Writing Scenes Backwards for Maximum Emotional Impact

Here’s the biggest mistake novices make when writing scenes. They write a scene that serves no purpose other than to provide information to the audience. Because the scene lacks conflict of any kind, the scene winds up being dull and easily cut. Then if it’s cut and does provide crucial information, the rest of the story suffers.

Here’s a better way to write every scene. Start with the end and make sure that ending is either a surprise or an unfulfilled promise.

For example, consider the scene in “Star Wars” when Luke and Obi-wan discover that storm troopers have slaughtered the Jawas in search of R2D2. That scene ends when Luke suddenly realizes that if the storm troopers killed the Jawas to find R2D2, then they likely went to his uncle’s farm to find R2D2 as well. That leaves the scene with a surprise that Luke’s aunt and uncle could now be in danger.

Because of this surprise at the end of the scene, we can’t wait to see the next scene to find out what happens. Then this next scene ends with an unfulfilled promise when Luke gets to his uncle’s farm and finds his aunt and uncle have been killed. Now Luke decides to boo with Obi-wan, and that creates an unfulfilled promise that makes us want to know what will happen next.

The key to writing endings for scenes is to create a cliffhanger to make us want to know more. Once you know the ending for a scene, you want to create the greatest possible emotional impact by reversing that emotional impact.

In the case of Luke realizing his aunt and uncle are in danger, the previous part of that scene is Luke and Obi-wan discovering the dead Jawas that have been slaughtered to make it look like the Sand People did it.

Work backwards from there and the previous part of that scene is when Luke and Obi-wan find the Jawas vehicle and their dead bodies everywhere.

Work backwards from there and the previous part of the scene is when Luke and Obi-wan are heading back to Luke’s uncle’s farm.

Reverse these scene parts and you have the structure of the scene:

  • Luke is willing to take Obi-wan to the starwort to go alone to Princess Leia’s planet with R2D2
  • Luke and Obi-wan discover the Jawas vehicle and their dead bodies everywhere
  • Obi-wan realizes that the death of the Jawas was staged and that storm troopers likely did it
  • Luke suddenly realizes that if the storm troopers are looking for R2D2, they might be looking for his aunt and uncle, so Luke rushes off to his uncle’s farm to save them

Notice by starting with a strong ending and working backwards, you can create a far more impactful scene than just parading out a bunch of facts and meaningless action in a scene that will be easily forgettable. By working backwards and creating a compelling step-by-step progression that concludes with a strong cliffhanger ending, you can write scenes that grab an audience’s attention in every scene.

If you can hold an audience’s attention in every scene, you can string together these scenes and create a full-length screenplay that will also hold an audience’s attention from start to finish. When you can do that, you’ll know you have a winner in your screenplay.

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