The Elements of Great Scene Writing

Everyone can come up with a great idea for a story. That’s easy. The hard part is turning a great idea into a great story.

In the movie world, Hollywood often tries to turn great ideas into great stories by relying on A-list stars and directors, expensive computer-generated special effects, and plenty of gunfire and explosions with hints of sex thrown in. While all this can attract an audience’s attention, it can’t turn a great idea into a great story all by itself. Just witness the constant string of expensive flops that litter the Hollywood landscape.

If hiring the hottest actors or directors doesn’t guarantee a great story, and spending money on outrageous stunts and special effects won’t turn a great idea into a great story, then what’s the answer?

The answer lies in making every moment count. From start to finish, every second has to entice, captivate, and seduce the audience into forgetting that they’re sitting in a theater seat and transport them into another world so they no longer feel as if they’re watching a movie but rather feel as if they’re experiencing the same emotions as the characters they see on the screen.

To do that, it all boils down to writing great scenes one after another.

A scene acts as the basic building block of story-telling. Tell just one weak scene and your entire story risks falling apart. Watch great movies like “Star Wars,” “Casablanca,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “Titanic” and there isn’t a single scene that distracts from the story. Instead, each scene pulls you along from start to finish, holding your attention and sending you on an emotional roller coaster. By the end of the movie, you may not even realize how many scenes you’ve seen. All you know is that you’ve experienced an emotional rush without even realizing how much time has gone by. You probably can’t even remember all the scenes you just watched, but you do know how they all made you feel.

To create a great story, you need to write great scenes. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, you first need to come up with a great idea. A great idea gives your story a destination. Until you know where your story will go, you won’t know which scenes you need to make it work.

After you have a great idea, then you can focus on writing great scenes. So what’s the definition of a great scene?

Every story is different, yet great scenes share common elements. First, a scene has to move a story forward. Any scene that simply repeats an earlier scene needs to get cut. If you watch movies on DVDs, you can often view a list of deleted scenes. Watch those scenes and you’ll realize that they simply took up time without moving the story forward. To move a story forward, a scene needs to the following:

  • Introduce something new
  • Show us a problem
  • Show conflict
  • Set up and foreshadow the future
  • Create unanswered questions

If a scene fails to show us something new, that scene is useless. Watch movies on DVD and you’ll see a list of deleted scenes. When you see those deleted scenes, they may be funny or interesting, but ultimately they were redundant and didn’t provide anything new to the story.

In “Django: Unchained,” the hero (Django) is searching for his wife who is the slave of a cruel plantation owner. In the original screenplay, there were several scenes showing how Django’s wife got separated from Django and wound up with a caring slave owner. Unfortunately this slave owner lost her in a poker game to the cruel plantation owner, and that’s how she wound up owned by the cruel slave owner.

Yet all we needed to know was that Django’s wife is owned by a cruel plantation owner who won’t let her free, so Django has to go there and find a way to rescue her. How she got there is irrelevant. The important fact is that she’s there and we can see how she’s being cruelly punished for trying to escape. We don’t need to know how her previous owner lost her in a poker game. When a story contains scenes that don’t provide us with new information that’s important to the story, the overall story tends to drag and lose focus.

Every scene also needs to show us a problem. A scene without a problem is boring. The reason why problems are crucial is because they throw the character’s world out of whack so the story holds our attention as we watch the characters try to put their world back together again. Problems are interesting.

Watch a woman walking down the street and that’s boring. Watch that same woman walking down the street while a man stalks her from behind and suddenly she has a problem and the mere act of walking suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

In “Star Wars,” think of Luke and Obi-wan looking for a pilot to take them off the planet. If Luke and Obi-wan could simply buy a ticket and hop on a starship like someone buying an airline ticket, that’s boring. Problems make every scene interesting.

There are two ways to create problems. First, you can create simple obstacles. In “Star Wars,” Luke and Obi-wan need to find a pilot to take them off the planet. That’s a simple problem, but that problem gets harder when Luke realizes the only pilots around are sleazy, dangerous, scumbags who hang around a seedy bar. Now the problem isn’t easy to solve so our attention in the scene suddenly increases.

What makes that scene even more interesting is when we add conflict. Conflict occurs when someone or something directly opposes a character. In “Star Wars,” trying to find a pilot in a seedy, dangerous bar is bad enough, but suddenly there are two strangers who don’t like Luke and try to attack him. Obi-wan has to save Luke by slicing the strangers in half with his light saber. People to people conflict is always interesting because we want to know who will win in the end and how they’ll succeed.

Conflict is what makes every story (and scene) compelling. More conflict occurs in that bar scene in “Star Wars” when the stormtroopers show up and Luke and Obi-wan have to escape. Then additional conflict occurs when a bounty hunter tries to capture Hans Solo, only to have Hans blast him and walk away. Problems and conflict go hand in hand towards making every scene interesting.

If a scene creates conflict and resolves it like in the bar scene in “Star Wars,” there’s little interest in seeing the next scene. That’s why every scene (except for the last one) sets up future scenes.

The bar fight scene in “Star Wars” sets up Obi-wan’s future light saber duel with Darth Vader. On a more mundane level, this bar fight scene sets up the fact that Obi-wan has hired Hans to fly them off the planet, so a future scene must show Hans flying Luke and Obi-wan away. Without that set up, the whole scene where Hans flies the Millennium Falcon away makes no sense. When scenes don’t fit logically together like pieces of a puzzle, the whole story weakens and threatens to fall apart.

Watch a bad movie with major plot holes and you’ll see how the lack of set ups and foreshadowing destroys credibility in the story. In the horrible movie “Jaws 4: The Revenge,” the hero is a woman who believes a great white shark is targeting members of her family. Right away there are major plot holes.

How does a great white shark know which humans swimming in the ocean are related to each other? Why would a great white shark target a single family while ignoring dozens of other people it could eat?

Notice that when you lack scenes that properly set up events that occur in other scenes, you wind up with tremendous plot holes that wreck the believability of the story. The more plot holes a story has, the worse that story will be.

Besides setting up and foreshadowing future scenes, every scene also needs to end with a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger shows us characters about to do something, but doesn’t show us the results. Because we want to see the results, we stick around to the next scene.

In “Die Hard,” the hero has finished off most of the terrorists and realizes he only has one bullet left. What will he do? That scene ends with that question unanswered, which pulls us into the next scene that shows us how the hero plans to resolve that cliffhanger.

In the next scene, the hero has a gun taped to his back with his one remaining bullet left inside. That cliffhanger from the previous scene (what will he do with one bullet left?) forms the basis of the next scene’s conflict, which is when the hero confronts the villain and the last remaining terrorist.

Because the previous scene left us with a cliffhanger of the one bullet problem, our attention is already riveted in the next scene as we see the hero approach two terrorists but with one bullet. This scene resolves that problem by showing the hero shooting one terrorist with his last bullet.

Scenes aren’t isolated entities but mini-stories that connect to each other. One scene sets up the pay off in a later scene. When scenes aren’t connected, the story feels disjointed. When scenes are connected, the story flows effortlessly.

So making sure you have a great idea is just the first step to writing a great story. The second step is to execute that story idea through compelling scenes that pull us through the entire story from start to finish.

Look at the difference between the original “Star Wars” and the far weaker “The Phantom Menace.” In “Star Wars,” each scene is interesting in itself and sets up future scenes. In “The Phantom Menace,” each scene is boring and often disconnected from future scenes to the point where “The Phantom Menace” is simply not a good movie.

You don’t want to have a great idea and turn it into a boring story. To turn a great idea into a great story, you need to know how to structure scenes.

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

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