Designing Your Scenes

In most scenes, two or more characters are both pursuing goals of their own that involve the other character. This pursuit of multiple goals by multiple characters in a scene creates conflict, which makes the scene interesting while also providing us with additional information.

In “The Hunger Games,” there’s a scene where the hero has to demonstrate her skills so the game judges can rate her on a scale of 1 to 12 so bettors can place odds on a likely winner. The hero’s initial goal is to demonstrate her skill. When she shoots an arrow and misses her target, the judges lose interest in her.

Quickly, she shoots a second arrow and hits her target dead on, but by now the judges haven’t even noticed. To overcome this problem of being ignored, the hero aims an arrow at an apple in a pig’s mouth that the judges are eating. Suddenly when the judges see that she hit the apple perfectly, their shocked looks show that the hero has finally achieved her initial goal, which was to make a good impression.

A good scene (or sequence of scenes) always tells a mini-story like this:

  • One character has a goal
  • A second character blocks that goal
  • The first character finds a way to overcome that obstacle
  • The first character either gets or fails to achieve that goal

At the end of every scene, something has changed. In this scene from “The Hunger Games,” the judges’ impression of the hero has gone from benign neglect to shocked admiration.

Watch bad movies and you’ll see mistakes with scenes. One common mistake is that nobody in the scene has a goal of any kind, so the action is entirely meaningless. A second common mistake is that one character has a goal and achieves it with no obstacles in the way. Without conflict, there’s no action and without action, there’s no story.

What every scene needs is conflict and surprise. We need conflict to cause problems for the main character of that scene. We need surprise to keep the scene from being predictable.

In “The Hunger Games” scene, what would have happened if the hero had shot her arrow, hit her target, and the judges were impressed? There would be no conflict and the scene would feel deadly dull. When the hero faces an obstacle, she finds a surprising way to overcome that problem, and that surprise is what keeps the scene fresh and memorable.

At the end of every scene, something must change for better or worse. By mixing the outcome of scenes, you take your audience on an emotional roller coaster ride where sometimes the hero’s life seems better and sometimes it seems worse.

Another scene in “The Hunger Games” occurs when the hero strays too close to the border of the games arena. To drive her back to the center, the games makers light the forest on fire, forcing the hero to run. To make her problem even worse, they shoot fireballs at her, badly burning her leg. By the time the hero escapes from the forest, she’s still alive, but in worse shape than before.

You don’t want too many scenes together where the outcome is always good or always bad for the hero. Just like a roller coaster is more fun when it constantly goes up and down, so will your story be far more interesting when the outcomes of your scenes alternate from good to bad.

You might have two scenes, back to back, where the outcome is good for your hero. Then suddenly the next scene creates a bad outcome. There are no set rules for alternating the outcome of your scenes, but too many good or bad outcomes in a row starts making your story predictable and predictable stories get boring.

To help you identify the change for the characters in every scene, you can define the following for each character in your Synopsis for each scene:

  • The character’s goal for that scene
  • The obstacles facing each character
  • The solution each character tries to overcome that obstacle
  • The final outcome (good or bad).

When you have two or more characters in a scene, one character will achieve the initial goal but the other character may not. In “The Sixth Sense,” there’s a scene where the hero waits for a little boy to come home. When the little boy sees the hero in his living room, the hero tries to gain the boy’s trust by playing a guessing game. Initially, that works, but then he starts guessing wrong and the little boy flees. The hero’s character arc might look like this:

  • Gain the trust of the little boy
  • The boy is reluctant to talk to him
  • Play a guessing game
  • Too many wrong guesses causes the boy to flee

In that same scene, the little boy has his own character arc beat that looks like this:

  • Get away from the hero
  • The hero keeps talking to him and offers to play a guessing game to get information out of him
  • The boy plays the guessing game
  • The hero guesses wrong too many times, giving the boy a reason to escape

When characters in a scene pursue multiple goals, that scene feels more realistic. When characters don’t have any goal of their own to pursue, those characters feel pointless and the entire scene feels less engaging. We care about what happens to people who we know. We don’t care about people we don’t know. By giving each character a goal, we can relate to that character as a real person.

[xyz-ihs snippet=”Making-a-Scene-book”]

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