How to Write Scenes That Keep the Audience Interested
Episode #6 of the course Getting started screenwriting by Jurgen Wolff
In the previous lesson, you found out how to structure your plot. The acts of a screenplay are made up of scenes, and in this lesson, you’ll discover how to write ones that keep the audience wanting to know what happens next.
What Is a Scene?
In a script, a scene is a unit of action. A new one starts each time you change locations or times. In a scene, a couple starts to argue in their living room. If they continue the argument in their car, that would be a new scene. Or if we cut to the same location two hours later, that would also start a new scene (in the ninth lesson, you’ll see what format to use to show you’re starting a new scene).
A more important distinction is that a scene is a unit of action in which something changes. Ideally, it’s a change that has some emotional impact. Let’s say you have a scene in which your protagonist is walking through a mall with her young son. She gets distracted, and when she turns back to the child, he’s gone.
Another example: The child asks his mother, “Who is that man?” She looks to where he’s pointing. There’s nobody there. “What man?” she asks. “The one with the skull face,” the boy says. There’s still nobody there and the mother is worried.
What Are the Purposes of a Scene?
A scene should do one or more of the following:
• Move the story forward. Whatever changed either moves your character closer or farther away from reaching their goal. The goal of the mother in the mall scenes is to protect her child; both scenes represent a setback.
• Reveal something new about one or more of the important characters. Sometimes what we learn will become relevant only later in the story. Maybe near the start, we find out the protagonist is scared of heights, and later, they will have to climb to the top of a building to get away from the antagonist.
• Be entertaining—funny if it’s a comedy, thrilling if it’s a thriller, and so on.
The best scenes accomplish all three. In the scene in which the boy disappears in the mall, how the mother deals with him before would reveal either that she’s not a very attentive parent or that she’s very attentive and there’s only a split second in which she allows herself to be distracted.
Characteristics of a Scene
When you think about a scene, try to think about the duration (how long it is), a conflict (whether it will have one), an ending (what’s next), and the subtext (what the scene is really about). Let’s explore each of these in more detail.
Duration. It can be from a quarter of a page to several pages. The average is about a page, but variations in scene length give variety to the pacing.
Conflict. Many scenes have conflict, i.e., the characters have different goals. A boss wants his secretary to agree to a date with him, while her goal is to turn him down without endangering her job. A police officer wants to get a suspect to confess, while the suspect wants to prove his innocence without revealing anything that would implicate his guilty friend. The intensity of the conflict should escalate as the story goes along; otherwise, the audience will be bored.
Open ending. Scenes should have an ending that raises a new question. What happened to the boy who disappeared? Was the boy who says he saw a man with a skull face pretending, or did he really see it? Is the boss willing to take no for an answer, or is he more sinister?
Subtext. Sometimes on the surface, a scene is about one thing, but in reality, it’s about something else, something hidden. The latter is the subtext. In a romance, a couple who just met might be talking about the weather, but the subtext is that they are very attracted to each other. Often, the subtext is revealed through actions, while the dialogue stays on the surface.
As you watch a film, notice what each scene reveals about the characters, how it moves the story along, whether it has a subtext, and how it makes you wonder what happens next. When you see a scene that doesn’t hold your interest, try to figure out why and how it could have been improved.
In the next lesson, you’ll discover how to write powerful dialogue that helps you create outstanding characters and scenes.
Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman
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