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Scene Writing 101

The Fundamentals of Planning and Writing scenes

This piece was originally written for the staff writers of a project on which I was a consultant. I've removed the project-specific elements, and rewritten what remains so it's universally applicable to any script.
— Antony


INTRODUCTION

What follows are foundational principles with which many writers will already be familiar. But it never hurts to remind yourself of the basics, especially when you're knee-deep in a project and might be getting lost in the weeds.

(No shade intended — trust me, I'm speaking from my own past experience)

Much of this advice is closely tied to how you plan your scenes, and therefore to your beat structure. Ask yourself these questions throughout the process, not only when you come to write a final script.


THE QUESTIONS

• What do they WANT?

In every scene, someone must want something. A scene where nobody is trying to accomplish anything is not a scene, it's exposition.

This isn't about a protagonist's overall goal. What they want can be in service to that overall goal, of course. But this question is about short-term goals: what do they want to get out of their immediate situation? What would they consider a win and allow them to move on?

It can be as simple as 'reassurance from a loved one', or as complex as 'lie to the police and get away with it.'

More than one character can want something in a scene, but it's good practice to pick one (normally, though not always, whoever's goal is the most relatable to an audience) and consider them the scene's POV character. Approach the scene overall from their point of view, following them throughout.


• What's STOPPING them?

Someone or something must try to prevent the POV character from getting whatever it is they want. A scene where someone gets what they want without facing opposition or setbacks is boring. There's a reason reality TV manufactures rivalries and conflicts between people.

If the scene involves several characters, ideally the opposition comes from another character who also wants something — something in opposition to the POV character.

A classic example is a suspect who wants to lie to the cops, and a cop who wants to uncover the truth. Boom: immediate opposition, conflict, and drama.


• What's the TURN?

Something unexpected must happen during the scene. An event, a revelation, a realisation. New information comes to light, or an unexpected decision is made. It doesn't have to be earth-shattering, but it should affect at least one character's goals.

The turn is closely linked to, and often leads to, a sting conclusion in the scene.

The best scenes end one of two ways: either the POV character doesn't get what they want — they're stymied and frustrated, and must seek a new goal to compensate — or they do finally get what they want, but it comes with a complication. The latter is often preferable, because it allows you to continue forward momentum while also introducing a new complication.


• Could CONTRAST make it more interesting?

Two people walk into a room, argue, and one of them storms out. Literally thousands of great scenes have been written with that basic premise.

But once in a while, shake things up by taking an unusual approach to a scene.

• Do fast things slowly / Do slow things fast

• Express love with hatred / Express hatred with love

• Action reveals character / Character moments pivot on action

Consider: what if these two people don't meet deliberately, but bump into each other at a bar? What if they don't argue, but debate rationally? What if they don't meet in a room, but while shopping for groceries? What if instead of one storming out, they get separated by circumstance while they're still mid-argument?

All of these at once would (probably) be too much, but keep them in mind. Approaching a regular scene in an irregular way can pay dividends.


• What are they THINKING?

Every character has an internal life. Everyone is the main character of their own story, and has multiple things on their mind while going about their day.

What are those things? What are the characters worried about? What are their long-term goals? What do they wish they could be doing instead? What are they afraid someone will find out about them?

They won't say this stuff out loud, but let it guide their actions and decisions throughout a scene to enrich their interactions.


• What DON'T they say?

This is loosely connected to the previous point. Characters shouldn't talk like they know there's an audience watching, and they shouldn't reveal more than the minimum they need to in pursuit of their aims.

Even good people withhold information from their loved ones — out of fear, embarrassment, or a desire to get what they want. That's all good character fodder. Audiences are smart, and with the right dialogue they can tell when a character is withholding something. You don't have to spell it out, and it's almost always better when you don't.

Make characters work to get answers from each other. Make them evade questions, lie, counter with another question, and get angry they're even being questioned — how dare you, sir?

Pro tip: arguments are a great way to deliver exposition. When trying to win an argument, we often reiterate things the other person already knows in order to bolster our position. Written well, an argument allows you to maintain drama and conflict while also delivering critical information without the audience consciously noticing.


• Could they SAY LESS?

This is a counterpart to the old adage “show, don't tell” — which is another way of saying that what characters do is more important (and satisfying to an audience) than what they say.

Can you cut lines? Can you reduce a comment, explanation, or exchange down to its bare minimum? Think of ways to express a sentiment that aren't just saying the obvious or expected out loud.

This doesn't necessarily mean everyone speaks in two-word sentences; but maybe a single line, especially when complemented or contrasted by their actions, is all they need to say.


• What does it SET UP?

Scenes don't live in isolation. Each answers questions that came before, and asks questions that will be answered later. Keep that momentum going so the audience is left wanting to know how those questions will be resolved.

Foreshadowing is related to this. If you know an event is coming later, and you can make a veiled reference to it in an earlier scene — preferably in a way that doesn't stand out in the earlier scene's context — you'll create a satisfying moment later on, when the audience realises that throwaway comment was actually really important or insightful.

 

CONCLUSION & EXAMPLE

Not every scene can make full use of every point in the above list. But try to consider as many as you can, especially when planning and beating out a story. Answering these questions can't help but enhance and improve your scenes.

Now let's look at a scene that uses almost all of these principles in an exemplary way, generally acknowledged as one of the best in cinema: the diner scene from HEAT.

(And you know exactly the scene I mean. How amazing is that? How great must a scene be, to be so memorable from such a banal description as 'the diner scene'?)

This scene is from a movie of a particular type, of course, but the principles are universal. This 101 is about form, not genre.

