So last week we talked about adding conflict to scenes. Today, we’re gonna take that one step further and talk about specific ways to improve your scenes. Now the majority of what makes a scene great comes from what you’ve done beforehand. The structure of your story. The development of your characters. How you craft your relationships. You have to set all that stuff up in order to pay it off later. For example, the Jack Rabbit Slims scene in Pulp Fiction doesn’t work if it’s the first scene in the movie. It works because of what’s been set up beforehand. That said, every writer should carry around a bag of tricks for when their scenes aren’t working. Don’t have a bag of tricks? Not to worry. I’m about to give you one. Here are 10 tricks you can use to make your scenes kick ass.
ADD A GOAL TO THE SCENE
Well surprise surprise. Here we have another article and Carson’s harping on about that “goal” thing again. Well hold onto your seat sister, because this might be the most important advice I give you all day. In short, a goal gives a scene focus. Just like a goal gives a movie focus. Say you have two characters at a bar. You need to get in some exposition about how one of them is having troubles at work. Problem is, random conversation gets boring fast. However, if you switch the scene around so that your hero needs a solution (goal) for this work problem before tomorrow morning, now all of a sudden your scene has purpose. Both characters are working towards a common goal. You can still throw in a bunch of funny banter, along with necessary exposition, but since you’ve established that there’s a purpose (a goal) to the scene, we’ll be more interested in what they’re talking about. Adding goals to scenes is one of the easiest ways to make them more interesting.
TURN THE SCENE INTO A SITUATION
I got this one from the billionaire screenwriters over at Wordplayer. Remember, every single scene should be entertaining on some level – even exposition scenes. That means instead of just pushing your plot along, push it along in as entertaining a way as possible. Let’s look at Back To The Future. There’s a scene early on where Marty stumbles into town and must find out where 1950s Doc lives. So he goes into the diner, looks him up in the phone book, and finds the address. Technically, that’s all you need to get Marty to the next scene. So the scene’s over. Right? Well, no. Because it’s boring. There’s no situation there. It’s just a character moving from point A to point B. So Zemeckis and Gale throw on their creative caps and get to work. Marty runs into his father, who’s being bullied by Biff. We get a fun scene where they meet each other for the first time and then Marty has his first confrontation with the movie’s villain. You’ve taken a simple plot-point scene and you’ve turned it into a situation. Now this might seem obvious in retrospect. Of course Marty runs into his dad and Biff. The story can’t work without it. But when you’re staring at a blank page, you don’t see all that stuff yet. You have to find it. So if your scene feels thin or boring, turning it into a situation is definitely going to spice it up. And who knows, you might just find an exciting new plot direction along with it.
ADD A THIRD CHARACTER
This is an old but effective trick. A quick way to make a scene between two people more interesting is to add a third person. A great example of this is in Notting Hill. It’s the scene where William goes to talk to Anna (Julia Roberts) but her press junket is running late. Will is ushered into her room under the assumption that he’s a journalist. Now if you would’ve played this scene with just two characters, the dialogue would’ve been on the nose and boring. “Thanks for coming.” “You’re welcome. What are you up to?” “Nothing. How about you?” Borrrrrrrring. So instead, they keep sending Anna’s handler into the room to check up on them, forcing William to keep up the façade that he’s a journalist. He has to come up with questions. He has to pretend like he’s seen the movie. It adds a ton of flavor to what otherwise would’ve been an average scene. The trick is, you want the third person to agitate matters. They have to complicate things somehow. That’s where you get your entertainment.
UP THE STAKES IN THE SCENE
Hey, this may sound familiar. What are the stakes of your scene? Because if nobody in the scene has anything on the line, there’s a good chance you’ve just sent your characters to Boringsville. How do you know if the stakes are high? Ask yourself: Does my character lose anything significant if he doesn’t get what he wants? Also: Does my character gain anything significant if he gets what he wants? Look at the famous scene in The Princess Bride where the Man In Black swordfights Enigo Montaya. Both characters have an incredible amount at stake. If the Man In Black loses, he won’t be able to save the life of his true love. If Enigo Montaya loses, he’ll never be able to avenge his father’s death. That’s why that swordfight is so exciting. Contrast that with any of the hundreds of swordfights in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise where we feel nothing, because either we don’t know what’s at stake or what’s at stake is so murky that we don’t care. Not every scene will have astronomical stakes, but you can always make a scene better by upping the stakes.
This is hands down one of the best ways to juice up a scene. Give the audience knowledge that someone in your scene – or group of people in your scene – don’t know. This is the often referred to “bomb under the table” scenario. If two people are talking at a table, it’s boring. But if two people are talking at a table and we know there’s a bomb underneath about to go off, it’s interesting. Just remember, the bomb can be anything. Let’s say you’re writing a horror movie and your beautiful 20-year-old heroine is coming home after a night out. She comes into her apartment, puts her things away, washes her face, gets ready for bed, and as she opens her closet to throw her clothes in, a man leaps out and tackles her. Hmmm, that’s pretty boring. Let’s go back and do that same scene over again, except this time, before she walks in, show us that the man is inside the house, waiting for her ahead of time. Ohhhhhhh. Okay. Now we have dramatic irony. We know she’s in trouble but she doesn’t. Even the most mundane act – washing her face – becomes interesting. Dramatic irony people. It’s a writer’s best friend.
