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The blog of Stephen Arnott (aka S J Arnott). Writer of the Leofric Dark Age adventures and Jack Bleacher.

How to write scenes

Stephen Arnott

When a writer is developing a stage play or a film script, scenes are at the forefront of their mind. Every piece of action has to be tied to a specific location, and for reasons of time and economy there will be a limit to the number of scenes available to them. For an author it’s different – the breadth of action within a book is limited by nothing but the imagination. Under these circumstances it’s easy to spread yourself thin and deliver the plot across a large number of insubstantial, weak and inconsequential scenes. And, as you might have already guessed, this is not good. We should aim to create scenes that are strong, substantial and meaningful.

Types of scene

First it helps to define what type of scene you’re hoping to create: is it active or passive? Most stories comprise strings of active scenes interspersed with passive ones. 

Active scenes

Here 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. Passive scenes do the following:

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

• Allow the 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.

Example

Take the following. A bank robber approaches a bank; his goal: robbery of said bank. He barges 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. 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 flashback reminiscing about his unhappy school days, the sequence of action is unbroken.

If the next scene is passive we might see the robber facing his dilemma: to hide or run. He decides to run and furtively walks the streets as he tries to raise the cash to skip town from his lowlife friends. Eventually our robber ends up at the train station counting his money, trying to decide where to go. Then he sees a navy recruitment poster...

Scenes checklists

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. The best active scenes culminate in your protagonist suffering an unexpected setback. These raise the stakes and increase tension. Alternatively, if a scene is centred on your villain, aim for a positive outcome. What’s good for your villain is bad for your hero; again, raising the stakes.

In passive scenes make sure you have:

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

• A dilemma. This should be a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives.

• An outcome. 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.

 

Top 3 Scene tips

1) Treat each scene as a mini-story with a beginning, middle and end

Near the start of Star Wars: A New Hope there’s a passive scene in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s desert home. At the beginning of the scene, 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.

Once we’ve established the background, Obi-Wan asks Luke to join him and help the Princess. This presents Luke with a dilemma, he can either go with Obi-Wan, or not. This dilemma is the meat of the scene – the middle.

Luke refuses, but agrees to give Obi-Wan a lift to the nearest spaceport. The offer is the end of the scene and resolves the conflict between Luke and Kenobi. The next course of action has been agreed on and the story has been moved forward.

Most good scenes follow the classic beginning-middle-end structure. If you find that one of your scenes isn't working, it might be missing one of these elements

2) Aim for visual interest

Make scenes more interesting and memorable by including a strong visual element. If you’re describing a conversation between two businesspeople, you could set it in a nondescript room, or it could be in the atrium of an office building, against the backdrop of an impressive water feature or bright mural — some image that will stick in the mind.

Many times you won't have a choice, as your story will dictate location, but when you start writing a scene, ask yourself if you could place the action somewhere a little more interesting and memorable. Make the reader glad they came.

3) Be economic

Try to lump action into as few scenes as possible. It can take time and effort to establish a new location, and this is better spent on the action and dialogue that will move your story forward. 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.

When you finish your first draft, go through your text and eliminate your poorest scenes; either cut them altogether or extract the action they contain and find ways to embed it into stronger ones. The director and screenwriter Howard Hawks once said that a good movie should contain three great scenes and no bad ones. It’s great advice that’s true of any story. 

 

The latest Leofric novel Land of the Franks will be released later this year. If you'd like to find out more about Leofric and his Dark Age adventures, follow this link.

Image: Frenzel (c/o Shutterstock)