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Writing A Scene: The #1 Technique Writers Forget When Writing Scenes

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
September 15, 2010 17 comments
writing a scene

Writing a scene — one that moves the reader — can be a challenge. But there’s one technique you should include in every scene you write. 

It’s a very simple method, and by the end of this post you will know what it is and how it’s implemented by professional screenwriters. Most non-screenwriters who watch films aren’t even aware of its existence, but it’s there in virtually every important scene in every film ever made. Even many aspiring screenwriters aren’t aware of its existence. Or if they are, they fail to use it when actually writing a scene.

Forget everyone telling you that your protagonist must have a goal against an antagonist. That just isn’t always the case, as we’ve already discussed in this post on why most advice on how to write a scene is wrong.

The #1 Tip For Writing A Scene… 

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

A scene should never start on a positive value and end on a positive value. Or start on a negative value, and end on a negative value. Instead, every scene you write should “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 had better 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 (+).

When writing a scene, every one must 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 the readers’ interest by changing the fortunes of the scene’s protagonist from good to bad or vice versa.

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Writing A Scene Using A Reversal 

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

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.

Way too many aspiring screenwriters fail to utilize reversals like this when writing a scene, but without them, they just 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.

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, turning it in another direction.

One of our favorite “force from the outside” reversals is in Annie Hall in the scene near the beginning of the film set in a movie theater.

Alvy and Annie are in the midst of an argument as they stand in line for tickets. Alvy becomes more and more irritated and 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, in order to settle the disagreement, Alvy steps out of the line and produces 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.”

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

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

So, in both these scenes we have an escalation of conflict and a reversal which leads directly to the climax, and we’re done. Both these examples were pretty surprising the first time you saw them, right? So 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: by “micro reversals” we mean those little back and forth reversals that make up each scene. 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 thinking that’s okay.

Rather, a scene is made up of a series of reversals, throwing the viewer back and forth throughout, wondering what side of the coin it’s going to land on. For example, you’ve probably heard the following example or something similar to it:

  • 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 event to another, our hearts in our mouths, as we wonder what’s going to happen.

And in a dialogue driven scene, the reversals that take place are when we watch as the protagonist seems to be winning, then losing, 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.

It breaks down like this:

  • 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 are making 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, and so it’s imperative to keep the above in mind when 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?

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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 script writing tips when writing a scene and watch how it comes alive.

Do you use reversals when writing a scene? Are you going to now you know about them> Let us know in the comments section below. And don’t forget you can get us to review how you write a scene using one of our script coverage services. Check them out by clicking the banner below.

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17 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. Muwonge says:

    It really uplifted my spirits, thanks Guys

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, glad it helped!

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