9 Tips for Writing a Great Scene

This article has some excellent tips to help you craft a scene that is emotionally compelling. It’s written from the perspective of an author, but the same principles apply to screenwriting:

What makes a great scene, anyway?

A great scene is one that fully engages your reader by triggering a powerful emotional response.

It doesn’t matter what the response is—fear, lust, envy, despair, pain, joy, shock, you name it—an emotionally engaged reader will continue to read. This is what you want.

Now, how to get there?  Here are nine tips to help you succeed:

1. Identify what you want the scene to accomplish. Every scene has to move the story forward, or it doesn’t belong.  It might be funny, or descriptive, or clever, but if it doesn’t move the story forward, it needs to go.

2. Identify who has to be in the scene and leave everyone else out.

3. The setting should add to the point of the scene. A love scene plays differently, for example, in a subway as compared to the opera.

4. Your character, whether a good guy or a bad guy, has to have a desired outcome going into the scene, and must work to achieve his goal. Passive characters aren’t very interesting. The goal should be hard. Struggle is good. Victory has to be earned or it’s boring. The big success, the final goal achieved, marks the end of your story, but you must build to this moment. Setbacks keep a reader interested.

5. Put the reader on your shoulder and have him discover what your character discovers. If your reader discovers things at roughly the same time as your character, he remains interested.

6. A character takes in his world on two levels: the external, objective fact of it, and the internal, subjective, how he feels about it. The character, in all his complexity, must be revealed by degrees. Like a helix, like the turn on a screw, every time the reader comes across that character, something has to deepen in the character’s external or internal understanding of himself and his world.

7.  Block the scene out in your head. Think it through. Thinking time is writing time. Then, sketch it out, so you don’t lose the thread of it while you work.

8. And now write it. Bring to it everything you have. Don’t save anything for later. Don’t bother with the rules. Don’t look for perfection. Forget the real world, go where your story is, and just write. I know one novelist who simply looks out the window, as if her characters are just there, performing for her, and types up what she sees and hears. I know another who works with his eyes closed (as in, a stocking cap pulled low). Do what works for you. And if you get stuck, a sure cure is to fall back on Stephen King’s advice: “Just tell the god damn story.”

9. Then, walk away. Sleep on it. Go play. And when you return, edit. Cut anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Superfluous characters should be cut. No matter how charming or clever, they’re just noise. Cut back-story to a bone. Cut the pretty, the silly, the clever, the irrelevant and redundant. Be ruthless. Cut the line that you hold most dear if it doesn’t belong. Reshape, regard from arm’s length, seek opinion, work it again, and maybe again, and yes, again, and now you’re done.

The scene is a beauty. Pat yourself on the back. Now, if you’ve written one, you can write another. Repeat, until your book is done.

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