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

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Scene
September 15, 2010 38 comments
writing a scene

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

Forget everything everyone’s been telling you about how to write a scene. Things like “your protagonist must always have a goal in a scene against a strong antagonist.”

As we’ve already discussed in our post on why most advice on how to write a scene is wrong, this isn’t always the case.

What We Wish We’d Known About Writing a Scene Years Ago  

One of the single biggest problems we encounter with writing a scene is that they don’t “turn.” This means there’s no “reversal” emotionally or dramatically in the scene from bad to good. Or vice versa.

Most scenes don’t start on a positive value and end on a positive value. Or start on a negative value and end on a negative value. Instead, most scenes “turn.” That is, go from:

a positive (+) to a negative (-)
or a negative (-) to a positive (+)

If Jim starts a scene kissing Brenda (+) then it should probably end on a negative, like him getting dumped (-).

Or, if it starts with Jim arguing with Brenda because he forgot their anniversary (-) then it’d better end with something positive, like them making out (+).

End a Scene in the Opposite Place From Where It Started

When writing a scene, it’s usually a good idea to make it end up in the opposite place from where it started. Otherwise, its purpose can be seriously questioned. This transformation from a positive to a negative or vice versa is known as the scene reversal.

A major scene reversal is that surprising turn of events that leads directly to the scene’s climax. It’s the “Wow, I didn’t see that coming moment,” right at the end that completely alters the course of the scene, either in a big or subtle way.

Everything up to this point has been going in one direction, and then BAM! At the reversal, it switches to its complete opposite.

When writing a scene, reversals are essential in helping keep a reader’s interest by changing the fortunes of the scene’s protagonist from good to bad, or vice versa.

The Key to Writing a Scene That ROCKS: Reversals

As an example, here’s one of our favorite scene reversals, from the film American Beauty. Near the end of the film, the Colonel goes to see Lester in his garage.

We know the Colonel is a violent thug who runs his family home like a boot camp. We expect him to lash out at Lester for what he believes is the seduction of his son, Ricky.

The tension builds as the Colonel asks Lester about his marriage, but then… he pulls him in for a kiss. Now, that’s a reversal.

Writing a Scene With Reversals Keeps Things Interesting

Many aspiring screenwriters fail to utilize reversals like this when writing a scene. But without them, they tend to fall flat.

Know what you want the outcome of your scene to be, and then start it in exactly the opposite way. That way, you can add a reversal near the end that flips the scene into its desired place.

The reason why this American Beauty example is so strong is that it’s a major character reveal as well as a scene reversal. If you can lever in both a character development reversal with the reversal when writing a scene, all the better.

Writing a Scene Using the “Force From Outside”

Often, but not always, a reversal in a scene comes in the form of a Force From Outside. In this case, the reversal is another character (usually) or thing, that suddenly enters the scene. Again, this turns it in a completely different direction.

An Example From Annie Hall

One of our favorite “force from the outside” reversals comes from Woody Allen’s, Annie Hall. It happens in the scene near the beginning in a movie theater.

Alvy and Annie are in the midst of an argument as they stand in line for tickets. Alvy ends up berating a guy behind him for pontificating on Marshall McLuhan’s work when he knows nothing about it.

The “force from the outside” reversal occurs when Alvy steps out of the line to produce the real Marshall McLuhan, who promptly puts the man in his place. Alvy then turns to the camera and laments “Boy, if life were only like this.”

An Example From Pulp Fiction

Another example is in the scene near the start of Pulp Fiction as Jules and Vincent interrogate three guys over the whereabouts of a suitcase. The tension escalates as Jules eats a burger, quotes the bible and then suddenly shoots one of them dead. But this isn’t the scene reversal.

Tarantino could have just ended the scene with Jules and Vincent then finding the case and leaving. Instead, he adds a “force from the outside” reversal: one of the guys hiding in another room bursts in, shooting. But every bullet misses. That’s the “force from the outside” reversal that ends the scene.

In both these scenes, we have an escalation of conflict and a reversal which leads directly to the climax. Then we’re done. Both these examples were pretty surprising the first time you saw them, right?

This level of surprise is what you need to try to achieve when writing a scene.

Always look for ways to surprise your reader like this with a reversal, and introducing a “force from the outside” is a great way to do it

Micro Reversals When Writing a Scene

Let’s take a look at a couple of other screenwriting tips for writing a scene. “Micro reversals” are those little back and forth reversals that make up each scene. It’s a good idea to also include these in every scene you write.

There’s no point having not much give and go between protagonist and antagonist in a scene and then sticking a big reversal on the end and leaving it at that.

Rather, a scene is made up of a series of micro reversals, throwing the viewer back and forth throughout and making them wonder what side of the coin it’s going to land on.

You’ve probably seen the following example before, or something similar to it:

A Man Jumps Out a Plane

  A man sits on a plane (+)

  The plane starts to go down (-)

  The pilot regains control and levels the plane (+)

  The plane suddenly nosedives (-)

  The man finds a parachute (+)

♦  The door won’t open (-)

♦  He gets it open and jumps (+)

  The parachute won’t open (-)

etc. etc.

In a scene like this, we’re thrown from one micro reversal to another, wondering what’s going to happen. And if you want to learn how to write dialogue between two characters, watch as the protagonist seems to be winning, then losing, then winning the argument from moment to moment.

Again, it’s this series of reversals that keep things interesting.

Macro Reversals in a Screenplay

Reversals shouldn’t just be confined to writing a scene. A well-written screenplay is, in fact, a series of reversals operating on all levels—right from the macro to the micro. In other words, from the screenplay as a whole, to within individual scenes.

