaving notes in the margins about dialogue, scene props that sell me on the ambiance, or mood swings. Usually at the end of the third review I begin to sense the overall emotion of the dialogue and motives of the characters. I then put my pencils down, and get away from the notes, take a walk and visualize the scene. If I smile, I have a winner…If I groan or grimace, I need to rethink the scene. Using these 8 tips help me only, repeat only after I carefully review the outline, and then Beat it out using Blake Snyder’s BS2 techniques. Keep the faith fella’s

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great advice, thanks for posting!

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