Writing Scenes

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He didn’t leave a tip for housekeeping.

What is a scene and how do you write a good one? Find out the difference between active and passive scenes and how they work together to create compelling stories.

In this article we’ll look at:

  • What is a scene?

  • Active and passive scenes

  • Treat each scene as a story

  • Be economic with scenes

  • Aim for visual interest

  • Good scenes checklist

  • Editing - what makes a scene weak?

What is a scene?

As a theatrical term ‘scene’ describes all the action taking place on stage in a particular location. This location is defined by its ‘scenery’ e.g. the set of a bar, dungeon, street corner etc. However, in movies and novels a scene can be more fluid and might comprise a series of continuous, related actions taking place across a number of related locations. Take, for example, a ‘fight scene’ —  think of a classic swashbuckling sword fight where the hero and villain spend five minutes clashing steel through milady’s boudoir, through the corridor, down the stairs into the Great Hall, then out into the kitchen turning left and ending up in the pig sty. This type of scene is known as ‘active’. In contrast, other scenes may describe action that is not continuous and might be spread over diverse locations over a long period of time. These scenes are known as ‘passive’...

Active and passive scenes

Whatever its mechanics any scene will fall into one of two categories: active or passive.

Active scenes: are those where the protagonist is determined to reach a well-defined, achievable goal and by the end of the scene they’ve either succeeded or failed to accomplish it. Active scenes don’t contain time breaks, everything happens in the present as a single continuous sequence of events.

Passive scenes: these generally deal with the aftermath of an active scene. The passive scene starts with the protagonist facing a dilemma and ends with them reaching a decision. These scenes can contain time breaks and can be spread over a variety of (otherwise unrelated) locations.

Take the following. A bank robber approaches a bank. His goal is the robbery of said bank. He barges in through the main door, pulls a gun and orders the cashier to fill a bag with money. A customer sees his chance and tackles the bandit. The gun goes off and the customer is killed. Spooked, the robber flees the bank without his loot and the last we see of him he’s running down an alley, police sirens blaring in the background.

The above is an active scene. There are no time breaks, the robber doesn’t pull his gun and suddenly go into a long flashback about his dying mother (though a short one might be appropriate in some situations – for example a flash of memory about a robbery he saw in his childhood) the sequence of action should be unbroken.

If the next scene is passive we might see the robber facing a dilemma: to hide or run. After weighing the options he decides to head out of town. We then see him furtively walk the streets as he tries to raise enough cash to buy a car. We might see this action spread over numerous locations over a number of days as the robber tries to call in favours from his lowlife friends and decide what to do next...

Most stories comprise strings of active scenes interspersed with passive scenes. Passive scenes do the following:

  • They give your audience a chance to catch its breath after the excitement of an active scene.

  • Allow implications arising from events in active scenes to sink in.

  • Provide opportunities to introduce new information about characters and build up their back-stories.

  • Provide opportunities to introduce twists.

  • Allow changes in direction — the setting of new goals.

For example, in First Blood Rambo escapes from town and is hunted through the woods by the sheriff and his deputies. This is an active scene that climaxes when Rambo captures the sheriff and, holding a knife to his throat, tells him to back off.

 

The next scene is passive and we see action in a variety of locations: discussions inside a command tent, a news-reporter speaking to a camera, a helicopter coming into land, troopers assembling by a river, Rambo hunting a wild pig and making camp. The climax of this scene is Rambo’s radio conversation with his old commander Colonel Trautman (“Company leader to Raven. Talk to me, Johnny.”) which reveals much about Rambo’s past life. Trautman asks Rambo to surrender (presenting Rambo with a brief dilemma) but he refuses.

 

The next scene is active, the action resuming as the National Guard and various armed townsfolk swarm into the woods to hunt down the fugitive.

Treat each scene as a story

Treat each scene as if it were a mini-story in its own right. In Basic story structure we saw how a traditional story comprises a beginning, a middle and an end divided by two plot-points. The first plot-point is the inciting incident that separates the beginning from the middle, and the second plot-point is the climax that separates the middle from the end. A good scene should include all these elements.

For example, near the beginning of Star Wars there’s a passive scene in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s desert home. Here Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that his father was a Jedi Knight, and R2D2 plays the recorded message of Princess Leia asking for Obi-Wan’s help. Obi-Wan asks Luke to join him and help the Princess. Luke refuses.

