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I’ve been reading some really boring scenes lately, guys. It still baffles me that writers view quality in scenes as optional. Like, “Okay, I know this scene isn’t great, but it’s only one scene, so the reader will have to deal.” You have to make every scene entertaining. Every one!

I know this is easier said than done. You read all these things in books about how a scene must a) move the plot forward, b) reveal something about the characters, c) integrate conflict, d) invisibly weave in exposition, e) avoid cliche, that if you somehow manage to do all of these things, you feel like you deserve a giant pat on the back! That readers should be all, “Man, you were so technically proficient there. I don’t care that the scene was boring.”

That’s why I say, screw all that!

Your first thought when creating a scene should be, “How can I make this scene entertaining?” Because none of that other stuff will matter if the reader isn’t entertained. After you figure out where the entertainment is going to come from, then figure out how you’re going to pull off the checkboxes.

Now, remember the basics for a scene. At least one character should want something important in the scene. It could be your hero. It could be your hero’s girlfriend. It could be the villain. Someone must want something. Then, you simply don’t want that character to achieve the goal easily. Something, or multiple things, should come up, so that the character must work hard for that goal.

Here are a few things a character might want in a scene.

A character might be going to a bar to find a girl to bring home.
A character might need to fire one of his employees.
A character might need to tell her boyfriend she’s pregnant.
A character might need to get home before curfew.

Always, always, have at least one character want something in a scene. And, yes, it’s okay if multiple characters want something in a scene. In fact, that’s where scenes get fun, when characters want opposing things. Now we have heads butting. We have conflict.

But the want is the key. “Want” is what drive’s the purpose of the scene, and pushes us towards our scene climax (which answers the question of whether the “want” was achieved or failed).

But that’s not even what this article is about. You guys should know that already. What I came here for today was to give you five FIXES for boring scenes. Say you followed the above advice yet no matter how many times you rewrote your scene, it still sucked. Join me… for FIVE SCENE FIXES!

Move from private to public: A lot of times a scene will suck when it’s just two characters alone. The audience feels safe and at ease in such a scenario, and that’s not how you want the audience to feel. You want them to be scared, anxious, unsettled, unsure. To achieve that, leave the private setting and place the characters in a public setting with the potential for interaction from outside sources.

Example: In a recent script I consulted on, our hero needed to ask a professor about something. In the story, the professor didn’t like the hero. Anyway, the writer had the hero show up at the professor’s lecture, sit down, wait for the lecture to end, then afterwards, when the students had left, talk privately with the professor and ask his questions. The scene was boring. I simply suggested that the professor put our hero on the spot during his lecture. Make him talk to him with 100 students backing him up. All of a sudden, with everyone listening in, a boring scene became entertaining.

Add a time constraint: It’s one of the simplest tricks in the book and yet it can turn the driest scene into a memorable one. If your characters have all the time in the world to talk and there’s nothing on the horizon that needs tending to, there’s a good chance the dialogue will be leisurely and, therefore, boring. By adding a time constraint you’ll find that, all of a sudden, your characters might not be able to say everything they wanted. They have to be more judicious about what they say. And if they’re not getting the answers they want, frustration starts to creep in, since time is running out!

Example: Another recent script I read. A soldier needs to ask her commander a series of questions. Originally, the writer had the soldier come to the commander’s office and ask away with all the time in the world. Borrrr-innnggg. I switched the scene to the commander giving the entire outfit a briefing, then our soldier needed to ask her questions as the commander hurriedly walked to his next meeting. Similar conversation, not enough time to get all her questions in, MUCH BETTER SCENE.

Up the stakes: A lot of times a scene sucks simply because there isn’t enough on the line. This goes back to the “want” we talked about earlier. If what the character wants isn’t that big of a deal, then the scene won’t feel important. The reader doesn’t know why they don’t care. They just know they don’t. As a solution, see if you can up the stakes in some way.

