How to Create a Dramatic Scene

Most writers write boring scenes where nothing happens. If they do write a scene where something happens, it’s nothing memorable. So if you want to write a memorable scene, start with contrasts.

The key is to begin each scene where two opposing characters are in opposite states. Then by the end of the scene, the two characters completely switch states. In this scene from “Hidden Figures,” a black woman initially appears weak and in trouble for disappearing for long periods of time during the day. Opposing her is her white male supervisor who confronts her in front of everyone, asking where she goes during the day.

So the beginning of the scene looks like this:

  • Black woman – Weak, under attack
  • White male supervisor – Strong, in control

What happens is by the end of the scene, they’ve essentially changed positions like this:

  • Black woman – Strong, in control
  • White male supervisor – Humbled and weak

Watch this scene and you’ll see how the black woman explains why she’s gone for so long during the day. It’s because she has to go to the bathroom. Right away, this makes her look stupid and the white male supervisor closes in for the kill to completely humiliate her. Then the black woman springs her surprise counter-attack.

She calmly explains that the nearest bathroom for black people is far away in another building. When she explains this, it immediately answers the white male supervisor’s question and suddenly makes him (and all the other white males in the room) look and feel stupid for not realizing she can’t use any of the nearby white-only bathrooms.

Then the black woman continues her attack by shouting to let everyone in the room know that black people get paid far less than white people for doing the exact same job. This further deflates the white male supervisor and cements control in the black woman’s hands.

Finally, the black woman delivers the killing blow by shouting that she lives off coffee from a pot nobody wants to touch because it was touched by a black person. That revelation silences everyone, especially the white male supervisor when he realizes not only was he wrong to attack the black woman, but he was completely wrong about everything he thought about her.

By the end of her tirade, the black woman has completely won and the white male supervisor has completely lost, and every white male in the room also feels like they lost as well.

In the beginning of the scene, the black woman looked alone and weak. By the end of that scene, she’s the only strong person left and she’s no longer alone since she won over everyone in the room by explaining her situation.

Just putting characters in conflict is never enough. You have to make them start in opposite positions and make them completely switch positions by the end of the scene. The greater the contrast, the greater the drama of that scene.

Study the following scene from “Erin Brockovich” and you’ll see this same complete switch in opposing characters states. In this scene, Erin Brockovich and her boss enter a conference room filled with lawyers. These lawyers have treated Erin Brockovich as if she’s an idiot since she doesn’t have a law degree. So in the beginning of the scene, this is how the two opposing characters start out:

  • Erin Brockovich – Weak and easily ignored
  • Lawyers – Strong and in control

Erin Brockovich surprises the lawyers by giving them evidence that PG&E knew they were poisoning a neighborhood with chemicals but they continued doing it anyway. Erin Brockovich also gives them signed forms from all the witnesses agreeing to fight PG&E for poisoning them and their families. All of this evidence basically will help the lawyers win their case against PG&E.

So by the end of the scene, the opposing character’s states have changed like this:

  • Erin Brockovich – Strong and in control
  • Lawyers – Weak

Since the lawyers are actually working with Erin Brockovich, both sides win but Erin Brockovich comes out on top and the lawyers are left feeling foolish that they didn’t take Erin Brockovich seriously.

When writing scenes in your own screenplay, create as much contrast in two opposing character’s state as possible. One will start weak and the other will start strong. By the end of the scene, their positions should be reversed through conflict. This drastic change in a strong character suddenly feeling weak and a weak character suddenly feeling strong will create a dramatic scene that won’t be easily forgotten.

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