Reversals Across the Whole Screenplay

♦  Whole screenplay: Starts on a “down” beat and ends on an “up,” or vice versa

♦  Each act: Starts on a “negative” beat and ends on a “positive,” or vice versa

♦  Each sequence: Starts on a “negative” beat and ends on a “positive,” or vice versa

♦  Each scene: Starts on a “negative” beat and ends on a “positive,” or vice versa

By making each act, sequence and scene end on the opposite charge to which it started, you make sure the protagonist’s fortunes are put through a sliding scale from good to bad and back again.

It’s this back and forth motion that gives a good screenplay its “rollercoaster ride of emotions” feeling, and helps keep the reader guessing.

Writers who fail to take on these script writing tips when writing a scene, sequence, or act, will more than likely fail to get anyone interested in their screenplay.

Unfortunately, it’s that simple. This is because the protagonist’s journey through the script is too even-handed, without reversals changing his/her fortunes along the way. Overall, it’s imperative to keep the above in mind when writing a scene.

A Checklist for Writing a Scene

Go back over every aspect of your screenplay and make sure the charge for each element changes.

  Does the whole script start on a positive and end on a negative, or vice versa?

♦  Does each act start on a positive and end on a negative, or vice versa?

♦  Does each sequence start on a positive and end on a negative, or vice versa?

♦  Does each scene start on a positive and end on a negative, or vice versa?

Conclusion: Writing a Scene Like the Pros 

Don’t be satisfied writing a scene if it doesn’t “turn.” You wouldn’t stand for it in a movie if you saw everything just humming along nicely on an even keel, so don’t stand for it in your screenplay.

Apply these scriptwriting tips when writing a scene and watch how it comes alive.

###

Do you use reversals when writing a scene? Are you going to apply them now? Let us know in the comments section below.

writing a scene

Enjoyed This Post? Read More on Writing a Scene Like a Pro…

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

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

16 Essential Screenwriting Tips to Make Your Script Stand Above the Rest

[© Photo credits: Unsplash]

38 Comments
  1. Venkata Prasad Manne says:

    Anyone can say what makes a spec script great..organic story,insurmountable conflicts,great subtext&reversals and ofcourse good pace with innumerable examples from great films made.

    But it really takes a hard work worth life to learn how to put them in our so called spec scripts 🙂

    A compelling film we watch on screen seems to move itself without any effort…but thats work of great artiste.

    I have been writing from 3 years and I am damn sure my stories are boring.Its very frustrating and painful but its ok.One day I am gonna write a script that enthralls whole world and ofcourse Me.

    1. SRP says:

      Haha that’s a great comment Venkata. Screenwriting is TOUGH, but it does get easier the more you do it. Keep at it my man and I’m sure you’ll find success.

  2. Carissa says:

    I must say this has opened my eyes on how to write a scene. Thank you!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome Carissa.

  3. Thomas says:

    I didn’t know this about scene! 🙂

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Thomas. Glad we could help.

  4. LUCKY says:

    very much best!!!!!!!!!! i needed this more than anything!!!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome!

  5. Brian Duggan says:

    Crafty and more than overlooked by many screenwriters – excellent ammo to get a scene juiced.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Brian, appreciate the comment.

  6. darkocean says:

    This I think is also sound advice for novels too, thank you. One more “secret” in my writing toobox. Baw-wah-ha-ha! *Cough—sputter*

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you found it useful!

  7. Anshuman Mitra says:

    Great advice! Came just at the right time as I was struggling with a scene.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped 🙂

  8. Lissia says:

    YOU’RE DA BEST. Thank you so much for this article, it opened my eyes!

  9. Al says:

    Why didn’t you mention scene values? Why tell people to reverse the charge if they don’t even know what they’re reversing? In your opinion how do you identify exactly what the value at stake in a scene is? Because some values are very similar and could possibly both work as the definitive value for the scene.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Most scenes should have something at stake that relates back to the overall stakes of the movie, and it’s up to you the writer to decide what’s at stake in each scene.

  10. Muwonge says:

    It really uplifted my spirits, thanks Guys

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, glad it helped!

  11. Ankit garg says:

    In other book of yours, master screenplay sequences you have mentioned that a sequence can go from + to ++ and – to – -. This article is contradictory to that. Could you please comment?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s not contradictory, just another aspect of sequences that we didn’t get into in the post and saved for the book.

  12. Wendy Britton Young says:

    It reminds me of a book from my childhood, “Fortunately, Unfortunately,” which definitely held my attention as a kid 🙂

  13. Oscar E says:

    How do I decide exactly what coverage service I would like ?

  14. Pithar says:

    failure is not an option when it comes to screenwriting for me. and i know see i will make it thanx to this site.

  15. Rohan says:

    Do you’ve any short scripts I can copy?

  16. Larry C says:

    You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the finest writing websites on the web. I most certainly will recommend this blog!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re too kind, Larry!

  17. Karine Stonehouse says:

    Good post but you should mention that when writing scenes someone has to want something and someone has to stop them wanting it.

  18. Nick Schuman says:

    Nice this has helped my script no end.!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Nick!

  19. Darlene Curcio-Elsbury says:

    Excellent Tip simply put. I was trying to craft cause/effect, action/reaction, set-up/pay-off, but the vibe of +/- is easier to envision. Thanks much!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Darlene – glad it made it clearer 🙂

  20. Roland Henderson says:

    Interesting post. I had not thought of scenes in this way before. thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Roland!

  21. Sofia Jankowski says:

    Do not use Bob Mckee’s method of scene writing? You should write about that.

  22. Jeff B says:

    Where can I find more information like this on scenes?

  23. Layla Whitlock says:

    Fantastic! This really helped my understanding of writing a scene you have no idea!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good stuff, Layla!

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