Example: Two loser friends are at a crowded LA bar, trying to get the bartender’s attention. But every time he walks by, he won’t look at them. It’s an okay scene if you play it for laughs. But we could make it better if we upped the stakes. Let’s say two gorgeous girls are nearby and they ask our heroes if they’ll buy them a drink. “Of course. Yeah.” This time, with each failed attempt to catch the bartender’s attention, we have two girls who become increasingly skittish (“You know what, we were on our way out anyway.”), and two guys who see their luck slipping away (“No, trust me. It’ll just take one second.”). We’ve become more invested in the “want” (the drinks) because there’s more on the line (the girls).

Add some sort of choice (and make that choice matter): A common scene I run into is one where the character does nothing. For example, the hero might be sitting in his car before work, staring forward, hating life. If there are no decisions to be made in a scene, is it even a scene? A scene needs to have action, and choice is a simple way to dictate action, as well as add suspense and unpredictability.

Example: Using that same scenario, let’s say that while our hero is staring forward, a woman drags her child up to the car parked in front of him (this happened to me once). The child is being difficult, resisting, and the mom is getting angry, becoming uncomfortably physical as she manhandles her child towards the door. It’s at the point where our hero should probably step in and do something. And hence we have our CHOICE. Is he going to get out and say something or isn’t he? This doesn’t mean when you need excitement in your script, add child abuse. The choice you add will depend on your story, your tone, and the type of character you’re exploring. But an important choice is a simple way to beef up a scene.

Add a secondary focus: When a character only has to concentrate on one thing, they can usually handle it easily. And once we feel like our hero has things under control, we relax. And if we’re relaxing, we’re becoming less interested in the story. A trick is to add a secondary focus for the hero, something else they have to worry about. This way, they’ll be spinning two plates instead of one. And guess what follows? Entertainment, baby.

Example: Let’s say we have a protagonist who’s a gambling addict. And a scene takes place where his wife is talking to him about problems in their marriage and what she needs from him. We’ve seen this scene before, right? It can certainly work on its own. But what if, during this talk, our gambler keeps checking the score on his phone of the game he bet this month’s mortgage on? This secondary focus adds another dimension to the scene so it it’s a little more dynamic.

In case you guys didn’t notice, there’s a theme here. Figure out what your character wants in the scene and make it difficult for them. Cause if whatever your character wants comes easy, you’ve written a boring scene.

  • Scott Crawford

    That’s a good article! And an important point that flows on quite nicely from last Thursday when we were talking about outlining or story story prep.

    To link those two articles I’d say you need to think about making the scene as short as possible, with by writing to a preassigned scene length (typically no more than two pages) or through editing.

    The biggest weakness I see slogging my way through the first ten of someone’s script is that it’s clear to me that the writer is treading water, keeping a scene going longer than it should because, frankly, they don’t have another important scene to get to for another ten pages.

    GIVE OR TAKE a script should have something like sixty scenes, sixty two-page scenes as George Lucas puts it. And whether you have a few less or a few more (please no), you get his point.

    On the script I’m working on now (while my lingerie model girlfriend is on assignment in Sweden), I have so many ideas that I may have to dump some of them, put them in another script, because they won’t fit. A luxury problem.

  • Scott Crawford

    OT: Sorry for linking to the Daily Mail, it is a horrible rag, but an article here about the true story behind Arnie’s new movie AFTERMATH:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4385610/Russian-lost-family-mid-air-plane-crash.html

    Carson reviewed the script under its awkward original name here:

    http://scriptshadow.net/screenplay-review-478/

    I’m listening to an interview with the director HERE on the excellent On the Page podcast:

    http://podtail.com/podcast/on-the-page-screenwriting/499-my-dinner-with-arnold/

  • witwoud

    Excellent advice, Carson.

    I’d add, one reason we write boring scenes is a psychological one. Let’s face it, we like an easy life. Avoiding conflict in any given situation is usually our first instinct, and on the whole it’s a good one. Unfortunately, when we sit down and start writing stories, this instinct doesn’t switch itself off. We give our protagonists an easy ride because that’s what we like in real life. To do otherwise goes against the grain of our nature.

    That’s why, in order to write exciting scenes, the first thing you have to do is your hunt down this ‘anything for a quiet life’ mentality … and beat it to death! With a big stick! Then you can start writing real drama.