If we think of this scene as a story then the first plot-point (the inciting incident) consists of Obi-Wan asking Luke to come away with him. This presents Luke with a dilemma, he can either go with Obi-Wan, or not. Luke refuses but agrees to give Obi-Wan a lift to the nearest spaceport. The offer of a lift is the second plot-point in the scene as it resolves the conflict between Luke and Kenobi. The next course of action has been agreed on and the story can now move forward.

Be economic with scenes

Try to lump action into as few scenes as possible. It takes time and effort to establish a new location and this is better spent on the action and dialogue that will move your story along. If you have three separate scenes that feature conversations between the same two characters is there any way this information could be delivered in one or two scenes? Cut weak ‘bitty’ scenes or combine them to make strong, significant ones.

This advice applies equally to novels as it does to movies or television shows. There’s an obvious additional financial benefit to a TV or movie production in reducing the number of locations that are needed, but if you’re writing a novel it can still take a considerable amount of work to paint a mental image of a new location in the reader’s mind. If it’s not absolutely necessary that you do so, you might as well save yourself the trouble and put your energy into scenes that will carry more weight.

Aim for visual interest

Make scenes more interesting and memorable by including a strong visual element. If you’re describing a conversation between two business people in a fancy office, try to set it somewhere eye-catching such as the glass atrium attached to the main entrance, Better still do it in the atrium against the backdrop of an impressive water feature or bright mural — some image that will stick in the mind. Alternatively, if it’s a really crummy office make the stand-out feature the half-dead yucca plant drooping in the corner, or the extravagant blonde wig wobbling on the head of the receptionist. In the same way, a conversation between two old men could take place in a parlour or sitting room, but could be more interesting in the corner of a bar or during a walk through a graveyard.

 

Again, this advice applies to both written and visual media. A memorable, interesting location will help hold a viewer’s or reader’s attention, whether it’s in front of their eyes or in their imagination. Think about all the stories you’ve enjoyed — which elements stand out most vividly when you remember them? For most people it’s those with a strong visual component that will have the most impact.

 

Take, for example, The Game of Thrones and the imprisonment of Tyrion Lannister in the Eire of the Vale of Arryn. J. R. R. Martin could have written this as a typical underground dungeon location. Instead he invented the ‘sky cells’ —  prison chambers with one side completely open to the elements allowing the horrifying possibility that you might roll out in your sleep and suffer a long fall to a certain death. It’s a location that really leaps off the page, and the screen, and sticks in the memory.

Good scenes checklist

Your active scenes should include the following:

  • A short-term goal for the protagonist. They must have an objective, and one they have a reasonable chance of achieving within the time-scale of the scene. If there’s no chance of success, there’s no tension.

  • An obstacle for your protagonist to overcome. Without significant obstacles your scene will have no interest or suspense.

  • A dramatic outcome. Your best active scenes will culminate in your protagonist suffering an unexpected disaster or mishap as these setbacks raise the stakes and increase tension. Alternatively, if a scene is centred on your antagonist, aim for it to end with a success. Something that’s good for your villain will be bad for your hero, and until the story is resolved we’re looking for opportunities to add to our hero’s tribulations.

In passive scenes make sure you have:

  • An appropriate beginning. Most passive scenes follow on from an active scene. In these cases the action in a passive scene should be a logical progression from the climax of the active scene that went before it.

  • A dilemma. Give your protagonist a choice of actions, and ensure that the choice is between unpleasant alternatives. Whatever action is decided upon it should lead to a new problem to overcome, so helping to set up the next scene.

  • An outcome. Don’t dither. Once the dilemma has been mulled over, your protagonist must come to a decision. It’s this outcome that will propel the story to the next scene

Editing - what makes a scene weak?

The director and screenwriter Howard Hawks once said that a good movie should contain at least three great scenes and no bad ones. It’s great advice that’s true of any story. When you finish your first draft go through your text and eliminate your weakest scenes. Either cut them altogether or extract the action they contain and find ways to embed it into stronger scenes. A weak scene will be one that:

 

  • Does not naturally flow from the scene that went before it.

  • Contains nothing that helps move the main story along.

  • Could be removed without anyone noticing.

  • Is entirely unmemorable.

So sharpen your editing axe and search your script for chop-worthy scenes. Good hunting! 

More pruning tips can be found in Revision and editing.

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