Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Introduction to Scene Writing

By Jax Hunter

Greetings fellow storytellers. I’d like to welcome you to a new series of articles on scene writing. 

As you guys know, I love movies. Yes, I love books, as well, but I’m fascinated with movie making. When DVD’s first became available, the thing that sold me on them was the extra stuff. It was the “making of” extras that really had me at hello.  

Recently, I got to spend almost an entire Saturday with Spiderman 2. I think this was my favorite of the Spidey movies. Certainly, it was better than the first - much better, in fact. Spidey was more Spidey in this one. But what was amazing was that the “making of” features were as long as the movie. I came away not only excited about what a “spidey cam” could do, but even more, with some inspiration from director Sam Raimi and his crews. 

He spoke about getting the most from the actors, the sets, the script. His job, as he views, it is to raise the characters to be heroic, to push, pull and cajole them to heroism, to trust, to love, to honor. Wow! As a director, he works hard to bring out the best performance of the actor, to create the lighting and the sets and the vision. He tells Tobey “you’re my partner in creating this character.”

This vision can be applied to what we as writers do, as well. It’s our job to bring out the very best performance from our characters, our settings, from every word that makes it to the page. I came away from listening to those interviews with a renewed dedication to, in each scene, be the “best director” I can be.

Another movie I recently watched again was Timeline. Again, I love the “making of” features from this movie. The thing that struck me in the extras from that movie was the amazing job of script supervisor (Sioux Richards). She’s the one that, among many other things, has to make sure that the details are right from one scene to the next. What hand was the coffee cup in, etc. There’s a very funny scene in one of the extras in which Sioux gets on Paul Walker because he went to Hawaii in the middle of production and now doesn’t “match” his last scene. This is another thing we as writers must keep track of. But I digress.

Back to the topic at hand: writing great scenes. Last year we took a look at the bigger structure of stories from a screenwriting perspective. We looked at three act structure, turning points, plot twists and outlining. In this series, we’re going to get down and dirty and study what makes a good scene. 

The scene is the basic unit of story. (Some might argue that there’s an even more basic unit, called a bit or a beat, but we’ll stick with this definition.) Robert McKee (STORY) defines a scene this way: “A SCENE is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene is a STORY EVENT.” If you had to re-read that more than once, you’re not alone. I love McKee, but sometimes he’s a bit obtuse, don’t you think?

Frankly, I’m a tad overwhelmed by all that goes into a scene. Trying to remember everything is a bit like juggling. I tend to rush through scenes, not savoring the details, or at least not letting the reader savor the details. I tend to not squeeze every drop of emotion from the characters, to not think about all the bits and pieces - hence my determination to learn to do better. 

In Story Sense, author Lucey tells of Bo Goldman’s advice to writers to think of their scenes as a box into which all the ingredients of the scene go. Setting, weather, costuming, lighting, props, animals, whatever can “jack up the drama.” The life, as they say, is in the details. So this year we’ll look at what we have available to go into the box. What needs to be in the box. 

Lucey also states that “a primary cause of weak scripts is the failure of scenes to make their dramatic point in an unequivocal manner.” I suppose he could have stopped with the failure of scenes. As storytellers, we simply must get everything we can from each scene. Or why bother writing it at all? 

Unlike books, movies are pretty much limited to the visual. We can’t get inside the characters heads like we can in books. On the other hand, we’re constantly reminded as writers to show not tell. I believe it might be helpful to look at each scene as if we would be putting it on the screen. 

So this year, we’ll look at setting, beats, opening and closing values, subtext and a whole lot more. As much as possible, we’ll take what we learn from the film industry. I won’t guarantee, though, that Bickham won’t sneak in on occasion. Next month we’ll look at the importance of knowing clearly the purpose of each scene before writing it. 

 One of the FX staff on the set of Spiderman 2 said this: “You have to really know what you want beforehand or you’ll just throw together a lot of really mediocre stuff.” Wow. Don’t want to just throw out mediocre stuff, do we?

One quick thing here. I want to pass on my favorite screenplay site. There, you can download screenplays for a good variety of movies. In these, you can see how the writer “dressed” each scene. Here it is:
Until next month, BICHOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard)

Jax (

(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2005.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.