ADD A TICKING TIME BOMB
Any time you add urgency to a scene, everything about the scene becomes more exciting. That’s because urgency creates pressure. And dialogue and action will always be more interesting under pressure. For example, let’s say you wanted to write a scene where your married couple was discussing their problems. The obvious way to do this would be to throw them at the dinner table and let them go at it. Hmmm. You can obviously make this work. But consider how much more entertaining that conversation might be if you place it during breakfast with one of the characters (or both) late for work. Now they’re rushing around, trying to get ready, while having this intense conversation. Because we know the conversation has to end soon, it’s elevated to a new level. We feel all that emotion and tension at a higher decibel level.
PLACE YOUR CHARACTER SOMEWHERE HE OR SHE DOESN’T WANT TO BE
Remember, if there are too many scenes in your movie where your character is comfortable, there’s a good chance your movie is getting BORRRRRRRRRING. An easy way to add tension to a scene is to put your character in a situation they don’t want to be in. The Deli Scene from The Wrestler that I highlighted the other week is a good example. The last place The RAM wants to be is at that deli. You can see this in a lot of scenes. The Cantina scene in Star Wars. They don’t want to be there. It’s dangerous. Lester Burnham being dragged to his wife’s real estate convention. He doesn’t want to be there. You obviously have to mix in scenes where characters are happy in order to set up those moments, but just remember, you have to keep making your characters uncomfortable or else the situations they’re in become boring.
Make sure you know what each character wants in your scene. The stronger you can make that want, and the more that “want” conflicts with the other character’s “want,” the more entertaining a scene you’re going to write. So let’s say your main character wants to ask the Starbucks cashier out on a date. That’s his want. So the character gets up to the cashier, and his side of the conversation is very strong, but for some reason, the cashier’s side is boring and lifeless. Why is this? It’s likely because you don’t know what she wants. Maybe she’s at the end of a double shift and all she can think about is getting home. Immediately your scene becomes more interesting. Your hero has been prepping for this moment all week, and she won’t even look at him because she keeps glancing at her watch and that clock up on the wall. Even when she is looking at him, she doesn’t care because her “want” is so strong. Any time you have two strong conflicting wants in a scene, chances are you have an interesting scene.
ELIMINATE THE DIALOGUE
Forcing yourself to come up with a visual solution instead of a spoken solution can do wonders for a scene. How do you accomplish this? Start off by asking yourself, what’s the point of this scene? Then, instead of trying to convey the answer through dialogue, do it visually, through action. Show us. Don’t tell us. For example, say you want to convey that a girl is frustrated with her father. The obvious way to do this would be to have her dad ask her why she’s been quiet lately. She tells him he wasn’t around last week when she needed him most. Things get heated. She eventually storms off saying something to the effect of, “You’re such an asshole.” Instead, why not write a scene where she’s in her bedroom and hears her dad coming. She quickly grabs her headphones, throws them on, and pretends to do homework. He peeks in, sees she’s busy, and leaves. If you really wanted to drive it home, maybe she gives him the finger after he leaves. Now the truth is, in this day and age, you’re not going to have many scenes without dialogue. But you’d be surprised at how much better your scene becomes when you approach it from a “show don’t tell” perspective. You’ll probably end up adding dialogue back in, but the scene will have a more visual flair and therefore be better.
ADD AN OBSTACLE
Something we’re all guilty of in our scenes is having tunnel vision. We know what we want out of the scene, so we write a straightforward version of it. For example, if we’re writing a breakup scene, we simply write our character break up with the other character. The scene does what it’s supposed to do so we’re happy. But in the end, the scene feels flat. A breakup is supposed to be an entertaining moment. Why is ours so boring? It’s likely because the scene is too predictable – too straightforward. You need to add an obstacle, a twist, something unexpected. For example, in Say Anything, Diane is going to break up with Lloyd. But as she’s preparing to do it, Lloyd goes into this big thing about how much he likes her and how they’re going to do all these things together and he tells her about the letter he wrote her. All of a sudden, breaking up isn’t so easy. And it’s all because we added a little obstacle – an unexpected roadblock. I think whenever a scene is too easy, you should be looking to add some sort of obstacle to throw the scene out of balance.
I guarantee that these tools will improve your scenes. It has to be the right fit for the right scene, but the solution to one of your yucky scenes is probably listed above. The only thing left is to figure out tip number 11. I’m gonna leave that one up to you guys. What tricks or methods do you use to improve your scenes? Maybe we can come up with the ultimate list and sell all of our screenplays to Fox by the weekend. Suggestions in the comments section please. :-)