If you're not familiar with the scene, first of all WTF, go watch HEAT because it's a classic. But if you don't have time for that right now, click the image above to watch it on YouTube. (And if that link breaks, just search for Heat diner scene.)

Now let's break it down according to our 101 principles:


• What do they WANT?

Both characters have a goal in this scene. Hanna (Pacino, the cop) wants to persuade McCauley (De Niro, the thief) not to perform a heist. McCauley wants Hanna to back off and let him carry it out.


• What's STOPPING them?

Each other. Their goals are literally opposed, and neither man is willing to back down because those goals are existential. They tell us this blatantly, outright stating they don't know how to do anything else, and wouldn't want to anyway.

Hanna describes everything he's already sacrificed in pursuit of his goal; McCauley describes everything he's willing to sacrifice in future. Yet neither will give up or concede.


• What's the TURN?

While this scene doesn't hinge on a turn of action, it nevertheless encompasses the unexpected in two ways.

First, despite being enemies, both men (particularly Hanna) tell the other personal details. Hanna admits his life is a mess, his (third) marriage a failure. McCauley admits he has a woman — a potential weakness for his lifestyle — but insists she's not a barrier to his goals. They even tell one another their recurring nightmares.

The second instance is more subtle: neither gets the upper hand. Conventionally, when a hero and villain face off, one of them 'wins' the scene. We expect it here, anticipating that either Hanna or McCauley will win the argument. But they don't. Effectively, then, neither character gets what they want out of the scene; but because they've blocked each other, neither feels like they've lost.

HEAT's popularity and influence means scenes like this are more common now, but at the time it was groundbreaking. And even though both characters' goals are stymied, the scene is never boring because the conversation doesn't play out the way we expect:


• Could CONTRAST make it more interesting?

These characters are deadly enemies. Each is willing to kill the other to achieve their goal. And yet… this isn't an argument, a shouting match, or violent. They don't get pissed off or even insult one another. They debate quietly, intellectually, confident in their positions and respectful of each other's abilities, with no wasted words.

It's not what anyone would expect from this scene. In my opinion it's a big reason why it's so highly praised.

(It also works particularly well here on a meta level, by playing against the reputation of both actors for portraying brash, loud characters.)


• What are they THINKING?

Hanna is trying to rescue his marriage. McCauley is worried some members of his crew are becoming a liability.

Hanna uses this anxiety to humanise himself, looking for a way to connect with McCauley and persuade him to stop. It doesn't work, and McCauley doesn't quid pro quo because admitting any weakness in his crew would give Hanna an edge. Instead he compensates with bravado, insisting he'll kill the cop himself if necessary.


• What DON'T they say?

The characters answer one another's questions, and state their positions clearly. But they do so in a minimal, limited fashion that's couched in verbal jousting. McCauley isn't answering Hanna's questions because he feels intimidated or duty bound. Instead he's using those answers as an attempt to intimidate the cop, and make him think twice about challenging McCauley.

When they do engage in exposition — Hanna's family, McCauley's credo — it's with a purpose in mind, to achieve their goals and persuade the other guy to back off.


• Could they SAY LESS?

For a six-minute scene that consists almost entirely of dialogue it uses words sparingly, wasting none. There are two great examples of this in the moment when the characters admit they can never change.

First, what both are really saying is, 'This is my whole life; I've devoted my entire being to this work. To become the best I've had to sacrifice everything a normal person seeks for comfort, but I regret nothing and have made my peace with that decision.' But saying that out loud would go down like a lead balloon. Instead they express it with ultra-short lines and in self-deprecating terms. 'I don't know how to do anything else […] I don't much want to, either.'

Second, the close of this exchange is one of only a few moments in the scene where the characters truly connect, and we know that not because they tell us; not because one of them says, 'We're not so different, you and I.' In fact neither man speaks at all. But their stony expressions crack, just a little, and they share a smile. It's brief, it's constrained, and it's over in a moment. But that moment says more than ten lines of dialogue could in a minute.


• What does it SET UP?

This scene takes place bang in the middle of the movie runtime. The truth is that you could cut it, and plot-wise the rest of the film around it would still make sense. But it wouldn't connect with the audience in the same way.

The scene is focused on revealing character and the movie's emotional truth (essentially: no man is an island). We watch it with anticipation because we've already gotten to know these characters for more than an hour, and it answers questions we've built up in that time. Then we watch the remainder of the film with equal anticipation, because we know the things revealed in this scene will affect what's to come.

Because of this scene, when McCauley doesn't abandon Eady we know he's going against his own credo (Hanna got through to him after all); when Hanna finally prioritises his family over work, we know he risks losing McCauley (despite his talk about dedication to the job); and when McCauley decides to pursue revenge instead of escaping, we sense that he's already lost.

(“Tough guy insists he's ruthless but turns out to have feelings after all”, by the way, is an old and reliable story device that always works when done right. Don't be afraid to use it.)

Perhaps the single best set-up from this scene, though — certainly the simplest, yet most audacious — is the very last line, when McCauley says, 'Maybe we'll never see each other again.' And they don't, not for another hour and ten minutes. Furthermore, we know they can't — because the movie made us a promise that when they do, one of them will kill the other. It creates enormous tension throughout the rest of the film, as we wait for that inevitable deadly reunion.

 

There's a lot that goes into making this HEAT scene work. The cinematography, the performances, the staging (not a single two-shot!), the edit… it's a collaborative masterpiece, and everyone involved is firing on all cylinders.

But it all starts with a great script.

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Originally published October 2022.

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