Screenwriting Tips: Scenes - by Pauline Kiernan

Understanding The Scene

Writing your scenes requires two perspectives at once - close-up and panoramic. As you’re inside each scene, you’re also having to be aware of its place within the whole story, but for most of the time it’s best to inhabit the scene and experience it moment by moment. Whatever kind of scene it is it has to be tightly shaped with a beginning, a middle and an end. The seed for each scene - and it should be a subtle rather than a clunky one - needs to have been sown in the preceding one. Something has to happen in the scene that develops the story in either a minor or major key. It has to keep the storyline moving, and there has to be some change taking place, whether it’s a nuanced significance in a character’s feelings changing or physical surface action.


Writing The Scene

Jot down in bare outline what’s happened in the scene before, and in the story up to this point. Even if you have this down already, write it out again because it will help you get into the flow of the story arc, and will probably spark some new ideas.

Now think about what the main dramatic purpose of this current scene is going to serve. It might be a surface action or event, but it might equally be a subtle alteration in a character’s emotions. This will determine how you write the scene. Under your outline for the previous scene, add notes on the new scene - the dramatic purpose and names of characters. Here is how a scene might pan out:

- What are the characters’ motivations in this scene?

- What do they want to happen?

- Does it happen, but not the way that was anticipated? Could this be a revelation or catalyst scene, where the character learns something new and significant? Could this create a major turning point in the story, leading it off in a new direction? Or a small turning point whose full significance we learn only in a later scene?

- Does it not happen, so as to provoke conflict of some kind? The best kind of confrontation scene is when a hidden truth or emotion rises to the surface and explodes. All that has been suppressed comes out into the open. But you have to be sure to set up this moment before by conveying the character’s inner feelings of frustration and tension.

- How will you portray the conflict? Dialogue? Use visuals to create tone and atmosphere? Subtext in the dialogue? Visual metaphors?

- Is there going to be a twist here, where you surprise the audience with a moment that’s unexpected?

- Is a character going to experience some kind of spiritual awakening or insight? An Epiphany scene will always create a change in a character’s emotional state, moral consciousness or attitude to the world.

- How will it end?

- How will it keep the storyline moving?

- What needs to happen in the next scene? Has this scene prepared for the following scene?

With all the scenes of the story experiment with what might happen (or what might NOT happen).

Be aware at a few points when writing your scene, of the whole storyline and how it will fit in with the narrative thread.

- Read it over. Does it have a discernible beginning, middle and end? Has something changed (whether big or small)?

Writing the Shots 

A screenplay should never have explicit camera angles, but you can embed implied camera angles, pacing and rhythm into the shots for what you want them to express or suggest.

Here’s a very simple example:

‘She waits. She listens’:

Implied camera angle and length of shot: CUT TO LONG SHOT

and the (implied) door.

Implied camera angle and length of shot: PUSH TO CLOSE-UP

as she waits.

MID-SHOT as she listens.

‘She shakes her head’ :

Implied camera angle and length of shot: PUSH TO CLOSE-UP as she shakes her head.

This shows the pace of the scene, what it’s breathing like. Short sentences, the rhythm as you read, suggest suspense. We hold our breath at She waits. Then hold our breath again at She listens. Then again, before the tension is released at She shakes head, she’s hearing things again. Feel the difference if I’d written: ‘She waits and listens, then shakes her head.’ No pregnant pauses, no tension, and no real sense of release. Nothing to suggest time expanding or contracting.

Practise embedding implied camera angles like this to help make each of your scenes come alive with precise, evocative description lines.

 About the author - Pauline is a screenwriter, award-winning playwright, Shakespeare scholar, and former journalist. She's also the author of one of the best guides there is to screenwriting, Screenwriting They Can't Resist: How to Create Screenplays of Originality and Cinematic Power. Explode the Rules.