Weekly Writing Memo: Parts of a Scene

Weekly Writing MemoWhether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, you are going to be writing scenes for your story. The breakdown of a scene for each is essentially the same, and requires that three things happen.

The Setting

The first thing that has to be established in almost any scene is where it is taking place. Sometimes this can be as simple as establishing that it’s a mysterious unknown place, that’s fine, but some form of setting has to be established. Showing the setting helps ground the audience and helps them visualize what is happening.

To do this in a screenplay, you use the scene heading and then give a brief description of the location in a line or two. Find a succinct way to set the tone and layout of the scene without giving long descriptions. Also, make sure to mention any elements of the setting that are vital to the action of the scene. Don’t wait to mention there is a newspaper on a chair if a few lines down that newspaper is going to be used to slap someone!

This is true for fiction as well. It’s best to set up details that will come into play early on so that way when they are used, the audience feels they have been established instead of feeling like they were just thrown in when the writer needed them. Unlike in screenplays, fiction can let the setting unfold a little more naturally as the character interacts with it. You’ll still want to mention key elements as soon as you can for the best effect, but you can let some details come out more fluidly as the scene develops.

The Character

The second thing to establish in any scene is who the scene is about, and who the protagonist and antagonist of the scene is. In every scene there is one of each, even if one is an inanimate object or something. Every scene is driven forward by a character wanting something, and whatever is getting in the character’s way at that moment is the antagonist for the scene. There can also be an antagonist that is not present in the scene as well, but do consider who the antagonist within the scene is.

You’ll also want to find a way to introduce other characters that are present for the scene as early as possible. If a character is in the room while something is happening, and the audience isn’t aware of it, it can be startling when that character finally “appears” to the audience. It can also change a scene completely. So make sure to find a way to introduce each character within a scene so the audience knows who the players are.

The Conflict

Every scene is about one thing – someone wants something, and something (or someone) is stopping them from getting it. If this isn’t happening in your scene, then your scene has no conflict or tension and really needs to be reconsidered unless you have strong motivations for it.

The other key thing to remember for every scene is that every single character in the scene has a want, and their behavior is going to be driven by whatever that want is. You want some of those character desires to conflict to create tension. If the conflicts are the same (like two characters want a sandwich) then find a way to make the wants conflicting. For example, maybe they both want a sandwich, but they want the other character to make it for them. Or they both want a sandwich, but there is only enough bread for one.

If you know what your characters want, then you know how they will behave in a scene. You also know what you need to keep them from getting it for as long as you naturally can within the scene. Don’t let them get what they want easily, unless what they want isn’t really what they need! If it isn’t what they need, then the moment they get what they want, it’ll create new conflict. The point of every scene is to create tension and conflict, and to drive the story forward.

Final Notes

The final thing to consider when writing a scene is that you don’t want to spend a lot of time in the beginning setting up what your character is doing or trying to achieve. If you find yourself doing this, try jumping forward in the scene and seeing how it reads without the introduction.

For example, if a neighbor wants to borrow a cup of sugar, but the other neighbor wants someone to talk to, try this: Instead of showing Person 1 knocking on the door, show them already in Person 2’s kitchen and show Person 2 blabbering on about some subject that Person 1 cares nothing about. Maybe show Person 1 with an empty measuring cup in their hand and have them eyeing the cupboard.

Doing that tells us everything we need to know without going through the motions of the knocking on the door and asking for the sugar. It jumps straight to the conflict. And you almost always want to cut to the conflict when you can do so without the story suffering.

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.

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