I have some questions about your sceneComplications Ensue
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Sunday, March 07, 2021

 I have some questions about the scene you're writing:

What does your protagonist want?

Why doesn't the other character want to give it to her?

What is she doing to get it that isn't asking for it outright?


What does the other character want?

Why doesn't your protagonist want to give it to him?

What is he doing to get it that isn't asking for it outright?


What does this scene reveal about your protagonist?

What does this scene reveal about the other character?


What emotion does the protagonist come into the scene with? How does she leave it?

What emotion does the other character come into the scene with? How does he leave it?


What is the turn in the scene -- the moment when something is decided, or revealed? When does something important change in the relationship between the two characters?

What happens in the scene that we did not expect to happen?

What is the moment where we see ourselves, or people we know, in the scene? When we think, oh, God, yes, I have been there? This moment may be comic or tragic; from a structural point of view they're more or less the same thing. 

(My working definition of comedy is tragedy, but you ought to know better, and it's your fault.)

What propels us out of the scene? (Sometimes called the button, especially when it's comedy.)


If your scene answers all of these, or even most of these, it's a pretty great scene. If you're having trouble writing the scene, if it's mushy or it's boring you, if it seems overwrought yet unsatisfying, odds are that you are missing one of the above. 

All writer's tools are for when things are broken. You don't need tools when the characters are having at it in your head and you're just writing down what they're saying to each other. All you need is to trim a bit. But when things are not working, it's often good to take the scene apart and make sure it has all the elements of story. These are, of course:

  1. A character we care about
  2. who has an opportunity, problem, or goal
  3. who faces obstacles, an antagonist, and/or their own personal flaw
  4. who has something to win (stakes)
  5. and something to lose (jeopardy)
You can break a scene just as you break the whole story. What are the notes you want to hit? Put each on an index card and see what order makes the most sense. 

The more you write, the more you internalize these questions. I don't generally plot out a scene. But then, I have been writing scenes for decades. The same goes for an overall script. I outline with index cards, and David E. Kelley can get on the redeye and by the time the plane is landing he has a TV episode. But he's not ignoring these questions; he's just answering them in his head. Until you can answer them in your head, don't be too proud to write them down. 


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