The biggest mistake writers make is to start writing a scene before they understand the structure of that scene. The end result is a weak, diluted, placid scene that excites nobody. The characters feel one-dimensional, the dialogue sounds phony and forced, and the entire direction of the scene feels aimless and rudderless.
The key to writing a scene lies in telling a mini-story that includes a goal, conflict, and suspense. The goal makes us want to know if the hero gets it or not. The conflict creates tension as we hope the hero will get the goal but fear he or she may not get it. Suspense comes while we’re waiting to know what finally happens.
This is the way scenes work:
- A hero has a problem and tries to solve it.
- Complications arise from other people opposing the hero.
- The hero pursues another solution., creating suspense
- The hero solves the problem (or not).
Scenes are interesting because a hero keeps struggling to achieve a goal of some kind. Scenes are boring when they omit one or more of these four parts.
If a scene fails to define a specific goal a hero wants to achieve, the scene lacks a sense of importance and become static and dull.
If a scene fails to block the hero from achieving a goal right away, the scene will be over too soon and feel boring.
If a scene fails to show the hero trying another solution to achieve the original goal, then the scene will lack tension and suspense.
If the scene fails to end and conclusively show us if the hero succeeds or not, the scene won’t feel complete.
Before writing any scene, structure it first. This can be an outline or just text that describes what happens. Before writing a scene, you must know what’s going to happen. Defining the structure of a scene before writing makes writing much easier.
Study the basic outline of the following scenes:
- A man drives a woman in the rain because he wants to get to know her. Then he finally lets her know his true feelings. GOAL: Get to know the woman.
- The woman notices a car following them. COMPLICATION: The man stops the car and waits until the other car drives off.
- The woman mentions they passed a sign and the man says it was for a motel. SUSPENSE: Should he take her to the motel?
- The man and woman make love in the motel room. RESOLUTION: He finally got to know the woman better.
In “Blood Simple,” the man’s goal is not apparent at first, but it’s there from the beginning. In addition, the woman also has a goal too. Her hidden goal is to get to know the man. Then the driver in the car following them also has a goal, which is to follow them. When every character in a scene has a goal and is working towards achieving it, that scene will come alive. If a character does not have a goal, they can’t work towards it and their part of the scene won’t feel as important.
- Joe Gardner, an aspiring jazz musician, enters a nightclub to audition for a famous jazz singer. GOAL: Impress the jazz singer so she’ll invite him to join the band.
- A band member introduces Joe to the jazz singer as his former middle school teacher. COMPLICATION: The jazz singer is not impressed.
- The band starts playing and Joe plays hesitantly then zones out and plays superbly. SUSPENSE: Will the jazz singer be impressed by his piano playing skills?
- The jazz singer stares at Joe, then reveals she’s impressed. RESOLUTION: The jazz singer invites Joe to join her band.
In “Soul,” Joe’s goal is clear from the start, but the jazz singer also has a goal. She wants to find a piano player for her band, but she doesn’t think Joe is the man her band needs. In a scene, the villain isn’t necessarily a bad person. The villain is simply the person keeping the hero from achieving his or her goal.
In any scene, the villain is always trying to do the exact opposite of what the hero wants. In “Blood Simple,” the hero wants to get to know the woman, so the driver in the other car is threatening to keep that from happening. In “Soul,” Joe Gardner wants to join a jazz band but the jazz singer has to approve of him, and initially she doesn’t.
A goal for the hero gives the scene purpose and focus since from the start, we want to know if the hero achieves the goal or not. Conflict creates tension to make us wonder if the hero can achieve the goal or not. When the hero tries again, that creates suspense since the villain initially blocked the hero’s first attempt to get the goal. By the end of the scene, we should know whether the hero got the goal or not.
Take any of these elements out and the entire scene falls apart. To see how this creates a weak scene, here’s how the opening scene of “Don’t Worry Darling” works:
The hero is a woman living in a 1950s style suburban community. When the scene opens, she’s balancing a drink on her head along with two other woman as the women’s husbands cheer them on happily. Then one woman lets the glass slip from her head and bumps into the hero, causing the hero to lose the glass from her head, making the third woman the winner of this contest.
Everybody cheers and the hero pouts about losing, but her husband kisses her to keep her happy. Everybody grabs a drink, the men celebrate a promotion at work, and the women enjoy marital bliss. The end.
This scene goes nowhere because there’s no goal for the hero to pursue. Because she has no goal she’s trying to get, there’s no conflict to get in her way. Since the hero lacks a goal, there’s no reason for her to try a different solution since she has no direction to begin with. Finally, there’s no sense of resolution because the hero had no goal in the beginning.
The lack of a clear goal for the hero means there’s no conflict, no suspense, and no resolution of any kind. This creates a pointless scene that fails to grab our attention. The hero’s life is the exact same in the beginning as it is in the end. Nothing has changed.
In comparison, in “Blood Simple,” the man and the woman are hesitantly reaching out to see if the other shares their affections. By the end of the scene, both of their lives have changed because they’re now lovers.
In “Soul,” Joe Gardner is not part of a jazz band and he desperately wants to join the band. After his audition, he’s impressed the jazz singer who invites him to join the band. Joe had a dream of joining the band and by the end of the scene, he’s joined the band. His life has changed dramatically from the start of the scene to the end.
In “Don’t Worry Darling,” the hero’s life never changes in any way, which means this scene fails to tell a story. Just one poorly written scene can hurt a story, but if one scene is poorly written, there’s a high chance multiple other scenes are also poorly written where nothing changes the hero’s life in any meaningful way.
Remember, a story is only as strong as its weakest scene so it’s crucial to make sure every scene grabs attention and holds it by letting us see a hero struggle to achieve a goal and then let us know whether he or she achieved it in the end.